This workshop is titled “Homework for Counselees that Maximizes Change.” I want to approach the subject in the following manner. The Apostle Paul ministered the Word in two distinct formats. A Scripture that makes that clear is Acts 20:20, where Paul was speaking with his beloved Ephesian elders. As he gave his final goodbye to them, he said, “I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house.” The word translated “shrink” was a nautical term, and it meant to take a sail on a ship down, fold it up, and stow it away. As Paul said goodbye to these folks, for what he thought was the last time, he reflected on his life and ministry with them, and he said that he didn’t take anything from the Word of God that could have been profitable to them, and in a sense take it down, fold it up, and stow it away. But he said that he gave them the Word of God, both publicly and privately. He talks about two forms of ministering the Word of God.
The first form, the public ministry of the Word, involves many people and is general discipleship. It’s usually called preaching and teaching. Later this week, this coming Lord’s Day, many of you are going to stand in front of a Sunday School class, an ABF, or a congregation, and you’re going to teach the Scriptures. That is the public ministry of the Word, but it’s general discipleship. It’s general because you’ve got one message. Whether it’s a brand-new convert or somebody who’s walked with Christ for fifty years, everyone gets the same message.
The second form is the private ministry of the Word, what Paul called the house-to-house ministry of the Word. This involves one person or a couple or a family and is intensive discipleship. Today it is frequently called biblical counseling, but it’s still the ministry of the Word. It’s just in a different setting. When you have an individual sitting in front of you or a couple coming for counseling or maybe a family at that point, they typically don’t need general discipleship. They need intensive discipleship, and this is when you open the Bible to the page and the part of the page that they need the most right now.
Six Important Skills for Biblical Counseling
The skills most frequently associated with wise, fruitful, and compassionate biblical counseling are these six key elements of the counseling process. First of all, if you’re going to minister the Word well in private, you’ve got to start by gathering information. Proverbs 18:13 says, “He who answers a matter before he hears, it is folly and shame to him.” Proverbs 18:15 says, “The heart of the prudent acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.” Knowledge means that we work at gathering information.
Second, after you gather the information, you have to discern the problem. In the first session, people put this big mound of problems on your desk, and you have to figure out what you are going to do with all that you just heard in the last hour or so.
Third, you’ve got to build involvement, and building counseling involvement means that you do some things on purpose to establish the kind of relationship with the counselee where they will not only tell you their problems, but they will also let you tell them what to do about them. That means they are not venting or dumping on us, but they are willing to be quiet and to let us tell them what to do about the problem. People sometimes come up and talk to us because everybody in the church knows we’re counselors, and we have just been to a conference, but just because you have some kind of a relationship with them doesn’t mean you have counseling involvement with them. It doesn’t mean they want you to tell them what to do about their problems. It just means they want to tell somebody about their problems. We do some things on purpose to build involvement.
Fourth, as biblical counselors, we have to give hope, and we need to do things on purpose to convince people that if they will hear and obey the Word of God, their life will be better. We give them hope for the future
Fifth, we have to provide biblical instruction. Our directive is that we tell people how they ought to think and how they ought to act because the Bible is directive. The Bible tells us how to think and how to act. If you minister the Word of God, you will be a directive counselor, because the Bible is directive.
Finally, we must assign homework. That’s the sixth key element. If that six-point outline is not familiar to you, I would encourage you to do some reading that I’ll point out at the end of the session. I’d really encourage you to memorize that six-point outline because when it comes to doing biblical counseling, these six points are where the rubber meets the road. If you’re not effective as a biblical counselor or you’d like to be more effective, probably where you need to work is in these six key areas. It’s one thing to know good theology and to know Bible truths, but it’s another thing to communicate in a way that’s competent, biblical, compassionate, and skillful.
We’re focusing on the sixth key element, which is assigning homework. We want to make the most of counseling homework, and counseling homework that maximizes change has at least eight distinct characteristics.
First of all, counseling homework that maximizes change actively uses the Bible. Let’s look at Isaiah 55:8-11, which says, “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways.’ declares the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there without watering the earth and making it bear and sprout, and furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; so will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty without accomplishing what I desire and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.’”
In the opening verses, He talks about His thoughts, actions, and ways. His thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are our ways His ways. Notice that it concludes by saying that the Word of God will not return void. That’s why in your counseling homework, you need to actively use the Bible. Another passage that should motivate you in this area is 2 Timothy 3:16-17 where Paul writes, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.”
Many of you can probably quote this passage, and many times in our churches we turn to 2 Timothy 3:16-17 when we’re wanting to teach new converts that the Bible is the Word of God. I want you to think about what the Bible says about itself and the benefit it has to our counselees. The Bible is good for four things. It is profitable for teaching. This means that the Bible will get you headed in the right direction on how you ought to think about any matter related to life and living. Pick any issue: anger, fear, worry, depression, work ethic, how to earn money, how to spend money, how to save money, the discipline of children, instruction of children, the role of husband, the role of wife, sex in marriage, sex outside of marriage. Pick a topic, go to the Scriptures, and the Bible, either by exact verse, or precept, or principle, will get you headed in the right direction.
More than that, the Bible is good for reproof. The word reproof is a precise word. It means more than that the Bible will tell us that we’re wrong. It does that. But more than that, the word reproof means the Bible will bring you to a point where you will admit you are wrong. It means it brings one to the point of conviction. That’s important in counseling. Haven’t you had a case where a husband and wife come in, and in the opening moments, it’s obvious that they are there because the wife wants to be there, and the husband is just sitting there, arms crossed, just glaring at you, thinking I dare you to move in on me. In cases like that, I find hope from 2 Timothy 3 and this word “reproof.” I’m just going to minister the Word of God because the Word of God is good for reproof. After a few sessions, the arms come down, and finally, we have that breakthrough session where the guy says, “You know, God really got to me this week, and it’s not all her fault. I’ve been lying. I’m more responsible than she is.” What that means is that the Bible is good for reproof. It brought him to the point where he would admit he was wrong.
The Bible is also good for correction. The idea behind the word “correction” is that the Bible stands up that which has been knocked down. Many people come in to see us as counselors when they’re knocked down. They’re knocked down in their personal and moral life. They’re knocked down in their marriage. They’re knocked down in the parent-child relationship. They’re knocked down and fear for the future. They’re knocked down in life, and the Bible is a good place to take people who are knocked down in life to help them to stand up again by God’s grace.
The Bible is good for training in righteousness. That means that the Bible will teach us how to discipline our thinking and our behavior so that we can live the future of our lives differently than we have the past of our lives. I love being able to say to a counselee, “If you will listen, if you will hunger and thirst for righteousness, if you will hear and obey God’s Word, I can assure you that the future of your life can be different than the past of your life by God’s grace.” It’s not because I think I’m an all-fired, hot counselor; it’s because I think I have a fabulous, wonderful power: the Word of God. One person summarized 2 Timothy 3:16-17 like this, “The Bible is good to tell you what’s right, what’s not right, how to get right, and how to stay right.” That covers all the bases in counseling. That’s all the issues that we’re going to be dealing with. That’s why the Bible ought to be an active and key part of your counseling homework.
Characteristics of Counseling Homework that Maximizes Change
1. It Actively Uses the Bible
What does it mean to actively use the Bible in counseling homework? First of all, you ought to use it actively in reading. One of the questions that I have learned to ask people in session number one that is very profitable, and that I encourage you to ask is, “How many times did you read the Bible last week?” And the follow-up question is, “How many times did you read the Bible the week before that?” I’m trying to get an idea of what the pattern is because some people, when they get in a real jam, get the Bible out and dust it off, and they start reading a bunch looking for a blessing.
Over the years, as I’ve been asking that question, the most frequently given numbers in response to that question by professing Christian is either zero, one, or two times. In my mind, that’s probably part of the reason they’re in the soup they’re in. One of my goals is that I want my counselees to become disciplined in the systematic, organized, and meaningful reading of the Scriptures. In session one, I’m going to tell the person to read the Bible three times this week, and I’m going to tell them where to read because while all the Bible is inspired and profitable if you’re struggling with pornography, some Scripture is going to be more helpful to you than others. If you’re a woman struggling with overwhelming fear, there’s some passages that are going to be more helpful to you than others. I’m going to get them reading at least three times a week and tell them where to read. Once they get going where they’re reading the Bible three times a week, I’m going to increase it to four times a week, and later, I will increase it to five times a week. My goal is that by the time the person graduates from counseling, they’ve become disciplined in reading the Bible in a meaningful way at least five times a week. Actively use the Bible in your homework and reading assignments.
Second, I’m going to ask people to meditate on and memorize the Word of God. I want them to be able to quote a passage word perfectly. After they can quote it Word perfect. I’m going to ask them to be able to quote it word perfect with expression, so they work it into their heart and say it with meaning. Over the years, as I’ve made this a major focus of my counseling, I’ve learned a couple of things. First, a majority of people I’ve counseled have been professing Christians, and when I talk to them about the importance of memorizing the Word of God and how important memorization is in my efforts to help them long-term, they sit there and nod, and hardly anyone takes me seriously in session one, which means in session two your response is precedent-setting.
I have learned in session two that if they have not done any of the homework or all of it, but especially the Scripture memory, I make it a point to restate myself and communicate it again with a little more fervor: “This is really important. Do you want to change? Memorize the verse! That’s not all it takes to change, but it is a key part of change.” “Thy word have I hid in my heart that I might not sin against thee,” says Psalm 119:11, so I really hold people to memorization. Now, if you do what I’m suggesting you do, I will warn you to get ready for all the sorry excuses about why people can’t memorize the Bible. You know, “I’m ADD,” or “I’m bipolar,” or “I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer,” or “I never finished high school,” or “I was accepted into college on academic probation,” or “memorizing has never been my thing.” What I’ve learned is that the same guys who tell me they cannot memorize the Bible are the same guys who can tell me all kinds of facts about Nascar or the Indianapolis Colts. Memorization is not a matter of ability. It is a matter of interest. That’s why you assign Scripture, and you show how this relates to the problem that brought your counselee here. You might say to your counselee: “This is part of what’s going to bring a different future for you.”
Another way to actively use the Bible in counseling homework is in meditation assignments. The word “meditate” means “to think about,” and there are some areas where it’s very valuable for you to tell a counselee: “About four times this week, I want you to set aside ten or fifteen minutes to read this one passage,” or maybe you say, “I want you set aside twenty minutes to a half hour to read this. I want you to think about it, and then I want you to write me five to seven sentences on what you think God is saying and what you are learning from this passage.”
Let’s say you’re dealing with a proud, arrogant, and self-righteous man. Give him a meditation assignment on Matthew 7:1-5. Matthew 7:1 says, “Do not judge lest you be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. And why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” Can you see the benefit of having a proud, arrogant, and self-righteous man thinking about that passage four times a week and writing five to seven sentences about it?
Let’s say you’re dealing with a woman who is struggling with great fear and worry for the future. Have her meditate on Matthew 6, especially verses 25-34. Say to her, “I want you just thinking about that, and I want you to write about what God is teaching you. How is that passage speaking to you? Let’s say that you’re dealing with somebody who’s in sexual sin, maybe pornography. Maybe they’re committing adultery, and they’re not willing to make a clean break from it and make a hard turn toward righteousness. I’d have them meditate on Proverbs 15:3, that says, “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good.” Have the counselee write five to seven sentences on that three or four times this week. Can you see the benefit of that? Use the Bible as a meditation assignment.
Next, you can use the Bible as a research assignment. For example, if you’re dealing with an angry man, you may say to him, “You know, I want to help you take some steps forward in dealing with your anger and frustration. Let’s see if we can help you get some victory over your sinful anger. What I want you to do is to go to the book of Proverbs, which was written by the wisest man who ever lived other than Jesus Christ. He has a lot to say about the issues of life, and it’s amazing how much Solomon has to say about anger. So, this week I want you reading the book of Proverbs. Just start in chapter one. I want you to find ten verses that deal with anger. The Bible may use other words or phrases besides ‘anger.’ The passage may say ‘quick tempered’ or a ‘man of wrath’. I want you to find 10 verses, and I want you to memorize the one that’s most helpful to you. And when you come back next week, we’re going to set aside five to seven minutes in the session where you are going to teach me about anger in Proverbs.”
One more verse to remind you of why you ought to do this is Hebrews 4:12, which says, “For the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Simply put, the Bible goes where you can’t go on your best day and gets done what you can never get done. Actively use the Bible in your counseling homework.
2. It Emphasizes Biblical Knowledge and Understanding
Biblical knowledge and understanding is increasingly important in a culture and a society that is largely ignorant of biblical truth. We are in post-Christian America. With some of our counselees, we need to explain, “Okay, this is a book we call the Bible. It has two major sections. The section to the left is called the Old Testament, and the one to the right we call the New Testament.” What I’ve done with some of my counselees is to give them a Bible. Then I’ve opened it to the end of Malachi and used a highlighter to draw a yellow line right through their Bible. So, when they close their Bible, they look at this yellow line. The Old Testament is to the left of the line, and the New Testament is to the right. Explain that in the Old Testament, there are thirty-nine books, and in the New Testament, there are twenty-seven.
In some cases, we may have to tell people what chapters and verses are. It’s not that bad with everybody, but do not assume people understand the Bible the way you do. So we’re going to promote an understanding of biblical knowledge. But we also have to promote biblical understanding. For example, you can have a lot of people who’ve been in churches for years, and they know a lot of Bible facts, but they do not have Bible understanding. For example, they may have heard these biblical phrases dozens of times, and they may even use biblical terminology, that we’re to “put off the old and put on the new.” You may say to them, “What does it mean to ‘put off the old man’? What’s the ‘old man’? What does it mean to ‘put on the new’?
The point is that it’s not enough to communicate facts. One must be able to communicate the facts, but there must also be an understanding of those facts. We emphasize knowledge and understanding. Ephesians 4:23 says, “be renewed in the spirit of your mind.” That’s a key concept of biblical counseling, but what does that mean? You can have people memorize that verse, including the before and after, but what does it mean to be renewed? What in the world is the “spirit of your mind”? Think about Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
One of the things that I have found helpful is trying to identify my counselee’s learning style. I would encourage you to consider asking people, maybe in session one, how they learn. I might say to them, “The way I like to learn is with a book. Give me a good cup of coffee, and leave me alone. That’s how I like to learn. How do you like to learn?” Some people like to read; some people like to listen; some people like to read and discuss; Some people like to listen and discuss and to bat the concepts around. I’ve had some counselees that as I talk and as I illustrate a truth, they’re drawing a diagram. As much as possible, I try to tailor my teaching and my application of understanding and knowledge in a way that they can process well.
3. It Pushes the Application of Scripture to One’s Life Circumstances
Homework that maximizes change pushes the application of Scripture to one’s life circumstances. 1 John 2:6 says, “the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked.” It’s not enough that we teach biblical truth; we have to push it. If we have taught our counselee progressive sanctification, the idea that you put off the old man and put on the new as result of transformed thinking and a transformed heart, and we have explained it well, and our counselee has learned Ephesians 4:22-24 and can explain progressive sanctification pretty well, that’s still not enough. Let’s roll time back. “What brought you in here three weeks ago was that big argument you and your wife had on Thursday night. If you had known this truth then on Thursday afternoon right after dinner, what difference would knowing this truth have made in your life at that point?” In that kind of a question, we are pushing the understanding. We are pushing the application to life. We’re trying to answer the question, “So what?” What does this mean to life?
Give your counselee an assignment to write a short essay on how this applies to disciplining their child or how this Scripture relates to their fear. Ask him if he begins struggling with sexual temptation this week, and he thinks of this verse, what should his response look like as he works it out in life. You push the understanding; you push the application to life, not just in the counseling session, but in the homework, and that maximizes your effectiveness for Christ.
4. It is Specific
Homework that maximizes change is specific. Here’s a profound theological statement that I want all of you to remember: people do not change in fuzzyland; people change in specifics. One of the tendencies many of us have is to speak in “glittering generalities,” and our homework is “glittering generalities” homework. You will be more effective in helping people to change and grow if your homework is specific. For example, you never say to a husband, “Treat your wife better this week.” Glittering generality. Say to a husband, “Do three loving deeds for your wife this week over and above what you would ordinarily do. Record and be ready to report.” Specific, right?
You never say to somebody that they should read their Bible more often. Glittering generality. Say, “Read Matthew, 5, 6, and 7, at least three times this week. Record the day and time you read. Write out the most meaningful verse from each day’s reading. Be ready to discuss.” That is word for word the way I would give a homework assignment on reading the Bible. Do you notice how specific it is? You never say to somebody, “Attend church more often.” Glittering generality. You say, “Attend at least one public worship service this week or per week. Take notes on the sermon. Be ready to summarize the message for me and what God wants you to change as a result of it.” Be specific. The tendency for many of us is to be way too general, and general homework tends to lead to a kind of general, fuzzy-type change that’s really not any kind of change at all.
5. It is Carefully reviewed and Discussed in the Following Sessions
Homework that maximizes change is homework that is carefully reviewed and discussed in the following sessions. You might think about it this way: homework this week is a good agenda for next week. What I’m accustomed to doing is using homework assignment sheets on NCR paper or carbonless duplicate paper. You write on the front, and you have a copy on the back. At the top, I write the counselee’s name and the date. I write out their homework, and then I tear off the top, and I give it to them. Then I take the pink sheet, and I staple it in the upper left of my notes from the session, so that last week’s homework becomes the agenda for next week. If I gave six things to my counselee to work on last week, he can expect I’m going to talk with him about those this week. Your homework ought to be written, and you need to have an exact copy of what you gave him.
What I’ve discovered is if you give people homework in session one, it’s really important for you to say toward the end of the session, “Okay, let me explain how I think I can help you with these issues we’ve talked about. Part of the way I’m going to do that is I’m going to give you some things to work on this week that will set the stage for us next week, and we can call it homework. If you don’t like the word ‘homework,’ you can call it a ‘growth project.'” I say to people, “In my experience, the people who work the hardest on the homework, change the fastest. So if you want to change, then get busy on the homework. Start on it tonight or first thing tomorrow, but get at it, and work at it hard.” More than ever before, I’m saying to people, “This is a key part of how I’m going to help you, so I really need you to give your best effort to it.” And it’s just kind of like with the memorization, a lot of people sit there nodding, but they don’t really believe you in many cases because they’ll come back in session two, and you may have asked him to read the Bible three times. He read it twice. You may have him asked to memorize a verse; he can quote part of it if he keeps looking at his Bible to remind himself of what it says, and he doesn’t do it very well.
What I’ve learned is what I do in session two is precedent-setting. How you respond to them not doing the homework really sets the stage for what’s going to happen in the future. I have learned that a failure to do homework becomes the subject of counseling. It’s a statement I’d encourage you to remember. What I mean by that is, in session two, let’s say I’m talking to a couple named Roger and Theresa. I’d say, “Roger, Theresa, last week when we got together toward the end of the session, I thought I explained that homework is a key part of my strategy for helping you with the things we talked about. Wasn’t that you guys I talked to about that? Yeah, I thought so. And I thought I was really clear when I explained how important it is, and we went over what I was asking you to do, and at the end of that, I asked you, ‘Is this clear?’ I thought you guys said ‘Yes!’ Wasn’t it you that said ‘Yes!’ Okay. And at the end, I asked you, ‘Is this doable this week?’ And both of you said, ‘Yes.’ I looked at you, Roger, and I said, ‘Roger, is this doable for you?’ And I looked at you, Theresa, and I said, ‘Is this doable for you?’ Wasn’t that you guys that I said that to? Yeah. Okay. So, you understood how important it was to me, and you understood the assignments, and you both agreed you were going to do it. Why are we here today, and only about 50% of it’s done? Help me understand what happened from the time you walked out of the room last week until you sat down today. Why didn’t it get done?”
Sometimes that turns out to be very fruitful data-gathering because some people have lives that are far more chaotic and unorganized than they revealed in the first session. Some people can’t even keep track of the homework sheet for a week; their life is such chaos. But with other people, you discover that they’ve never been in biblical counseling before. They’ve always gone to a counselor where they just come and talk, and they walk out feeling better. They’re thinking, What’s this homework stuff? It’s new to them. With other people, though, as you listen, you learn that the reason she got her homework done is that she wants to change. The reason his homework isn’t done is that he is busy at work. You start getting an idea about their priorities.
The point is that the failure to do homework becomes the subject of counseling. It’s fruitful data gathering. It sets you up to explain that this is not the magic hour of the week. People don’t change in here. The real change takes place when they take what we’ve learned from the Scriptures, and they leave and try to discipline themselves to put it into practice. That’s what the homework’s designed to do. This failure gives you an opportunity to exhort them again and restate the importance of taking what they’re learning and applying it to their lives.
In session three, if they come back, and they haven’t done it, or they haven’t done it well, I do the same thing. The heat goes up a little bit in session three. I’m just convinced these things are very important. If they’re not doing their homework well by session four, in most cases, it will get uncomfortable in that session. Out of my love for them, it is going to get lovingly warm in the session if they didn’t do their homework. If you give people homework, and then you don’t check on it, they’ll observe that, and they’ll quit doing it. Why should they do it if you’re not going to pay attention to it?
6. It Encourages Six Key Spiritual Disciplines
Homework that maximizes change encourages key spiritual disciplines. Here’s a statement I’d like you to ponder and think about: When it comes to homework, begin with the end in mind. Have you ever stopped to consider what you want your counselees to be like when you graduate them? Some years ago, there was a period of time where a couple of things were happening in my life that prompted some very serious evaluation of my counseling procedures. Part of what was happening was that I had an opportunity in my travels for my previous job at the counseling center in Lafayette, Indiana, to come across several of my previous counselees. They were living for Christ; they were leaders in their church, involved in ministry and making an impact for Christ, and they’re just going on for Jesus the way we want all of our counselees to do. But at the same time, I also came across some of my former counselees or heard about them, and I learned that after I graduated them, six weeks or six months later, they made this big U-turn and went back to their old ways. It was disconcerting to me that some people that I had spent a lot of time with had made a shipwreck of their lives. Why is it that some people go on for Christ after I graduate them? Why is it that some people make a U-turn and go back to their old ways?
As I reviewed some files and tried to discern with God’s help what I could do better that would contribute to a higher percentage of people going on for Christ long-term after graduation, I concluded that the common denominator among the people who seemed to go on for Christ after graduation was that I had been more successful in helping them to develop some spiritual disciplines that would carry them forward more successfully. That prompted me to become much more focused when it comes to homework. I am like a laser on six key areas. Later, when you’re pursuing certification, and you ask me to be your supervisor, I will send you a couple of CDs where I’m teaching on homework, including this session. There are six things I put into my homework that I encourage you to put into homework, and I tell the people I supervise that they better have those six in the homework that they give their counselees because when I review their report, I’m going to ask about that.
Let me use this illustration. Let’s say a guy in his late 30s comes to you for counseling. He has called and insists he needs to see you as quickly as possible. He comes in, and the story that comes out is that you’ve known him in your church for a period of time. He and his wife are assistant Sunday school teachers. They have three kids who seem to be doing pretty well. He’s apparently pretty successful in his business. They look like a family that’s got it together, but when he comes in to talk to you privately, the story that comes out is that three days ago, in the middle of the night, his wife caught him viewing pornography at a computer downstairs. There was a huge argument. She feels terribly betrayed. He’s been sleeping on the couch ever since then, and there’s tremendous tension in the home. She’s threatening divorce and demanding that he see a counselor immediately. His world is starting to cave in around him. For illustration purposes, we’ll say that you’re going to end up having 13 sessions with him, and then you’re graduating him. Here’s the question: What do you want him to be like on graduation day? What do you want to see in his life that’s going to make you think this is a good time for graduation? What do you want to see in his life that will make you think God has used you to help this brother get to a far better place in life?
When it comes to your homework, begin with the end in mind; aim toward that. I can tell you what I want my counselees to look like on graduation day, whether the issue that brings them in is pornography, husband-wife issues, parent-child issues, anger, fear, or depression. Whatever the issue is that brings them in, I can tell you what I want them to look like on graduation day because I’m going to use those issues as a springboard to help develop six key disciplines in their life that I think will carry them on for Christ after graduation.
What are those key disciplines? First of all, there’s going to be a systemic Scripture reading. I’ve learned to ask people how many times they read the Bible last week and how many times they read the Bible the week before that. Most of the people who come in for counseling are not reading the Bible nearly as much as I think they ought to. My goal is that when I graduate anybody from counseling, regardless of the issue that brought them in, he has become disciplined and is reading the Bible in a systematic, meaningful way at least five times a week. And I’m going to take steps to get him to that point.
Secondly, I’m going to encourage the discipline of meaningful Scripture memory. In session one with this guy, I’m going to assign him a Scripture, and with the scenario that I just gave you, I probably would have him start memorizing I Thessalonians 4:1-8. I might have him start with verses 3-8, but I’m going to have him memorize that whole passage and be able to quote it word perfectly with expression. Typically, on graduation day, if you’re one of the trainees sitting in on the session, you would observe that I always make it a custom to review all the Scripture that I have assigned a counselee, and I’ve been doing that throughout our sessions. It’s not just at the end, but there will be “The Grand Review” on graduation day, and if I’ve been working with this guy, you will hear him quote the word perfect with expression somewhere between thirteen and twenty verses of Scripture. By the time he graduates, he’ll know he can memorize the Bible. Why? Because “Thy word have I hid in my heart that I might not sin against thee.” With some people, you have to teach them how to do it. I teach them the three-by-five card system that I use, and I teach them how to memorize. They will know how to memorize the Bible and will have memorized many meaningful passages by the time they graduate.
Thirdly, right from the first session, I aim to introduce pertinent theological reading. We are blessed with an abundance of wonderful, theologically accurate, well-written, well-illustrated, and practical exposition of the Scripture we can use in counseling. Part of my goal is that my counselee will develop an appetite for reading literature that explains the Bible and how to put it into practice. If I’m working with a guy who’s been enslaved to pornography over the years, part of my goal is for him to become so familiar with reading good, sound, theological literature that his love for that kind of literature will trump his interest for reading Sports Illustrated or the newspaper. I’m going to introduce him to some of that, and he’ll be reading that. Part of my goal is to help counselees develop an appetite and an understanding for reading theological literature.
Fourthly, part of homework that maximizes change and what should be in homework is loving, doing, and serving others. One of my primary trainers in biblical counseling was Pastor Bill Goode. He was known for urging all of us to get our counselees serving. He would quote that verse from Mark where Christ said, “I did not come to be served, but to serve and to give my life a ransom for many.” Bill would point out to us that one of the major problems with many of our counselees is that they are self-centered. He said that you’ve got to get people serving because the more they become a servant, the more they become like Christ. Right from the beginning, I’m going to give assignments on showing loving deeds and loving actions toward somebody else. If it’s with this man I’m using as an illustration, he’s got to do loving deeds for his wife. That dear woman needs hope right now, and he’s got to do at least three loving deeds this week over and above what he’d ordinarily do, keep a log, and be ready to report.
Fifthly, there needs to be church attendance and note-taking, and it’s not enough that they bring me a bulletin to prove they were at the service. I want them to take notes. With some people, you have to teach them how to listen to a message. I tell them that I want a one to three-sentence summary: What was the point of the message? And hopefully, they’re attending a service where those of us who are preaching make it pretty easy for them to get that; we’re clear enough. Then I want him to tell me how God wants to use that new spiritual knowledge in his life, to either inform his behavior, motivate him to do something or to help him in making a decision.
Finally, the last key discipline is fervent, focused prayer. I’ll assign this gentleman this week to set aside ten minutes on three different occasions where for a minimum of ten minutes he prays fervently that God would help him to hunger and thirst for righteousness. Pray not just for himself, but also for his wife, and I think he ought to pray that God would give her hope for the future. And I would ask him to pray for me, for God to give me wisdom in how to minister to and help him in the future. Once he gets in the habit of doing that three times a week, I will bump it up to four times a week, and then later, I’ll have him praying five times a week. Do you think from our standpoint as a counselor that we’ve done what we can do to prepare the person to go on for Christ afterward, regardless of what brought them in?
7. Biblical Resources in the Counseling Room
Another characteristic of counseling homework that maximizes change is that it uses various resources that explain Scripture and how to put biblical principles into practice, and we’re blessed in our day and time with wonderful literature. Let me show you some that I keep in my counseling toolbox all the time. I use these pamphlets by Jay Adams regularly. The “What to do When” series is very inexpensive. Typically, these are the first theological reading homework assignments I give a counselee. I found that they’re short enough that people have no excuse for not reading them. These are brief, but the gospel is presented in each of them. I use them with both Christians and non-believers.
Here’s another: “Christ and Your Problems” is an exposition of I Corinthians 10:13, “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man…” That’s a great booklet by Jay Adams for giving people hope and a great Scripture for Christians to memorize, particularly those who are saying they just can’t take it anymore or that they can’t help it.
There is also “Godliness Through Discipline,” an exposition of I Timothy 4:7-8, “Have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women. On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.” A very helpful booklet by Jay Adams.
Another one that has been meaningful to me is “How to Handle Trouble” by Jay Adams. This is an exposition of Philippians 1:12-26. This is where Paul was in prison when he wanted to be out preaching and teaching the scripture. I would encourage you to get that book. When I use it with counselees, I have them memorize the six-point outline on page fifty-four, which summarizes this passage of Scripture, and it is just wonderfully helpful. Then I ask them to use that outline to explain to me what happened to Christianity’s number one preacher. He wants to be out preaching, and instead, he’s in the slammer. After they’ve done that, I say, “Okay, here’s the outline. Your circumstance is that your husband has left you. Use that outline to explain your circumstances.” You’re teaching people to interpret life through the lens of Scripture, and it’s just wonderfully powerful.
The next one, “How to Overcome Evil,” is an exposition of Romans 12:14-21. You notice how often I’m using the word “exposition”; exposition explains the Bible. This book, another by Adams, is very helpful for anybody who’s being sinned against.
Another one that I find helpful is “From Pride to Humility” by Stuart Scott, a tremendous resource. Pride, arrogance, and self-righteousness are common problems with many of our counselees, and if you haven’t read it, I encourage you to do it, but I’ll give you a warning, it’ll tear you up.
The next book is on right communication. “Communication and Conflict Resolution” by Stuart Scott is a very helpful, short booklet.
The book I use the most in marital and premarital counseling is this one: Strengthening Your Marriage by Wayne Mack. I love the order of the topics, and I like that it’s written in a detailed outline. There are questions and blanks for people to fill in at the end. When I’m doing couple counseling, I have both the husband and wife buy a copy of that book.
I also recommend Biblical Principles of Sex by Dr. Robert Smith. I think this is the best short, precise exposition of the Scriptures on sexuality. It’s a very helpful book.
I like Gospel Treason by Brad Bigney, who is a tremendous communicator of the Scriptures. The neat thing about this one is that you can go on Brad’s website, and you can listen to the sermon series. If you’ve heard him, you know he’s a fabulous communicator and preacher, and teacher of the Scriptures. It’s a wonderful series.
One of the newer books by Stuart Scott, Killing Sin Habits: Conquering Sin with Radical Faith, is a very helpful book.
When I’m dealing with people struggling with sexual sin, I typically use one of Heath Lambert’s books. Finally Free has been very helpful and widely used by our counselors.
The book I was using the most prior to that is a book I still use called The Way of Purity by Mike Cleveland. It’s a 60-day devotional. I would especially encourage all of the men counselors to read and use this book because you’re probably going to be doing more counseling with men involved in pornography than the ladies would with females and pornography. It’s a sixty-day devotional, and it is obvious as you work your way through that book that this guy was discipled by a biblical counselor. It is an excellent resource.
Another resource for you as a counselor on homework is this two-volume series, “A Homework Manual for Biblical Living” by Wayne Mack. The first volume features personal and interpersonal problems, and the second volume features family and marital problems. These books are very moderately priced, and they are gold mines.
8. It is Thoughtfully Considered and Tentatively Prepared
The final characteristic of homework that maximizes change is that it is thoughtfully considered and tentatively prepared prior to the counseling session. In other words, I would urge you to go into your counseling session with a prepared agenda, thinking Okay. Here’s what I am intending to do. And if the session goes the way I think it might, here’s what I think I might give as homework. Do you notice all the “mights”? This plan is tentative. But at least you are thinking about it ahead of time.
One of the things I have discovered is that some of the people I’ve supervised spend way too little time in preparation. They don’t prepare an agenda, and they don’t prepare tentative homework. We ought to be thinking ahead of time. Okay. Now, if we zig, this is what I’m going to give her for homework. If we zag, this is what I’m gonna give for homework. It’s thoughtfully considered and tentatively prepared prior to each session. If the teaching on homework has been helpful to you. I would point you to these two major texts that have a tremendous section in them on how to use homework. Instruments in the Redeemers’ Hands by Paul Tripp has a tremendous section on putting what’s taught in the session into practice, and then The Christian Counselor’s Manual by Jay Adams also has a tremendous section. And if you haven’t read those in the last few years, I’d encourage you to pull them out and review them. They are excellent and very helpful.