Experience in counseling has a lot of benefits. Over the years, I do believe there has been improvement in my ability as a counselor. Outside of tangible things like a greater familiarity with God’s Word and more life experience from which to draw, there are also the intangible things such as a greater faith in God’s power to change human hearts. The longer I counsel, the more I see His faithfulness, the more I see His power in even the most challenging cases, and so the greater confidence I have for the next session, the next counselee. As numerous and obvious as the benefits of counseling experience are, I have also been convicted recently of something that demands a great deal of caution—I find myself often returning to the same passages of Scripture, the same approaches to heart issues, the same methodology with different counselees. It is easy for familiarity to lead to complacency, and complacency in counseling or any other part of our walk with the Lord is inherently dangerous.
Complacency in counseling can lead to a number of problems. If I am too quick to default to a familiar passage intended to present the hope of the gospel to a counselee without first exposing my own heart to it anew, then inevitably my words will lack the conviction appropriate to God’s Word. A lack of preparation for a counseling session that I excuse because I believe I know everything I need to deal with a particular problem does not come from a place of dependence on the Holy Spirit to work, but rather from a place of arrogance and confidence in my abilities. To quote from a familiar passage, “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6), and what could be more prideful than me venturing out into the deep waters of the human heart relying only on my own competency?
A failure to devote time in study and preparation for a new counselee reveals my lack of love towards my counselee, and God is clear in His Word that though I may have all giftedness to understand mysteries and all knowledge, if I do not have love, I am nothing (1 Corinthians 13:2). A lack of preparation and attentive study leaves me ill-prepared for those unexpected questions, which are often a part of counseling. God is always faithful to His Word, and so He may well work to transform my counselees in spite of my shortcomings, but this is no excuse for my sinful laziness and my presumptuous attitude towards God’s sovereignty.
Why Would I Become Complacent?
It is important that I do in my own heart what I am going to ask my counselees to do when it comes to an issue like this. I need to take the time to prayerfully examine, in light of God’s Word, why I would be complacent in the first place. Some of the possible heart issues at work I have identified already—pride, or a lack of love. On some level they all come from a sinful confidence in self. An unwillingness to come to each situation with a heart of humility towards God betrays a misplaced confidence in my own abilities that may express itself in a variety of ways. Psalm 146:3 speaks bluntly to the futility of trusting in man, simply saying that in this “there is no help.” The first step is to bring this to God in confession and repentance (1 John 1:8-9). There are a number of next steps we can take as counselors to confront a heart of complacency.
New Mercies, New Messages
Counseling according to God’s Word is all about relationships. There is of course the relationship that we have with our counselees, but most important by far is their relationship with God, and our relationship with God. God relates to His people with a great deal of intentionality and care, the kind of care that comes from His intimate knowledge of all that we are and is designed to cut through the noise of a sinful world and reach our hearts. It is in cultivating this relationship that I can actively put to death the heart of complacency. As I have been challenged here, some verses from Lamentations have come to mind often:
“Through the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “Therefore I hope in Him!” (Lamentations 3:22-24).
The mercies of the Lord are indeed new to me every day, and they are new to my counselees as well if they belong to Him. The newness of the Lord’s mercies provides for me fresh opportunities to grow in intimacy with Him, and to draw closer into relationship with my Savior. I cultivate this relationship first of all with prayer. The cure for a heart that is sinfully confident in itself is to remember that God is God, we are not. Our model should be Job, who when he was faced with this reality could only say “I know that You can do everything, and that no purpose of Yours can be withheld from You…I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You. Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:2, 4).
The dynamic nature of this relationship and its transforming power in me demands my worship, and the overflow of my worship is what should animate my counseling. This overflow of worship is an exercise in increasing my fear of the Lord as I behold Him in His Word. And it is the fear of the LORD that is the beginning of our wisdom (Proverbs 9:10). So, we cannot expect to grow in wisdom as we counsel without growing in the fear of the Lord. At the same time, the longer I spend reflecting on His unfailing compassions, the greater my conviction will be to encourage my counselees to take the Lord as their portion (Psalm 73:26), and to hope in Him alongside me. Years of walking through difficult situations in light of God’s Word should bear witness to our ongoing dependence on Him, which should deepen our fear of Him, and our reverence for His Word.
I am not advocating for a radical departure from familiar, effective, and biblical approaches to which the Lord has led you. My desire is to warn against the complacency of experience and invite you to join me in something I have taken as a personal responsibility. The challenge I would submit to you is this—Look for new passages to speak to old problems, consider new approaches to encourage others to hope in the Lord, and behold the glory of the Lord in the pages of Scripture for yourself (2 Corinthians 3:18). Abandon a “same old, same old” approach to counseling in favor of an ongoing hope in Him that will renew your worship even as it makes you a better counselor.
Be like Ezra, who set his heart to study the law of the Lord, and practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel. This is the foundational principle in ministering Scripture to others—set your heart to study, practice and then teach. God forbid that we reverse the order, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment (James 3:1).