Jenn emailed the church office looking for help. She had been struggling with depression on and off for years, but recently things had taken a turn for the worse. Our counseling ministry coordinator connected her with Rachel, one of our volunteer counselors. Rachel has years of experience, a degree in biblical counseling, and an incredible amount of practical wisdom. In fact, Rachel is the counselor I would send just about anyone to. But when Jenn found out Rachel would be her counselor, she asked if there were someone else she could meet with. What was wrong with Rachel? Why did Jenn not want to meet with one of the most mature and wise women in the church? Her reasoning was simple: the two women knew each other.
Rachel and Jenn had some mutual friends and they spent some time together socially. They weren’t close friends, but they were more than acquaintances. According to conventional wisdom, this disqualified Rachel as an appropriate counselor. Jenn assumed what many of us assume: that the best counselors are “objective,” “uninvolved,” and removed from your regular life and social circles. But is that true?
Therapeutic counseling is based on a patient-therapist model that requires “professionalism” and “boundaries.” But biblical counseling is based on a model of interpersonal gospel care. The biblical model of ministry does not rely on professionals or experts. Instead, it is carried out by brothers and sisters in Christ, fellow strugglers who love someone enough to enter into the mess of his or her life.
In fact, the concept of a detached and “objective” counselor is so foreign to the biblical model of ministry, Scripture doesn’t even have a category for it. There’s not a single example of a detached counselor anywhere in the New Testament. Every discipler (or counselor) in Scripture is shown engaging in the life of another person. Paul exemplifies this when he describes the nature of his ministry to those in the Thessalonian church.
But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8)
Additionally, counseling in the context of a personal relationship brings a number of practical benefits that you won’t get from a stranger:
Someone You Know Has a Head Start
When you sit down with a stranger, you have to start from scratch. They don’t know your background or your family. They don’t know your friends or what you do for work. They don’t have any idea what kind of outside pressures might be contributing to your struggle. When you sit down with someone you know, they have a head start. They already know a number of things about you and your situation. They can spend their time digging deeper into your life instead of spending hours just trying to understand your background or your personality.
Someone You Know Can Be More Insightful
The idea that knowing someone less actually provides more insight into his or her life confuses me. The more someone actually knows you (and not just what you choose to tell them), the more skillfully and wisely they can help apply biblical truth to your life and heart. I’ve often thought of biblical knowledge and knowledge of a person as two of the most significant contributing factors to wise and loving counsel. I may know someone incredibly well, but if I don’t have any biblical knowledge my counsel is not going to be very helpful. However, similarly, I may have a great deal of biblical knowledge, but if I don’t know the person I’m ministering to my counsel will inevitably be weak and misguided. To counsel someone well you must know both the Bible and the person. As the proverb reminds us:
An intelligent heart acquires knowledge,
and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge. (Proverbs 18:15)
Someone You Know De-Mystifies the Counseling Relationship
When counselors or therapists are portrayed in movies they are, more often then not, stand-ins for God. They are portrayed as all-knowing, all-wise, and completely emotionally stable. Because of this popular representation, the counseling relationship often times carries with it a mystical quality. The counselee’s issues will be “fixed” because of the great power and wisdom of the counselor. The truth is that every Christian you meet is a fellow forgiven sinner, just like you—even the counselors. When you are counseled by someone you know, it removes the mystical quality and reminds you that you are sitting with a real Christian whose weaknesses and life you know personally.
Someone You Know Can Help You Transition to a Long-Term Strategy
Finally, being counseled by someone you know aids the transition from intentional counseling to a sustainable long-term strategy. Intensive counseling is not intended to be a substitute for the ongoing, long-term discipleship that we all ought to experience in the body of Christ. While we may have seasons during our lives when we need the help of someone with more experience or time, that is not God’s long-term plan for our spiritual growth. The long-term context for our growth in Christ is our normal relationships in the church and, hopefully, most specifically in a small group. When you are counseled by someone who knows you, they also know the people around you, the structure of your church, and the people in your small group. They will be far more effective at helping you address your sin or struggle in these relationships than a stranger ever would.
I know that we don’t always have the opportunity to be counseled by someone that we know. Sometimes you may be reaching out and the only person available to help is a stranger. Of course, this can be a great blessing as well. But if you receive the opportunity to be counseled by someone that you know, don’t turn it down in order to look for something more “objective.” Embrace it for what it is: an incredible blessing from God.
We will be exploring this topic further at our Pre-Conference this October. You can find out more information here.