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How to Cultivate Compassion as a Counselor

This week on the podcast I want us to address an issue that often comes up when we speak about counseling: empathy and sympathy. Certainly in biblical counseling that’s not something we want to shy away from. In fact, we ought to demonstrate sympathy and empathy very naturally toward those we counsel. I get this question often from those who are learning to counsel and many who have been engaged in counseling, “How do I grow in empathy? How do I grow in sympathy toward a person? How do I grow in compassion toward a person?”

The secular understanding of empathy in counseling is an expression of the regard and respect the counselor holds for the client or the counselee, whose experiences may be quite different from that of the counselor. That’s certainly true. One of the things we think distinctly about as biblical counselors is that we may not have the exact same experiences as the people that we’re counseling, but one of the key tenets of biblical counseling is that when we walk into that room, we’re not very different than the person sitting across the table from us. In fact, we have very similar experiences.

The Bible talks about how Jesus shared our experiences here on earth. We certainly have close experiences to the people that we’re counseling. We struggle with temptation, we struggle with sin, we struggle with devastation, suffering, difficulty, and the consequences of our sin. We can identify deeply with the person who’s sitting across the table from us.

How do we grow in compassion toward those we counsel? How do we grow in this sympathy and empathy?

Counseling an Individual, Not an Issue

If you’re a seasoned counselor, you may deal with the same issues over and over again. It could be that you’re counseling someone who is anxious or depressed, and you’ve helped other people through similar issues tens or even hundreds of times. You need to be cautious that you don’t fall into some sort of rut thinking, “Well, I have these skills. I have the experience of working with other people in the past and I’m just going to put this counselee through some sort of milled machine. I have the template already laid out and we’re just going to work you through the system.” Listen, that’s not biblical counseling.

Biblical counseling is being able to look at each person individually. I love the way Jesus was able to do this. When He encountered people, He was able to pause everything around Him—the crowd—and look individually at that person. We see similarities in the ways Jesus interacted with people, but we also see a specificity in the way Jesus took the truth of who God is and His message of redemption, salvation, and restoration and He began to apply that specifically to this individual in their situation. So the truth didn’t change, but the way He applied it did.

How do we come to a place like that? I think this is a good question. I’m going to give a couple of things that I think can be helpful to you as you grow as a counselor. I’m going to say something that’s very simple, but sometimes it’s hard to flesh out. I want to see us grow in compassion and empathy toward the people that we counsel. I think it’s becoming of us who are Christian.

See Them How God Sees Them

One of the ways that I want to start is to contemplate Jeremiah. The question I would like to start with is: How do you see? When a person walks in the room and you’re learning from them and gathering data, how do you see? What lens do you see that person by? I think this is critical. It’s critical for you to pay attention to how you see and what lens you look through. Early on in Jeremiah, there are some principles that are interesting and possibly helpful for us. We often look at Jeremiah and we think Jeremiah certainly demonstrated deep compassion, deep mercy, deep kindness, deep tenderness toward Israel as the people of God. Early on in the book of Jeremiah, God calls Jeremiah to do this ministry to the people of Israel, and He puts the Word of God into his heart and into his mouth. This changes the way that Jeremiah sees.

As Jeremiah goes about to do the work that God has called him to do, as he looks across the stage at the children of Israel, the way Jeremiah sees those people is distinct. He sees those people differently because of the Word of God that’s now in his heart and mind.

The way he sees the people is exactly the way God sees His people. God’s heart is broken over the state of the children of Israel, and God is calling out judgment to them, but it breaks the heart of God. We see Jeremiah responding exactly that way. Do you see how important it is for us to follow Colossians 3:16 and let the Word of Christ to dwell in us richly? As we allow the Word of Christ to dwell in us richly, the way we see this person is not as a problem to fix.

The way we see this person now is through the lens of Scripture. We see this person the way God sees them. The things that we should rejoice over build our relationship with that person. The things that we should be saddened by and sorrowful over cause us to weep with those who weep. And where we have to tell the truth strongly to them, we can do that with grace, mercy, kindness, and tenderness because now we’re seeing not as man sees, we’re seeing the person and their situation as God sees. What begins to happen is that person can tell that you’re being genuine. That person can tell whether you’re being fake or trying to manufacture care with some sort of counseling skill that you’ve learned. The difference is now you’re seeing this person not as man sees him, you’re seeing this person as God sees him.

When you think about Jesus, the passage that I think about the most in regard to this is when Jesus is up on the mountain and He looks across at all the people who have gathered to see Him. He looks over them and He sees that these people are like sheep without a shepherd. The Bible tells us that He was moved with compassion.

He is moved with compassion because the way He sees these people is the way God sees these people. And that moves His heart—the heart of Jesus moves in compassion toward these people. It’s no different for us. The best way that we learn to grow in empathy and sympathy is not by manufacturing it and learning certain mechanical skills in the counseling room. I’m not saying that there’s anything inherently wrong with those types of skills, but when we employ just those skills without a tender heart toward the person it becomes very rigid, lackluster, and actually not genuine. It becomes something that is the facade. The people who we are counseling, who are very vulnerable, they can pick up on that. The way we grow in compassion is we learn to see people the way God sees people.

Never Outgrow the Gospel

Then the question is: Well, how in the world do we do that? We must understand that we never grow up over the gospel.

For counselors, we must understand that we have to continue to grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ daily. For counselors, we have to continue to crucify the sin that’s within us daily. Why? As we conform to the image of Christ, it will change how you see. When that person walks in, we don’t see them as a project to fix. We see them the way God sees them, where our heart breaks for them, our heart bleeds with mercy toward them, where we want them to walk in the truth. We want to see them walk freely.

Now I’ll bring Colossians 3 to mind and we can talk through it for a moment. Colossians 3, starting in verse 5 says,

“Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.”

We’re going to pick up with verse 9, but let me pause here and say that all these counseling skills and tools are not just for those who you’re going to counsel. It’s not just for the counselee. The reason that you can engage in counseling with such a compassionate and merciful heart, with deep passion for the people that you’re counseling, is because you’ve seen the truth of the Word of God applied to you. You’ve seen the truth of God’s Word work in you. That changes now the way that you see. In verse 9 Paul says,

“Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”

Here’s the critical piece: You cannot put kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and compassionate hearts over the sinful deeds of the flesh, the passions of our impurity, evil desires, and covetousness. Those things must die in us and as those things die, you don’t have to manufacture empathy. You don’t have to manufacture sympathy. You begin, as Paul would tell us in Philippians 1, putting on the mind and heart of Christ. When you see people and you hear their story and you do data gathering well, what naturally happens is you begin to respond with a compassionate heart, because you’re seeing them the way that God sees them and your heart breaks for their situation.

One final thought that I want to give you is this: It becomes difficult at times when you’ve been counseling for a while and you see some of the same patterns in people. Can I encourage you that we need to continue to grow in Christ? Not to rely so much on your skill as you become a more seasoned counselor, but to trust in your death to yourself as a way of changing how you see a person. We should see our counselees individually—not corporately as some sort of problem like anxiety that we’re going to repair. You see this person as expressing these anxious thoughts, these anxious feelings, these depressive feelings, and so on. You want to address them individually with this person. Don’t think that every single person is a problem to fix, where we run them through a mill and then we’re good to go once we learn this counseling skill.

What being a good counselor means is that you grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord. As you do that, you grow in the grace and the knowledge of the Lord and in the way you see the counselee will change. Your heart will bleed with mercy and compassion, where you’re willing to do anything you can to get them the truth of God’s Word, so they can drink from that deep well and be restored.

Recommended Resources

With All Your Heart: Orienting Your Mind, Desires, and Will Toward Christ by A. Craig Troxel

ACBC Book Review on With All Your Heart

When People Are Big and God is Small: Overcoming Peer Pressure, Codependency, and the Fear of Man by Ed Welch

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Dale Johnson
Dr. Dale Johnson is the Executive Director of ACBC. He is also the Associate Professor of Biblical Counseling at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dale is married to Summer and together they have six wonderful children.
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