How to Give Counsel That Really Helps
“FROM the beginning of creation ‘He made them male and female. On this account a man will leave his father and mother, and the two will be one flesh’; so that they are no longer two, but one flesh.” With these words Jesus Christ described how the Creator arranged for marriage between the first human pair, thus forming the nucleus of human society. And it was meant to last, as Jesus went on to show: “What God yoked together let no man put apart.”—Mark 10:6-9.
In view of this, we can see that there was an alternative for John and Jane. True, many professional counselors are sincere, well-meaning and well-trained people who may be able to help a troubled marriage. We sincerely hope that John and Jane met up with this kind. But as Christians, they could also have given consideration to the help that the Author of marriage, Jehovah God, provides in his Word, the Bible.
The Bible was inspired by the Originator of marriage. If you extract from it all that it says about marriage, you will have a handbook, a divinely provided set of perfect principles that are designed to produce a perfect marriage. You might wonder, then, in view of this, why a Christian marriage would ever go wrong. Since we have the Bible as ‘a lamp to our foot, and a light to our roadway,’ why should a Christian couple like John and Jane ever need outside help in their marriage?—Psalm 119:105.
The answer, as the Bible itself realistically tells us, is that while God’s principles are perfect, we who have to apply them are all still imperfect. (Deuteronomy 32:4; Romans 5:12) To the extent that we fail to apply God’s perfect principles, to that extent we need help.
Additionally, our problems are made worse by the “critical times hard to deal with” in which we live. (2 Timothy 3:1) “Today’s conflicts are so complex they defy resolving through one’s attempts to be objective with oneself,” says psychologist Allen S. Bernsten. Often we need one another’s help in handling life’s difficulties: “Go on carrying the burdens of one another”; “speak consolingly to the depressed souls, support the weak, be long-suffering toward all.”—Galatians 6:2; 1 Thessalonians 5:14.
The “Wonderful Counselor”
The Bible, at Isaiah 9:6, foretells the coming of Christ in various roles. One of these is as a “Wonderful Counselor.” A provision through which he makes needed counsel available is the congregation. Some of the older, mature, responsible men are made elders, or shepherds, to assist members in distress, including married couples. They are the ones promised by God when he said: “I will bring back again . . . counselors for you as at the start.”—Isaiah 1:26; 1 Timothy 3:1-7; 1 Peter 5:1-4; Jeremiah 3:15; Isaiah 32:1, 2.
Would John and Jane have been wise to seek help from such counselors before going to strangers? Well, it has to be recognized that elders are not trained professionals, equipped to understand or treat all kinds of mental health problems. Their field, rather, is with spiritual problems. However, in such things as marriage counseling, the distinction between spiritual, emotional and mental difficulties is not always clear. And the truth is, most professional counselors are not qualified to handle spiritual problems. Hence, qualified Christian elders do have something valuable to contribute.
The Art of Counseling
However, like teaching, counseling is an art that needs to be studied and developed. (Titus 1:9) It may be that some elders need help in certain areas in order that their counsel will be most effective. Here, too, the Bible can help because it not only tells us what to say but also tells us how to say it. Interestingly, many of the suggestions the Bible gives us are similar to what the more effective professional counselors use in their work. Let us discuss a few of them.
Attitude toward subjects. The first-century Christian counselor Paul wrote to one congregation: “We became gentle in the midst of you, as when a nursing mother cherishes her own children. So, [we had] a tender affection for you.” (1 Thessalonians 2:7, 8) What a fine spirit! Those giving counsel need to treat their subjects as persons in need of help, not as wrongdoers who have to be judged. It is not so much an occasion to criticize, condemn or reprimand as it is to understand, to be reassuring that the problems can be solved and life be worth living.
One psychologist made a similar comment, by remarking: “They don’t need our punishment or chastisement, they merely want to be helped.”
A time to listen. “When anyone is replying to a matter before he hears it, that is foolishness on his part and a humiliation.” (Proverbs 18:13) This is fine advice. An effective counselor faced with a serious problem does not toss a prescriptionlike answer “off the top of his head” and call it counseling. Like a medical doctor or an attorney he arranges an appointment so that the matter can be given thorough examination.
A professional counselor is trained to listen. However long it takes, no matter how many sessions are necessary, he seeks understanding by listening. Should a Christian counselor do less? Remember, the young man Elihu who gave good counsel to Job and his three “friends,” first ‘waited for their words’ and ‘gave ear to their reasonings.’—Job 32:11.
While listening, the counselor needs to exercise well-developed powers of perception, probing discreetly under the surface in order to draw out the inner motivations of his subject. The Christian counselor has a wonderful help in doing that. What help? The Bible. What it contains is spoken of as being alive and exerting power, and “able to discern thoughts and intentions of the heart.”—Hebrews 4:12.
Recognizes individuality. The wise counselor appreciates that no two persons or situations are exactly identical, and there are no pat answers to be dispensed like pills. Hence, he studies so that what he says may “be always with graciousness, seasoned with salt, so as to know how [he] ought to give an answer to each one.”—Colossians 4:6.
A psychologist reports that some patients have grown so despondent that they say, “I am worthless. I am unworthy of any loving-kindness from others.” How could a Christian counselor help such persons? He could speak to them something like this: ‘Jesus told us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.’ He could then help them to reason along this line: ‘What if we have no self-worth or self-respect? What, then, do we have left for our neighbor? If Jesus died for us, our life must be precious, no matter how we have besmirched it. We are created in God’s image and thus are capable of reflecting his qualities in our personalities. What we need to do, then, is to work toward putting on a new personality. That includes dealing rewardingly with our own selves.’—Matthew 22:37-39; Mark 10:45; Colossians 3:9, 10.
Jesus, in dealing with people, was always humble, never haughty, self-seeking or egotistical. (Matthew 11:28, 29; Philippians 2:5-8) The apostle Paul encouraged Christians to imitate that attitude, cultivating tender affection and compassion and “doing nothing out of contentiousness or out of egotism, but with lowliness of mind.” (Philippians 2:1-3) Successful counselors recognize their own need for humility and genuine concern.
Similarly, well-known psychologist Carl Rogers portrays the counselor as “someone who is genuine without facade, empathetic.” It is what another psychologist terms a “positive regard”: “It means that he prizes his client as a person, with somewhat the same quality of feeling that a parent feels for his child, prizing him as a person.” There is a danger to watch out for here, though. If the counselor is dealing with a married couple, that is fine. If, however, he is dealing with just the wife, he must be careful that the wife does not become too dependent on him for sympathy and concern, to the exclusion of her husband.
How to Communicate
As noted previously, the successful counselor stresses communication. Real communication involves more than giving and getting information. First, you really say what you mean. Second, the respondent really hears what you say.
Next, do not jump to a conclusion or hasty interpretation of what you hear. To make sure, ask a question, or several questions. Request a restatement. Make sure what is said is what is meant. And that what is meant is what is said. “Is this what you mean?” “Let me make sure I understand you.”
The words someone speaks may sometimes give hints of things that lie under the surface, things that go very deep or a long way back. The effective counselor is skilled in getting at such meanings by the use of questions.
Questions to gather information: “How long have you been having marital problems?” “What seem to be the areas of disagreement?” “How long have you been married?” “Husband (or wife), what are your responsibilities around the house?” These are samples.
Questions that reveal feelings, viewpoints, attitudes: “How do you feel about your marriage?” “Do you love each other?” “How do you view your role as husband (or wife)?”
Questions that help subjects reason or draw conclusions: “Why do you think it is important to follow God’s principles on marriage?” “Why does unselfish love bring benefits to the marriage?” “Why do you think your mate feels unloved by you?” “If God forgives you, how should you feel about your mate’s imperfections?”
It is vital that the one giving counsel should imitate Jehovah and be impartial. (1 Peter 1:17) He should not jump to premature conclusions or allow his own preconceived ideas to color his judgment. If the wife is somewhat emotional, the counselor may jump to the conclusion that she is rebellious and he may side with the husband from the outset. Or something in the personality of the husband may make the counselor initially more sympathetic to the wife. Both are traps to be avoided.
If you do take sides, cautions one psychologist, “you are almost guaranteed failure . . . you are then not helping—you’re . . . in fact judging. . . . The story given to you [by one party] is not necessarily the accurate one.” This is in harmony with the Bible’s warning: ‘The one first in his legal case may appear righteous, but his opponent comes in and certainly searches him through.’—Proverbs 18:17; 25:8-10.
Weighing Opinions in the Light of Reason
It is common when a husband and wife are arguing that they tend to lose sight of reason and try to convince each other that his or her opinion is right.
For example, she feels that the room is untidy if a coat is left out. He feels that with a coat left out and a few papers on the table the room is still clean and tidy. How does a Christian counselor try to resolve such resolute personal opinions? There are fine Scriptural reminders he can use, such as, “Let your reasonableness become known to all,” and, ‘Love is long-suffering and kind and does not look for its own interests.’—Philippians 4:5; 1 Corinthians 13:4, 5.
Strong-willed views or motivations may lead to difficult situations. In one marriage, for example, the wife may feel neglected and unwanted, while the husband may feel that she demands his attention too much and does not give him enough freedom of action. They may never have come to a common understanding of what love really is and how it should be expressed and accepted.
In such a case, the most delicate and tactful form of counseling may be required to bring the ones being counseled around to a balanced view. Persuading them to explain in their own words the Biblical description of love might help. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8) Sometimes readjustment is eased by assuring the subject that his or her weakness is common to all of us. “Mistakes—who can discern?” “All men have deflected.”—Psalm 19:12; Romans 3:12; Psalm 130:3.
Generalities Are Worthless
When giving counsel or instruction, Jesus pinpointed issues. (Matthew 22:15-46) Similarly, marriage counseling should address the issues. Vague discussions about love, kindness and generosity are usually not helpful. A pat on the shoulder and the familiar, ‘Just trust in God and everything will work out’ may be all that is necessary in some circumstances. But in other cases such generalities may be the expression of someone who has no real, practical counsel to give.—See James 2:15, 16.
An inexperienced or immature counselor may tend to avoid embarrassing or “touchy” subjects. However, Jesus, the Wonderful Counselor, did not shy away from discussing in a tasteful way such matters as sex, finances and personal habits.—Matthew 5:23, 24, 27, 28; 6:25-34.
Reaching the Heart
The counsel one gives should always be based on the Bible. However, a mere quoting of Bible texts does not guarantee that the ones being counseled will get a true understanding of the matter. Again, the successful counselor follows Jesus’ example and is prepared to reason on them. How?—Matthew 17:24-27.
Consider, for example, a couple who cannot agree on the subject of headship. The husband thinks he is exercising reasonable Christian headship. The wife thinks she is being unreasonably dominated and bossed. Reading the apostle Paul’s discussion of headship in Ephesians 5:21-27 should be enough to establish the principles at stake. But would the couple then fully understand and accept those principles? Not unless the ones being counseled became personally involved with Paul’s words, seeing how they apply to them personally.
That, in turn, may call for a succession of searching questions: “How did Jesus exercise headship over the congregation?” “Why does it say, ‘Be in subjection to one another’”? “How is the husband in subjection to the wife”? “How is the congregation in subjection to Jesus?” “What does this tell us about the wife’s relationship with the husband?” and so forth.
Jesus, when he used this form of counseling, did not give the answers himself. Neither will the wise counselor do that today. Rather, he will draw them out, one after another—not forcibly but in a patient and kindly manner. “The intention in the human heart is like water far below the surface, but the man of intelligence draws it forth.” (Proverbs 20:5, The New American Bible) The process may take minutes. It may take hours. But it can start a person’s thinking in the right direction. And it serves as a powerful tonic in combating a negative attitude.
Counsel by Example
One effective marriage counselor in the United States cites this case of teaching by example: “For a husband who had difficulty showing affection to his wife, one elder made a point of showing affection to his own wife in the presence of this husband. He soon learned what was appropriate.”
In some countries it is said that the popularized “ideal” image of the male is a bronzed athletic type, good at body-contact sports, one who likes his drinks and other “manly” indulgences. He tends to associate with males and feels embarrassed, thinking it effeminate, to show affection in public to his wife. Here is a situation where the counseling by example would be a force for good.
The Pace Cannot Be Forced
The positive qualities and experiences that first bonded a couple together can be eroded by constant complaints. Appropriate reminders—perhaps based on the Bible book The Song of Solomon, the story of the Shulammite maiden’s unswerving love for her lowly shepherd boy—just might rekindle powerful emotions that a troubled couple once shared when their love was new.
However, the one counseling must set a pace according to the needs of the ones receiving counsel. A professional counselor states it is not always wise to try to fix all the faults that are recognized, as if striving for perfection. Rather, he gets a married couple to work out what their main problems are, and in the majority of cases he has them list these in order of importance, the most difficult one first. By reversing the list he has the couple work on the easiest ones first. In this way it becomes easier for them to solve the more difficult problems later.
Counseling techniques are never a substitute for wisdom. The most skillful professional counselor will be of little use if he uses his skill to promote human theories that are contrary to Bible principles. On the other hand, a marriage counselor who is well versed in God’s thoughts as contained in the Bible is a God-given resource for these times of difficulty in which we live.—Isaiah 32:1, 2.
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There are no pat answers to be dispensed like pills
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Successful counselors recognize their own need for humility