Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about “helplessness.” Or, you might say I’ve been pondering the different ways in which we find ourselves “helpless” in this life. For example, I am acutely aware of my helplessness as I watch my son learn the subtleties of playing defense in basketball. For myself, I notice how helpless I am to stop my hairline from receding. On a more global scale, I feel helpless as I watch all manner of ecological or political foolishness. But though I notice things like these from time to time, as a counselor, helplessness is something that I see and feel on a daily basis.
In a way, I’ve resigned myself to it. Helplessness is continually present in the counseling room because we are often powerless to determine the outcome of our problems. Whether it’s the loss of a job, a wayward child, the death of a loved one, chronic pain, being marginalized, receiving a diagnosis of schizophrenia, or attempting to reconcile with an estranged family member—our ability to accomplish our ends, alleviate our suffering, or change our situations can be extremely limited.
Scripture speaks to this. It validates our lack of control and even admonishes us to not assume the certainty of our plans or abilities (see Psalm 103:14, James 4:13-17, and Proverbs 19:21). In light of this, we could be tempted to adopt a posture of fatalism and hopelessness. But in the wisdom of God, helplessness does not lead to hopelessness, and powerlessness does not lead to fatalism. Though Scripture speaks of our limitations and utter dependence as creatures, it simultaneously proclaims God’s power and love. It is God’s power to act and his love for his people within their helplessness that mingles hope with helplessness.
Psalm 31:21 wonderfully captures this relationship:
Blessed be the Lord, for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me
when I was in a besieged city.
The imagery used by the psalmist in this verse is that of an extremely dire circumstance: the besieging of a city. It is the perfect illustration of helplessness because a besieged city is surrounded by an attacking enemy and cut off from all resources. There is no escape and no control—the only thing to do is wait. But note that while the setting is ominous, the focal point of the verse is positive, even uplifting. It speaks of God as the one who wondrously shows his “steadfast love” to his people when they are in a place of utter helplessness. So though besieged and helpless, the psalmist was not hopeless. Paul proposes the same thing in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 and then again in Romans 8:35-39: Because of the love of God we do not lose heart, for nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.
In counseling ministry, this reality plays out every day. Sometimes the helplessness that I feel is due to a situation that I know is impossible to fix or change. Other times, the helplessness I feel is due to the complexity of the problem in front of me and I’m not actually sure how to help. Or, I experience helplessness when I know exactly what needs to happen, but I am powerless to bring it about for the person.
While the helplessness I feel may be more or less pronounced, more or less devastating, more or less urgent, in all cases, my hope as a helper, and the hope of those I am helping rests in the God who shows his steadfast love while we are helpless. Psalm 31:21 teaches me to humbly accept my limitations in ministry to suffering, struggling people. In light of this I do not lose hope, for our God is the God of the besieged, the God who is a hope for the helpless.
Many counseling students ask about whether they should consider counseling licensure.
Licensure means that your state has approved your qualifications and established guidelines for your practice. Most states have at least two different categories of licensure: licensed clinical social worker and licensed psychologist. Some states include other categories like licensed mental health counselor and licensed marriage and family therapist. The licensure process for all of these begins with at least a masters’ degree that includes state-required courses, continues with a two to three year internship, and culminates with a national exam.
I am licensed. So I am not suggesting that Christians should never pursue licensure. But my observation is that there are always tensions between licensure and careful biblical thought and practice, and if you are not alert to these tensions, you will gradually adopt the secular shape of most licensed counselors.
Tensions exist in at least three places:
1. You typically complete at least some of your educational prerequisites in a secular setting. This immediately raises the concern that leading Christian psychotherapists have identified for decades—“we have a Sunday school knowledge of Scripture and Ph.D. knowledge of psychology.” Because of this disparity, students usually view Scripture through the lens of secular psychotherapies, rather than understanding how Scripture is the vantage point for everything. In other words, secular theories usually have interpretive control over your counseling.
2. You complete internships in secular settings and receive intensive supervision into a secular mindset. All supervision is a form of discipleship. Even if you have a strong background in Scripture, your wisdom is rarely seasoned enough for the categories of Scripture to meaningfully re-interpret what you are receiving. As a general rule, your internship—the capstone of your educational experience—has the greatest influence on your vocational future.
3. You usually pursue licensure in order to have more vocational options. You want to make a living wage doing counseling and you suspect that a license will be the only way to get jobs in a secular marketplace. Here again, your primary means of professional development will be through colleagues who have little or no interest in drawing out the implications of the gospel in their actual counseling. Even if your colleagues are Christians, the typical ethical advice is to partition religious beliefs from your counseling practice.
As I said, I am licensed. So what has been helpful for me in navigating the tensions in order to remain faithful to the Word of Life? First, I received a strong seminary education prior to my work in psychology. Second, I seek to be alert to how Scripture and secular psychotherapies come from very different assumptions about people and pursue very different goals. Third, I work in an environment in which our mission is to connect Scripture to the struggles of daily life.
Should you consider counseling licensure? If you decide to pursue it, then do it as someone committed to living consistently out of a biblical view of life. And meet with like-minded mentors throughout the licensing process—and beyond—or your counseling will almost certainly assume a secular shape.
Scripture is clear. We just have to read it. Ezra read the book of the law to the Hebrew exiles and the people wept (Neh. 8). So we, too, should listen and respond to the reading of Scripture. But—it is a little more complicated than that. The reading by Ezra was for those “who could understand what they heard” (Neh. 8:2) and Levites were offering interpretive help. Understanding Scripture is not always easy.
For us, factor in that Scripture was originally written mostly in Hebrew and Greek, and reflects an ancient culture. The work of understanding Scripture should compel us to modesty. We can be confident in God and his promises, but we should be less confident in how well we understand some of the details.
People, too, can be easy to understand. What you see is what you get. Watch and listen and you can know someone accurately—maybe not fully, but accurately. But (here, too)—it is a little more complicated than that. There have been a few times when I wanted to ask my wife for her social security number because, though I recognized the physical person, she was acting in ways I never expected. There is always more to learn about someone, and sometimes what we learn changes our entire system of understanding.
A seventy-year-old woman who seemed unaffected by life was actually afraid to say a word because she grew up in foster homes and tried to disappear as a way to not be moved from one home to another.
A pastoral intern was on the cusp of being fired because of gross self-centeredness. But interpretations changed when he was identified as mildly autistic.
Parents can sometimes be too confident in their understanding of a child. They assume they know their child and discipline him or her according to that perspective, until they are given an insight from a friend or teacher that helps them see the child more accurately.
One embezzler is not the same as another. One porn user can have completely different reasons than another.
Skillful counselors are aware of these complexities—both of Scripture and people. If you could listen in you would overhear counselors say “Tell me more” as they incorporate converging themes that make up a person’s story. You would notice that allusions to specific biblical texts include allusions to the larger flow of a biblical author’s thought. We want to go through complexity rather than around it. We want people to feel truly known and we want to understand Scripture’s authorial intent and its mission to reveal Jesus. Both tasks require humility.
Today Winston Smith and Alasdair Groves share what they are working on. As you read please pray for their writing project and consider supporting a day of ministry. We need $2,400 in donations on any given day to support our work.
Tell us about the writing project you are currently working on together.
Alasdair: Winston and I are co-writing a book on emotions. We counsel and know many people who feel guilty for experiencing negative emotions, such as anger, sadness, or discouragement. They assume their experience of these emotions means they aren’t faithful Christians. We want to help people move away from a stoic view that suggests “if you just try hard enough and have enough faith” then you’ll feel pretty good all the time. This is not the picture that the Bible paints.
Winston: I’ve observed that people are unsure about how to process their emotions. And Christians in particular find it difficult. There is much skepticism about emotions in the Christian world and we tend to be more interested in locating sin in one’s emotions rather than locating what good is there or how they might point us to something valuable. In light of this, I want this book to address how our emotional world is handicapped when we misunderstand what the Christian life is “supposed” to look like. We hope that this book will get into the hands of Christians who struggle with the Christian life and want biblical help. The book will be practical; it will include exercises, tools, and study questions for the reader and/or helper.
What does Scripture say about emotions?
Alasdair: The Bible reveals that our emotions have to do with our interpretation, evaluation, and core perspective on what’s going on around us. We do this instinctively, not as the fruit of cool and dispassionate reflection. This is part of what it means to be an image bearer! We have emotions about things, because God has feelings about things, and we want to feel things as he does. He tells us to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn—because that’s what he does. He urges us to have compassion on one another—because he is moved by our plight and suffering. Emotions, throughout the Bible, are like color and music that bring life and depth to the things we see and hear. I have also thought of emotions as a treasure map, revealing what we really love, value, and treasure with exquisite detail.
How has your understanding of emotions been shaped?
Winston: My understanding has been shaped by 25 years of counseling those who suffer. My counselees have taught me about emotions and they have helped me apply what I’ve learned to other sufferers. I honestly feel honored to have walked with people struggling with anxiety, depression, crippling guilt and shame, and other painful emotional experiences. Each one has invited me into very personal and vulnerable areas of their lives and allowed me to learn and grow along with them. And because each one is unique, growth has had different emphases. Sometimes growth has meant celebrating together as we’ve learned about the riches of what God has to say about emotions and the love of Christ. At other times growth has meant patiently bearing with me and letting me know when I’ve applied Scripture to their emotional pain in ways that ring hollow or just completely miss what they’re experiencing. I’m a better counselor, and more importantly, a better Christian because of them.
Alasdair: I echo Winston. I’ve seen so many people handle emotions as if they were a problem to be avoided and that doesn’t resonate with the emotionality of the Bible, especially the Psalms and the way in which God is distressed by things that are hard and painful. And personally this is the single most important area of sanctification that the Lord has been working out in me over the past decade. I finally understand the freedom and even the calling I have to feel negative emotions (for me it has been especially grief), pray through them, and engage them rather than try to get rid of them.
Can you share an example of how you think about emotional distress from a biblical point of view?
Winston: I’ve met with many counselees who were abused and were led to believe that forgiveness meant hiding their pain and only rejoicing in God’s love for them. However, the Bible makes it clear that honest engagement with the brokenness of life is the prerequisite for understanding Jesus’ work. The gospel is not a Band-Aid meant to conceal our heartache. It is a promise meant to assure us that Christ is present in our pain and gives us the freedom to express our experience of it. Living in the reality of what Christ has done means experiencing both brokenness and redemption. We both groan and are comforted. In fact, it is a willingness to groan that ultimately leads to the comfort we find in crying out to God.
Why is writing an important aspect of your work—and CCEF’s ministry?
Winston: I am a firm believer in the written word because a well-written book has the potential to influence Christians for generations. I get really excited about spending a year of my life writing a book that could potentially influence thousands of people. Alasdair and I are grateful for our donors who enable us all at CCEF to write.Support a day of ministry at CCEF
One of the most frequent questions asked by counseling students is: how do we counsel unbelievers? How do we offer words about Jesus to those who have no commitment to him?
In order to answer these questions, first consider a counselor’s unique vantage point. Our conversations usually take place when old ways of managing life are ineffective, and there is a sense of personal neediness. In such a context, unbelievers who once wanted nothing to do with religion are now pleased to have someone pray for them or a family member. Desperation can sometimes open the heart to spiritual matters. As such, we might speak with unbelievers in a way quite similar to how we would speak with believers.
Using the law
I have an atheist friend, who believes only in what he can see and has no interest at all in anything connected to Jesus. But he was willing to meet when his wife wanted help for their marriage. Though mild-mannered and calm, his actual words toward his wife could be dismissive, condescending and cruel. When I pointed out the piercing nature of those words and the oath he had made to love, he was quick to respond. He recognized wisdom when he heard it. He asked his wife’s forgiveness and set out on a course of patience and kindness. His changes were such obvious signs of spiritual vitality that I asked if he wanted to talk more specifically about Jesus. His answer was no, but he persisted in his efforts to love his wife.
Helping in time of need.
A year later this same friend called for help with a different problem. His daughter was in the midst of a psychotic episode and he was undone. We arranged for hospitalization, which had some benefit but her instability continued. So I would meet with him to encourage him in the ways he could serve his daughter and to pray for him.
He was grateful for both interactions.
Other times, people hear the gospel when we don’t know they are listening.
I once had the opportunity to meet with a Christian woman who struggled with overwhelming anxiety and incipient depression. Her husband was not a Christian, but he was committed to helping his wife. In fact, he was the one who set up the appointment with me because he knew that his wife would prefer speaking with a Christian counselor. He even came to our counseling times as often as he could.
“You can talk about the Bible together, and I’ll just sit over here,” he would say. And we did just that. We talked about her struggles and God’s surprising mercy to those who are fearful.
I remember one of our hours together when her faith in Christ was barely discernible. As I tried to engage her with realities about Jesus that were usually important to her, but were far from her at that moment, her husband moved his chair forward and sat with us rather than off to the side. He started talking. He started counseling her.
“Sweetie, I know you are upset, but you have to listen. You are not trusting Jesus right now. You are not remembering the promises he made to you. You are acting like you are all alone when God is with you. You need to trust him.”
At first I thought he was trying to channel me, until I realized that he was speaking much better than I was. A month later he invited me to lunch and told me that he had put his trust in Jesus. As it turned out, I was the one observing from the side while the Spirit and the Word did their work.
The task for biblical counselors is to multiply these kinds of illustrations as a way to demonstrate that God’s words are not for a niche clientele but are for all the nations.
Terry Eagleton, in Culture and the Death of God, writes that secularization begins “when religious faith ceases to be vitally at stake in the political sphere” (p. 1). Eagleton is especially interested in matters of church and state but we can appropriate his comment by asking this question: When does religious faith cease to be vitally at stake in counseling, pastoral care and life? It is that word vitally that gets us thinking. In other words: When might I look and sound religious but the vital link to Christ is absent? When is my own life secularized?
John Bettler, the founding Executive Director of CCEF, was the one who taught me that “nice” is a dirty word. That is, nice can be a counterfeit of growth in grace because it seems patient and kind but could exist due to one’s genetic constitution or good circumstances. I, for example, am usually nice. I don’t scream and yell. I like most people. I usually do not say kind things while thinking unkind ones. But I was nice before being regenerated by the Spirit.
Nice does not necessarily identify a vital link between Christ and how we live. So what does?
Most Christians who counsel agree that secularization is something we want to avoid. We want our faith to be vitally central in everything we do. And since most counselors are nice, we can agree that we do best when we consult our check-lists frequently.
There is typically a dominant metaphor—a picture—that shapes our care for other people. It might not be held consciously, but as you scan your relationships, a picture will emerge. The possibilities include shepherd, brother, sister, father, mother, friend, priest and scores of others.
One I heard recently was that of host or hostess. It came from Jamie Rose and it identified how she and Melissa Clemens do counseling in West Philadelphia1. She said that she wrote about this image in a class paper that I read a few years ago, but I must have been too dull to notice how attractive it was. This time, hearing it from Jamie face to face, and witnessing how she graciously and sacrificially includes others, I immediately wanted to go to their West Philadelphia site and be part of the fun.
Counselors as inviting hosts
Let’s enjoy that image for a moment. When I think of a host or hostess, there are a few people who come to mind. A composite of them would look like this.
She decides to have some friends over for a meal. She makes the calls that morning and all six people are able to attend. In other words, when you get a call from this person for a meal, you clear out your calendar because you certainly don’t want to miss it.
She ponders a menu. She thinks aloud with her husband, and, as the dishes emerge in her mind, she can’t help but smile. Then, she is off to the store for the freshest of vegetables and fruits and a few special ingredients. By noon the kitchen becomes the hub of activity and joy. Her husband has now caught the vision, and together they indulge in a day of cooking and preparation for the guests.
By 6:30 p.m. the place is spotless though casual and comfy. Guests are greeted with hugs and just plain delight. Within a few minutes, everyone is family. Conversations are warm and refreshing, and, if you paused to consider the moment, the entire setting would seem . . . perfect. It is a full-on Babette’s Feast replete with sacrifice, the best of food, and fellowship.
A host has invited you, has done lots of preparation with you in mind, includes you as family, and wants everything to be just so—all to the end of blessing you.
The Divine host
This metaphor seems so perfect because it echoes heaven itself. The Divine host has invited us into his joy. He has been preparing a place for us, and it will, indeed, be perfect. He is inviting us to a banquet and we are to bring nothing. This is no pot luck—that would detract from the pleasure of the host and the glory of the occasion. We are to bring only our appetites.
Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. (Is. 55:1-2)
It is a meal where every minute brings further insight into the sacrifice of the host, further delight in what he provided, and deeper love that seems so full you could explode, though you won’t. And it will be deeper yet, in another minute.
A host has already given great thought and care to the guests, long before they arrive. A host couldn’t imagine anything better than making that sacrifice for the ones who will be arriving. And the guests can be certain that, whatever they were expecting, they will receive something even better. Who could resist such an invitation?
My own history does not sensitize me to matters of power, control and authority. I have never been dominated or controlled harshly by anyone. Power was not obvious in my parent’s home, and by nature I think “we are all in this together.” My children have said that I can be controlling, but I think they are identifying my inner OCD and an uncharacteristic interest in neatness as I get older rather than any oppressive tendencies. Overall, I prefer not to have power, control and authority, unless, of course, things are not going my way and then I would like to have all three.
So I have been slow to grasp the subtleties of power differentials.
Counselors have power
It is obvious that adults have power over children and spiritual leaders—pastors, elders, teachers, even small group leaders—have power over those they lead. But counselors also have power over those they counsel. I fit in all of these categories, but I am especially interested in the role of counselor.
In that role, I usually do not feel as though I have power. I remember when a person I had counseled ate a meal sitting right next to me and he had no immediate recollection that we spent a number of hours together. I have also had people fall asleep while I was, in my mind, speaking very fitting words. But these examples do not trick me into thinking that my role is effete and inconsequential.
Information is power
Though I consider myself a friend in most counseling situations, there is still a power differential: I usually know more about the person I am counseling than that person knows about me. I believe I am open with other people, and I would be willing to speak details of my own life if I thought they would be edifying, but the common reality is that I have more information about the person than the person has about me. I have graciously been given access to someone’s heart, and some of those details are fragile and best kept within a small circle. This imbalance gives me power, and I better use it well.
Every human heart has an interest in being open, known, and accepted, and every human heart is scared to death that it could be open, known, and rejected. This is where the power lies. When people are rejected by those who know them best, it has enduring consequences. Witness those who have been rejected by parents. Even after the parents are deceased, their power and influence continues unabated.
Use it well
So we redouble our attentiveness to well-known teaching in Scripture on the leadership and power.
We are servants (John 13, Phil. 2:5-11)—we prize humility.
We are trustworthy friends who keep confidences (Pro. 11:13, 25:9)
We speak words that bless and build up (Eph. 4:29). Even the private words in our hearts are words of blessing (Lev. 19:17).
We remember that “leader” is typically an epithet in Scripture. We are among a sordid group, and we keep that history in front of us as an ongoing warning.
We are people who need help too.
These teachings all keep an eye on human pride. When power, control and authority are misused, arrogance is inevitably at the heart of it.