What I Wish I Knew from the Start

By Scott O’Malley

March 5, 2021


Back in 2007, Twelve Stones (TS) took a chance on an eager but under qualified counselor when they hired me. While I had a lot of training (two-thirds of my master’s degree completed; many counseling conferences, many counseling books read), I did not have a lot of seat time. I probably had less than 100 hours of counseling experience at that time. In other words, I still had a ton to learn. Many years later, here are just a few of the things I wish I knew from the start of counseling others. I pray that these comments will be helpful for the people you serve.


1. The importance of life-stories.

We spend about three hours per person listening before we begin offering counsel. While every situation may not allow that long to listen, it is vital a counselor has a good understanding of the situation before offering counsel (Proverbs 18:13). After listening to a life-story, the person I am working with feels known, heard, and understood. It makes it much easier for them to receive the hard truths of Scripture that may need to come later when they know I truly care. It really is true, no one cares what you know until they know how much you care.


2. How to identify heart issues.

In my early days of counseling, I frequently just dispensed Bible verses at bad behavior, and it was not helpful. I did not yet understand how to get to the root of the problem. Through observing others, careful listening, lots of practice, plenty of study, and a more thorough understanding of the heart, God has taught me how to identify issues of the heart instead of continuing to only address bad fruit. The resources that have proved most helpful to me over the years in this regard are: Motives by Ed Welch; Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands by Paul Tripp; and The Dynamic Heart in Daily Life by Jeremy Pierre.


3. The importance of meditation.

What a person mulls over, ponders, desires, and focuses on will control behavior because it reveals what they desire (Luke 6:43-45). Most people do not pay attention to their thoughts. It is vital in counseling to help people identify the thoughts and meditations of their heart and then compare them against Scripture. An important part of every counseling case is helping people identify lies they believe about themselves, God, or others, and teaching them to take their thoughts captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:4-5).


4. Using whole passages of Scripture and not just individual Bible verses.

While it is fine to use individual verses, explaining a whole passage brings the Scriptures to life and provides additional clarity. Using a whole passage also helps you as a counselor not use a verse out of context. When we misuse a particular verse by taking it out of context, it does not have the power God intends for it to have (Hebrews 4:12).

5. Using personal examples and sharing your own struggles.

This makes it a lot easier for the counselee to hear and not be defensive. The ground is truly level at the foot of the cross. It is not helpful to act like I have it all together and pretend they are the only sinner in the room. Instead, I want to communicate that I can understand their struggle and I sympathize with them. Even more importantly, Christ sympathizes with our weaknesses yet without sin, therefore we should help those we are serving approach the throne of grace with confidence so they can receive grace and mercy to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:14-16).


6. Prayer is the key component for any “success” in counseling.

Even if we rightly use the Word of God and minister it to a counselee with perfection, unless God has prepared the heart to receive it, there will be no change. To think I can use my knowledge of the Word of God and my wisdom to change people is really pretty arrogant. Apart from Christ, I can do nothing, and prayer is a constant reminder that I am not the change agent, but that the Holy Spirit is the One who changes people (James 5:16b).


7. The timing of when you share truth is critical!

Just because what I have to say is true, it does not mean now is the time to share it. If the person I am counseling is not ready to receive it or worse, they don’t even yet see what they need to see, I must wait. This truth is illustrated in Proverbs 25:11 which says, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.” In my early days of counseling, I never really considered when the right time was to speak. We must be prayerful and observant to discern when the right time to share a particular truth is.


8. Diagrams and visual aids are extremely helpful.

If you want to promote lasting change in the counselee’s thinking, consider using diagrams and visual aids. Things that are visual are more memorable and will assist the person in remembering the truth being communicated without having to remember a lot of words.