“How do I know if I have been a faithful and effective counselor?” That is the question we want to wrestle with in this reflection. We want to see that there is more than one dimension to answering this question well.
From the beginning, I want to acknowledge that this reflection focuses on the “content” of what is said in counseling; that is, the noun “counsel.” Counseling should not be reduced to the content of the advice given. There are also the interpersonal, interactive facets of what is “done” in counseling; that is the verb “counseling.” For counseling to be effective, good advice (noun) must be given well (verb). But in this article, we will focus on the advice.
The premise of this article is that, as a counselor is narrowing down what he or she will say, the counselor is assessing a variety of things. How those things are assessed is what leads the counselor to land upon particular advisements. In that sense, selecting counsel is a process of elimination based upon a multi-faceted assessment process.
In this article, we will consider three facets of an assessment process that should inform the counsel we select.
Rightly Interpreting the Person
“Who is this person in front of me?” That question may seem self-evident, but upon further reflection we should be able to recognize how much this question influences the counsel we offer. Here are just a few examples:
- Moral Interpretation: In the challenges this person is facing, are they primarily a sinner or sufferer? Is the hardship the consequence of this person’s unbiblical beliefs, values, and choices? Or, is the hardship the by-product of living in a broken world or amongst other sinners?
- Volitional Assessment: Is the problematic behavior under consideration a choice, the result of an aptitude deficit, the result of an age appropriate maturational process, the misappropriation of a good value, or the best available amongst a multitude of bad options? For a very simple example of this question, is a child being defiant or in need of a nap?
- Responsibility Allocation: Does this person take on too much or too little responsibility for the difficulties in their world? Are they more prone to blame-shifting, enabling, or superstitious thinking?
- Power Assessment: In this person’s relationships, where do they fit in the power structures? Are they the boss or employee, parent or child, teacher or student, oppressed or oppressor, etc.?
These are a few assessments involved in rightly interpreting the person receiving counsel. Hopefully, you can see that if we make a wrong assessment about the person, we can offer theologically or empirically valid counsel that is unhelpful (even hurtful) to our counselee.
We need to be careful that our favorite counsel does not pre-determine the assessment of the counselee. For example, if our favorite counsel for relational strain is, “We are first sinner and second sinned against,” as a summary of Matthew 7:3-5 about the log and speck principle, we are embedding many interpretative assumptions about the counselee within this statement.
- We are assuming the action that offended our counselee’s friend was a sin and not just a violation of the other person’s preferences.
- We are assuming the response of our counselee’s friend was proportional and not abusive (this stems into our next area of assessment).
These may be accurate assessments of the counselee, but they should not be mindless assumptions based on our confidence in the Bible. Our point here is that we must interpret the person, that is the counselee, correctly if we are going to provide biblical counsel that honors God’s desire for our counselee.
Rightly Interpreting the Situation
“What is the context of the difficulty my counselee is sharing with me?” Context matters. Actions that are problematic in some settings may be perfectly appropriate in others. Other actions are wrong in all contexts. Grabbing and jerking a child by the arm is wrong in most settings, but appropriate if they are wandering into busy traffic. Slapping a child across the face is wrong in any context.
- Situational Appropriateness: My wife was, during one season of our life, a high school teacher. She had a student come to class exasperated because he got fired from his job. When she asked what happened, he said, “My boss kept telling me what to do, so I walked off. Can you believe he fired me?” Depending on the nature of the directives, this was likely appropriate action by a boss being interpreted by a teenager as being overbearing.
- Cultural Assessment: In an honor and shame culture, it may feel more wrong to address a problem directly than let the problem persist. In an achievement-oriented culture, failing to reach a goal may carry the moral weight of guilt that makes coming up short feel like a sin. The early church wrestled with these types of challenges frequently as the gospel spread and tried to honor cultural differences whenever possible (i.e., practices related to food sacrificed to idols) unless it resulted in direct sin.
- Self-Awareness of Key People: You hear a couple describe the same event. The husband calls his actions a form of protection, the wife calls the same actions stalking. Or, the wife calls her actions caring, but the husband calls the same actions controlling. To navigate this impasse towards some helpful counsel, an accurate interpretation of the situation is needed.
A counselee comes in and tells events of their life within a particular narrative (i.e., protecting vs. stalking, or caring vs. controlling). Whether we mean to or not, our counsel will either validate or seek to reshape that narrative. If we’re not careful, either the likability of the counselee or the degree to which we do/don’t identify with the counselee’s situation will unduly influence what we do with their narrative.
Rightly Interpreting the Bible
Now, we are finally coming to the sweet spot of biblical counseling. The big word for what we’re talking about in this section is hermeneutics or exegesis; two fancy ways of saying principles of biblical interpretation. We want to do these things well. We want our counselees to be more skilled at identifying relevant passages of Scripture and making application of the Bible because of their time with us.
However, a primary point of this reflection is, if we are not intentional and accurate in our interpretation of the person and situation, there is a likelihood that we can provide hermeneutically-valid counsel from the Bible that does not represent God’s agenda for our counselee and may bring harm instead of healing. That shouldn’t elicit fear, but it should sober us enough to slow down and be more intentional in these pre-Bible-application phases of counseling assessment.If we are not accurate in our interpretation of the person and situation, there is a likelihood that we can provide counsel from the Bible that does not represent God’s agenda for our counselee and may bring harm instead of healing. Click To Tweet
If you are wanting to grow in your ability to make skillful application of the Bible in counseling, I highly recommend Michael Emlet’s book Cross Talk: Where Life and Scripture Meet. Dr. Emlet brings together a highly informed background in biblical interpretation with a rich, case wise approach to counseling. When it comes to interpreting the Bible well, here are several key questions:
- Original Meaning: The first question of Bible interpretation is, “What did the passage mean when it was written?” The maxim is, “The Bible can never mean what it never meant.” God inspired each book and passage in the Bible for a purpose. To use the Bible faithfully requires that we understand that purpose.
- Original Application: Each book of the Bible was written to an original audience in order to have a particular effect. The more we understand about the application “then,” the more faithful our advice from that passage will be “now.”
- General Principles: If we reduced our use of the Bible to these first two points, our ability speak to the breadth of life would be limited. As we read the Bible, we need to be learning “how” God inspired the authors of Scripture to speak to a variety of situations, not just “what” God inspired to be said or done in those moments. But, as we do this, we need to have the humility that comes with moving further from the original meaning and application of the passage.
If I could give you an illustration to help you utilize this reflection well, it would be this – before you begin to make application of the Bible in counseling, you should be able to at least do a middle school level book review of your counselee’s life. What do I mean by that?
- You should know and be able to describe the main character (your counselee) well.
- You should know the primary angst or drama in their life well.
- You should know the other primary characters and their role.
- You should know the desired direction of the plot and obstacles to getting there.
These are just another way of saying; you should have done a thorough and accurate assessment of the counselee and the situation in which they live. How do you know when you’ve done this? Often, it is when the counselee says some version of, “You really get me. You put my life into words better than I do. I may not see what I need to do yet, but I understand what’s going on a lot better than I did when we started.”
When this happens, there are two things that begin to emerge. First, this statement reveals counselee trust. The greater the trust your counselee has in how well you understand them, the more effort and perseverance they will put into the counseling process. Second, this statement would build counselor confidence. The more the counselee feels understood, the greater (not absolute) confidence we can have that our biblically-faithful counsel is moving the counselee in the direction that their Loving Father would want them to go.
This case study was written to set up the presentation for the free webinar “The Importance of Rightly Interpreting the Person, Situation, and Bible in Counseling.” The webinar will be Thursday November 5th at 1pm EST. My goal in this twice-monthly series of free webinars is to teach one primary counseling concept or skill each month and then provide a case study that allows participants to become more proficient at utilizing that skill or concept.
These are great events for:
- Pastors, chaplains, and ministry leaders looking to enhance their pastoral care skills
- Counselors wanting CEU credits to help them learn more about the intersection of their faith and practice
- Leaders in church-based counseling ministries looking to grow in their case wisdom
- Undergraduate students looking to discern a calling to vocational ministry or a career as a professional counselor
- Friends and small group leaders committed to walking faithfully alongside their peers in tough times
Note: If you want to participate in many or most of the webinars in this series, when you RSVP click “auto subscribe to all future webinars,” so you don’t have to keep up with registering for each event.