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What I Learned Early on as a Biblical Counselor

New counselors, don't be discouraged with the lessons you learn. Lean in and keep pursuing growth. Trust God.

Feb 12, 2021

When the Lord saved me at age 33, He gave me a heart to teach women. I did not want others to be guilty of the sins that had consumed me before I was saved. I devoured the Scriptures, withdrew from a Master’s Degree in Nursing that I was halfway through, quit my college teaching job to stay home with my family, and started teaching a ladies’ Bible study. Providentially, I had a pastor who guided me and oversaw what I was doing. I had a tremendous amount of zeal, but not necessarily a lot of knowledge. In fact, some of the doctrines I would have died for back then, I don’t even believe now!

For five years, I taught the Bible verse-by-verse, and looking back on that time, I realize my pastor (Howard Dial) was guiding me in a basic Bible college education. Then one day, Lou Priolo walked into our church. Somebody told me he was a nouthetic counselor, but I did not really care about that. However, he got to preach one Sunday night and he preached on overcoming bitterness. Well, I was blown away. I did not know that the Bible could be used in such a practical way. What Lou said rang true to me. Eventually, my husband and I took Lou’s counseling courses. I took the courses because I wanted to be a more practical Bible teacher.

Then one day, Lou came to me and asked me to pursue NANC certification and come to work for him part-time as a counselor to women. I told him, “No, I just want to be a teacher not a counselor.” After a short while, Lou went behind my back to my husband, Sanford, and Lou said, “If you tell her to do it, she will.” Well, Sanford agreed with Lou that God had gifted me in that way and he told me that he wanted me to try it. So, reluctantly I agreed to try. That was 32 years ago.

Rest in the Fact that You Don’t Know Everything

I started out observing Lou. When a counselee would make a statement or ask a question, my thought was, “What in the world is Lou going to say to that?” Well, he always had a biblical answer, until one day he said, “Let me think about that and I will get back with you.” That was an amazing moment for me as I thought, “If I don’t know what to say, I could say what Lou just said.” As time went on, there were many times I asked Lou what to tell a counselee and if he didn’t know, he would call Jay Adams and ask him. We were a small, tight-knitted group back then. So, the first thing I learned early on was that I don’t have to know everything immediately. Actually, I still don’t. So, just be honest if you don’t know but you can find out.

Pray and Ask for Wisdom from God

Another thing I learned early on was to pray and ask for wisdom from God. He promises to give us wisdom if we ask without doubting (James 1). So, with all my heart I would ask, believing He would do that. I still do, especially if a counselee is struggling and the case is complicated and confusing. God has never let me down, even if giving me wisdom takes a while. So, I learned to trust God to keep His Word. Success in counseling depends on Him and not me.

Recognize the Counselees’ Sin and the Sin Against Them

Another thing that really “got my goat” was the first time I realized a counselee had lied to me. That seemed to me to be incredibly foolish as my counsel would have been different if they had not lied. I remember complaining to Lou one day about it and he said, “Martha, people lie.” In other words, get over it. People are sinners.

Lou had told me that it would take a while for me to begin to see patterns of sin in my counselees. He was right about that. Eventually, I began to see two patterns of problems that surprised me. One was if a counselee was lazy and had a lack of self-discipline. It did not matter what their other issues were, they would not make progress. I had to learn to persevere and be patient with them, teaching them what the Bible said about self-discipline and holding them accountable to do their work! Putting them on a schedule really helped but checking behind them to see if they maintained their schedule was critical. Laziness was a surprise to me.

The other surprise was how many wives came for counseling complaining that their husbands would not have sex with them. Sometimes it was for months or years, and it was not because the husband had a physical problem. As a new counselor, I had figured that the presenting problem would be the opposite—the wife refusing to have sex with her husband. This issue started me on the road to biblically helping wives whose husbands are sinning against them.

Counseling Strategies

Early on, I found that Jay Adams’ Christian Counselor’s Manual was an excellent resource, as were Wayne Mack’s Homework Manuals. They still are extremely valuable and biblically practical. From that and what Lou had taught me, I developed my Cheat Sheet. My Cheat Sheet was one sheet of notebook paper on which I had written different topics with the Scripture references listed under each topic. I did not write out the Scriptures. I only cited them. Some of the topics were the gospel, anxiety, depression, marriage, hope, sanctification, and justification. I taped my Cheat Sheet to my side of the desk so that I could see it, but my counselee could not. Eventually, I memorized all of them and threw my Cheat Sheet away. I wish I still had it for old times’ sake.

I used to write out the questions I wanted to ask my counselee based on what their PDI answers were. After a while, I didn’t have to do that any longer. I did learn early on when I needed to ask a counselee a particularly difficult question, to just be calm, quick, and straight-forward. Examples are “Have you ever had an abortion?” or “Are you a homosexual?” Of course, I don’t ask every counselee those questions, but sometimes it is necessary.

Concluding Advice

When I think about my beginning years as a nouthetic counselor, I know I was awkward and feeling my way, but the Lord was helping me. He gifted me as a teacher, and basically, I was teaching my counselees one by one. Sometimes, I would come under conviction about something that I was showing my counselee in the Scriptures. Later, I would need to pray and ask God’s forgiveness and with God’s help repent. It would be a few years later that Lou pushed me to write The Excellent Wife, and speak about conviction—that book nearly killed me!

I learned I did not have to be perfect to be a counselor much less a wife, but like my counselees, I was a work in progress. My advice to new counselors is really study the older works such as Jay Adams and Wayne Mack. You will probably be surprised and so glad you did. Trust God that He will use you. You can be faithful whether all of your counselees repent and give God glory or not. I really wanted to only be a teacher and a missionary, but the Lord had an entirely different plan for my life. There were several times over the years that I wanted to pull away from counseling, but I am so grateful that the Lord kept pulling me back in.

If you are a young counselor, hang in there and keep learning and growing. You will never stop learning new things. I have counseled hundreds of women over these years and every time I think I have heard it all, I hear something new.

May God bless you as you grow in your trust and grace of God and someday looking back, you will be so grateful to God for how He has used you. Love Him and love your counselees and never stop learning.