12 Tips from Twelve Stones: Foundations for Biblical Counselors - Tip 5

By: Scott O'Malley

December 10th, 2021



If we are to be like Jesus, it is important that we be full of grace and truth (John 1:14). In my early days of counseling I was definitely more focused on truth than grace. One of the ways this manifested was that any time I heard someone state anything theologically inaccurate I had a great compulsion to immediately correct them. I had this notion that I couldn’t let error stand for even a moment. Then, I was graciously hired by Twelve Stones in 2007 and received very personal training from the two founders – Garrett Higbee and Robb Besosa. Both of them modeled something that didn’t come naturally for me: patience.



Foundation #5 – Timing matters in providing effective counsel


Timing matters. This was one of the first lessons I learned at Twelve Stones, as I watched the founders counsel some very difficult cases. Proverbs 25:11-12 says, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver. Like a gold ring or an ornament of gold is a wise reprover to a listening ear.” The word translated “fitly” has to do with the idea of timing. In other words, timing matters when we need to reprove someone. When I was an inexperienced counselor, however, I was quick to jump to reproof. In this article I’ll walk through a common marriage counseling problem and illustrate the importance of timing in providing a reproof. The guidance will come through a series of questions meant to serve as a guide in helping you discern when a person is ready to receive a rebuke or reproof.



The Counseling Scenario


Imagine with me a couple in their early thirties that comes for counseling and the presenting problem is they have grown distant in their marriage of 9 years. They are basically functioning like roommates and the extent of their shared activities is basically just managing the kids. They rarely communicate about anything important because it just leads to conflict. The wife focuses on how sad and lonely she feels because they have grown apart and she admits to struggling with bitterness towards her husband. For the husband, he is frustrated and irritated and acknowledges this has led to escalating anger towards his wife. The result of his anger and her bitterness is that they almost never have sex. They are becoming hopeless and wonder if things will ever change.


While there are a myriad of presenting problems, what are some questions you can ask yourself as a counselor to help you get oriented and prioritize where to start. Let me propose the following order of questions to help you begin:


  • Have I listened long so I understand the situation well?

  • Have I communicated what I understand so both the husband and wife feel understood?

  • How can I provide comfort to them individually and as a couple?

  • Have I addressed their heart motives individually?

  • Have I shared foundational truths from the Scriptures to help them evaluate themselves against God’s design?

  • Then, what sins do I now need to provide reproof and call them to repentance?


Have I listened long so I understand the situation well?


The first and most obvious thing we need to do before offering correction is to care enough to listen before speaking. Proverbs 18:13 says, “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.” My impatience in my early days of counseling really hindered my ability to help people because I was answering a matter before I fully understood the situation or the person. When a person sees you demonstrating great care for them by how you listen, it adds a significant amount of weight to your words when you do finally speak. Proverbs 16:23 says, “The heart of the wise makes his speech judicious and adds persuasiveness to his lips.” The wise person is one who listens well and waits until the proper time, while choosing his or her words carefully.


The first and most obvious thing we need to do before offering correction is to care enough to listen before speaking.

In my inexperience as a young counselor, I struggled to be wise and focus on listening in the beginning of counseling. Sometimes, in my eagerness to be biblical, I was addressing a theological position that had nothing to do with the reason for counseling. My comments often seemed to drive an unnecessary wedge between us over an issue sincere Christians have debated for centuries. In those situations, what was needed was for me to care more about the person than argue a theological position.


Once you are confident you have a good understanding of the situation, you are ready to move to the next question.



Have I communicated what I understand so both the husband and wife feel understood?


This is critically important that you not skip this step. Just because you think you have a good understanding does not mean you actually do. You must confirm this with those you are seeking to help. Proverbs 18:2 says, “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only expressing his opinion.” We not only want to verify we have good understanding; we want the couple to have confidence that I understand them as well. When they feel known and understood they are much more likely to receive the counsel I give.


There are many ways to verify whether you have proper understanding. In a formal counseling setting I type as the person shares their life story. After they are done I share with them what I typed and we read back through the story. As we go through this process we identify themes and patterns in their own story. As I identify some of the patterns that they agree with, they feel very understood. In a less formal interaction you can restate a summary of the concern you are hearing and ask a clarifying question like, “Have I understood your primary concern correctly?”



How can I provide comfort to them individually and as a couple?


Once you have confirmed that you do have understanding, it’s important to consider how you can offer comfort for what has been uncovered. Consider the couple we are working with, what encouragement and comfort could be provided to help prepare both of their hearts to receive what God has to say for their marriage? In this scenario I would start with the wife and provide comfort and encouragement by identifying how difficult it must be to be so sad and lonely in your marriage and feel pressured to have sex. To the husband I want to provide comfort and encouragement that it is hard when your marriage is struggling so much that sex is very infrequent.


Once you have confirmed that you do have understanding, it’s important to consider how you can offer comfort for what has been uncovered.

I am seeking to identify with their pain and share in their suffering, and then point them to Jesus. Hebrews 4:15 teaches us that Jesus is our High Priest and sympathizes with our weaknesses and struggles. “The word ‘sympathize’ here is a compound word formed from the prefix meaning with (like our English word co-) joined with the verb to suffer . . . In our pain, Jesus is pained; in our suffering, he feels the suffering as his own” (Dane Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly pg. 46).


By identifying with their suffering and helping them to see Jesus co-suffers with them, I desire to model and teach the heart of God toward their struggle. If they have a clear picture of the heart of God for them, they will be much more likely to receive His commands and instruction for their marriage.



Have I addressed their heart motives individually?


So much of counseling is seeking to uncover what is underneath the surface. The bad fruit in their marriage is caused by desires in their hearts. James 4:1 says, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this that your passions are at war within you?” The word translated passions could also be translated desires or pleasures. In other words, before I address the bad fruit of behavior in the marriage, I must help both of them identify the desires of their heart that are battling within them. We must come to understand more fully what Paul Tripp has said on many occasions, horizontal problems are first solved vertically. For a fuller treatment of this process see previous articles, Foundation #2 and #3.

Once I have identified the desires of each spouse individually, I am ready to move on to our next question.



Have I shared foundational truths from the Scriptures to help them evaluate themselves against God’s design?


The foundational truths I have in mind here include helping both spouses see that only Jesus can satisfy their thirsty souls (John 4:13-14; 6:35) as well as painting a portrait of a biblical marriage. I want to lift their eyes off of their current struggles and fix their eyes on Jesus and His design for their lives. I want them to see that God longs to be in fellowship with them for all eternity (John 14:2-3; Revelation 21:3) and God has designed marriage to be a picture of Christ and His love for the church (Ephesians 5:22-33).


I want to lift their eyes off of their current struggles and fix their eyes on Jesus and His design for their lives.

Once I have laid the foundation of God’s design for their life individually as well as His picture of what marriage is supposed to look like, now the hearts of this husband and wife should be ready to receive individual reproof about specific bad fruit in their life.



What sins do I now need to provide reproof and call them to repentance?


In my experience, when people feel heard and understood in such a way that they see themselves more clearly than they have before, they have been comforted in the midst of their struggle, and have been reminded of God’s design for their lives and marriage, these people are usually quite willing to receive reproof about specific sins they are struggling with in their lives.


Consider the wife in this situation and lack of desire for sex. Unfortunately, many husbands pull out 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 and use it as a club to shame their wife into giving them sex whenever they want it. If I had started here and called the wife not to deprive her husband it would have been crushing for her. Instead, I listened long and understood her struggle and provided comfort to her. Then I helped her to see what a godly marriage should look like and included that God’s design for healthy marriages included regular sexual relations. Because I was not pressuring her but helping her to see God’s design she was able to acknowledge without a problem that regular sex is good in a healthy marriage. Instead of focusing on sex, I challenged her that God wanted her to get rid of the bitterness in her heart towards her husband and be open to full reconciliation (Ephesians 4:31-32). Eventually full reconciliation should lead to healthy sexual relations in marriage.


In my experience, when people feel heard and understood in such a way that they see themselves more clearly than they have before...they are usually quite willing to receive reproof about specific sins they are struggling with in their lives.

While that was happening with the wife I was seeking to help the husband have a biblical vision for servant leadership as exhibited by Jesus Christ (John 13:1-20). I further challenged him to stop demanding his rights in marriage and follow the example of Christ and His humility (Philippians 2:3-4). I further challenged him to repent of his demanding sinful anger and challenged him to consider these words about Jesus, “Let each one of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself” (Romans 15:2-3).

Both of them had plenty of things to work on, but I had to be patient to get them to the place of being called to specifically repent. When the wife saw that her husband was receptive to being a different kind of husband and leader, she was much more ready to forgive and move toward her husband. His receptivity to kindness and not demanding his rights quieted his wife’s fears and in time she was able to become excited about regular sexual relations with her husband.


I have had the privilege of helping probably dozens of couples in a very similar scenario find hope and help and joy in living together as God designed. With God’s help, you too can listen well, understand the story, provided needed comfort, share a biblical vision of life in general, and then provide a timely and gentle rebuke that can be well received.

Next week we will examine the importance of being a tour guide and not a travel agent as counselors. In the meantime, here are a few questions for you to ponder this week.



Questions for Reflection


  1. What is your reaction to the six questions and the order in which they were asked? Considering discussing your thoughts with a friend or fellow counselor?

  2. How well do you do at providing comfort to those struggling with sin or simply facing life’s difficulties?

  3. How well do you do at preparing the hearts of the people you counsel to receive a reproof? What can you incorporate from this article to help you grow in this area?










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