He had finally worked up enough courage to ask for help. Mark (a pseudonym for the purposes of this story) had heard me speak at a biblical counseling conference on the topic of substance abuse. After listening to the lecture, Mark found me on the ACBC website and contacted me. He had been struggling with alcohol and getting drunk since college and now, as a man in his mid-30s, he was willing to admit that he had a serious drinking problem and to seek help.
The first time that we met, he had the smell of alcohol on his breath. I started the session as I always do, explaining that I have no special experience or expertise and that all I can offer is truth from Scripture. I then asked him to share his story and what he hoped to get out of the counseling experience.
As he began recounting his journey of using alcohol as his go-to comfort, and the toll that it had taken on his family, he also shared how he regularly lied to his wife about his drinking. I told him that I was proud of him for reaching out to me and for being honest about his sin. I also told him that if he was willing to do my homework assignments and be honest with me, we could work together. That’s when I asked him point blank if he had been drinking recently. He assured me that he had not had a drink in a few days.
I was a little skeptical but was willing to take him at his word until I knew differently. I also chalked it up to a guy who had been around so much alcohol in his life, that maybe the smell was just lingering from over a week ago. All this to say, I never smelled it on him again. We agreed to keep meeting regularly to talk through the marriage conflicts, the issues he was using alcohol to run away from, and growing in integrity.
Each time we met, he was open, humble, and teachable. We walked through several passages of Scripture and their application to his situation, but all of this changed when I received a revealing text message from him. For nearly two weeks, Mark had not been responding to my text messages. I was thinking that he was busy with work but then I received a very long text from him telling me that he had been repeatedly drinking throughout the time that we had been meeting and he had been lying to his wife and me about it.
How Should You Respond as a Counselor?
As I read Mark’s text message, part of me felt like I had been duped and I regretted not pressing him harder in our previous sessions about his level of temptation with alcohol. In retrospect, it did seem all too easy that he was doing so well, so quickly, after years of drinking. But the real pressing thought was, “How do I respond to Mark now that he’s come clean about his lying?”
In times like this, I believe that it is important to remember God’s grace to us. In Matthew 18:21, Peter asks Jesus how often he should forgive a brother who sins against him. Jesus tells Peter to forgive seventy-seven times which most commentators understand to be Jesus’ way of saying, “not to withhold forgiveness.”1 However, Jesus does not stop there. He goes on to share a parable about a servant who owed an insurmountable sum of money to a king. The king’s willingness to forgive the servant’s debt is contrasted against the servant’s unwillingness to forgive the significantly smaller debt that his peer owed him.
As biblical counselors, we must remember that we too have offended God and in much more significant ways than our counselees have offended us. In one sense, our counselees come to us for help but in another sense, they come to us as peers, as sinners in need of grace. Matthew 18 cautions us away from rejecting our counselees who come to us asking for us to forgive them for lying.
Secondly, we need to continue to encourage our counselees with biblical counsel by urging them to put away falsehood, as Ephesians 4:25 says, and to start speaking the truth. Forgiving our counselees when they lie to us does not mean that we stop counseling them. Rather, we need to double down on speaking truth in love as a fellow peer in need of grace.
Thirdly, I think it is completely appropriate to commend a counselee for finally coming clean after having hidden their sin. There is a fear that tempts people to hide their sin through blame-shifting, minimizing, and lying. Adam and Eve hid from God for the same reason. When someone chooses to obey God’s Word, we should celebrate that.
Fourthly, offer hope. Proverbs 28:13 says that, “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” Many counselees will feel especially discouraged and embarrassed for having lied to you. Helping our counselees see that God will continue to be merciful to them as they continue to walk in obedience to Him will be a necessary reminder.
If you counsel for long enough, you will work with someone who will lie to you. I encourage you to not be immediately done with them at that point. Help them see that they need to repent of that behavior by offering biblical counsel that calls them to speak the truth and remember that you too needed grace and will need it again.
1 Blomberg, Craig L., The New American Commentary: Matthew, page 282