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“I have a miserable marriage, and my spouse does not want to make things better. My church sent me to you because they said I needed a professional. I’m discouraged, and I’m not sure I want to continue my marriage, though I know I do not have biblical grounds for divorce.” – Biff
Dear friends, let me introduce you to a typical conversation that I have had more times than I can remember. Biff’s complaint is not an exact transcript of all those discussions, though it paraphrases what I hear from despairing men and women who come to our ministry for help. By the time they get to us, their marriages have been on the rocks for several years.
Their church has not made a dent in their problems for various reasons. I am not laying their problems in the lap of the church. There must always be more than a single-dimensioned approach to soul care. I trust I can widen the scope of what needs to happen, but let me share a few complicating factors that inhibit transformative change when a traditional counseling worldview is the sole means to help a person.
Here are eight of the most common complicating factors in no particular order. As you read through this list, think about how hard it would be for a counselor to help someone after adding a few of these to the presenting problem they bring to the counselor.
Any one of these problems can sabotage what they hope to happen during counseling. If counseling sessions are all you have, the counselor would be working from a serious deficit. The counselor would be like a doctor on a battlefield with a black bag doing triage. That’s it. No hospital, no nurses, no peripherals.
A counselee would come to me for two hours, my standard counseling time. If they come back at all, it is two weeks later, if not longer. This brief encounter makes it nearly impossible to help them (1 Corinthians 3:6). Upon leaving the counseling session, they re-enter their chaotic world. Here’s the math: 168 hours in a week and two hours of counseling.
This scenario is standard for a couple looking for help for their complicated marriage problems that have been spinning in dysfunction for years, if not decades. I suppose if you thought of me as a salesman, my pitch for a high-view of biblical counseling as the solution for troubled marriages is dismal, based on what I have said thus far.
My greater hope is to provide you with a better vision of how change happens. I would not want anyone to put all their “hope for change” eggs in a biblical counseling basket. I’m aware that biblical counseling can work well, but it works best when contextualized in a community of caring disciple-makers.
Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals” (1 Corinthians 15:33).
When the counselee meets with me, he usually says the counseling makes sense and he is encouraged by our time together. Then they re-enter a chaotic life that can dismantle all the good accomplished during a counseling session. Knowing this, I try to create counseling contexts (companions) to add to our time together to maintain good habits throughout his week.
A wise counselee perceives how the odds for long-term and successful change are not in his favor, motivating him to do more than periodic meetings. He must commit to and cooperate with the counselor’s plan to address the short- and long-term issues. Presumably, he will see how his “bad companions” in his life have not been to his benefit.
Before he came to counseling, he had surrounded himself with relationships, contexts, and things that led to a place of personal and relational ruination. After counseling, he begins to see life through a new lens, and he addresses those poor choices by making sweeping and radical changes. He coins a new mantra: “If it blocks my walk with Christ or my spouse, I will cut it out of my life” (Matthew 5:30).
The serious counselee convinces the counselor that he will do anything to transform. He follows through with his new determination by availing himself of all the means of grace that the Lord provides. Any person willing to do whatever it takes to change has set himself up to receive “empowering grace” from God (James 4:6). There is “favor from God” for this new attitude.
Once they admit the real problem and bring more light to it by a desire to share with appropriate others, they’ve taken a giant leap in their progressive sanctification. There is now an intentional desire to change. Biff must be like this. He needs a lifestyle change. Hopefully, Biff will ask the counselor how he can surround himself with good companions—things that will have a transformative influence on his life.
In this way, Biff’s spiritual life is similar to his physical life. If he wanted to lose weight, he would do more than one good thing. If he’s going to mature spiritually, he must think comprehensively: if it hinders his walk with the Lord, it must go. Out with the old and in with the new. (Cf. Ephesians 4:22-24). Though there are many companions that he could implement in his life, I’m going to suggest ten that I’ve shared with counselees for years. These won’t work for every person, but you can adapt and add to these strategies to create your lifestyle.
And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also (2 Timothy 2:2).
The gospel is about pursuing others for redemptive purposes. If a person does not have this vision, there is a good chance they will drift back into old practices once the counseling ceases. The Lord does not clean us up to look pretty. He cleans us up so we can go out and cooperate with Him in the cleaning up of others. The counselee needs to learn and practice the art of discipleship—the complete opposite of what they were doing.
The wise counselee will begin strategizing early in the counseling process on how he can take the things he is learning and implement them into the lives of others. This process has a transformative effect on the counselee because the teacher learns more than the student, and if the counselee becomes a teacher of the good things he has learned, he will own them. Those good things will become part of him as he disciples others.
For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? (Luke 14:28).
Take each one of the ten “counseling companion contexts” and write out a game plan for how you can practically implement those concepts into your life. If you become stumped on any of them, ask a friend. Also, start developing your community early in the counseling process. Bring others into what God is doing in your life. Think practically and long-term. What would you like to be doing one year from now? Ten years from now?
Ask God to give you a vision for the kind of person you believe He wants you to be. Start praying about becoming that person. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking counseling will solve all your problems. It won’t. You are a work in progress. When your counseling season is over, you will continue to struggle. Life is not cooperative enough to stop messing with you because you’ve gone to counseling.
The ideal situation is to continue doing all ten of these things. The only one that would change is number four; instead of bringing a friend to counseling, you could come alongside a friend in need. I guarantee that if you surround yourself with these good companions and become fierce about keeping them in your life, the changes you long for will come and stay. Your situation might not change, but you will. You are not responsible for changing others, but you must cooperate with God in improving yourself.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).