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Giving Homework According to the Stages and Phases of a Counselee

Learn ways to assess what homework would be most helpful for your counselee.

Feb 17, 2021

My name is Nicolas Ellen. I have the privilege of serving as senior pastor of Community of Faith Bible Church in Houston, Texas. I’m the professor of biblical counseling at the College of Biblical Studies there, and I also have had the privilege of being an ACBC Fellow for the last couple of years. If any of you are looking for training, this is what I do to set people up before we go into supervision. I have a policy that we have to spend five weeks in development before you actually start your sessions. Today you’re going to get in one hour of that with what I’m about to share with you. We may not cover everything, but the key things that I want you to learn we’re going to make sure we cover within this timeframe to hopefully give you a process, a way to think about counseling. 

When I was going through the process to be certified as a biblical counselor, I had Randy Patten as my supervisor. You talk about a drill sergeant that loves, he was a wonderful man of God. He was very powerful and insightful, but I’ll never forget the time when I was doing my homework part, and he said, “What kind of homework is this? What you gave is anemic!”

And I realized that most people when they start counseling don’t have a way to look at the big picture; they have no way of thinking about or understanding what they are dealing with. As I started to think that through, I thought, “Well, what if before counseling, we gave people a concept of analysis by which they can see the big picture, and then give them a structure that says, if a person is here, here’s the kind of homework you give them, and if they’re here, this is the kind of homework you give them.”

I started experimenting, looking at Scriptures and learning processes and looking at all of the Greats, like Paul Tripp and Jay Adams, and I just started looking at different ideas. God allowed me to pull together a system that I’ve been using now for the last four or five years at the college where I teach as well as with those that I’m training. I’m finding that it’s starting to take hold, and so you get to be my guinea pigs, and hopefully, get an opportunity to think about this whole process.

When you’re counseling, you get a bunch of details, and when you get a lot of details, sometimes you can get so overwhelmed with them that you think you have to fix everything that you hear. But in reality, there are two sides to a problem. There is the root of the problem and the fruit of the problem. Generally, when people are talking to you, they’re giving you the fruit. You can trace the fruit back to the root. As you start to learn these processes, the key would be to think, “Okay, if the person is at point A, then what do I give them to lead them to point B.” But before we get into that, let’s talk a little bit about some practical issues that you need to know. 

Counseling as Evangelism and Discipleship

First of all, God is doing something, and what is the one thing you see that He’s doing? He is saving souls. Now we can go through all the Scripture to see that God is the one that is saving souls from the penalty of sin, the power of sin, and, one day, the presence of sin. But He’s not just saving from something; He’s saving to something. He’s saving us to a new and right relationship with God the Father that lasts for eternity. Salvation is not just redemption; It’s also reconciliation. What we have to help people understand is that God is doing that work. I’m not saving souls; God is saving souls.  We also see that God is maturing saints into the image of Jesus Christ. From glory to glory we’re being transformed into the image of Christ. If we understand this premise, what should the church be doing?

The church should be about evangelism because that is how God saves souls. We see in 1 Corinthians 3:7-8, “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the increase, and each will receive his wages.” But we must be efficient and effective as the body of Christ with the process of evangelism. When we do evangelism, someone will be saved.

Now, it doesn’t mean someone will be saved as we will. Someone will be saved as God wills. I like to tell people, someone will be saved not as you work, but as God wills. But you ought to be doing the work of evangelism, and as God wills, someone will be saved. 

Further, the church is to be about what area? Discipleship, right? God is saving souls. God is maturing the saints. God is using the church through evangelism to save souls. He’s using the church through discipleship to sanctify saints into the image of Christ. What are the two central things you think the church should be focused on? It seems simple doesn’t it? But again, it’s the simple things that we tend to miss, and as my older cousin would say, “Too much analysis leads to paralysis.” We have made things more complicated than what they really are. At the end of the day when you think about it, God is saving souls. God is maturing saints. God is using the church through evangelism and discipleship to save souls and mature saints. 

I want to put a simple question out there. When we are in a counseling situation with an unbeliever, what should we be doing in that counseling situation? If I’m dealing with an unbeliever, what is my ministry immediately with an unbeliever in the counseling session? If the person is an unbeliever, my ministry is to evangelize, and if God wills, they will get saved. Another question, what is my ministry in counseling a believer? If the counselee is a believer, my ministry is to help them put on and put off something. Is there ever a time in biblical counseling where you’re not doing those two things?

What ministry did God give the church again in Matthew 28? The ministry is “to go and make disciples.” That means that we are ambassadors and builders. Ambassadors have the ministry of reconciliation. Then when a person come to Christ, we become a builder. According to Ephesians 4, we help them grow up in Christ. Does that change in the counseling arena when it’s biblical counseling?

It doesn’t change, right? When I’m counseling, I’m doing the work of evangelism and the work of discipleship. And God is saving, and God is maturing saints. Guess what, every Christian is a counselor.

However, we’ve tried to make counseling something other than what it is. It is the work of evangelism and discipleship starting with individuals. And when that happens, you will find yourself making counseling more difficult than it has to be. We may hesitate and think, “I can’t do biblical counseling because I can’t do that counseling stuff.” You can’t do evangelism or you can’t do discipleship? The one thing that we are called to do, and you tell them you can’t do that in a counseling room.

“Oh, no. I’m not qualified to counsel.” Wait, let me get this straight, “By grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves. It is a gift of God, not by works, lest any man should boast. And you were saved unto good works.” You tell them you can’t do biblical counseling, since it’s evangelism and discipleship?

My challenge before I start people out is to encourage them that they can do counseling because they’re called to do evangelism and discipleship. Biblical counseling is an avenue whereby evangelism and discipleship can take place, resulting in God using it to save us all from the power, penalty, and, soon, the presence of sin and will turn saints into the image of Jesus Christ. Therefore, every Christian should be a counselor. 

Now if we understand this premise, there are three key objectives every time you counsel someone. And these objectives will never change. If I’m dealing with an unbeliever, what is my objective? Salvation. Someone asks what he is supposed to do if he’s sitting with an unbeliever in counseling. Evangelism.

If you try to help an unbeliever with the problem without giving them the ultimate solution, you are creating little Pharisees, self-righteous individuals who place more confidence in themselves, which is what Paul was trying to get us to reject. Their issue is not how to resolve an issue if they’re a non-believer. Their issue is how to be delivered from the penalty, the power, and, one day, the presence of sin.

If we understand this premise then, when it comes to counseling we’ve got three key objectives. If it’s an unbeliever, number one, it’s evangelism. But now secondly, if we’re dealing with believers, we’ve got two key objectives. There is some sin that they need to put off. There’s some righteousness they need to put on. If you think about it, when you come into the counseling arena, the objectives are already set for you.

Number one, if I’m dealing with an unbeliever, my objective is, by the power of God, if He wills as I work, I’m going to give the gospel of Jesus Christ. And the hope and anticipation of God will deliver them from the penalty of sin, and the power of sin, and, soon, the presence of sin into a new and right relationship with God. Number two, if I’m dealing with a believer, there’s something they need to stop. And number three, there’s something they need to start. I’ve got to identify what those things are and strategically come together with a systematic plan to move them from putting off to putting on, but I have to deal with them where they are, not where I want them to be. Most people get frustrated in counseling because they have an agenda that doesn’t match the condition and the position of the person, so you’re trying to push them to be somewhere, and they’re not there. Because you can’t identify where they are in order to lead them to where they need to go, you think this counseling stuff isn’t working.

No, it’s something a little different. It might be the way you’re approaching it. The challenge for us is to take a moment and backtrack. We’ve discovered something very simple. One is what is God doing in the world? What are the two central things that God is doing? He’s saving souls and maturing saints. And what are the two key things He’s requiring of the church? Evangelism and discipleship. When I get into the counseling arena what two things should I be focused on? Evangelism and discipleship. Therefore, my objectives are clear. 

Categories of Change

There are some basic categories of life whereby biblical counselors are to lead counselees into the process of change into the image of Jesus Christ unto spiritual maturity. Now, I want to talk about these categories. I want to explore this together for a moment because as we’ve understood evangelism and discipleship, everyone’s problems exist in these five categories.

The first category that we see biblical counselors are to help counselees look closely at and work hard on is one that includes thought life, motives, and desires. Now, let’s talk about that for a moment. Some of you may be thinking that I didn’t mention emotions or feelings. The reason that emotions and feelings are not there is because emotions and feelings are determined by your thoughts.

Nowhere in the Bible are we called to master our emotions; we’re called to take our thoughts captive. If you want to change how you feel, you change how you think. Emotions are just a window to my desires and my thoughts. Therefore, I don’t change emotions, I change the thoughts that determine the emotions. Biblical counselors are to work hard on helping people in these categories of thought life, motives, and desires. 

Secondly, biblical counselors are to work hard on helping people with their communication. This category talks about how they speak to other people, and how they use their words. Are they using their words to help or to hurt? We need to help counselees understand how to think before they speak. We need to help them understand what it means that “no unwholesome word proceed out of your mouth.” And help them understand what that looks like. They need to understand what the difference is between gossip and sharing. We need to teach them all the things that we have learned about the theology of communication from the Word of God. We’re to help people in those areas. 

Thirdly, we are to help people in their behavior or what I like to call the “manner of life.” We’re talking about how one conducts himself, his character, his conduct, his commitments, how he handles life situations, what he watches on television, how he eats, and everything that’s dealing with the person apart from someone else. 

Fourthly, we are to help people work hard on how they relate to others. We’re talking about how I handle my wife, my children, my boss, my family, my co-workers, my friends, and my enemies. How am I operating within the roles and responsibilities of those relationships that God has given. How do I help the person? 

Lastly, we need to help counselees to serve others. How do I serve others or how do I lack service?

I want you to notice these five categories. The first category is about thoughts, motives, and desires. The second category has to do with communication. The third category concerns behavior and manner of life. The fourth category involves relationship issues. The fifth category has to do with serving.

Let’s do some practical evaluation here. Everyone who comes to you for counseling is struggling with an issue that fits into one of those categories. Here’s an example. A man comes to you for counseling who has issues between him and his wife. That would fit into the fourth category, and we would want to help this man relate biblically to his wife.

Here’s another example: A counselee tells you that he has said some things he should not have. Categories two or three could apply here. A counselee comes to you and says, “I just feel…” That would be category one.

What I do with my trainees is to explain to them that before they do anything else, I want them to take the whole week, and as people are having conversations with them, they should try to decide what category their issue will fit into. Now as you do this, it helps you to get a category for every issue that comes to you. Here is your theological challenge. If you take what I’ve just given you and you search the Scriptures from the Old Testament to the New Testament, you will discover that every time God has called us to change, it’s always in these five categories.

Every time there is sin, you already know where the sin exists with the person who comes to you because they can only be from one of these five categories. Let’s take this a step further. The fruit is in the second to the fifth categories. The root is always the first category. If a person has a problem with communication, they also have a problem with their thoughts, motives, and desires. If a person has a problem with their behavior or manner of life, they also have a problem with their thoughts, motives, and desires. If a person is having a problem in relationships, it’s because they are having a problem in their thoughts, motives, and desires. If a person has a problem in serving and a lack thereof, it comes back to the first category.

As we’re dealing with people, we know something before they even come to us. All of their problems fit into one or more of these five categories, and the root comes back to the first category. They’re talking to you about a behavior or relational issue, and that is the presenting problem. But ultimately that problem exists because of the counselee’s thoughts, motives, and desires. When God is calling us to put off and to put on, in what areas of life is He calling us to put off and put on? It’s in one of these five categories. If you really wanted to work this, you could have a small group. And every time your pastor preaches, you could sit down and discuss the sermon and the sin areas God is revealing to you in regard to these categories. Whatever you discover in categories two through five, don’t forget to consider category one. Every time you hear someone teach and preach, you will begin to see where God is dealing with you specifically and precisely. One of our problems is that we talk about sin in specifics, but we talk about solutions in generics. And that’s why people are so fuzzy with us when it comes to the counseling process. We will nail their sin, but we have no solution for them other than a glorified Bible study.

And after a while that gets old because they know what you’re going to teach them because they’ve moved beyond knowledge. They need to be doers and not just hearers of the word. And if we don’t have a specific, precise way to move them from just understanding the application, we lose them.

They don’t need another book to read, they need an application to apply because they now understand. When we don’t do that, we lose them and then they go to the professionals who really keep them in bondage.

Now we’re going to talk about the model of progressive sanctification that everyone must go through if real change is going to take place. As we look at this model together, we’ll begin to see that when you look at your life when you have truly changed, you will have walked through the categories that we are going to talk about. I want to talk about these six things that you must go through for real change. If these are true, they’re always true, and you will know the solution to people’s problems from the beginning.

Process of Change

The first step in the process of change is realization. Realization is when one comes to see truth and understands how it applies to their life. It’s knowledge-based. Everything in life starts with realization. Who gives people realization? There are no openings in the Trinity—I thought I’d share that with you. They’re not looking for a junior Holy Spirit. For those of you who have been trying to apply for the job of junior Holy Spirit, they’re not interested. They like being a Trinity, and it’s going to stay that way. We need to stop trying to play the Holy Spirit.

When we give people truth, they will get it if God wants them to—not because we want them to. The first step of change is realization. We don’t control it. We give the insight, God gives the understanding. We see in 2 Timothy that, “a bondservant must not be quarrelsome, but able to teach, patient when wrong, correcting those in opposition if perhaps God may grant them repentance, leading them to a knowledge of truth.”

The second step follows, which is remorse. One comes to feel godly sorrow in relation to their sin and the desire to make things right with God and others accordingly. That’s what we call biblical, godly sorrow. Realization without godly sorrow is just realization. It can also lead to arrogance. One of the challenges we have in the church is that we have a lot of arrogant sinners. They can intelligently explain to you why they’re sinning, but they don’t want to do anything about it. They know the Bible, but they’re not convicted over the reality of what they know.

The first step in change is realization, and the second step is remorse, to have that godly sorrow that God produces in one’s heart that says, “Not only do I see, but I see where I’ve fallen in relationship to God and others. And I want to make things right.” What happens too often with people is that we give them information, but they’re not broken. We can’t figure out why change isn’t happening or why they’re not doing any homework assignments. They don’t see the need because they know what you know, and they’re not broken over the fact that they’re in sin because they don’t think they’re in sin. Their resume of righteousness has blinded them to the wickedness of their own hearts. You start to tell them about sin, and they start to tell you about the good things they’re doing. They believe one drowns out the other. What I tell couples a lot is that, “I’m not questioning the love you have for your spouse. I’m trying to see where you’re lacking love for your spouse. The problem is not where you love them, it’s where you’re lacking love. That’s where the deficiency is. I’m not challenging how much you love them. You’re not in here because you love each other. But when you threw that stick at him, and he threw that knife at you, that wasn’t love, now was it? So let’s work on where you’re lacking, not where you have it.” What happens a lot of times is that people are not remorseful. Realization follows remorse. 

But then from remorse, we get to the third phase which is to renounce. What does renounce mean? It means to confess your sin to God and others when appropriate. Notice that to start there must be realization. There must be remorse, here is where I’m grieving over what I’ve come to understand. And realization and remorse will lead me to renounce, where I confess my sins to God and to others, appropriately. Now, that’s where many people stop, but that doesn’t complete the process of change now does it?

Step number four is what we call the repentance phase. What happens in the repentance phase? Very simply, one comes to turn away from their sin towards God and towards others, accordingly. Notice the progression. When real change is taking place in a person’s life, it starts with realization. Then it moves to remorse where there is genuine renouncing of the sin. Then they genuinely repent of the sin that they’ve just renounced. But that doesn’t complete the phase. Jay Adams once said that for those who sin specifically, they need to obey specifically, and so to just stop something is not enough. There must be something you start in order to replace what you’ve stopped or your process of change is incomplete. As we’re doing counseling, not only do we have to see what’s wrong, we have to look at specifically what is right. We need to give them an application tool to move into that direction.

The fifth phase is what we call renewal. What is renewal? Well, now that I have turned away from the wrong thing, I need to study God’s Word to understand the right thing. Now I’m constantly meditating on the word of God, constantly trying to understand what He says that I need to start doing as I’ve turned away from what I needed to stop doing. And as a result, I’m learning the new direction.

This leads us to the sixth phase, which is replacement. What do we do in replacement? One comes to obey God and others and love others in the area where he or she has disobeyed God and been unloving towards others. Now, once you notice the progression, look at your own life, did you not follow this process?

When you heard the truth, what happened to you? There was realization. When you were really convicted by the Lord, there was remorse. Then that realization of remorse led you to renounce your sin before God and others where appropriate. That renouncing led you to repent; you turned away from that thing, but then you got deep into God’s Word to learn the new thing that you needed to live in. As you learned what was new, you replaced it with that which was right in the sight of God. In that area of your life, you found some stability. Then just when you got a handle on that area and could be tempted to be prideful,what did God do? He exposed some more stuff to you. And then what happened? More realization. More remorsing. More renouncing. More repenting. More renewing. More replacing. Just when you thought you were a super Christian. What did He do? Let’s give you some more stuff. And how long will this process happen? It will go on until Jesus returns.

What do we help people understand? We’re going to help them see and understand that their issues fall within these steps. Now what you’ll discover is people are at different phases with different issues. We want everybody at step 6. We come in like gangbusters just ready to get them to change, but they have no realization. They don’t even know there’s a problem. We’re trying to force this new homework we learned from the Annual Conference and these books we just read. We’re going to force it down their throats, but they don’t even see that there’s a problem or they see there’s a problem, but they have no genuine remorse over it. We’re just going to force them into doing stuff, but they have no conviction. For a person who is at this level, what kind of homework and which type of teaching should I give them? We learn to deal with them where they are, not where we want them to be.

Part of the challenge today is to help you first to see that with the five categories of issues, no matter what the category, the steps that everyone will have to take will never change. Here’s what’s amazing when you think about biblical counseling for a moment. You know the agenda is evangelism and discipleship up front. You already know where the problems exist. It doesn’t matter what they tell you, their problem is going to fit in those five categories.

You know what has to happen. What you don’t know is where they are in this process. And as you do your data gathering, and you do your listening, you start to determine that here is where they are. They don’t even have any realization or you see they have realization, but there’s no remorse.

Then what do I do? How do I change? What do I adjust?

Stages of Spiritual Development

Now I want to simplify the six phases, and put them into some stages.

Everything I just talked about in these six categories and these six steps we see in 2 Timothy 3:16, which says “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” Then verse 17 says, “that all may be equipped for every good work.”

Now, what’s interesting about what Paul has done? God has not only given us His Word through illumination and His power, but God has given us a strategic way to see spiritual growth through that. He says again that the Word of God is profitable for teaching (you get your information), for reproof (for a conviction), for correction (turning away) for training (walking in what’s right). Now if you think about those particular things, those are also the stages of spiritual development. First comes the teaching, then comes the conviction, then you make corrections, and then you have training in what’s right.

What Paul has done and the Holy Spirit has allowed us to see is that not only is the Word of God profitable for these things, but it’s also showing you the progression of change: teaching, conviction, correction, training. We can take the six phases, and we can summarize them into four stages. Each phase of change is worked out through stages of spiritual growth. As God is working inside of individuals, they respond accordingly.

Here’s an example of how it works. In the teaching stage: The Holy Spirit enlightens your mind through the Word of God, the body of Christ, circumstances, and prayer. What happens at this stage is that realization occurs. God begins to hone in on your mind and says, “Hey, I want you to see something here,” and you see it. In the conviction stage, God begins to focus your attention on particular areas of life to convince you that change is necessary, and realization and remorse happen. So how do we pull this together? And the teaching stage? You see something to be true and you go, “Yeah, I get it. I understand that. I know that.” But then God says, “Yeah, you know it, but you don’t see where you’re lacking with me and others,” and then what happens? Conviction.

You went from just having information to now conviction moving in your heart. From the conviction stage, you move into correction. You make a decision to abandon sin issues and to begin a new thought, word, or action trusting God’s power to make things function accordingly. What do I see in the correction stage? I am renouncing, and I am repenting. 

In the teaching stage, there will be realization of the truth. In the conviction stage, not only will there be realization but there will be remorse, a sense of brokenness over your sin in relation to the truth you’ve heard. In the correction stage, you are now motivated to turn away, to own up to this thing and turn away. What happens? You start renouncing the stuff. You start repenting of the stuff.

Then you get to the training stage. As you’re responding to God’s conviction, you are seeking to put into practice what God has commanded in His Word. By the power of God, you’re walking in harmony with God, and in areas where you were once disobedient, you are experiencing the victory of deeper fellowship with God and with others. In the training stage, I’m going to see renewal and replacement.

All six things I’ve just mentioned can be summarized in 2 Timothy. God tells us that His Word is profitable. He’s also showing us the stages of development. First comes teaching, then comes conviction, then comes correction, and then comes training. 

I will know if a person has truly learned in the teaching stage when I see realization.  I will know If a person is truly convicted about what they’ve learned, meaning they’re in the conviction stage, when I see realization and remorse. If a person is truly trying to make things right in the correction stage, I’ll know because they’ll be renouncing and repenting. I’ll know if a person is truly serious about putting these principles to practice when I see renewing, and I’ll see replacing. 

Agenda in Counseling

This is what sets my agenda. This is what I’m doing is with my counselees or counselors-in-training with me in supervision; our conversations will go something like this: “Here’s what I saw today. This person was dealing with a category 1 and a category 2 problem.” “Wonderful. Can you tell me what phase or stage they’re in?” My counselor-in-training may tell me that they noticed that their counselee is in the teaching stage of the problem. By telling me that, they’ve just told me the person understands, but they are lacking conviction. “Okay, so then based upon that, what are you going to do now to lead them to the next stage? What homework, and what insight do you have?” The CIT may tell me that they don’t know. “Okay. Well, let’s talk about strategies now, and what you need to do. You’re not trying to move them down to step 4, you want to move them to the next stage? Let’s discuss the counseling that you will do inside the homework you would give to move to the next stage. Okay, here’s what I suggest. This is what I recommend.

They come back to say. “Hey, Prof. It worked.” Well, no, it didn’t work. God is moving because you couldhave tried and it didn’t work. Let’s not get too excited. Okay, it was just God’s will that now He’s bringing them through conviction, and He’s using your teaching and that homework. Don’t get too cocky because you could try this next week, and it doesn’t work. And then they’ll do the same thing with someone else, and it doesn’t work. Have you noticed you can do the same system with ten different people you get ten different results? That’s God helping you to understand that it’s never about you. You are an instrument. You’re not the determiner. As you learn this you start to think about how you can connect it. 

Now I want to give you homework that ties to each phase and stage. There are six key categories of homework that can be given to guide counselees into the process of change according to each phase and stage. This is to lead them into escaping the corruption of their flesh, the world, and the devil, onto spiritual maturity in Jesus Christ. Let’s spend our time now exploring these six categories. 

Types of Homework

One category of homework is what we call hope homework. Hope homework is activities, videos, and reading assignments given to help people gain a true hope in Christ in accordance to the problems they’re facing. This is used in all stages of spiritual growth, but I’m going to tell you specifically the key stage where you want to use this. This is something you as a counselor would have to do to prep your counselees.

I would encourage you to go through the Old and New Testament before your session. And as you go through the Old and New Testament, look at the promises that God has given. Identify the promises that are universal and what promises are more specific to that particular set of people at that time, so that you don’t give them things that were not promised to them. Does that make sense? As you learn the Scriptures, and you look at the Scriptures that give promises, you lay them out. Then once you distinguish between those that are universal for all saints and those that are specific for some saints at a particular time, then I want you to distinguish in your evaluation of these promises those that are temporal and those that are eternal. Then what you do is you give your counselees these verses. Tell them that you want them to look at these verses and identify which ones are temporal promises for you and which ones are eternal promises for you and connect them to your life.

Another hope assignment could be something like this. I want you to take the last five or ten years of your life. And I want you to look at all the things that God has delivered you out of, where He’s protected you, where He’s kept you, where He’s provided something that you enjoyed, and where He’s given you a blessing. Think about any tragedy, trial, and any triumphs, and I want you to map that out. I also want you to get some bricks, some real nice-looking bricks. I want you to put different colors on these bricks, and I want you to date the time and the specific thing that God did to protect you, to bless you, to provide for you, whatever it may be, and just lay it out. I want you to have a memorial somewhere, either in your home or in your backyard. Whenever you find yourself doubting the presence of God, I want you to take that walk, and you go look at each one of those particular things, those laminated index card on some brick with different colors, and you just think about what God has done for you, and ask the question, “If God is the same yesterday, today, and forevermore, wherever I am right now, will He not also be with me again?” Would that give you hope? These are some ideas of projects for hope. 

Now, I give those assignments when a person is in the conviction stage. Let me explain why. You can do it in all stages, but in the conviction stage, they are now broken, right? They see where they’ve sinned, and they are totally broken. This is a wonderful time to give them some hope that God loves them and this is exactly where He wants them to be. They’re broken; they see their sin. They see where they are, and they’re ready to make changes.

The second category of homework is called doctrinal homework. Doctrinal homework is projects, activities, and reading assignments given to help people gain a solid theological understanding of their problems so that they can deal with them properly, used to lead people into the teaching stage of spiritual growth. You talk to someone in the counseling session, and you recognize that they have no clue what you’re talking about. They are completely lost, no background, no understanding. That means that this person has no realization.

My agenda now is to lead them into the teaching stage where there’s at least realization of the concepts and a connection to their life. Then the doctrinal homework is a means by which I get them to study some booklet, some Bible verses, some book or something that I have that helps them to understand the nature of this insight in relation to their life because they don’t get it. If you say to them, “Given where you are. I want you, if you’re willing, to accept this counsel, some insight that I think can help you to see the context of what’s happening in your life.” That’s doctrinal because your goal is to bring them to realization. They don’t have a clue. The person doesn’t know they’re not in the teaching stage. They’re not in the realization phase, so I give them doctrinal homework to lead them there. How will I know that they’ve gotten enough? When they start to say, “Oh, I see now. I understand.”

How long do I do it? As long as they keep coming. When God decides to open their hearts, it’ll happen. That’s not based on merely you; that’s based on God. We understand we cannot force God to open the hearts and minds of individuals. We must be faithful to keep delivering the theological insights until God gives them understanding.

The third category is awareness homework. Here’s where you will spend a lot of time. This is one of the most important kinds of homework that most of us in counseling lack. Let me talk about the projects, activities, and reading assignments given to help people become aware of their own sinfulness in the problem, so that they stop deceiving themselvesabout the problem they’re facing and own up to it accordingly. This is usually people in the conviction stage of spiritual growth.

Here’s what happens: Mr. Snotty Christian comes for counseling. Okay, he knows the Bible, and he doesn’t understand why he’s here. His wife told him that he needed to come, and he wants the sex and the food to continue, so he comes. He has his own agenda anyway, and he thinks he knows it all, so he comes to you, and he says something like, “Well, my wife told me I need to come.” The counselor says, “Let’s talk about the issues that are going on in your life.” He says, “Well, I understand what I’m supposed to do and blah blah blah, but I think I’m already doing that. So I don’t see the need for me to really be here.”

Do you understand that this person has knowledge, but they are lacking conviction? So now you start to say, “Well, what if I were to give you an assignment this week, I’d like for you to go home, and I’d like for you to evaluate 1 Peter 3:7.” He says, “I know that verse ‘Husband’s live with your wives in understanding.'” You reply, “Well, I know you know it. I’m not asking you to go back and learn it. I’m asking you to sit down with your wife and ask some simple questions. Ask her, ‘In what ways have I been living with you in an understanding way, and if not, will you tell me?’ Here’s what else I want you to do. I want you to identify what ways you have let your wife down in the last three months, where you didn’t keep the commitments that you told her you were going to do. Let her tell you where she has experienced disappointment because you put your work above your relationship with her. Just go home and make a long list.” What do you think is going to happen to this man?

Notice that I’m not reteaching the verse. I am trying to get him to see his heart in connection with the verse. This is what we call awareness homework. I’m not trying to get him to do exposition of the passage. He knows the passage, but what he’s lacking is exposition of his own heart. Awareness homework is to tie the counselee’s heart to the reality of this text. What we do with awareness homework, because you’re going to spend a lot of time here, is you’re trying to help people see themselves and the context of the text that they understand so well.

You will spend a lot of time with awareness homework. Basically, you’re just giving people discussion questions, types of things to get them to understand what the text says according to where they are. Let me tell you how that works in a practical way. You get a person that thinks they know everything about anything and every Scripture. Here’s one simple question. “Can you give me the specifics of how you’ve applied that over the last several days?” That’s the equalizer, isn’t it? We’re not to be hearers of the word, but doers. “If you know this so well, I’d like specifics of how you apply this, and in what ways, and on what days did you apply this specific passage that you understand so well, because maybe you can help me too.” And you’ll discover knowledge but no application of the knowledge, which leads to arrogance, which is why they have issues.

Awareness homework is a means, if God allows, to bring them to conviction. It’s basically saying, “I know you understand. I know you have realization. I know you’re in a teaching stage, but you don’t have remorse. There’s no conviction over this information. Now my work as a counselor is to not reteach the information, but to help the counselee to see his heart and connection with the information.” I’m not going to reteach the verse in our session. I’m just going to go through example after example to help them see they’re not doing what they know so well and hope that they will come to a place of conviction, so then we can get to the work of change.

Now number four is embracing God homework, and it consists of projects, activities, and reading assignments to help people connect with God according to a particular characteristic of God that relates to their problem or sin, used to lead people into the correction and training stage of spiritual growth. Here’s where we get to a person who is now broken. They’re ready to change. They’re ready to put off; they’re ready to put on. How do we help them to begin to change? We match their sin to the characteristic of God that they’re not embracing.

For instance, how many of you believe that God is sovereign? How many of you believe that God is supreme, that He is first and foremost among all? How many of you believe that God is sufficient, that He is enough? So why did you have that argument on the way here with your spouse? Why were you worrying the other day? Why did you get angry? Because if God is enough, why would you get angry? If God is enough, why would you worry? If God is really sovereign in your life, why would you be caught up in the anxiety that you keep experiencing in your life?

You have a theological understanding, but not a practical embracing of these characteristics. And the Bible says that anything not done in faith is sin (Romans 14:23). Without faith, it is impossible to please God. The key is understanding the characteristics of God that you are not trusting. The reason you keep walking in sin is because you are not embracing that characteristic. If you truly embraced that God is sovereign, you would not worry ever again. Why? Because it’s under control. If you truly accepted that God was sufficient, you would stop grumbling and complaining when you didn’t get enough of something that you felt like you should have more of. You would say, “It’s not for me to have that today, but God you are enough today. I will adjust my desires to fit the situation because you’re enough.”

We’re using homework to look at the characteristics and attributes of God and helping people to see their sins and helping them connect everything to their life, so that they begin to experience the 23rd Psalm. Some people meditate on this Psalm. Some people have learned to see the Shepherd of the 23rd psalm. You’re trying to lead people to experience the Shepherd, not just know the text. Their sins are disconnected from these realities. They know it intellectually, but they don’t embrace it practically.

That’s what we call embracing God homework. When a person is moving into conviction, and they’re ready to make corrections and train, that’s the homework we give them because that leads them to put off and to put on as they’re embracing the very characteristics of God. 

The fifth category of homework is action-oriented homework consisting of projects and activities that lead people to put off particular sinful thoughts, desires, conversations, behavior, and lifestyle and to put on particular godly thoughts, desires, conversations, behavior, and lifestyle according to the situation or problem. This is used to lead people into the correction and training stage.

What do we do in that stage? Again, the person is convicted. They’re ready to make changes. This is them by themselves. This is where they need to change their eating, change their television watching habits, change how they carry themselves, and change what they wear. This is just dealing with the person, so they start moving into action for themselves where changes take place. The person needs to change the way they are thinking, the way they are talking, the way you behave on the job, change whatever it is as it relates to you apart from other people. This is where we give them action. No more reading. This is where action comes in.

What that might mean for the person is to tell him that this week you would like for him to change his thinking. When he goes outside and he is tempted to think about how terrible the day is, he can praise God for his life instead. Challenge your counselee to speak things that bring glory to God. Don’t grumble and complain. Say to your counselee, “Your eating is out of whack. You’re not giving glory to God. Today you’re going to make a conscious decision to eat just one chocolate chip cookie. I didn’t say give them up, but instead of those ten, eat one. And maybe choose not to eat one every day but only eat one every other day. This is a matter of life where they’re saying, “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God.” Instead of it being just a verse that we’ve learned, it becomes a life that we live. That’s what we call action-oriented homework. 

The sixth category is relationship-oriented homework consisting of projects and activities that lead people to put off unloving relational patterns and move them to relate in open and loving relational patterns towards others within the situation or problem, used to lead people into the correction and training stage of spiritual growth. This is where we talk about the relationships you’re in, whether with your uncle, niece, nephew, brother, enemy etc. What does the Bible say? And how do you walk in love by operating in that area as God has commanded, not based upon your mood but based upon your covenant? Mature Christians operate by covenant; immature Christians operate by mood.

You can tell when you’ve grown when what you feel doesn’t determine your submission to obey. Even when you don’t feel like obeying, you do what is honoring to God. That’s when you know you’ve grown. Immature Christians say, “I don’t like you today; therefore, I won’t obey God and do what I need to do with you today.” Mature Christians say, “I didn’t like you ever, but I’ll still serve God by loving you.” How many of you know God didn’t call us to like everybody, but He calls us to love everybody? If you liked everybody, you’d have no enemies, and the Bible clearly says love your enemies. I’m not called to like everybody, and trust me, there’s some people I don’t like, but I’m called to love everybody. It’s all about the glory of God. This is where we help them with those type of assignments.

I’ve tried to give you five weeks in about an hour. The goal is before we start you in your counseling sessions, you start to think like this and begin to think this through. Then when you get in a session, you know some things.

Let me give you an example of how this works practically. Let’s use the six R’s. Let’s take Mr. Snotty Christian, who knows everything, and he’s dealing with his wife. He comes in for counseling, and we say to him,

“Tell me what’s going on with you and your wife.”

“Well, things aren’t going well.”

“Let’s look at 1 Peter 3.”

“I know I Peter 3.”

Then he’s in the realization phase. My job now is to move him to remorse. He says, “Yeah, I know.” “Okay, go home. Do the log list.” He comes back. He goes, “Man! I didn’t see how far away I have been from God and my wife.” Now he’s in the realization and remorse phases. I gave him awareness homework, and now he’s in remorse. I’m ready for him to move into some action. In order for him to move into the renouncing and repenting phases, I give him now some relation-oriented homework. I say to him, “Listen, I want you to go home, and I want you to ask your wife for forgiveness for the things that you have not done and the things you thought you did that you didn’t do. Let’s own up to that.” Now this is relation-oriented homework. He goes home. He confesses to his wife. He confesses to God.

Now I need to move him into some repenting, which is now more relational and action-oriented homework. I say to him, “Let’s you and I put a strategy together and look at all the things that are hindering you from spending time with your wife and living with her in an understanding way. This week you’re going to move those things into a proper place, and you’re going to elevate your wife. Let’s look at Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. How will you begin to move certain things around in order for you to walk with your wife in an understanding way?” 

You see where I’m going. We’re still moving the person to this place where he’s now repented. “Here’s your new renewal assignment, you know the passage, but I want you to study your wife, and I want you to come back with forty observations about your wife. After these forty observations are done, I want us to come up with forty acts of service to connect with those forty observations.” Now, he’s moved from renewing to replacing, so now we sit down together, and we strategically identify forty ways he can serve his wife through this renewal of learning his wife. Now when he says, “Husbands live with your wives in an understanding way,” it just won’t be expositional, will it? And he can say, “Here’s where I fell short from my heart, and here’s a specific way I put off and a specific way I put on.”