Counseling Failure: a private memo to counselors

Some counselees come to counseling and seem to really respond to God in ways that bring observable changes to their lives. As their counselor, it is encouraging to be part of this process. I enjoy watching God work in the lives of his children.

I am well aware that it is not I who brings the change. I’m merely a Christian brother the counselee chooses to listen to as I share wisdom from God. Ultimately it is God who brings the change, if a counselee experiences change at all.

There are other times counselees will come to my office for counseling, but they do not change. They do not engage God and, thus, never come to a God-centered understanding and practice that brings long-term change in their lives. As I have pondered these two counseling outcomes I’ve tried to understand why there are differences from counselee to counselee.

A Look at the Log in My Eye

It would be inappropriate and unbiblical for me not to address my own shortcomings in the counseling process. As the counselor, I am the obvious first place to look for personal responsibility when counseling another person. Most certainly, I have many shortcomings which can hinder others who come to me for help. My temptations toward self-righteousness, that work out as impatience, harshness, or frustration with a counselee, are a definite problem when trying to help another person.

My theological weaknesses are also shortcomings, as well as the dullness that comes when I have unconfessed or un-repented sin in my life. At other times I can totally miss the need of the counselee or misapply the Word of God to the life of the counselee.

It is not my desire to hinder anyone from getting to the only One who can help them. However, I have to be realistic: I am a fallen man in a fallen world, who hopes to assist other fallen people as they make their way to God. However, though I am imperfect and the counseling that I do is imperfect, I am assured that God’s capacity to save and sanctify is far greater than my capacity to botch things up.

I am not making a case for counselor sloppiness, nor am I promoting laziness in the counseling office. Though it is true that I do not counsel perfectly, it is also true that God is greater than all my sin. It is baffling, but true, that God chooses certain imperfect children to bring his wisdom to bear in the lives of others who need Him.

A Look at the Speck in Their Eye

Though God is able to save and sanctify, there are still times when I have observed counselees, who have a history of unwillingness to submit to the truth claims of Christ and never turn to the One who can truly help them. These counselees choose not to practically apply God’s Word to their daily lives. Sadly, in too many cases, they do not have a heart that communicates that He is to be adored, exalted, magnified and worshipped exclusively. His grace appears to be insufficient for people like this.

They communicate, by their attitude and behavior, that God is merely one option among many options. He is not real to them. Like the proverbial passengers in the plane going down, they call on God only when things reach a point of crisis. These counselees, who have been floating along in a self-absorbed world for years, call on God when all other options have been exhausted. Their lives are at the point where they need immediate relief from the pressures and difficulties that keep them from enjoying the world they sinfully crave.

An Appeal to My Counselor Friend

My counselor friend, I appeal to you to carefully examine the lives of those you serve. It is not unbiblical judging when you carefully examine the life of another. This is wisdom and discernment. You must discern if they are seriously applying and noticeably changing from week to week. I have often described counseling, that is working right, like a man walking up stairs. Each week represents the next upward step in their progressive sanctification.

A counselee, who is serious about change, will change. He or she will be changing week in and week out and you will be able to observe the changes in their lives. If change is not happening, then you will need to have a heart-to-heart conversation with the counselee. It could be that counseling this person now is not the right time. It may be best to put the counseling off until the counselee is serious about change.

If change is not happening, do not press the issue. Your job is to clearly communicate God’s Word. Examine your own heart and practice. If your conscience is clear and you believe you are bringing God’s Word to bear in a way that glorifies his name, then it could be that counseling is not the best option for this person, at this moment.

It is okay to end the session. Too many times I have seen counselors who did not discern when it was time to stop. Be released from the artificial pressure to fix every person who comes through your door. Fixing people is not your job. That is God’s job. Let them go. You will know when they are ready for change. It is not that hard to discern.

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About Rick Thomas (Team Member)

Rick is an author, speaker, consultant, and podcaster. He has been encouraging and training Christians since 1997. After several years as a counselor and pastor he founded and launched his own training organization in order to encourage and equip people for more effective living. In the early ’90’s he earned a BA in Theology. Later he earned a BS in Education. In 1993 he was ordained into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with a MA in Counseling. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow with Association of Certified Biblical Counselors. Today his organization reaches people globally through training, blogging, podcasting, counseling, and coaching. His cyber home is RickThomas.Net.

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