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Counseling a Lying Counselee

Truth in Love 454

How do we counsel a counselee who is not telling the truth?

Feb 26, 2024

Dale Johnson: This week on the podcast, I’m delighted to have with me Pastor Josh Greiner. He’s originally from Indiana; he went to Purdue University, where he received his B.A. in Political Science. During his time at Purdue, he received biblical counseling from Faith Church in Lafayette, Indiana, and he was introduced to the biblical counseling movement after graduating from Purdue one of the pastors on staff encouraged him to consider going to into ministry eventually he enrolled in Faith Bible Seminary where he received his M.Div. While at Faith, he met wife Shanna and they have four children. After spending ten years on staff at Faith, Josh now serves as a lead pastor of Berean Baptist in Portage, Michigan. He was certified in 2009 with ACBC, serves as a fellow with ACBC, and teaches in the MABC program at Faith Bible Seminary. Josh, welcome to the podcast.

Josh Greiner: Thank you, Dr. Johnson. It’s great to be with you here today.

Dale Johnson: Yeah, man, I’m looking forward to this discussion. This is one where it’s a little bit awkward when you’re dealing with a counselee who either is not telling the full truth or you start to speculate that they’re telling lies and I have students all the time who ask me, “Dr. Johnson, what do I do in moments like that? Do I just pause and start asking questions?” So, I’m looking forward to seeing how we’re going to deal with this today. I’m going to start in this particular place: what are some of the common reasons or desires that you think lead people to lie or not tell the truth in a counseling session?

Josh Greiner: I think you’ve recognized from the questions that you get from your students and even in our own hearts that we are all tempted at certain times to lie. Biblical counseling is about roots and fruits. So we want to find out what is the desire? What are the reasons that people are choosing to lie to us and others in the counseling process? I’m going to identify at least three reasons, but I think we all know that in biblical counseling, the desires could be far more and many than we list here. But at least some common ones that I’ve seen coalesce in the counseling room are these.

Number one, just a desire to protect themselves and how they look to those that they love and those that they want to love them. There’s just a desire for protection. I think that we all get that at some level, that we see that when we tell the truth, there is a belief, there’s a thought that when we’re honest, that some bad consequences might be coming our way and we’re not really wanting those consequences. I think that we can see there’s a genuine desire for people to protect themselves. There’s also, if we’re just honest with ourselves, an aspect of praise of man, and we all wrestle with in our lives and so that when we’re tempted in the counseling room or elsewhere, there’s a temptation to the praise of man. So often, when you’re dealing with someone who’s a liar, I think you will find a strong indication that the praise of man is present in their life. I think that’s, in one way, really helpful because it shows us that these first two desires, they’re not unique or strange. They are issues that we deal with all of the time in the counseling room. A desire for protection, a desire for the praise of man. Neither of these things are inherently bad on themselves at face value. It’s when they take that wrong place.

I think the last one that we could identify, but surely, again, there’s going to be more, is a desire for ease, for comfort. Many times when we’re dealing with the counselee, they’ve done something wrong and telling the truth, bringing it out is going to cause problems, challenges, consequences in their life and to be honest, they don’t want those things. By lying, they’ve believed the lie from Satan, from their own flesh, that covering it up is going to be easier, is going to bring a path of ease that they desire. We all know, the counselee knows, that eventually that’s not going to be true. But in the moment, that’s how sin works, this desire for ease overcomes any of the other desires that they have. I think if you’re counseling a liar and you detect other things that are in their heart, other desires that aren’t those, that wouldn’t be surprising, but we know that that’s how biblical counseling works, we know that’s how the heart works. There are some common ones, but then there are other ones that are just different.

Dale Johnson: Josh, I appreciate this. First of all, you recognize the propensity of all of us as human beings to want to protect ourselves. When we start drilling down a little bit on particular issues, it’s easier to believe something that’s not true rather than deal with the reality of the truth that as the light is shined upon our hearts and we start recognizing some of the things that are in there, it’s easier to just believe something that’s not true about it.

As counselors, this is often very hard to know, “How do we deal with something like this?” In part, because we were taught and rightfully so, that we want to take what the counselee says at face value, we want to believe what the counselee says, we want to trust what they’re saying and try to move forward with the information that they’re revealing. After all, they’re coming to counseling because they say that they want help and so this is the balancing act. How do we maintain, without being overly speculative or scrutinizing everything that they say, how do we trust what they say or have a posture in that direction, but then we recognize maybe there are some not full truths that are being disclosed, maybe they are hiding some things or maybe they are lying about particulars. What should we do if we think a counselee is lying?

Josh Greiner: Let me share at least a little bit of my story and then lay out at least what I think are some practical steps. You mentioned in my bio that I went through counseling and I went to Purdue University. It was a Big Ten University and when I was there for my first two years, I lived like Big Ten University students live. We’ll just leave it at that for now. Eventually, I found my way into counseling, and I was receiving counseling, and they had trainees in the room. So, it’s hard enough to receive counseling already, and then they have a bunch of other people that I’ve never seen before, and he is asking all of these incredibly revealing questions. I’m embarrassed, I’m ashamed already and then you got new people. So I’m tempted to lie, but I decided in that moment I was going to tell the truth. Well, one of my buddies who also came to counseling, not with me. He decided to go, but he decided to lie the whole time. We had the same counselor. There was a bit of overlap in the counseling because we were both coming from kind of the same issues, but he decided to lie the whole time. What that counselor did in treating him, he didn’t take the information I was giving him and saying, “I know you’re lying because I’m counseling Josh and Josh is telling me the truth of what you guys are up to.” What he did is he followed these steps. Eventually, not right away, but eventually, that broke the ice in his heart, and it led to him coming to repentance. So he was in the counseling room, he was lying and the counselor knew he was lying, but he didn’t use information wrongly. So I’ll walk you through what he did and I think it was a master-craft in counseling.

Number one, he asked a lot of questions. I think in biblical counseling we know we have to gather relevant data, but we as counselors need to assume that we have the facts wrong. If we think that something is going wrong where our counselee is lying to us, then I think we should begin with our own hearts and say, “Am I asking the right questions? Am I asking him the right way? Where have I left room for there to be a misunderstanding that’s on me?” We’re looking at ourselves first and foremost. I would just remember that that’s a skill as I do counseling training and supervision. What I’ve gathered is asking really good questions at the right time is hard. You don’t want to sound like a police officer, and you want to sound like somebody who cares for them and you want to be someone who cares for them. Asking really good questions, asking lots of questions, but not coming off as a police officer or as one of my mentors once told me, “You’re not the junior Holy Spirit. Your job is not to try to bring conviction in this man’s life.”

You mentioned number two in your kind of transition there that we have to believe the best. I believe that we volitionally have to do that. It is an act of our will that we choose to, at times, we will believe the best even when in our own interpretation, our own understanding of the situation, we don’t see things lining up. We’re not a courtroom lawyer where we’re trying to prove anything. I think you nailed it in your transition. Volitionally, I have to posture myself to believe the best.

Number three, we need to show them love. We need to remember that even if we’re dealing with somebody who’s lying to us, a lot of times, we take that as a personal affront, and we feel hurt and offended by that. The right response in the moment when someone’s treating us, at least the way we would interpret it that way as unloving, is we need to show them love, right? Reminding ourselves of passages like Romans 12:21. Show them love in that moment. When you begin to love someone who’s lying to you over and over, what I think we see from passages like Romans 12:21, your heaping those burning coals and the Spirit can then do His job.

Now after that, one of the things I have found most helpful is when I see discrepancies, when I see areas that I think that they may not be forthcoming with all of the truth, they may be misdirecting me. Often people don’t outright lie, they deceive, they leave pieces out. I’ll just usually ask them to write out answers to the questions and that allows me time to process the information better, it allows them sometimes an opportunity for better and more robust communication. They can often submit those answers to us for the next meeting, especially when it involves things like conflict or other kind of challenging things that require us to ask really good questions. Having them write it out becomes an opportunity for when you are going to eventually do that next step of confrontation. You can point to “Well, here’s what you wrote here, and here’s what you wrote there. Help me understand,” again, through asking some of those questions, “Help me understand how do we have these two discrepancies?” I’ve found having them write out their narratives and write out some of the answers to the questions can just be really helpful. I do believe at some point you have just to ask very direct questions. Not making accusations, I don’t think that’s the most helpful way to go about talking to someone you think is lying. But very forward, “Help me understand how is this true and this true?” That’s kind of what some people would call confrontation, I think it’s better to go asking questions.

Then six, pray for them. I mentioned loving earlier, but I think this is a response for us as counselors. We need to pray for our people to do it regularly, and it’s so easy. I’ll be the first to admit it: when someone’s lying to me, I’m not ready right away to pray for them. Love them that way, to bring them before my Heavenly Father and say, “I think this guy is lying to me. Father, would You, first of all, be with me in my own heart and then would You be moving in them?” And then lastly, I would say be patient. I told that introduction story about the guy who was lying. It took about ten to twelve weeks. I don’t remember exactly it’s been a while. That guy was lying to the counselor over and over. He patiently loved him, patiently prayed for him. Then one day, he just came in and he’s like, “I got to be honest, I’ve been lying about everything. But the way that you have treated me, that means I want to be here.” Now, there might be more steps, and there might be some other ones that we’d add in there, but having seen that in my own life, in the life of others, and using it in my own ministry, I think that’s been a helpful process.

Dale Johnson: Josh that’s really helpful. As I think through some of the things that you said, they’re really critical. Those moments can go one of two ways. The counselee can totally retract, maybe they start to distrust the counselor, or they decide within themselves, “This is not worth it, I’m going to do something else.” So, they could totally dismiss the whole counseling process and say, “This just isn’t for me. It didn’t work or whatever.” Those are devastating and difficult scenarios. A question for us is: how do we deal with the counselee when they confess? When they bring this before us and they say like your friend did, “Man, I’ve been lying. The Lord has convicted me of this. The Lord has used you to reveal some of this by His work in me and the word and the work of the Holy Spirit. What do we do in that moment when a counselee comes to us and confesses: “I’ve been lying.”

Josh Greiner: Yeah, I mean, I think we’re all going to experience these dynamics. We’ve all been lied to in counseling and we have to do something in that moment when we see that they’re coming forward. Let me at least throw down four things that I think are helpful in those moments.

Number one, help them work at something better. We’ve got to go back to the question of desires. What were they wanting? What they weren’t wanting was to please Christ no matter what, in any situation. So help them worship. That has to be really specific, right? If they’re worshiping ease, I think you can’t just say, “Well worship Jesus. Can we move on?” As counselors, we have to specifically go after specific lies that they believe and then get specific truth with specific steps and specific desire changes. Help them worship something better. So, for example, if there’s a strong desire to look good in people’s eyes, that “praise of man,” I’m going to help them walk down the path of humility. The late Tim Keller said it’s impossible to humiliate the humble. So, I’m going to help them see over and over again, if you’re struggling with humiliation as we deal with this, that helps us see we still have pride in your heart.

Number two, I’m going to remind them of their practical identity in Christ, and those moments when we’ve sinned, Satan’s right there, he’s ready to accuse us. Revelation 12 reminds us he’s there to accuse us day and night. So, who are you in Christ? Yes, you’ve failed. Yes, you’ve lied. But who are you in Christ? You’re a child. You’re redeemed. You’re forgiven if you confess. Remind them who they are, taking them to those very specific passages.

But also, I would encourage step 3. We’ve got to get a clear and honest confession, we’ve got to set the record straight. So just saying, “Look, I’ve been lying to you.” “Okay. Thanks.” You’ve been lying. Okay, let’s do this the way God would want us to. Let’s say the same thing that God has been saying. You’ve been saying something else. So why don’t you take some time and write out very specifically how you have lied to me? How have you lied to others? How have you lied to God? Let’s get it very specific. Where did you do that? And then go to them and ask for forgiveness, telling them of your plan of repentance. Not just apologize and declare, “I’ve lied to you. What are we going to do about that?”

Lastly, where I think biblical counseling just really comes to roost on issues like this, is: what is going to be your plan? How will you, in the moments of temptation, how will you choose righteousness? So, let’s get some very specific steps that when those lies come back, when those wrong desires are present, when you’re considering telling a lie, let’s come up with a very clear plan, step by step. Here’s what we’re going to do. Here’s the people we’re going to talk to. Here’s where we’re going in the Scriptures. Let’s make sure we’ve got a very robust plan that the counselor has, the counselee has, and any advocates have. We want to make sure that we don’t just leave them high and dry. What will you do? Because it’s probably going to happen again. What are you going to do next time?

Dale Johnson: Josh, I love this discussion, you’ve taught us several things today that I think are critical, and top on the list is, “How do we break this cycle in a counselee?” Who knows what the rest of their life could look like because the Lord has used this moment to make them speak the truth and maybe they can learn then to see that fruit arise within them. A couple of things you’ve taught us about ourselves as counselors that I think are really helpful is to approach situations with humility but also with boldness. Humility in saying, “You know what, I’m not perfect, I may be understanding this wrongfully in the way we ask questions.” But then also not being afraid to ask these types of questions, because that may be the very thing that the Spirit uses to spark confession within this person. Josh, really helpful to think through these issues, these are certainly very raw real issues that we face in the counseling room and appreciate you helping us think through it biblically.

Josh Greiner: Great to be with you, Dale.

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