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Counseling Unteachable Counselees

Truth In Love 405

What should we do when our counselees are unteachable?

Mar 13, 2023

Dale Johnson: This week on the podcast, I have with me Omri Miles. He’s a pastor of Grace Bible Church in Tempe, Arizona. He’s an aspiring church planter to New Orleans. Lord willing, that will happen in October of 2023. He holds a Master of Arts degree in biblical counseling from The Master’s University and a Master of Divinity degree from the Expositors Seminary, and he currently serves as the director of one of our certified training centers, Biblical Counseling of the East Valley. He lives in Phoenix with his wife, Emily and their five children. Brother, I am so grateful to have you back on the podcast to talk about this very curious topic of counseling unteachable counselees, so thanks for joining me. 

Omri Miles: Yeah, thanks for having me. 

Dale Johnson: Now, all of us to some degree, have dealt with this issue. You’re dealing with someone who is maybe obstinate, maybe not, maybe they come and they’ve been psychologized and they enjoy talk therapy, and they just want to talk all the time, and what we start to sense as their counselors maybe they’re not very teachable. We’re giving them homework; maybe they’re not wanting to do homework. We’re giving them other things to do, and they’re just not wanting to see things a little bit differently. All of us have experienced this if you’ve been doing it very long. So, talk just for a second, Omri, about why the subject is important to you and why do we need to address it. 

Omri Miles: Well, over the years, I’ve had personal relationships with family or friends, and roommates in my single days when this has been the preeminent issue is an unwillingness to receive instruction. And as I watched the lives of some of those people, it just really deteriorate their walk with the Lord. This has become just a more important issue for me, and I wish that back then, I had the insight to really hone in on this particular character weakness is unteachability. And even as a teacher, I used to teach literature and composition to 7th and 8th graders and then high schoolers before I left and entered into ministry. But even as a teacher, this was, I think the most foundational issue that I had to deal with in teaching, is to help students learn what it means to be a learner and to actually receive or accept their role as a student. And so, I don’t think that those things are really any different. When you’re talking about teachability, you’re really talking about a humility that’s willing to receive instruction. 

Dale Johnson: Now you’re talking about teachability, and I want to explore that a little bit more. I think this is an issue, I don’t know if it’s because we’re Americans and we think we have it sorted out, there’s some sort of arrogance that underlies, you know, where we are or what the issue is. But all of us have some degree of this. The Scripture seems to indicate that that’s something that’s maybe even based to humanity, encouraging us to make sure we’re humble in the way in which we receive instruction. We hear that quite a bit, specifically in the New Testament. Talk about why this issue of teachability is really a foundational issue in the counseling room. 

Omri Miles: Yeah, this is so basic to counseling for one reason because it’s just basic to the Christian life. I appreciate what Martin Lloyd-Jones says, even about the role of teachability and conversion. What he says is, “What the natural man needs above everything else is to be humble. This is essential before we can do anything with him. The ultimate trouble with the natural man is his pride.” And so, if we’re thinking about teachability, the way I like to define that is humility in receiving instruction. If teachability is humility receiving instruction. Then in counseling, counseling being instruction, you really can’t counsel unless someone is willing to receive instruction that “noutheteo” word actually has to do with imparting information or giving instruction that is warning someone of a wrong chorus, right? From where we get the word “nouthetic,” what we have called nouthetic counseling.

So, if counseling is instruction and if what we want to teach people, even in our churches, to do any counseling, what Paul describes in Romans 15:14, that you’re able to instruct one another, then that really does require from the people being instructed a humility that’s willing to receive. This is articulated very well throughout the book of Proverbs. This just becomes a foundational paradigm for any help that one’s going to get in fearing the Lord. And so, the very first command that you get in the book of Proverbs is to listen, is to hear, and then that’s repeated from Solomon to the son throughout the book. But this is really the most basic building block of profiting from biblical instruction is a willingness, a humility that says I don’t know everything, and therefore, I’m going to be willing to receive the instruction, the wise advice that somebody puts in front of me and until that is the disposition of the counselee, no other progress is going to be made. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, well said. And I want to go in two directions just very quickly that I think are important to address here. Number one is that the counselor has to demonstrate this. That we have a humble disposition before the Scriptures to say the answers don’t lie inside of us personally. They’re actually in this Word that God has so kindly and graciously given to us, and so we’re humbled in the place in which we seek, and we’re teachable for help, but we’re also teachable in their story. We want to listen to them, to hear what they have to say, and that’s really important as well.

The second piece that, as you were talking, I just think it’s so interesting is, this is so antithetical to a secular understanding of therapy of even talk therapy is most of them most theories have this understanding that, you know, you figure out the answer to your problems from within and if that’s the case, then you just sorting them out and trying to empower yourself whereas the Scripture says, no, no, it’s the opposite where we have to humble ourselves to be teachable in what God would have to say about our life. And that, not we’re trying to transform our world to what we want to happen from the inside out, is no, we’re conforming from the inside out to what God says is reality. And this is so important, and I think that takes teachability, as you say here. And this is one primary point at the beginning, but that begs the question then, when do we start seeing this type of issue maybe arise in a counselee where maybe they’re struggling with this issue of being teachable? What are some of the things, Omri, that you notice, some of the indications that you see where a counselee might be unteachable? 

Omri Miles: Well, one, and this is not always the case, but one sign where someone is not willing to receive instruction is interrupting that you’re not actually willing to listen. If there’s a constant interruption, Proverbs 18:13 says if one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame, right? So before I’ve adequately listened, I’m giving an answer. And usually, that’s a principle that we teach counselors because it’s so pertinent to counseling. Don’t rush in with your answers. Before you have done your data gathering and heard enough to actually instruct the person in front of you. That’s crucial for the counselor but also for the counselee. Once the teachability, if you will, of the counselors has been demonstrated in asking good questions and in his dependence on the Scriptures, then when it’s time for the counselee to listen, do they actually practice listening in the moment? Are they attentive? Maybe note-taking is an indication that they’re actually listening or just a quiet resignation to hear all of what you’ve said before interjecting or giving pushback in counseling. That’s one indication.

Another primary indication that you have a teachable counselee is when they’re actually eager to listen to the Word. I can get if I was getting my own opinions, someone should shut me down and not listen to me because I’m not worth listening to. So, if I’m actually demonstrating a dependence on God’s Word that I believe God has answers, and I want to help bring them to bear on your life. A teachable counselee, someone who’s truly humble and trembles at God’s Word is going to listen when the Word of God is opened, and they’re going to be eager to receive. That’s what Solomon tells his son in Proverbs 2, that’s actually the first as he kind of sets his son up to fear God, to know God in verse 1 of Proverbs 2. He says if you receive my words. So, just an open hand that says, what are your words from God? I want them. Please tell me what God says that’s going to be of help to me. That’s a great indicator that someone is humble and ready to receive instruction, and then something as simple as completing homework, the hour or two we spend together in counseling is not the magic hour, but God intends these things to permeate your life as you meditate on them as you interact with his Word the Spirit is supposed to be and longs to use God’s truth and put that to work in your life. And so, if someone consistently comes in being unwilling to do any work in the meantime, that you’ve said this is going to help you, then that’s a demonstration that I don’t actually want the help the instruction that you’re bringing for me. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, I think all of those are critical indications, particularly the homework. You start to see a lack of attitude relative to the homework, and I’ll couple maybe one other that I’ll add that I think would be helpful for us to think through is when the circumstances of the individual change and you see their intensity and desire for change to sort of be squelched, they’re not being teachable, they just want the circumstance to change, they don’t want to change themselves which created the circumstance or you know bred the consequence if you will. And so those are critical things I think. And you know, even through your counseling, it’s obvious, Omri, that you’ve witnessed and learned those things from a wise disposition, and I think those will be helpful for our listeners as you grow in counseling as well, you’ll see some of these things as Omri is describing. Absolutely.

So now, we’ve set the pace. We’ve got a biblical understanding that God calls us to be humble. God calls us to be teachable. He calls us to have a disposition to want to receive instruction. That’s what we need, right? It’s and then we’ve talked about some of the problems when counselees don’t engage in being teachable, they don’t have a humble disposition now we’ve got to turn the corner and say, okay, how do we help a counselee who’s in a place like this? So how do you, Omri, help someone who’s unteachable to now learn how to receive instruction because listen, here’s the thing, people ask me, why do you bring your kids into church when they’re so young and say, you know what, if I can teach them to be disciplined by the age of five to sit and listen to a 40-50 minute hour-long sermon, I’m blessing them for the rest of their life to receive instruction, and so I’m going to ask you that question. How do you help somebody who is unteachable learn to receive instruction? And let you run with that.

Omri Miles: Like I’ve already mentioned, if the counselee is not teachable, then you’re not going to make other progress, and I’ve never had anybody come into counseling saying, would you please help me be teachable? That’s my presenting problem. Usually, it’s other things and you find out in trying to address the other thing that somebody’s not teachable. And so, I think the wisest thing at that point is to make the counseling agenda teachability. You actually set the agenda and turn the agenda on this issue, and you say to make progress on this other problem that you want to resolve that you need help with, we actually have to make progress first on what it means to be teachable. And I think the very thing you were hoping to do with some other issue, right? Uncover Idols, help them understand what God says about a particular area of life. You do those same things with this area of teachability, and usually somewhere in the idolatry that manifests itself in pride not being willing to listen is I’ve actually relied on my own resources; I’m dependent on self. I think I have answered that I actually don’t have or am unwilling to accept God’s diagnosis of whatever issues that I’m facing. Somebody has really exalted themselves to the level of God. The way I think about humility is receiving instruction, and somebody’s going to be that, if someone is going to be teachable then they have already had to assume I don’t know it all. There is wisdom that I’m lacking. And so, I’m going to put myself in the position of a humble learner.

This is why Jesus when he calls people to discipleship, what he’s calling people to do Matthew 11:28 and following is to actually come to him and learn from him. That’s the description of a disciple is a learner, and that requires humility to just come to the end of self, and the person who’s desperate enough in counseling is going to welcome that kind of instruction and to say, hey, let’s look at who God is, as the arbiter of wisdom. Proverbs 8 is a great place to look at that. God is the one who owns wisdom. He is the only wise God, as Paul says in Romans 16. And so here’s what that means for you as someone who needs help in a particular way in this situation, you’re going to have to be humble enough to listen, to receive instruction, to follow through on the instruction that’s given. And once the counselee commits to those things, to be teachable on those terms, then you can then hold them to that moving forward and counseling in various areas. 

Dale Johnson: Amen. I think this is great. I really, really appreciate your time. I’m so grateful for the work that you’re putting in there Grace Bible Church and Biblical Counseling of the East Valley in Tempe. And so grateful for the work that’s being done through your church in that area. Looking forward to when you’re going to be in New Orleans, I know they need some desperate churches there, who will seek the fear of the Lord, who will teach the Scriptures faithfully, and I know you’ll do that. So, I’m looking forward to you moving out and being blessed to do so and planting a church there in New Orleans. So thanks for spending time with us today. 

Omri Miles: Thanks for having me.