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The Importance of Prayer in Counseling

We think that biblical counseling is biblical because we use the Bible, but we often neglect prayer in counseling.

Apr 16, 2020

Have you ever underestimated something? I remember a time when I was snowboarding with some friends late at night on the frigid hills in Vermont. We decided to race each other down a black diamond trail. Everyone (including myself) underestimated the significance of the cold air on thin patches of snow. I happened to find one of those icy patches going around a corner. I immediately fell down, slid off the edge of the track, and landed about ten feet below in a pile of fluff. I missed hitting a tree by inches. It took me a while to get back up to the track and I walked away with only a few minor bruises. But I learned a lesson that day about how dangerous it can be to underestimate something. 

We can do the exact same thing in our counseling if we are not careful. Many of us underestimate the importance of prayer. I know because I did this early on in my counseling. We think that biblical counseling is biblical because we use the Bible, but we can easily neglect the role of prayer in our counseling. If we think that our counselees are going to grow in Christlikeness due to our winsome explanation of biblical passages, then we have significantly underestimated the importance of prayer (and the need for illumination by the Holy Spirit) in our counseling. To put it another way, biblical counseling without prayer is no different than secular counseling. 

There are three areas that we need to consciously (and prayerfully) consider related to the importance of prayer in counseling. All three of these are highlighted in James 5:13-16. 

The Importance of Prayer for the Counselee 

Prayer is vitally important in the life of your counselee. James instructed, “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray” (James 5:13). It can be hard to pray when we are suffering or going through some trial. Prayer is often our last resort. However, we need to encourage our counselees to pray. Jesus instructed His disciples to pray (Matthew 6:5-13), and He emphasized the importance of prayer in fighting fleshly desires and temptations (Matthew 26:41). Paul instructed the church in Thessalonica to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17), and he emphasized the importance of prayer in responding to spiritual warfare (Ephesians 6:18). It is vital for you to encourage your counselees to pray. 

What are some practical ways that you can help your counselees to pray? First, always include daily prayer as a homework assignment for your counselees. You want your counselee to be praying about their situation from the very first session on. And make sure you ask them about their daily prayer time when you meet with them again. 

Second, be specific in the ways you want them to be praying. I always ask my counselees to pray for twenty minutes each day, on their knees, out loud, and with a short list of prayer requests. Why? Not because Scripture says you must pray in this specific way. Rather, I want my counselees to spend focused times of prayer without distraction. Praying out loud and with a list always helps me to be more focused, and praying on my knees reminds me to whom I am speaking. 

Third, don’t assume that your counselees know how to pray. I did this once. After several months of asking my counselee to pray regularly, he asked me how to pray. I was stunned. I assumed that he knew how to pray. After that incident, I now teach my counselees to pray by explaining the ACTS method (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication) and encouraging them to use a small journal to write a few prayer requests under each category. Teach your counselees to do something similar so that they learn how to structure their prayers and stay focused.  

The Importance of Prayer in the Counseling Session 

It is also vital for us to include prayer at the beginning and end of the counseling session. In James 5:14-15, those who are sick are instructed to contact the elders to pray over them: “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” 

To be clear, I am not saying that all biblical counselors are elders (though many are). What I am saying is that people who are going through trials, suffering, and illnesses need godly people to pray for them and with them. The counseling session is a natural context for praying for your counselees and modeling how to pray. I always make it a point to start with prayer, and I always leave 10-15 minutes at the end of each session to pray. I encourage my counselees to pray; I help them think through specific things to pray for, and then we both take turns praying. In James 5:16, this is commanded: “Pray for one another.” Over time this will teach your counselees the importance of prayer and how to pray, it will build a trusting relationship with your counselees, and most importantly it will help them commune with God.   

The Importance of Prayer for the Counselor 

Prayer is just as vital in your own life as a counselor. After James instructs us to pray for one another in 5:16, he then says, “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” How is our walk with the Lord as counselors? Are you living righteously? Moreover, are you praying for your counselees throughout the week and before meeting with them? We cannot expect that our counselees will grow in Christ if we do not pray for them. We also cannot expect that our counselees will be helped by our prayers if we aren’t walking righteously. 

At the end of James 5, we read, “if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20). This is our job as biblical counselors—to bring back wandering souls. But here’s the question: What is the relationship between James 5:13-18 about prayer and James 5:19-20? I believe that the answer is clear and vital for us to grasp as biblical counselors. If you want to help your counselees, bring them back from wandering, and save their souls from death (5:19-20), then you must be a praying counselor (5:13-18). Do you pray regularly? Do you pray regularly for your counselees? Do you trust God to help your counselees or do you trust your own wisdom? 

The importance of prayer in biblical counseling can hardly be overestimated. We need to be praying counselors who emphasize prayer in the counseling session and encourage prayer in the lives of our counselees.