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What to Do When Your Biblical Counseling Is Harsh

What to Do When Your Biblical Counseling Is Harsh

If you are not able to counsel with tears, you’re not counseling the way Jesus did (Matthew 23:37; John 11:35). Biblical counseling is not as biblical as it needs to be if it does not happen in a context of compassion for the struggling soul. That type of “counseling context” transcends the counseling office; I’m also talking about marriages, families, homes, churches, work environments, and any other place where you’re helping someone with God’s Word.

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Harsh and Not Helped

Rick,
I just came back from my biblical counseling appointment. It was a horrible experience. I agreed with him that I had some things to change, but his manner of helping me was harsh and alienating. He did not come across as a happy person, and I felt like I was inconveniencing him.

Perhaps it was because he had a lot to do or was distracted by other things. Rather than helping me work through some of the long-term shaping influences in my life, it felt more like a sin-hunt.

After he felt like he understood my problem, he rebuked me, gave a few scriptures, and then continued to admonish me for another thirty minutes. I know I need to change, but I was expecting something different. I’m not one of those “snowflake people,” but I left more defeated after biblical counseling than when I dragged myself to his office.

I’m not looking for you to manage my emotions, but I do have a concern about this method of so-called counseling. Is this the nature of biblical counseling? Please help me understand.

Thank you,
Defeated Counselee

Knowing Half the Story

I am sorry your counseling session did not go the way you expected. I know you are hurting, and I want to help. Please understand that I will not be able to speak specifically to what you experienced during your counseling since I was not there. I hope to be careful here because I do not want to speak unkindly of your counselor or to characterize him uncharitably.

The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him (Proverbs 18:17).

With that said, I don’t want you to hear that I don’t believe you. I’m not saying that at all, but I must use biblical wisdom when trying to understand and resolve a matter, especially when the other person is not present. I’m sure if someone came to me saying something negative about you, that you would want me to exercise the same discernment, and not uncharitably judge you.

Not being there is a big deal, as you know, but based on what you are saying and without talking to him, there is an element of sin-centered counseling that is a standard way that some biblical counselors operate. And though I cannot speak to your situation directly, I have heard the “harsh complaint” many times.

Rick's BooksThe False Continuum

The two most common criticisms that I have seen with biblical counselors are harshness toward counselees and a lack of discernment when it comes to critical analysis. I wish it were not true, but part of the problem is the unintended consequence of what I call the false continuum: certification equals qualification.

Every person who has a document that says they completed required biblical counseling training does not mean they are good at doing biblical counseling. Sadly, though, too many people believe in this false continuum, and there are a lot of so-called “certified counselors” who aren’t good at it.

I’m not saying your guy is not qualified to do biblical counseling in a formalized way, though that could be the case. Many of these counselors would do better at being biblical friends who do the work of disciple-making with folks who don’t need their long-term, formalized care.

Knowing the Line

There is a mysterious line between compassion and correction that every counselor has to navigate. All of us have failed at discerning where to locate this line. But it should not be a bad habit, and others should not accurately characterize us this way. Compassion with no correction is sub-biblical, just as a correction with no compassion wrong.

I’m sure some counselors do not know that there is a line. Their counseling worldview is mostly sin-centered rather than heart-centered. If this is the case, they will nearly always miss the contours of a person’s heart, especially how the painful shaping influences in the counselee’s life have beaten them so far down that to get up from the mat is nearly impossible.

We know that we’re fallen individuals. Everyone is a sinner, and we do periodically sin. It would be great if we were faithful to repent from those sins each time, but that is not the case, as some sins linger with us. With that said, the person helping us should always exemplify compassion along with the call to repent.

The Troubling Counseling Context

There is a built-in liability with biblical counselors in that too often, we miss the living room effect of counseling, choosing instead a surgical center approach, where it focuses more on the sin committed than the person sinning. Some biblical counselors do not believe in making friends with their counselees (John 15:15). They don’t want to get to know them by walking with them, spending time with them, caring for their souls, overlooking their offenses (as much as they can), while lovingly bringing the needed correction, at a much slower pace.

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The Counseling Window

Part of this problem is the nature of the “counseling office.” Biblical counseling typically works with a timeframe that has a designated start and finish, which could be six or more sessions. The Bible does not teach discipleship happening within a “counseling window” but in the milieu, as we do life together.

Traditional biblical counseling sets up an artificial construct that speeds up discipleship to where pragmatics is more vital than soul care. This problem is why counseling can have a sin hunt element to it. The counselor is after results; he is probably uber-busy, and he’s looking for the shortest distance between hearing about the problem and providing an answer.

Repentance Is a Gift, Not a Demand

I know that you know you have sin patterns and long-term shaping influences that need to change, but I am also aware of how your hurt is much deeper at this point in your life. What I am saying is that sometimes a person needs space to wobble, fall, and be imperfect before they need a sharp rebuke. Though the reprimand may be essential, it is a matter of sequence, timing, and what is most appropriate at the moment.

And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will (2 Timothy 2:24-25).

What parent has not struggled this way? You have a child making poor decisions, and you want to rescue them. Today (Luke 15:11-17)! Parents, like biblical counselors, need to remember that repentance is a gift given, not a demand mandated because you said so. While you do not want to accommodate or overlook a person’s sinfulness, you also do not want to ignore their need for another kind of care.

A Personal Illustration

A few years ago, a young college student was “preaching up a storm,” pontificating that if we are downcast, we should pick it up, smile, and praise God anyway. I sat there listening to the young novice preacher, thinking how I wish I could pick myself up and walk in the victory that the Lord won for me.

But I could not.

I had just lost my wife and two children, and there was an irreparable hole ripped into the side of my marriage, and there was no cure forthcoming. While I wanted to sing the “Victory In Jesus song,” my lips could not form the words, and my heart was not bubbling with that kind of tune. What was coming out of me was pain and darkness, and it showed no signs of abating anytime soon.

I loathe my life; I will give free utterance to my complaint; I will speak in the bitterness of my soul (Job 10:1).

Behold, I go forward, but he is not there, and backward, but I do not perceive him; on the left hand when he is working, I do not behold him; he turns to the right hand, but I do not see him (Job 23:8-9).

I shared my tension with my professor and he wryly smiled and said, “Yeah, he does not understand.” And then followed up with this quip: “But it makes great preaching.” He’s right: it makes great preaching, but it’s not practical when the valley of the shadow of death is your new home.

Some Years Are Like That

This problem of inability reminds me of the story of Samson jumping from his bed, not knowing the power of the Lord had left him, and when he found out he was spiritually bankrupt, he could not shake himself into a better way of being. That is where I was during that dark season of my life. No matter what was said (or shouted), my life wreaked to high heaven, to put it plainly, and without making excuses, as much as I tried, I couldn’t shake myself into a new frame of mind.

And she said, “The Philistines are upon you, Samson!” And he awoke from his sleep and said, “I will go out as at other times and shake myself free.” But he did not know that the LORD had left him (Judges 16:20).

It is a wisdom issue to know when to rebuke and when to refrain from rebuking. But with that said, this one thing I know, if you are going to reprimand a person, they must know that you love them, understand them, and care for them. That kind of counseling is almost a bridge too far for some biblical counselors, and that makes my heart sad.

Are You Changing?

The one thing you don’t want to do in this situation is over-focus on the poor counselor or his counseling. There is another side to this story that is just as common as the harsh and unsympathetic counselor. That is when someone does something terrible to you, and what they did becomes your primary point-of-focus. Do not make this mistake.

Whatever your problem is that sent you to counseling, it is still there. But if you add the counselor’s blunder to your original struggle, it will only complicate problems. And you may take on a victim’s mindset. You’ll see this attitude all the time on social media, where a person will talk about what others did to them. All of us have had disappointing relational experiences. You must remember that God is in those times too. And rather than being problem-centered, you must fight to be God-centered.

  • So how are you responding to your counseling disappointment?
  • Are you problem-centered or God-centered?

One of the ways you can assess yourself on this matter is by examining your heart attitude toward your counselor. Read 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 to gain Paul’s attitude toward hurtful people. Once you can adopt his mind on problem individuals, you’ll be in the right spot to focus on the reason you went to counseling in the first place. Don’t fall into the self-pity ditch.

  • Pray for your former counselor.
  • Find a new one.
  • Beg God to help you get off the mat.

Call to Action

    1. When discipling others, how would you characterize yourself: quick to listen or quicker to speak? How would the last three people you helped answer this question? Will you ask them? Perhaps that person is your spouse or child? What are their thoughts about your corrective care?
    2. If folks consider you a biblical counselor, how do they think about your manner of bringing care to them? Will you ask a few people who have received your counseling?
    3. Why is it vital to show compassion to the hurting, even when their sin is apparent? Do you have an “angry edge” about you that manifests in your soul care? Why did you answer the way you did? Do others agree with you?
    4. Rebukes are restorative. Are yours? Does your corrective care bring healing, or does it alienate you from the person you should be helping?
    5. When someone hurts you, do you linger on the hurt, or seek God’s mind regarding what He’s up to through this relational problem? The way to know if you’re problem-centered or God-centered is by the way you think and talk about what happened to you.
    6. How do you talk about your relationship problems? Do you sound more like a victim or a victor, even though the problems persist?
    7. I’m curious: as you read this article, did you “take up an offense” for the counselee while being uncharitable (harsh) toward the biblical counselor? If you did, you’re like him and it’s vital that you repent.
    8. If you want to learn more from us, you may go to our Topical Index to find all of our articles. They are free. Please spend time choosing and studying those that interest you.
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    10. If you wish to study more about this article, please explore the materials that I have linked on this page.
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