What If Counseling Isn’t Encouraging?
Hi, I’m Alasdair Groves, your host here on Where Life And Scripture Meet, a podcast of CCEF, the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation. We put the podcast out once a month or so, and it’s a chance for us to take a few minutes and reflect on some aspect of the core endeavor of biblical counseling, which is how does Scripture come alive? And how does it really meet us in the concrete, real life, hard, complicated situations that we face?
Today I want to talk about just one tiny little thing that I have found myself doing in counseling over the years, because I think it represents something larger, and I’d love to explore that a little bit together. Something I say very regularly in counseling, and have for a long time, is I will be going along and I’ve been listening and hopefully hearing clearly where someone is wrestling or what they’re thinking or what they’re processing, and I will try to respond with something encouraging. I’ll try to give hope. I will try to say something true and relevant that really maps onto the place where the person is in the conversation. And I’ll get to the end of doing that, and I’ll ask a question that goes something like this: “So, what’s your reaction to that? Are you encouraged? Are you discouraged?” At times I might even say something similar, I’ll say, “So what are your thoughts or your questions or comments or strenuous objections?” And the reason that I ask, “Are you discouraged by that?” Or, “Do you have any strenuous objections?” But in particular, that sense, “Are you discouraged by what I’ve just said?”
It might sound like a sort of counterintuitive thing to do here. Here you are, you’ve just tried to lay out something hopeful. You’ve just tried to say something you hoped would help and be relevant and really meet the person in the moment in the middle of the conversation. And then you turn around and ask, “So are you discouraged by that?” Why do I do that? Well, it’s something I found myself doing without necessarily thinking about it, but as I’ve stopped and slowed down to reflect, why is it that I do that, and as I’ve been asked by interns who have heard my counseling and asked why I do that. I think there are three basic reasons that I do that. And I actually think it’s very helpful to do it. It doesn’t mean you have to, but it’s something that I think can be a blessing. I imagine that many of us could use this in a similar way to the way I do it.
So three reasons why I would invite people to tell me they’ve been discouraged by this hopeful thing I just said. Number one: I really want to know. If I’ve just tried hard to give you something and my intention in that was that it would lift your spirits, that it would reorient you, that your perspective would be refreshed and that there would be something in you that would go, “Okay. Maybe there is something here. Oh, okay, that’s a way I hadn’t thought of looking at the situation. Aha. Maybe I could do that and that would really help. Maybe the Lord really does see me differently than I think.” If the other person that I’m trying to love and serve hears me say those things, and comes away feeling like a weight has been put on their shoulders or on their chest, I need to know that. If I’m going to love someone well, I can’t assume that they’ve been encouraged by what I intended to be encouraging. And there can be all kinds of reasons why they might not feel that, and I need to know. So just in humility and honesty and with a desire to have an accurate approach to a conversation and wisdom in ministry, it’s really important for me to have a sense of where the person I’m talking to is at. So I want to know if what I’ve just said has not landed where I hoped it would land. That’s reason number one.
Reason number two, I want the other person to know that, actually, whether they’re encouraged or discouraged, it’s okay if they haven’t been swept along yet by my hope. If I’m out ahead of them and I’m saying these good things and giving this picture of, “Hey, here’s something that I think could really be good for you to hear,” but the other person isn’t there yet—I think it’s really good for them, there’s a pressure that is relieved for them when I say, “So, what’s your reaction? What are you thinking? What are you feeling? Are you encouraged? Are you discouraged? Where are you at?” It gives a freedom for them to say, “Oh, okay. It’s not about me needing to get on board with Alasdair’s program and needing to have a certain reaction to this as fast as possible.” It gives them the chance to sit back and say, “Where am I actually? And if I’m not immediately moved and swept up, maybe that’s actually okay. Maybe it’s all right for me to be in process and for there to be a patience that the counselor is showing me as a tiny little taste of the patience that the living God has with his children throughout the course of their lives.”
The third reason, I think it’s actually a helpful thing to do to ask someone if they’ve been discouraged by your hopeful words, or at least your attempt at hopeful words, is that I actually want both of us, both me and the person I’m talking to, to know that ministry is not like deer hunting. You don’t only get one shot. I live in New Hampshire, and every fall there’s deer season, and lots of guys are going out in the woods and you bring a rifle and you spend hours tracking and you are very careful and you’re very quiet and you get one shot at that deer. If you miss, that deer is bolting away, and you will not be getting a second shot at that deer. Ministry is different. If my hopeful words, my shot today that I took in this conversation, if those do not encourage you, if you are left still feeling down and discouraged, if in fact what I’ve said made things worse, if you are feeling guilt or shame heaped on top of what you’re already feeling, because you don’t feel encouraged by it or whatever—if these words aren’t lifting your heart, or they just feel far away, that’s okay. These are not the only words that could ever possibly be helpful to you. We trust in a God who can bring us more words. So if these words aren’t the words that are going to be an anchor point for you, that’s all right. We’ll find more words. It takes the stress away from either of us feeling like this is the one and only thing that could ever be helpful. It’s helpful for me, because then it’s less tempting for me to pressure them or to despair. And it’s helpful for them to realize, “Okay, there’s going to be more words. There is a faithfulness of the Lord that is being demonstrated here.”
And as I think about what are the theological underpinnings of this idea that it’s actually okay to be in process, it’s okay to be discouraged, that that’s a question we can easily and naturally and normally ask in a conversation about hard things in life. I think there’s a few rich and deep theological things that emerge. The first is you can only say, you can only ask, “Were you discouraged by my hopeful words?”— you can only say that if God really is sovereign. If you do not have to force a change in the other person. There’s actually profound faith and confidence in Him to provide us with a way forward. It’s not a huge hope in me and my skills and getting it exactly right. And having the right hopeful thing to say that fixes you. I don’t fix people. I’m a counselor, which means I bring words that for the best of my ability are faithful to the Lord and to His word. But it means that He is the one who actually changes people. He’s the one who heals, who redeems, who gives insight, who gives courage. He is the one who takes anything I say, and through the power and mercy of His spirit, He actually uses it in others. And this tiny little, call it a tool, call it a quirk, whatever you want to call what I’m doing here by asking that question, it is grounded in the idea that God is sovereign over all things, in particular over the process of growth and change and sanctification in anyone’s life, me included.
Second really important theological grounding here is that God’s words are good and they are fruitful. And I expect them to sound good, if I’m saying something true. If the words of Christ are going to be good words, life giving words, for His people, then it’s really important to know if that’s not coming through. In fact, usually if in fact someone has been discouraged by these attempted hope-giving words, that’s often because there’s some kind of barrier or disconnect between the person and those good words. Some part of God’s word, some part of the hope that is connected to Christ at the center of all redemption, somehow there’s a barrier. Something’s not getting through, something isn’t sinking in, or taking root, or something is blocking that from being an encouragement.
And actually sometimes part of God’s words, not returning void. God’s words will always accomplish their purpose. Well, sometimes the purpose here is when I say, “Hey, here’s some hope,” and the other person says, “That didn’t actually give me hope.” That actually can be incredibly helpful to us. Part of the fruit of my hope-giving words, and then the question of, “Did that actually give you hope?” is it allows us to more clearly see, “Well, why not? What was it about that that was discouraging? Why is it that you still feel discouraged?” And sometimes that is actually the most important place for us to focus in and have further conversation and seek to bring hope. Often putting hopeful words on the table, finding out that they weren’t actually encouraging, is an enormously rich piece of God’s tender mercy to that person, and to me as a counselor, as I’m trying to be helpful and identify, “Well, what will be the need of the moment? Where are Christ’s life-giving words most going to meet you?”
Now, I hope this is clear from the way I’m speaking that what I’m not saying is that you need to just keep going in endless iterations until the person goes, “Wow. I just feel like a million bucks. This is great.” Many conversations will end with a person saying, “Yeah. Thank you. I appreciate the help. I’m not feeling the things here that you’re talking about. There’s not a hope in me that I’m experiencing this morning.” And that’s okay. It doesn’t have to be immediately encouraging. We are simply looking for what is it that the Lord is up to, and His fruitful words can move us in that direction.
A third theological point here is that the Lord has compassion for those who are discouraged. Those who hear good words and don’t immediately jump up with hope—the Lord is not standing there frowning down at them for doing a bad job of taking these things in. In fact He has an intensely rich compassion for you when you hear words that you know on some level ought to be hopeful to you and yet they are not. And I mean, I think about Mary and Martha at the death of Lazarus. They both come to Jesus, but particularly when Martha comes to Jesus, she comes and she says, “Lord, if you had been here my brother wouldn’t have died.” And we can’t hear her tone of voice off the page, but you sense at least profound grief, maybe some level even of accusation, not accusation of His character, but just of, “Where were you? I’m confused. I’m hurt. Had you been here, you could have prevented this.”
And the Lord meets her in that moment, knows he’s about to raise Lazarus from the dead, so he’s going to solve this problem much more drastically and dramatically and profoundly than she can imagine right now. But he has this little interaction with her about the hope of the resurrection. And you can feel her in it, sort of acknowledging in her head, “Yes, yes, I know the resurrection is coming someday.” And Jesus is saying, “Hold on to your hope.” And He doesn’t stay after her and He doesn’t demand that she feel something. There’s just this, He brings words of hope, and He’s going to bring actions of hope as well in a moment, in this dramatic way. But there’s this moment simply where He engages with her in her grief and He brings words of hope and He sees that those words haven’t sparked this total emotional turnaround for her. And He simply loves her in it and walks with her in it and brings her along one minute at a time.
Think about when Moses announces to the Israelites, right at the beginning of the process of the Exodus, basically, “Hey guys, good news. The Lord is us. He’s calling us; this freedom is coming.” And it says that basically they were just too oppressed to even find this hopeful. They didn’t take heart in the moment. Think about Psalm 103. That beautiful phrase, “For the Lord knows that we are dust.” He sees our frailty, He knows how fragile we are, and He meets us in that. It’s just this wonderful way in which the Lord has compassion for us in our weakness. And part of our weakness, part of our suffering, part of our limitation, part of what it means to live in a fallen world when you are made for perfection and eternity, is that the Lord has compassion on us, in our frailty, in the midst of that.
So we know that discouragement is common. We know that discouragement can be godly. We see that in the psalms all the time. And if I can give us one last word here for today, I would simply say this. If you have felt discouraged in the wake of hearing hopeful words, if someone has spoken to you words of hope from the Lord, words from Scripture, practical wisdom from life lived before the Lord from many years, and you heard, and part of you knew these words were true and right, intended to be helpful, and yet you felt your heart sink or just there was a flatness, it felt like it just bounced off of your ears and it didn’t make it into your heart at all. And that was actually a discouraging experience to hear something good and true and find it actually bounced off. That in and of itself is actually a deeply encouraging thing. It implies, it necessarily implies, that you are hungering for the truth, that you are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, to use Jesus’ words from Matthew 5, that you want to hear from the Lord. That you want to hear from Jesus, and that not hearing from Him, especially in the midst of something hard, when you’re already in a place of downness, to not hear from Him is distressing to you. For words that you know to be true to not penetrate into your soul in a rich way, and lift you up is actually dismaying to you. That says something profoundly good about the orientation of your heart.
So, has this been encouraging or has it been discouraging? If it has been discouraging, go find someone else and just share that experience with them and talk it through and ask them to pray for you. And let me take a moment right now to pray for you as well.
Lord, I pray for those of us who minister words of hope, who seek to be encouragers in seasons of difficulty. Would You give us the humility and the patience and the confidence in You, one day at a time, to actually invite people to share encouragement or discouragement in the face of our words. Lord, may we have hope and confidence in You when others feel discouraged, even after we have sought our best to be of help. And Lord for those today who are feeling discouraged, who have heard words from the Lord and not found that it resonated in the depths of their soul, who want to hear from You, and feel at a distance, who feel a heart that does not lift with song at the sound of Your voice and Your words and Your hope and Your truth and Your encouragement—oh, Lord, for them, would You be encouraging them today, that they have a heart that longs for You. May the longing itself in each of us be an encouragement to each of us that You are on the move, that You are moving toward us, that You are richly in and among us, and would you give us the ability to hold onto You knowing that, more importantly, You hold onto us one day at a time. We pray this in Your precious name, Jesus. Amen.