Proverbs and Counseling Wisdom

September 15, 2011


If we were to write down a recipe for counseling what would the ingredients be?   David Powlison proposes a tasty possibility.  He says, “…Counseling wisdom is an exquisite mix of three things: a personal integrity that applies the truth firsthand (humility) a breadth and depth of knowledge, of God and people (truth)  and a rich bundle of relational skills and attitudes (love).” (Powlison, Speaking the Truth in Love, page 135).  I like to describe the recipe of counseling as a whole person’s response to a whole person’s problems using the principles of Scripture leading toward Christ likeness.  Both of these recipes for counseling call for the whole person to be involved-the head (content), the heart (character), and hands (competencies).  I would like to propose that the book of Proverbs has all of the ingredients necessary to make a well-rounded meal to feed the souls of our counselees.

Content or head

Three main counseling questions are, “who are people?”, “why do they do the things they do?” and “how do we help people change?”  But, on top of this Proverbs adds the most crucial question, “Who is God in relation to people and their problems?”

This book gives us incredible insight into human nature and tells us about the God to whom we are responsible.  Proverbs assumes that Genesis three is literal and that humans now suffer from a condition called depravity.  A very realistic picture is given of human nature—greedy, sexually motivated, lazy, rebellious, angry and many other things.  Proverbs 29:9 is a great summary, “Who can say, “I have cleansed my heart, I am pure from my sin”?

As wisdom (chokmah) is discussed throughout the book it is not from the perspective that it is an independent reality apart from this theistic worldview that has been revealed in the holy writings (cf. 19:20-21).  As Goldberg says in The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, “Hebrew wisdom was not theoretical and speculative.  It was practical, based on revealed principles [emphasis mine] of right and wrong, to be lived out in daily life.”(Vol. 1, Page 283)

The fact that we are accountable to the Creator of the universe (chapter 8), who is directly involved in the affairs of this planet (5:21), is a prevalent theme throughout. There are many counseling applications to these truths.  For example, my counselee needs to know this as he struggles with faithfulness to his wife (chapter 5). This knowledge should also fuel an awe of the LORD (1:7) and decrease our fear of man (29:25).

Heart or character

The second ingredient in our counseling recipe is the inner person, also known as the heart.  Proverbs 4:23 says we live out of our hearts; therefore, studying the heart answers the question of human motivation.  

Proverbs 27:19 gives us rich counseling insight, “As in water face reflects face, so the heart of man reflects man.” My inner person is who I really am.  There are many interesting heart verses that tie in directly with counseling.  Proverbs 13:12 is another example, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but desire fulfilled is a tree of life.”  This obviously has applications to our hopeless counselee and gives us a heads up that he may have his hope placed in a faulty object. But this verse also starts to get us thinking about what this heart ingredient really is.  In typical poetic parallelism a synonym for heart in the first line is desire in the second line.  Desires and heart go hand in hand throughout Scripture.  Hebrews 4:12, for example, talks about the “thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Our counselees have desire problems.  They want things they are not getting and getting things they are not wanting.  I have the same problem, how about you?

We have already seen that the heart/desires in Proverbs have been permeated by sin (29:9) so we must guard our hearts (4:23).  One application would be that we should not be telling a counselee to trust his heart.  Even as a New Covenant believer who has the incredible blessing of being in union with Christ I deal with many unsanctified areas of desire.  Paul even says, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am [emphasis mine] foremost of all” (I Timothy 1:15).

The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament summarizes the word heart as, “the richest biblical term for the totality of man’s inner or immaterial nature…. the three personality functions of man; emotion, thought, or will…As the seat of thought and intellect, the heart can be deluded….the heart is the seat of the will” (Bowling, Vol. 1, pages 466-467).  So, why do our counselees make the decisions they do?  Proverb’s answer is the heart and that it has problems.  Why do they think the things they do?  Again, the answer is the heart and it has problems (cf. also our Lord’s words in Mark 7:21-23).

The solution biblically is to learn to want/worship the correct things.  My heart is a worship machine pumping out wrong desires regularly (see also Romans 1:25).  Jesus said, “…Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:21).  This verse ties together my heart with what I worship (value, worship).  Much counseling insight can be derived from thinking through what our counselees are living for. What does he or she treasure?

We must call our counselees to worship what is correct. “Trust in the LORD with all your heart…” (3:5). The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge…” (1:7). The name of the LORD is a strong tower as opposed to the man who trusts uselessly in his wealth (18:10-11).

Competencies or hands

The third ingredient that Proverbs adds to our counseling recipe is how to be a competent helper of others.

As counselors we know that it is not just what we say but it is equally important to know how to work with people, how to listen, and how to ask questions.  Proverbs teaches skills that are necessary for a counselor to build a loving relationship with the counselee, (17:17) which makes it easier for the counselee to listen to advice (27:6, 9, 17). Throughout the whole book relationships are highlighted, both good and bad.

I have long been intrigued with chapter eighteen’s wisdom for a counselor.  Verse 13 tells me to be a good listener and to make sure I get all the facts before speaking. Verse 15 tells me that I need to be lovingly curious about my counselee.  Verse 17 tells me to be wise in marriage counseling and to listen to both sides.  “The first to plead his case seems just, until another comes and examines him.” Along with chapter 18, Proverbs tells me to help people draw out the purposes of their hearts and tells me to urge people to memorize and meditate on Scripture (3:3; 7:3).

In conclusion, the full spectrum of counseling content cannot be covered in a concise article.  Please explore the feast for yourself on these topics; the family with all its various angles, fear, anger, a life of trusting the LORD and many others.  If you do you will see that all the ingredients necessary to do counseling are addressed by Proverbs.

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