One of the most shocking moments I experienced in a counseling class I took some years ago was not, as you might guess, an extreme example the instructor gave of a counseling experience.
It was at the end of the class when the instructor was thanking us as students for our attention and participation and followed with the admonishment, “Just make sure you stay on the right side of the counseling desk.”
The right side of the counseling desk?
I know what he meant: Place preemptive safeguards in your life so you don’t fall into tangled sins. And he is right. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be so consumed with helping others that we neglect our own walk with God and make excuses for sinful choices leading us to spiritual implosion.
But the reality is, I have spent time on both sides of the “counseling desk.” And we all need both sides.
I’ve had seasons when I sought needed help from ladies who are wiser than me and able to give biblical perspective and truth related to personal struggles or sinful habits I was dealing with. And I’m so thankful for them.
And I’ve had opportunity to help and encourage others through biblical perspective and truth related to the difficulties or temptations they were struggling with.
Neither instance has always been formal “counseling.” Yes, sometimes it has been a scheduled series of appointments, but other times it has been the kinds of conversations that happen in the course of normal local church relationships where I’ve heard or shared a need and then given or listened to biblical counsel.
In any case, growing Christians spend time on both sides of the counseling relationship.Growing Christians spend time on both sides of the counseling relationship. Click To Tweet
With that in mind, could I offer five suggestions that apply to either side? These all apply even in a loose sense of the word counseling, whether it be an official appointment or a Titus 2 type of moment. I use the words counselor and counselee loosely. You could use advisor and advice seeker or, an even more-common local church relationship, discipler and learner.
1. Begin with humility.
Whether you are the counselor or the counselee, you need God’s grace. And there is one condition through which He has absolutely promised to give it—humility.
Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder. Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble.—1 Peter 5:5
What does humility look like?
As a counselor: Humility as a counselor is the absence self-sufficiency and an abundance of God-ward dependence.
Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God;—2 Corinthians 3:5
It’s when we enter a conversation in which we have been asked for help without a sense of, “I know all the right verses for this. I can help her” and instead with a realization, “I can share God’s Word, but without the Holy Spirit helping me to understand her need and articulate truth and without Him helping her to receive and apply, we’re both sunk.”
Humility as a counselor looks like prayer between meetings. It looks like empathy rather than judgment when hearing about another person’s struggles. It looks like someone who knows she has experienced God’s grace through need and is thus able to be a conduit of it to others in need.
As a counselee: Humility when asking for counsel is simple honesty. It is entering a conversation without pretense or defense or trying to protect what the person to whom I’m asking for help thinks of me.
It is being honest about temptation and sin.
It is asking for help in personal growth, rather than asking for help in fixing others.
It is a willingness to acknowledge that I’m in the situation in which I need counsel because I don’t know what to do next and to listen to the person from whom I have sought help.
But he giveth more grace. Wherefore he saith, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble.—James 4:6
Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.—James 5:16
2. Center on Scripture
Just the process of unburdening our soul to a friend can provide a measure of relief. It’s one of the gifts God gives us through relationships. But ultimately, our only real help for change comes through the powerful Word of God.
All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:—2 Timothy 3:16
As a counselor: Even in an informal counseling conversation, my personal goal is that I not just share encouragement but that I direct a friend to a Scripture passage and that we consider together how that passage can help in her situation.
Almost anyone can provide empathy or encouragement. But how much more meaningful when someone has the powerful Word of God to give continuing hope and help.
For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.—Hebrews 4:12
As a counselee: The temptation is to view the counselor as our potential deliverer. The reality is that only Jesus can be our Deliverer, and He uses His Word to bring light and help to our hearts.
The entrance of thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding unto the simple.—Psalm 119:130
One of the best things you can do during seasons when you sense your need for help is to develop habits of taking in Scripture in more purposefully than before. Spend time in God’s Word daily. Listen to preaching with a receptive heart. Study a portion or topic related to your area of struggle. Keep verses in front of you that have been shared with you through counsel. Journal what you learn through God’s Word. Remind yourself of the specific Scripture passages behind the breakthrough truths you discover.One of the best things you can do during seasons when you sense your need for help is to develop habits of taking in Scripture in more purposefully than before. Click To Tweet
3. Listen to learn.
Listening is perhaps the greatest challenge for all of us. We have such a tendency to want to share—whether it be truth (as a counselor) or our pain (as a counselee) that we sometimes forget to really listen with an open heart.
These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.—Acts 17:11
As a counselor: Listen carefully—not just to answer, but to understand. If we are to minister the comfort and truth of Scripture, we must understand the pain and need of another’s heart. When we speak before we hear, we not only lose credibility, but we lose opportunity to speak into a situation with understanding.If we are to minister the comfort and truth of Scripture, we must understand the pain and need of another's heart. Click To Tweet
He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame unto him.—Proverbs 18:13
As a counselee: It’s easy to want so much to be understood that we miss listening for the help that would lead us forward. Formal or informal, when I’m sharing my heart with a lady who is older and wiser than me, I work to listen and learn—not just to share. And I do my best to listen with a heart to apply—not simply to hear without action.
For this cause also thank we God without ceasing, because, when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe.—1 Thessalonians 2:13
4. Do your homework.
Counseling conversations aren’t magic bullets. Unless all a person needs is a perspective adjustment (and that sometimes is the case), counseling conversations are usually the precursors to the real work of application.
Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you.—Philippians 4:9
As a counselor: There is nothing wrong with answering someone’s question, “I don’t know. Let me study and get back to you on that.” But we shouldn’t be perpetually caught off guard with the same questions. If we are to help others, we must be students of the Word of God, skilled in understanding it and applying it to life situations.
Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.—2 Timothy 2:15
As a counselee: Perhaps the acid test of if I’m asking for help just to talk or because I really want to learn is in my willingness to follow through on an assignment I’m given. Whether it be a verse to study or memorize or a book chapter to read or a log to keep, do your best to complete it.
And above all, make sure you are applying the truth you have been shown from God’s Word. It does little good for us to know the answers if we don’t do the answers.
Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls. But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.—James 1:21–22
5. Give glory to God.
When God honors His Word, when He blesses our faith, when He works through our obedience…He deserves the praise!
Not unto us, O LORD, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory, for thy mercy, and for thy truth’s sake.—Psalm 115:1
As a counselor: It isn’t our strength that qualifies us to help others, but it is our weakness. And through our weakness, God helps us to depend on and then praise Him for His grace through us.It isn't our strength that qualifies us to help others but our weakness. Click To Tweet
And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.—2 Corinthians 12:9
As a counselee: I used to think of the Bible as sort of a big book of answers that I simply needed to search out steps from and follow those steps and have all my problems solved. The problem with this thinking is that it leaves the personal care and help of the Holy Spirit out. For it is ultimately the Holy Spirit who guides us to truth in His Word and enables us to grow in His grace. When He gives us breakthrough in our problems, we should give Him praise!
But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me…Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak…—John 15:26, 16:13
The Right Side of the Counseling Desk
In the years since I heard the admonishment to “stay on the right side of the counseling desk,” I’ve discovered that this desk is easy to travel around. And I’ve been back and forth on both sides—sometimes in the same day.
The right side is always the side in which you are holding God’s Word—either because you are searching it to meet a need or overcome a temptation, or because you are sharing it to help another person overcome. Godly people do both.
Come to think of it, perhaps a better way to word the phrase is, “Don’t get stuck on just one side of the counseling desk.”