From Counselor to Counselor - Word #4: Perseverance

By: Dennis Gruening

October 1st, 2021


This series of posts had its focus primarily on the role of the counselor. In the previous three posts we looked at self-care, transitions, and interpretation. Today, we’ll think together about another important word: perseverance.



WORD 4: PERSEVERANCE


We all are looking to bear fruit in ministry, serving God and people. To bear fruit consistently, you need perseverance.


Of course, we know that it cannot happen if we are not humbly seeking God’s throne, beseeching him for wisdom, strength, insight, joy, discernment and so much more. As we are talking about perseverance today, I want to focus not on the things to do to persevere, but rather on potential hindrances to perseverance and, therefore, to a fruitful and enduring ministry.


One of the dangers of doing ministry for a long time, especially the slow, deep, and often tiring service that biblical counselors offer, is that we are no longer as passionate, focused, and vigilant as we once were. Yet, perseverance for the sake of fruitful ministry for God’s glory requires us to pay attention.



FOUR HINDRANCES TO A FRUITFUL COUNSELING MINISTRY


As I have been thinking about these posts, I’ve primarily tried to start with myself. Where do I still fail as a counselor? What is hard for me in counseling? What frustrates me about what I do in the counseling room? What gets me off track while caring for hurting souls? Am I even aware of those things? More importantly still, what do the answers to these questions actually say about my ability to persevere? In scanning the landscape of my ministry, I’ve found four things that, when allowed to persist, will ruin my ability, and can ruin any counselor’s ability, to persevere in this heavy type of ministry.



Loneliness


In the first post of this series, I spoke about self-care and the need to think about community. Why is that? One of the challenges is the fact that most biblical counselors are thought to be “self-sufficient.” In a sense they, like pastors and elders, are thought to be “a different kind of Christian.” I know, I know, nobody wants to say that, but it is true. While it isn’t a pretty reality, I do think we must acknowledge that there is an unspoken perception that pastors, elders, and, yes, biblical counselors do not really need strength, wisdom, direction, or encouragement. I think it’s a classic case of hypocrisy – we act differently than what we say we believe. Theologically we would say that every human needs more grace, more of the fruit of the Spirit, more encouragement, rest, or anything else humans run out of regularly. Yet, when it comes to spiritual leaders, we act like we cannot or do not have to do anything to support or encourage them – they don’t need it.


Perseverance for the sake of fruitful ministry for God’s glory requires us to pay attention.

The sad consequence of that is that biblical counselors in particular, are left to fend for themselves. Obviously, I’m not removing God from the picture, it’s just that the way we act in- and interact with- life and people is an important consideration for lasting ministry.

Counselors are in danger of loneliness. There is a lack of feedback from leaders, no place to process cases and no encouragement from others in the church.


I’m wondering – why do biblical counselors seem to love blogs, books, conferences, etc. so much? I think it is because in those places they find access to more wisdom, insight, and perspective, but also relationship with those who know what it’s like to live in the trenches of human misery seeking to give lasting hope through the gospel of Jesus Christ.


Ask yourself then, dear brother or sister; are you lonely as a counselor? Are you connected to other counselors? Do you have ample opportunity to talk confidentially about hard cases? Do you have someone to encourage you on hard ministry days or challenge your methods? Be honest with yourself. Don’t whitewash your situation. Consider where gaps may exist and take action to close them.


Your ability to endure for a long time and bear fruit for your savior is dependent on your ability to assess your own situation and break out of the loneliness. If you want perseverance, you need other counselors to walk with you!


Your ability to endure for a long time and bear fruit for your savior is dependent on your ability to assess your own situation and break out of the loneliness.


Frustration


It’s been a good five years, at least, that I spoke to a good friend and wise counselor about a case I was counseling. I felt like the counselee was constantly stonewalling me. He was not doing his homework, he wasn’t answering my questions, or he would answer the questions partially or superficially, just to quickly turn things back to how his wife wasn’t doing this that or the other thing. I was thoroughly frustrated with him. Because I had learned that there are instances where it may be necessary to switch counselors for a case, I felt that I needed to process the situation and ask someone to help me figure out whether I needed to recuse myself. I was losing my ability to be loving, patient, and impartial. The answer I got has been useful to me many times over.

“You can be frustrated about the process you’re making in the counseling room – but you can never be frustrated with the person! And if you have sinned against the counselee because you have come to see him as a frustration or problem, you need to ask forgiveness and give him the chance to ask for a new counselor or to start over with you.”

That was a pretty tall order! I chose to ask forgiveness and I was able to make more progress with the counselee – praise God!


You can be frustrated about the process you’re making in the counseling room – but you can never be frustrated with the person!

When we get frustrated with counselees, or even if we find ourselves frequently being frustrated with the progress we are making, or the lack of progress, we are getting into a space in which we will not be able to persevere. Lasting fruit will not come when the people we care for or the things we do in serving the Lord become a thorn in our side.



Comparison


Another dangerous element to persevering ministry is comparison of self to others. Of course there are other things attached to this, selfish ambition, pride, envy, jealousy, etc. However, most of us don’t move about with seething jealousy that suddenly overtakes us. More likely we find ourselves on a slow descent into envy, because we find that in our estimation we are not where “we should be.” Comparing yourself to another human is in some way “normal” – it’s just not a “good normal.”


Think about Joseph’s brothers – they were jealous of him; what actions did they take? Think about Saul – he hated that the people loved David more than him; how did he respond? Think about the disciples – they were arguing amongst each other about who was the best; what did Jesus say about that? Comparison is as old as the fall that changed all of time.

Comparison is the stuff that frustrates the heart and makes it sick. Proverbs 13:12 says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” We all wish were as thoughtful as the late David Powlison, as pithy and poignant as Paul Tripp, or as passionate as Charles Ware. But we are not them and we don’t need to be! We must beware of frustration due to comparison. It’s not wrong to think carefully, find good words, or seek to be more emotive in the way we minister. We cannot, however, see what others have and do and become jealous, judgmental, or begin to self-deprecate.



Comparison is the stuff that frustrates the heart and makes it sick.

If we want to have perseverance in ministry, we must cut off the sinful trends that so easily distract and destroy. Loneliness, frustration, and comparison are not obvious problems – these things are subtle and slowly grow weeds that crowd out fruit.

Do you compare yourself? To whom? What do they have that you don’t? What is it they do that you wish you could? How much angst do you deal with related to your perceived lack? How frequent are those thoughts? In what ways does comparison manifest itself for you? What choices do you make to imitate what others do with hopes to get the same kind of attention or admiration? Please consider if and how this may slowly choke your ability to persevere in the work God has prepared for you.



Cynicism


Lastly, I want to talk about a topic that I am unsure I have heard much about in biblical counseling circles. It’s possible I’ve not listened well, but I think it is an important topic to consider.


When you look at the many problems and failures of high-profile Christian leaders in the last few decades, it is easy to get cynical. When you often sit with people who are resistant and slow to change or when you find a revolving door of people coming with the same issues to ask for help, it is easy to get cynical. We lose hope and vent the frustration by approaching, thinking and speaking about, and responding to the things that are, in our perception, not what they ought to be.


Here again, in the context of biblical counseling, we are far too advanced, too smart, too prepared to think that we would abandon our theological fortresses and ride into the moors of cynicism as though we had forgotten that apart from Jesus man cannot do good. Yet, when life keeps throwing fastballs, it leads to distraction. The flesh fueled by trials and pain can lead so quickly to judgement of others. This will lead to cynicism, bitterness, and, ultimately, to an inability to persist in a biblical counseling ministry.


The flesh fueled by trials and pain can lead so quickly to judgement of others.

I was reminded of two things that are important. They are found in Matthew 12:36 and Ephesians 4:29.


First, in Matthew 12, Jesus talks about the connection of sin to the human heart. He reminds us that there is more to sin than meets the eye – a lot more. Ultimately, the heart is the place from which ugly sin proceeds into this world. It’s from within us that the problems arise. So, Jesus cautions us not to be careless in our speech.


Second, in Ephesians 4, we are encouraged to speak words that build up. We are meant to encourage not discourage, to build up not tear down. But how easily the tongue speaks what is inside the heart.


Cynicism is well expressed in the oft-repeated phrase, “Ministry would be easy if it wasn’t for people.” It is a sad reality that this phrase is used at all, honestly. I know I’ve been guilty of using it. The problem with that phrase, however, is this: it is an indication that we have allowed cynicism to have a greater place in our heart and mind that God’s loving, patient, and sovereign approach to bring lasting change to a person’s life.


When our thoughts, attitudes, speech, and actions are sullied with cynicism, our ministry will not persist. Cynicism, like sarcasm, expresses in many ways the twisted way of man’s thinking. A variety of sins are sure to follow.


Again, this isn’t obvious to us. We, when stuck in those patterns, cannot see this very well. As a friend has put it, “If you rationalize, you’re rationing lies.” For this context, it means that we have lost our ability to rightly discern if we are off track because we believe, in fact, that we are justified in the way we approach things.


When our thoughts, attitudes, speech, and actions are sullied with cynicism, our ministry will not persist.

I trust that reading this post has allowed you to consider some of the subtle ways in which you may be dealing with or developing blind spots. It’s important to not just focus on what you want to do and pursue it. Similarly important is the need to check your life for areas of weakness and ensure they don’t get you off track. If we want to persevere in ministry we cannot sit by idly, we must examine our lives – after all, we ask our counselees to do that all the time!


An encouragement, I think, apt for the end of this post comes from the words of Paul to Philemon. I highlighted what I believe is most fitting for the ministry of counseling – it is what I pray for you:


“I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you” (Philemon 4-7).


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