The Biblical Counseling Movement has been publishing some outstanding resources in the last decade. However, to our own detriment, I think we have sometimes emphasized the methods more than the minister of biblical counseling.
Could we have been guilty of putting competency over character when choosing or training leaders in the church? Bottom line, it is harder to screen character and there is so much work to do. For counselors the lack of humility or patience, a lack of experience in suffering well, or an immature or impulsive temperament can elicit undue resistance or, worse, cause damage to the person in need of help. That is why we all need to be developing the competencies of soul care but with the goal of becoming a disarming counselor full of grace and truth.
There are clear imperatives that speak to the manner by which we are to intervene and care for others. They seem to point to the spirit of the counseling more than any technique. In other words, biblical counseling is more about who you are than what you do.
For instance, why would you listen if you think you already know what the problem is? On the other hand, how do you go gently when the person needs to be confronted and seems so defensive? Or how do you speak the truth in love when, in all honesty, you are more of a truth than a grace person? In my experience, all this is more about an honest assessment of and mentoring related to the counselor’s character and maturity than something taught in a classroom or a book.
In order to become a disarming counselor who is able to gain passport quickly and speak into difficult situations, I have found three character traits to be highly impactful and necessary tools in the counselor’s toolbox: Timing, Tone, and Testimony. Character helps with all three. Now, these are difficult to teach, but they cannot be neglected. They are not so much taught but caught, which is why observation in counseling training is so important. I would like to share insights about these wisdom skills that I believe will help us all to better speak the truth in love.
Have you heard the saying, “Location, location, location…” as it refers to real estate? Well, being aware of “timing, timing, timing…” will increase the impact of your counseling. Timing may not be everything but it is a neglected art for drawing out the heart and speaking an apt word.
I see counselors that want to teach a lesson more than they want to counsel. Don’t get me wrong, teaching is part of counseling, but this is not your chance to preach another sermon. Think about your own life for a minute… Do you know anyone who can’t wait to tell you what they know? Maybe they have a tendency to preach at or lecture you? Are you going out to lunch with them soon?
It has been said that, people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Consider your spouse or kids. How is jumping into problem solving or lecture mode working for you? While biblical counseling is the private ministry of God’s Word, it is much more than boiling down a relevant text for someone. Consider for example Proverbs 15:23 or Ephesians 4:29, it’s not so much what you say but how and when you say it? Here is my point, early in the counseling you want to draw out the heart (Proverbs 20:5) instead of presuming you know them and start barking out Scriptures.
You are more effective letting someone come to the Scriptures thirsty by asking provocative questions about their relationship with God or creating a great homework assignment than “wowing” them with your Bible knowledge or giving them a drink from a fire hose (Proverbs 25:27). You are much better off asking heart revealing questions than targeting fruit and assuming you know their issues.
You should learn to use awkward moments of silence rather than filling the air by moving to your next teaching point. Purposely slow down, listen more deeply, and notice when you are teaching at them more than dialoging with them around God’s Word, especially when you don’t yet have an audience.
The Word can speak for itself, give it some time to linger in the air. Have them read it out loud, pray through a passage with them, and let it sink in a bit before moving on.
The tone and context of counseling are also important. We want to feel safe emotionally in the context of sharing and receiving counsel. Trust is built through confidentiality and showing compassion for the person in need.
Especially early on the person might come with preconceived fears and doubts. Do you really have their best interest in mind? Are you going to patronize them or make them feel inferior? Do you represent God’s judgment or His mercy? I have found that setting a caring and humble tone is very helpful in gaining someone’s confidence.
You might be thinking, they don’t need confidence in me they need confidence in Christ! You are correct, but God uses His people and you are his ambassador (2 Corinthians 5:20). If you are going to lead the lost to Christ or a wanderer back to Christ (James 5: 19-20), your manner will matter.
I remember years ago an angry, red-faced street preacher named Max who would day after day yell at the students in the public square at my college. We would grab a sandwich and watch him for entertainment. Interestingly, during that same time a couple guys came and opened the Word in my dorm and winsomely shared the Gospel. The content was not that different, but the latter approach won me to Christ.
You might be thinking, “Hey it’s the Word…no matter how you bring it.” True, but remember the Pharisees? They had the Word down better than you and me but missed Christ completely (John 5:39-42). The Word of God should be shared in a way that it represents the person of Christ. There is a time to rebuke, a time to encourage, and an time to help, but no matter what your approach is, you need to be patient and respectful in your demeanor (1 Thessalonians 5:14).
Don’t be too clinical in your counseling. I love what John Piper said in his book, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals.
“The more professional we long to be, the more spiritual death we will leave in our wake. For there is no professional childlikeness (Matt 18:3); there is no professional tenderheartedness (Eph 4:32); there is no professional panting after God (Ps. 42:1).”
Part of being tender is sharing God’s strength in your weakness. The ground is level at the cross. Sharing your testimony doesn’t mean dominating the first few sessions telling your life story. It does however mean being transparent and sharing appropriately to encourage the person in need.
The counselor sharing his or her testimony can be a bit tricky. When do you share? How much do you share?
The first rule of thumb is this, it is not about you! Instead, it is about what God has done in your life. Secondly, it should clearly bring hope to the person in need, not make them feel like you are comparing their pain, trails, and suffering to yours. Finally, it is not a one time, “Here is how I came to Christ” thing; it is a “Let me tell you about God’s character and promises. I personally know Him to be true to His Word and believe better things for you as well.”
It is so encouraging to have someone share in a way that builds confidence in God and what He wants to do. Never make yourself out to be the hero of your story, but do testify to who Christ is; the Redeemer of every hard thing for your good! Maybe you don’t have a story that brings them hope and it’s the advocate who can bring hope through theirs. Whether it is infertility, years of bondage to lust, or being stuck in an extended time of depression, you can facilitate hope in a way that the person in need can really grab on to truth.
Consider 1 Corinthians 10:13. By telling our testimony we are saying, “You are not the only one, you are not alone, He is faithful, He will not give you more than you can bear, and He will show you the way out. Live on my hope, live on my faith, I am a bit farther down the road, I see the light at the end of the valley. He never left me or forsook me. It was hard, I needed people beside me and His word open to me, but I am in a better place now.” Can you sense the personal encouragement from that personal “exegesis” of God’s word?
Join the Conversation
I hope you have been inspired to consider your timing, your tone, and your testimony as you counsel others. I would guess that one of these is in need of more attention than the others.
If you could change one thing about your approach or manner in counseling right now what would it be?
Take out a piece of paper and develop a plan. Study out the Scriptures related to the area you want to change.
Is there someone who could mentor you through this change?
I believe your effectiveness as a spouse, parent, friend, and minister of the Gospel will be greatly enhanced as you grow in these three T’s of a disarming counselor. May God bless you as you strive to work both on your method and your manner of counseling others biblically.
 Piper, John, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2002), 1-2.