As we’ve already argued (see “Integrating Professional and Pastoral Counseling”), Christian counseling should primarily be anchored in the Bible’s teaching regarding sanctification. Transformation ultimately occurs in our behavior and emotional stability as our minds are renewed by the truth of our identity in Christ. After unpacking our identity in Christ, Paul writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). Elsewhere, he writes, “Be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth” (Eph. 4:23-24).
As you read through these four stages of counseling, it is often helpful to make this material concrete, rather than abstract. Consider a current counseling situation in your life or with someone you want to help.
Rule out biological factors
As we counsel our friend, we want to make sure that they do not have a medical or biological problem. Often we need to work in concert with a professional counselor or physician if this is the case. If someone is struggling with a biological problem, we most likely will not get very far unless this is addressed. This isn’t to say that medicine is the solution to a person’s problem, but we might consider it one of the tools in the toolbox to help them. Imagine showing up on the construction site without your hammer or screwdriver. You might be able to get some work done, but your progress would be severely stunted.
Biological factors are often difficult to discern. We might need to keep this possibility open as we continue to work with our friend through their counseling issues.
Sin is deceiving (Heb. 3:13). Often, when we’re hurting others or ourselves, we are blind to it. While we might sense a problem to some degree, we don’t see how this fully affects us or others around us. In this first stage, the counselor should listen and ask questions to clarify issues or problems. Do your best not to moralize or judge, but rather to establish relational rapport and empathy with the counselee.
Counseling often takes discernment to identify where the counselee is minimizing or exaggerating their issues or conflict. Collins says the counselor should be “hearing not only what the counselee says, but noticing what gets left out.” He adds, “It is wise to remember that counselees don’t always tell the whole story and don’t always say what they really want, need, or intend. Sometimes, a counselee deliberately presents a distorted picture, leaving out embarrassing or potentially incriminating details.” Do your best to separate facts from feelings and impressions (see our earlier article, “Discernment”). Here are some questions to consider:
In what ways might this person be rationalizing or justifying their issue?
In what ways might they be blame-shifting to others?
Do you sense that the person is minimizing or exaggerating portions of their account? How do you know?
What facts are clear, and which do you still have questions about?
In what ways is the client ungrateful?
In what ways were their expectations disappointed?
What fears do they have that signal distrust?
What control efforts do they have that signal distrust?
STAGE 2: Identify false beliefs
Rather than jumping directly to changing the behavior of a person, we need to address their false beliefs. God transforms us through a renewing of our mind (Rom. 12:2; Eph. 4:23-24). While fear and consequences can change our behavior to some extent (e.g. being fired if we’re late for work, being thrown out on the street if we don’t pay rent), this is really superficial change. God wants us to become Christ-like people, who sacrificially love others. Merely fearing the consequences will not change us in this way. Thus we need to identify false belief patterns in the life of the person whom we’re counseling.
When did the counselee develop their false belief? It is important to discover the person’s family of origin, history, and background. This isn’t for the purpose of morbid introspection. Rather, by understanding how we began to adopt a false view, it helps to liberate us in the present, if it is accompanied by forgiveness. Several questions are helpful to understand a person’s background:
Significant people: Name three people who played a deep impact on your life.
Positive events: List three significant events.
Negative events: List three significant events.
Home life: What was it like growing up?
Parents’ marital status: Married? Divorced? Remarried?
Birth order: Oldest? Youngest? Middle?
Family interactions: What was the quality of family life? Conflicted or repressed?
Economic upbringing: Poor, middle class, wealthy?
Geographic setting: Rural, suburban, urban.
Counselor Mark Laaser tells the story of a woman whose father told the family when she was menstruating for the first time. When he announced this to the family, he added that he needed to protect her from the boys. The woman told the counselor about this episode with tears in her eyes, and she was 70 years old!
Often, counselees find it difficult to form a healthy critique of their upbringing. For those raised in Christian families, this is especially difficult. Laaser writes, “Labeling a family as either ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ isn’t necessarily helpful. Many Christians get stuck in black-and-white thinking trying to decide if their families are ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ …All families have good and bad, healthy and unhealthy, qualities. All families and all family members make mistakes.” We should understand our pasts as a means of understanding ourselves, forgiving others, and even confronting family members and forming healthy boundaries. We should never dive into our pasts in order to harbor resentments or nurse our wounds.
Morbid introspection into our pasts is unhealthy. Just as God addresses our sin little by little, we should trust that God will be the active agent in bringing to light problems (Ps. 139:23-24; Phil. 3:15). Understanding our pasts can be helpful if we have reached a roadblock in our spiritual growth, but allow God to play this role, and never allow it to be an excuse for unbelief.
Is the counselee ignorant to the biblical teaching? It’s possible that they have simply never been introduced to these great truths about their identity. Paul writes that unbelief is sin (Rom. 14:23). While we need to be sensitive to a person’s damaged histories, we need to resist the urge to excuse their behavior—due to their circumstances. This will only impede the process of change in their life.
What is the person’s self-talk? Backus uses the term “self-talk” to refer to “the words we tell ourselves in our thoughts.” This isn’t to say that our words can change our emotions per se. Instead, this “self-talk” is indicative of what is in our heart. As Jesus said, “His mouth speaks from that which fills his heart” (Lk. 6:45). Think of some common “self-talk” we might discover in a counselee:
“I’m an idiot.”
“I’m such a klutz.”
“I hate my job.”
“I’m so ungifted.”
“I’m going to fail that test and fail this class.”
“My life sucks.”
It’s often helpful to have the counselee write out their self-talk. For instance, a young woman might write, “I’ll never be happy unless I get married.” Or a young man might write, “My life isn’t worth living… It’s never going to get better.” Backus comments, “No one can predict the future with certainty, least of all a person whose prediction is determined by the pain and hurt of depression. We cannot predict that all of the events in our lives are going to be happy and enriching, nor can we predict that all ahead is gloom and despair… Some experiences are more gratifying than expected, but then some are worse than expected. Anyone predicting that life will be horrendous forever is as wrong as if he were predicting a nickel thrown through the air one hundred times will turn up tails one hundred times.”
What are their current coping mechanisms? We can’t reject the truth of God for very long before we experience deep and bitter pain. As a result, we develop coping mechanisms to handle this pain. Consider several below:
Whenever stress enters the life of your friend, he cannot adequately process or cope with this. It is during these times that he “coincidentally” falls back into his pornography habit.
Your friend hasn’t learned how to handle her anxiety. Whenever anxiety enters her life, she binges on unhealthy food.
When conflict occurs on a leadership team, your friend shuts down and won’t talk, or she bursts into tears at the drop of a hat. Rather than working through conflict, she relies on these tried and true defense mechanisms.
Your friend feels lonely and insecure, so he needs to be the loud and obnoxious to garner the attention of others. He has learned that even bad attention is still attention.
Your friend fears failure. Instead of taking steps to overcome an obstacle, he sleeps all day long, thinking that he will avoid his problems by never leaving his bedroom and trying.
In each of these circumstances, you see that a deeper false belief undergirds the exterior behavior. Crabb writes,
Many pastors preach an ‘iceberg view’ of sin. All they worry about is what is visible above the water line. Like a naive sea captain steering his vessel around the tip of the iceberg with no awareness that there is a mountain of ice beneath the surface that could wreck his ship, Christian teachers and disciplers are too often satisfied when their people turn from church-defined sins of misbehavior.
In this stage of counseling, our goal is to understand that 90% beneath the surface. It helps us to get at the root—not just the fruit.
STAGE 3: True beliefs
In this stage, the counselor encourages the person to believe truth, rather than falsehood. This takes preparation. In the moment, a counselor might have a special insight or word from God. Often, however, they pray about how to encourage their friend to understand God’s truth in a particular area (Heb. 10:24).
Are they ignorant to these truths or stuck in unbelief? Sometimes, the person needs to be reminded of truths they already know. Peter writes, “I consider it right… to stir you up by way of reminder” (2 Pet. 1:13).
What truths are being ignored or marginalized as unimportant? It’s important to do some biblical study on a topic in order to grasp these passages in detail.
What has their thought-life been like? The question isn’t if they know biblical truth, but whether they are dwelling and trusting in these truths.
If they were really believing God’s truth, what would be different in the person’s life? Try to gain and impart vision to the person in what change might look like if they trusted God more than their feelings.
STAGE 4: Right actions or attitudes
The counselor urges them to live out their identity in Christ—not just believe it in some abstract way. Our actions do matter (1 Jn. 4:20), but the key to fixing them is indirect—not direct.
If the person is persuaded on changing in this area, we should help them create a plan of action that will help them combat their false beliefs or their sin issue. It’s often best to ask the counselee what their own plan is before helping them.
The counselor should break down steps into manageable parts. If they can’t take a large step, break it in half. If that doesn’t work, break it in half again, until you reach a small place when they can be held accountable. For instance, if they are painfully shy, you might not encourage to build a friendship with a roommate. Instead, you might break that step in half by saying that they should simply talk to a roommate, or initiate lunch with a roommate.
We should teach the principle of “resist” and “replace.” When they find themselves in a point of temptation, do they have a mental list of other healthy options that they might choose instead? For instance, a young man may be tempted to fall into pornography late at night before falling asleep. What can he replace this with—given the fact that this is a “trigger” for him falling into porn? We can’t simply tell people what not to do. We need to give them a positive alternative.
Homework assignments are helpful here. We might offer suggestions for homework, or we might urge them to come up with steps: “How do you think you can put this stuff you’re learning into practice?” By giving them person responsibility, this helps them to “buy in” to changing. Writing projects are often helpful. These would include a short autobiography, life goals, strengths and weakness tests, feelings journal, cost-benefit analysis for change, recording their eating, complaining, television, internet usage, etc.
STAGE 5: Gradual change
This model for counseling is slow and painstaking. Our false beliefs are deeply ingrained, and it’s much more difficult to change beliefs, rather than behavior. But this model is well worth the wait.
The counselor should urge the counselee to trust God’s truth more than their feelings. When they have a fall into a sin pattern, walk them through what led there.
We should take note of progress in the person’s life. When they fall in this area, point out the progress that was already reached. The counselor should provide emotional support for those trying to take steps of faith.
Ask clients to remind you of what you concluded before as a way to refocus their thinking and faith in what God says.
Satan will try to accuse them: “You are no different. You’ll never change!” As the counselor, we need to make sure that we do not agree with these accusations. Instead, patiently point out objective progress and God’s promises.
When setbacks happen, the counselor might get discouraged and even be tempted to resort to a more legalistic approach. Taking a few prayerful moments to get the bigger picture of progress will help you express God’s encouragement and admonition in the proper proportion.
Many of the points from this essay were generously taken from McCallum and Delashmutt, “Key Pastoral Counseling Tools.”
 Collins, Gary. Christian Counseling: A Comprehensive Guide (3rd ed.). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers. 2006. 68.
 Collins, Gary. Christian Counseling: A Comprehensive Guide (3rd ed.). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers. 2006. 72.
 Laaser, Mark R. Healing the Wounds of Sexual Addiction. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004. 102.
 Laaser, Mark R. Healing the Wounds of Sexual Addiction. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004. 74-75.
 Backus, William. Chapian, Marie. Telling Yourself the Truth. Minneapolis, MN: Baker Publishing Group. 2000. 28.
 Backus, William. Chapian, Marie. Telling Yourself the Truth. Minneapolis, MN: Baker Publishing Group. 2000. 45.
 Crabb, Larry. Understanding People: Deep Longings for Relationship. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1987. 134.