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Counseling the Immature

Truth in Love 445

How does immaturity factor into our counseling?

Dec 18, 2023

Dale Johnson: This week on the podcast I have with me Dr. Daniel Schubert. He’s a graduate with a Doctorate of Ministry and Biblical Counseling from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and he has a Master of Divinity Degree from the Masters Seminary. He currently serves as the counseling pastor at Countryside Bible Church in South Lake, Texas. Prior to serving at Countryside, he served at the Masters University as a graduate teaching fellow in the MABC program. In addition to his work at the University, Daniel served in the counseling department at Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California. He and his wife Heidi have two daughters and a son, Annabelle, Elliott, and Ruth. Daniel, so good to have you on the podcast today.  

Daniel Schubert: Yeah. It’s great to be with you.  

Dale Johnson: Now, we’re going to talk about this issue of immaturity. I think this is a really critical piece because we need to discern these types of things. One of the things I talk to my intro students about as I teach there in Kansas City is when a person comes into the office and we’re sitting down to do an intake with the person, we want to discern that our counsel will take different routes if this person is an unbeliever, if this person is immature, or if this person is mature—and yes mature people have problems, that’s true. But if this person is immature, that’s significant because now we know a little bit more about how we’re going to approach this person. I want you to help us to consider some of the different challenges that we face in the counseling room and how we identify when we are counseling someone who is immature.  

Daniel Schubert: Yeah, of course as we think about maturity, it’s helpful to think about the two-part nature of man, both the physical and the spiritual; there could be immaturities in either part. As I think about spiritual immaturity, I define it as any want or lack of conformity to the image or likeness of Jesus, and so as we think about His kindness, His patience, His mercy, compassion, humility, wisdom. Any lack, to whatever degree it is, we would be spiritually immature. We can also look at the physical or, you could say, developmentally immature. And the way we might define that is any want or lack of conformity to adult societal norms in relation to cognitive, emotional, or social abilities. And of course, we could also compare kids and how they develop over time as well as compared to their peers. But this most often is seen in children as they’re younger; they need time to develop and mature.  

In Ephesians 4:14-15 we can see this spoken of both these realities. Paul mentions there in verse 14 chapter 4; he says as a result, we are no longer to be children. So likely the “we” is speaking to adults in the congregation and referring to “children,” the spiritually immature. He said we’re no longer to be children tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of Doctrine, by the trickery of men and craftiness in deceitful scheming, but speaking the truth in love we are to grow up, or we could say mature, in all aspects into Him who is the head, into Christ. To answer the question even more directly: How do we identify when we are counseling someone who’s immature? We consider these definitions. When we are counseling the immature, we typically think about somebody that has increased challenges or difficulties that they bring into the counseling situation because of their immaturity that we’ve just mentioned.  

Dale Johnson: Yeah, and they’re lacking several things, potentially, from a spiritual standpoint. When we think about those who are mature, as you mentioned in Ephesians 4, we’re measuring them according to the standard of Christ. The writer of Hebrews describes maturity this way: “But solid food is for the mature for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish”—and this is really important—“that which is good and that which is evil.” That’s Hebrews 5:14. We have a definition of what it means to be mature, so you can even start to imagine what you’re going to experience in the counseling room with someone who’s not mature. They struggle in their discernment. They struggle in defining good from God’s perspective and in defining evil from God’s perspective. They might have a cultural perspective on what is good and evil, and we need to help them. So, I want you to tell me some of the challenges that we will see, maybe in an increased way, or difficulties that you faced when in the counseling room helping those who are immature.  

Daniel Schubert: Yeah, some of the more common ones, I think, would be a lack of discipline or diligence in completing homework. That’s a pretty common one. So much could be said about that but you know, they maybe even in general in their life just don’t have disciplines going, and that can make things much more difficult. I think a lack of basic Bible knowledge. You ask someone to turn to the Book of John and they turn to the concordance. So you know that you can’t use certain words and that you may have to check with them to make sure that they’re understanding certain concepts. Another common one can be finger-pointing instead of personal responsibility when dealing with conflict, it’s your fault, you’ve done this, you’ve done that it, when there is a responsibility on both sides. So that can make things much more difficult for people to be able to see and address issues. Another common one is counselees arguing in counseling rooms, having to break that up. You can know, too, that whatever is going on at home is typically worse than that. 

But maybe some less common ones would be counselees talking over you or trying to lead the session. They’re coming to you for help, but for some reason, they want to still fix the issues that are going on in their lives. Someone getting up and walking out of a session or are threatening to. I’ve had people walk halfway out and argue. Or making false accusations about you, another person, or another counselor. It can be incredibly difficult. One that I’ve had, too, is a very specific: a spouse taking the other spouse’s homework, finding the answers, crossing out the answers they didn’t like, and writing in their own answers that they thought they should have answered. So things like that, just the big picture, are some of the immaturities that can make counseling much more difficult.  

Dale Johnson: Yeah, and it definitely adds to add to the complexity and, as you mentioned, to the difficulty. When we think about immaturity, you know, it could be because of sinful neglect. It could be because of ignorance that you mentioned in the Scripture. It could be because of passions and desires that are stronger in their heart and minds at this moment than a desire to pursue the Lord. You mentioned the lack of discipline in reading and prayer and that sort of thing.

But let’s take a look at the big picture as we think about those who are immature. As we come alongside those who are immature and provide counsel, what are some of the key considerations that we should seek to help them in? 

Daniel Schubert: I think as counselors one of the biggest things that we should consider as an encouragement is in 1 Thessalonians 5:14 where it says be patient with everyone. And of course, that’s not just talking about people who are easy to work with; it’s talking about everyone, even the difficult to work with. So just being patient, I think, can go a long way. Love is patient. So as we even prepare our help to come alongside and help them and serve them, we have to be willing to come down to where they’re at currently and be willing to serve them in that place. And so patience, I think, is really key.

On our side of things, a servant’s heart; if you’re going to be patient, you also have to have a servant’s heart to go that extra mile with them, ultimately. Jesus said in Mark 10:45, “Even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” And that can be really hard since the immature things that counselees do can be challenging not to take personally. It has a drag on our time or maybe the difficulty. They say, “Oh gosh, if they weren’t doing this it wouldn’t be nearly as complicated or hard or difficult.” Like the illustration I gave with the counselee’s homework, it can be hard, but we have to have a servant’s heart to say, “You know what? This is where they’re at. Lord help me to serve and to care for them where they are.”

I think lastly, too, just like what you mentioned in terms of discernment, we have to provide wise and helpful teaching. Romans 2:20 says, speaking of Jews in that context, they were teachers of the immature. Or going back to Ephesians 4:15, that we are to speak the truth in love to people so they can grow up into all aspects, even him, like Christ’s likeness. So you look at these two passages; the immature need to be taught truth. And so we need to approach that with patience, a love for them, a servant’s heart for them. And so, it may go without saying, teach them. But it’s so foundational that I think it’s important just to be reminded of. So often when there’s immaturity, that immaturity significantly complicates counseling, and we can feel discouraged or maybe like there’s no fix or out in some of these difficult issues. Counselees who aren’t doing their homework or making things much more difficult. But all it really means, instead of being discouraged by it, is that we have another issue that needs to be spoken into in a loving, caring, servant-hearted manner. And so, we need to look for how the Bible addresses those issues that they face, that we face in the counseling room so that we can address those areas of immaturity.  

Dale Johnson: Yeah, and that’s helpful and to be honest. We all at some point were immature and struggled with immaturity, and that shouldn’t ever be very far from our mind, being patient and learning to be patient with those who are sitting in front of us. Now as we look at Scripture, of course, the Bible, Paul in the New Testament especially, uses this metaphor of growing, being an infant as we come to faith, and then growing up to maturity to become a spiritual man and a spiritual adult as we grow. So, as we look at Scripture, what are some of the other lessons that we learn practically as we minister to those who are immature?  

Daniel Schubert: Yeah, I think as we look at growing in Christlikeness, we could look at the whole Scripture of course. I think one letter in particular that’s helpful is 1 Corinthians. We could look at that in some ways as a case study to counseling and coming alongside the immature. And so, we need to address, as Paul does in his letter, very specific concerns and needs in each person’s life. And so you look at the very beginning of that letter; there were factions, there were divisions. So Paul walks through as they say “I’m of Paul,” “I’m of Cephas,” in chapters two and three and four, he helps them to think rightly about God’s servants. He addresses those immaturities in their thinking and their discernment by walking through very specific realities that speak to those immaturities.

I think that’s really important as we address people. That person that I mentioned with the spouse’s homework; you know, there’s a lot of passages we could probably go to, but Matthew 7 is a big one. I think verses 2-5 just helping them understand the priority and to focus on their contribution first if they’re not going to look at how they’re contributing. Just that simple fact of taking the homework and scribbling out the answers. I mean, I looked at the spouse’s face when they handed me the homework to show me what their spouse did, and I thought they were just discouraged by that. So it’s provocative the very least them doing something like that. And so walk him through that passage or 1 Corinthians 13 to help them understand that very specifically is going to help.

But I think some general lessons that we learn as well too, is that Paul did not shy away from confronting sin. And so you look at verse 10, he mentioned specifically the Corinthian sin that there were divisions. And then in verse 3 of chapter 3, he also confronts their fleshliness because there was strife among them; that was a direct confrontation. He wasn’t going to shy away from telling them the truth lovingly while also providing answers and help in the surrounding context. Some of that help, I believe, he provided in the first chapter by encouraging humility. I think that was a huge one that he accomplished. And so you look at verse 4 and the specific way he did that was by pointing them to the gospel. And so he mentions the gospel of Christ in verse 4 and verse 17 in chapter 1, speaking specifically about that, then walks through how not many were wise, not many were noble, speaking about their calling. In verse 30, he talks about it’s by His doing that you’re in Christ Jesus, and so no Corinthian was going to read that and say, “Wow. Yeah, I just need to think really highly of myself,” but he’s going to have his mind directed towards Christ to what he’s done for them. So I think just ministering the gospel is an important aspect of encouraging humility.

Oftentimes in my counseling, or I’d say almost always when I counsel, we do testimony. We understand that they are believers as best as we can discern, but also in the second session, or kind of around there, we will walk through the gospel. The gospel is not just for Christians. It’s not just for people to be justified. But it’s also an encouragement towards maturity in our lives, to have our minds focused on Christ, and to be humbled, and to live for Him. I think Paul does that by going over the gospel and also by encouraging love. In Chapter 13 I think that we all know that famous chapter, but the context again is the immaturity of the Corinthian Church. And so he wanted to help them in verses 1-3 to see the centrality and the importance of love. Without it everything is worthless. And then he walks through in verses 4-7, talking about what love is and what love isn’t. All this to say, so often immature people are self-centered and therefore need good teaching on humility and love to help them to love God and to love other people. 

Dale Johnson: Daniel, a few days ago, I was giving a little bit of a talk and I had a Q&A time, which I love. I love interacting with people as I’m teaching or talking about something just to see how the information is hitting them and the questions that they might have. Oddly, a question that I’m about to ask you came up about ending counseling and terminating counseling.

Now we’ve talked already about being patient and as a counselor how we need to be patient with those who are immature and long-suffering and tender even with those who, Romans 15:1, “you who are spiritual bear with the failings of the weak.” And we’re called to do this in Scripture. But I think as counselors, we always want to consider whether there is a point where it might be good or right for us to end counseling because of this immaturity.  

Daniel Schubert: Yes. I think one of the biggest signs that counseling needs to end is a person is not taking steps to change. This, in my mind, can be measured in whether or not they’re willing not only to come to counseling consistently, faithfully, but also, if they’re willing to do homework. So, we want to assign homework that is applicable, that’s helpful, that’s at their level, that really serves them well, that they understand is going to be useful in their lives. And if all those things are true, and maybe some more of them that I’m not thinking of, and they’re not really willing to commit themselves to working through those things, then that might be a really clear indicator to end counseling. But we want to approach that with grace but also with firmness, as well too. Because there can be so many issues that can possibly prevent them. Maybe they had a really busy week. Maybe it was hard. Maybe there was a misunderstanding of what the homework was for. Maybe they didn’t get my email. All kinds of things that may have happened. So we want to understand first what happened and try to encourage them, help them, and be patient with them.

Sometimes people that are immature have never seriously done work on these issues. And so, we want to be patient, we want to encourage, we want to spend time to do that. We also want to be firm because we love them, and if they’re going to work through the issues in their life, they have to be willing to work out their salvation with fear and trembling. God’s going to help them to grow and change. But if they’re not going to discipline themselves and sit down and review the passages that we went over in counseling and to seek to make changes in their life in the light of the truths that we’ve been going over and to apply that to their lives, they’re not really going to grow and change.

So I want to be gracious, but I also want to be firm because at end of the day, it serves them well in both areas, to encourage and help them to think about it that way. In my mind if they’re not willing to pursue the homework, to do it diligently and at least are growing in that area, then that communicates to me that they’re not really ready. They don’t really want counseling. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, and those are helpful categories. The way I want to end this may be a little bit different than we normally do. A lot of times I may ask you in a case like this to speak specifically to the person who’s struggling with some immaturity and how to help give them some biblical wisdom on how to move forward.

This time though, I want to ask you to speak to the counselor. As a counselor is enduring and maybe struggling to minister to a person who is immature, what practical advice would you give them? You have an opportunity to train counselors at your church and oversee some of the counseling that happens at your church. What type of advice would you give to the counselor who’s struggling with a person who is immature?  

Daniel Schubert: Yeah, I think leaning on other wise friends, other pastors or pastors at your church, people you know, elders at your church. Of course, depending on the situation, we want to be wise and discerning with that. But we are a part of the body of Christ, and for that reason we need each other. So perspective and encouragement that we can receive from others is so important. I think that’s one aspect of it.

I also, too, want to think through the trials that we endure as we work with a person who’s immature, as we suffer under, maybe you could say that, the difficulty they bring into our lives because of that, really is coming from the Lord. It’s not necessarily coming directly from them but coming from God’s hand. So it’s an opportunity to really grow and change. One wise, older counselor once told me that we’re a whole lot more like our counselees than we are like Jesus, so that’s been an encouragement and a challenge to me to be patient, loving, and to look to God’s purposes that he would have in my life in particular.

And last thing I’d say is, in light of all that, we have to remember Christ. We, because of our immaturity, caused a significantly greater trial than anything that we could ever possibly endure by any counselee that comes into our office or that we meet at Starbucks. By our immaturity, we placed Christ ultimately on the cross. And so, as we encounter people who are difficult to work with, I think we have to come before the throne of grace to receive help in a time of need, and the Lord will absolutely provide that, will encourage us, and help us. So, we need to look to others. We certainly need to look to the Lord to provide and to help and to strengthen and for what He might want to do and work in our lives in particular through this challenging situation. 

Dale Johnson: And what greater joy that we would have, then, to make disciples as the Lord tells us and that we would take joy in making disciples. And what that means is that you’re taking a person who maybe has just come to faith, working them through maturity to, as Paul talks about in Colossians 1:28, to maturity, to perfection, to completion, if you will. And what a great joy it is to labor in that way for the sake of the name of Christ.

Daniel, this has been really helpful and a real issue that we struggle with often in counseling, but it’s one of the reasons we engage in counseling. We want to see immature people become mature in Christ. Brother, thanks for helping us think through this.  

Daniel Schubert: It’s been great to be with you. 

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