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TIL 224 | Counseling Unbelievers

This week on the podcast, we are dipping into our mailbag. We have been asking for our listeners to send in questions and we are addressing one of those very specific questions today.

How do we as a counseling ministry focus on ministry toward our community, and what do we do when we’re counseling unbelievers? First of all, I am so grateful that you would have the mindset that counseling ministry can be missional and utilized as a ministry of the church. The church becomes a place where hurting people desire to go to, and you have a vision that we can reach out to people in our communities that are hurting.

I was serving in a local church ministry leading a counseling ministry there. The first six months I was there, we were establishing a counseling ministry and I was somewhat discouraged that we weren’t receiving a lot of people for counseling. Then, all of a sudden, we had several people who had come in, in whom the Lord had done tremendous work. Without any advertising, word of mouth began to spread and we became overwhelmed with people from our community. We were intentional about being missional for our community. We wanted to give a distinct perspective of our church, that we were for our community, wanting to help our community, and not wanting to be insular and do things just for our people. We began to see a tremendous amount of folks even from the surrounding counties. They came because they were hearing of what the Lord was doing in people’s lives. We were offering free counseling even to the community, so we had a lot of opportunity to counsel those who are unbelievers.

When we approach an unbeliever, we have to approach counseling them in a very different fashion. I might not even call it counseling, because when we think about biblical counseling there’s a distinct approach in the ways we offer counsel to someone. We’re offering the Word of God to them and we’re calling them to obedience, to deny themselves, to put off the old man and put on the new man. We’re calling them to a moral standard, and to obey the imperatives that God has given in His Word. Those things are quite distinct, and what we understand as believers is that it takes the Holy Spirit to accomplish that work. We’re calling believers to do something that they’re empowered to do because of the Holy Spirit that’s living inside of them. We’re helping them work through the process of sanctification, utilizing the beauty of God’s Word. When we’re dealing with an unbeliever, that perspective becomes quite different. We’re not able to call them to obedience in certain things because they don’t have the power of the Spirit to accomplish that in a way that’s pleasing to the Lord and beneficial for them.

We have to be cautious. Let’s say you’re ministering well to the community, word starts to get out, and you’re seeing people who are broken and hurting from the community. Praise the Lord for that, but it does raise some challenges. How are you going to approach them? We need to be cautious about the ways we do counseling for unbelievers. Absolutely utilize the opportunity to engage them. The Lord through His providence has brought them to a place where they’re broken, hurting, and in great need. But we can’t take the same approach that we would in counseling a believer because we would, in effect, ask them to do something that would actually complicate their problems more. We would ask them to do things that are pleasing to the Lord in their own strength. That’s completely contrary to Scripture. They can’t do anything to atone for the brokenness in their life or to repair it in their own selves, so we can’t approach counseling in that same way. We have to begin to see their life distinctly and differently and to see that if we call them to obedience and ask them to do that in their own power, we’re simply enabling them to act as a Pharisee. We’re giving them different tips and helps and hopes that are actually not for them based on the promises of God. We have to be careful and cautious.

So what do we talk about? It’s important that we look particularly at the ministry of Jesus and of Paul. We see very clearly that they interacted with unbelievers. In fact, that’s a part of the Great Commission that Jesus gives to us as believers. For me, this is one of the critical distinctions about biblical counseling that’s most necessary. Even in the case of dealing with an unbeliever, you’ll have different stripes of counseling that say, “We have to be cautious about the disposition of the person. If they’re not a believer, then we shouldn’t use the name of Jesus or we shouldn’t talk about Jesus.” For one who desires to do biblical counseling, that’s non-negotiable. The Scriptures say we find salvation in no other name than Jesus.

One of the questions I think is most profound that Jesus asked is, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but he loses his own soul?” For example, a man is struggling with pornography and we help him in that process. As an unbeliever, he feels guilty and his wife is upset with him about his engagement in this sexually immoral activity. We give him some basic tools, some moral guidelines and some parameters that help him to, in his own strength, overcome pornography. When I say overcome, I mean he’s not participating in this activity anymore. There’s a sense in which he feels better and I can say, “This is good. There’s progress happening.” But in reality, what have I done for him? Essentially, I’ve made him feel better about his own strength, power, and ability to overcome any difficulties that he has in life as opposed to helping him see it’s not possible for him to gain the world, which is what he’s wanting, and then lose his own soul.

When we talk about helping this person, we have to see that his greatest problem at that moment is not his involvement in looking at pornography. His greatest issue is revealed in the symptom that he struggles with this addiction to pornography. If that’s a symptom, the greatest struggle that he has is that he’s losing his own soul. In those moments, it’s absolutely critical that we utilize this particular issue in which this man is failing. We can use this as a point of tenderness in his own heart, a place where he sees he’s weak and he doesn’t have the ability to truly overcome. I want to make sure that in the end, this man doesn’t lose his soul, so when we approach issues like that, it’s important that we’re seeing this through the lens of the gospel. I want to help him see his greatest need is simply revealed in this particular struggle. This is one shadow or symptom of the main problem that he’s struggling with, and I’m going to use this opportunity for presentation of the gospel to help him to see that Jesus satisfies and meets his particular needs. This is just his heart crying out for something greater than himself.

In John 8, Jesus has an encounter with an adulterous woman. She’s being condemned by others, and the way in which Jesus handles her situation is quite profound. He sees her in her greatest need. He really doesn’t address the issue that is being brought before Him relative to adultery. He sees the need that’s around. He notices everyone else has a similar need relative to sin. He makes a statement saying, “If any of you doesn’t have any sin, you can be the one who casts the first stone.” He sees the brokenness of this woman. He acknowledges that adultery is just a symptom of her greater problem, because He tells her to go and sin no more and that her sin is forgiven. Jesus didn’t shy away from these types of problems, even for unbelievers. Jesus was able to utilize this symptom of this person’s life to get straight to the heart of the issue. In those situations, it behooves us to do something similar. If you read through the gospels, you’ll see how Jesus has very specific interaction with those who come before him. In all these issues that they’re facing, whether it be something that’s physical or something that is an issue of sin that’s wrecking their life, it’s critical for us to see what underlies that and is causing this symptom to occur. That’s what Jesus tackles, and it’s important for us to make sure that we’re utilizing these opportunities to help this person see they have greater needs than what’s being presented. We utilize those as opportunities to show how Jesus meets those needs, how Jesus can save their soul, how Jesus can bring peace and rest and begin to repair from the brokenness and the ashes, and he can make beauty from their life.

I also think about Paul in Acts 17. Paul is dealing with unbelievers, people who have had some sort of conception of God, but one that is faulty. He’s teaching on Mount Areopagus, and he’s actually utilizing all of these philosophers’ experiences in life. They’ve tried to take their experience and fashion certain gods after that experience. A person who comes from our community who is an unbeliever has often done the same thing. They have an understanding of God in their mind. They have an understanding of their perception, their place, and their purpose in the world, why something might be broken in their life, but they’re scrounging around trying to figure out what’s going on in their life. That’s why they come to you for help.

One of the things that you see Paul doing is helping them to see that their experience actually makes most sense in relation to the God of creation. That’s a really important principle when we think about counseling unbelievers. Paul Tripp used to describe that we use these moments as entry gates into hearts of people. That’s quite profound, because we’re doing something similar to what Paul was able to do in Acts 17. He’s taking the experience of these philosophers who are trying to make sense of life and trying to put this in relation to who they should worship and serve, and he demonstrates by their experience that they’re worshiping the wrong things.

It’s very similar for us in the counseling room where we utilize the experiences of people. We don’t cast it aside as if it’s meaningless. In God’s providence this is where God has them. This is a way in which God is utilizing brokenness of the world that they might cry out that this is not the way life is supposed to be. They’re confused and they don’t have the answers. They don’t know why it’s not working the way it’s supposed to, they just know it’s broken. The Bible tells their story. The Bible describes the background of their life. It predicts where they’re going and how they’re getting there, by living according to their own devices and wisdom. We now have the opportunity to enter into their world by the experiences that they tried to make sense of, and we introduce them to God. A person can never fully understand themselves or be aware of who they really are without seeing themselves in relation to the God of the Bible. We utilize the Scriptures as a means to raise up God, His character, His expectation, who He is, how He explains a person’s life, why they fall into trouble, and how they get out of trouble by His gospel and salvation. In doing so, as people see themselves in the only pure and true mirror—the Word of God—now they come face-to-face with who they really are. In those moments, what I’ve seen happen in counseling and what the Scriptures would drive us toward is now that person sees their emptiness, their brokenness, and that Jesus is the only way for true salvation.

Our approach toward counseling an unbeliever takes the fashion of the gospel, where we consistently use their experiences to show how they’re weak, inadequate, and they can’t overcome and meet the needs that they have.

When we engage an unbeliever, it’s critical that we’re looking for a couple of things. In Matthew 9, Jesus calls Matthew and tells him to come follow Him. Matthew 9:11-12 says, “When the Pharisees saw this,” talking about the calling of Matthew, “they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ But when he heard it, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.'” You can see how Jesus treats the Pharisees in the gospels. They think they have it all figured out. They’re as lost as a ball in high weeds. They’re trying to figure life out, but they assume that they have it all together and that they’re representing God. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “You have heard it said… But I say to you.” He’s trying to correct people’s view of God that the Pharisees had given to them. Notice the tone in which Jesus speaks to the Pharisees, because they approach life with haughtiness and pride thinking that they have God figured out, they have life figured out, and they’ve assumed that they know how to get their way home. Jesus is correcting that idea, and He makes very clear His mission was to love those who were lost. His mission was to seek those who were sinners, who were broken.

When we’re meeting with people who are unbelievers, it’s important for us as counselors to learn to discern in this brokenness whether this person is haughty. Are they really looking for help? Are they really searching for hope, or do they just want something to feel better in the moment and move on with life? It’s important in our counseling ministry that we discern that quickly. Is this person truly broken? Are they at a place of humility? Jesus desires for us to offer them mercy, and we consistently see Jesus do this in His own ministry. This is a part of our mission.

In Colossians 1:28, Paul is commanding the church at Colossae that the goal is to make every person complete in Christ. I would argue that’s the same goal for us when we’re dealing with unbelievers. They have to first be made alive in Christ, and then we work through the process of making them complete in Christ. When a lost person is sitting in front of me, I’m trying to see their experience with brokenness. What are the symptoms that express their lostness in clear terms? My goal is to see them become complete in Christ, because I know that it’s not going to profit them anything if I give them some sort of sage, earthly wisdom that helps them to move through this situation a little easier, but then they lose their own soul. That’s one of the most unloving things that we could do. It’s critical that we have the focus of wanting to see this person complete in Christ. But first, in order for that to happen, they must come alive in Christ. I’m going to utilize this symptom of the brokenness in their life to talk through the ways that Jesus meets that need.

Sometimes I do it by simply explaining how God tells their story. God tells their story to such a degree that He explains how and why they find themselves in the current mess that they’re in. As I describe that to people, I’ve often seen them become so encouraged that God could predict their life and that they would find themselves in this type of pit. If God was wise enough to predict that because of their own sinful disposition, they would fall into these traps and difficulties in life, might this God have something to say about how they get out? Maybe it’s the second, third, or fourth session that I’m working with them to consistently describe Jesus, how He explains their experiences, and how He’s the hope that they’re longing for. I’ve seen that transition happen so many times in the counseling room where, by the end of the counseling conversation, I have an opportunity to then lead them to faith, to tell them about Romans 10, and that they should call upon the name of the Lord so that they can be saved. I tell them that God doesn’t always change their immediate experience, but those promises that we hope in are now theirs in Jesus.

My encouragement is that we have caution. We cannot counsel an unbeliever the same way because we’re not into making a Pharisee, calling them to do something they don’t have the power to do. The second thing is that yes, we engage with the heart of mercy, discerning humility and brokenness in this moment and then graciously and kindly presenting to them an accurate view of who God is so that they can see themselves for who they are. Then that allows us the opportunity to talk about Jesus as the one who saves them from this issue and all their other issues that arise. Yes, we counsel unbelievers, we talk to them, and we evangelize them.

Thank you for your question and for your heart for your community. This is a way we change how church is viewed in our communities when we have counseling ministries where we can be missional. The church often is looked at in our communities as a place that asks something from people more than we give something to our communities. This is an opportunity through our counseling ministries to reach out and show that we are merciful, we care about the hurts and the brokenness that happens in our community, and we have the answer in the Scriptures to minister well so that people can be saved and redeemed and they can overcome the issues that they have in life.

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