Note from the BCC Staff: This is the seventh in a series of periodic posts by biblical counselors regarding what they have learned during their years of ministry in biblical counseling. Read Part One: Hayley Satrom: Reflections after Two Years, Part Two: Deepak Reju: Reflections after a Decade, Part Three: Bob Kellemen: Reflections after Thirty Years, Part Four: Howard Eyrich: Reflections after Forty Years, Part Five: Chris Boucher: Reflections after Five Years, and Part Six: Jeremy Lelek: Reflections after Eleven Years. Today Andy Farmer shares what he’s learned after eighteen years as a biblical counselor.
I’ve been a pastor engaged in biblical counseling in the same local church context for eighteen years. It’s a lifelong apprenticeship, where the folks in my church have been graciously patient as I’ve done my on-the-job training under the heading of ‘caring for the flock.’ I wish I could say that I’ve graduated to mastery in the tasks, but I’m pretty sure that I’m not meant to master biblical counseling. It’s meant to master me.
So what have I learned from mistakes in Biblical counseling? I’m not going to include the dumb ones—like forgetting appointments or the names of people you’re talking to. Or the ‘never do that again’ moments. I’ve learned, for example, that it’s not wise to go to bed late and come in early, have meetings all morning, go out and have a big, starch-filled lunch, come back and have an early afternoon appointment with somebody who talks in a non-linear, monotone style in a room without adequate ventilation. The chances of a biblical counselor falling asleep in an appointment with that combination of factors in play is remarkably high.
I’ll highlight two of the lessons I’ve learned that enduringly shape my approach to biblical counseling. These lessons have been implanted in my soul through weakness and failure by the convicting work of God’s Spirit. They are not simply regrets; they are life shaping reminders of why I need the Bible in counseling—for others and for myself.
Lesson One: Over-fascination with Soul Diagnosis
I love studying people and personal problems. I find them fascinating. I watch a baseball game and see a closer melt down in the ninth inning and I ponder what was going on in his mind and heart as he coughed up the save, and what he’s going to do to get it together for the next game. Many of us find ourselves in soul care ministry because we have compassion for people. But if we’re honest, we kind of like figuring them out if we can as well.
What I began to realize over time is that I was susceptible to counseling problems, not people. I saw it in the way I interacted with people. They were cases, or more accurately, mixed up puzzles that needed sorting out to put together right. I had patience to listen right about until I felt like I had a handle on their problem. I knew I was done listening when I felt an unquenchable urge to start talking. My confidence to help someone rose and fell based on how much insight I felt I had at any given time.
The lesson hit me when I was working with someone in a long-term trial and I thought to myself, ‘this counseling session is the most frustrating thing I’ve done all week.’ Then I considered the deeply troubled person across from me and realized that ‘this session may be the only window of relief they will get all week.’ I could walk away from their troubles; they had to play them out. I began to see the extraordinary call of listening. It is not just data gathering. It is love and the extension of humility into trials that we usually cannot fathom experiencing ourselves.
The text that most helps me here is James 3:17-18. “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.”
What I’ve discovered about this verse is that I can fully display this wisdom from above without saying a word in counseling. Not that words are unimportant—they are, in large measure, what many people are coming for in counseling. But when I’m tempted to diagnose and address people as problems to be solved in a counseling session, this text checks me in that drive. It helps me remember where my true wisdom lies. It is not with me. And that’s a really good thing. Biblical counselors, if we are anything, should be people who listen so that we can display wisdom from above.
Lesson Two: Biblical Counselor—What I Do Rather Than What I Am
A few years ago I had one of those days of counseling we dream about. I had five appointments—a full day. In every single appointment that day I felt sharp and clear and wise—and everyone I spoke to was grateful for the time we spent together. As I walked out to my car, I felt energized by the experience of helping people in time of real need. I was so glad that the Lord had given me the gift to counsel people and the opportunity to use it.
But as I opened my car I engaged a sobering thought. If I can so easily find personal fulfillment in the success of my counseling, would I be as eager to take blame for when I’m not very helpful? I started to realize right there that I was drawing an identity from counseling that was dangerous to me and those I was trying to help.
I suspect that anyone who engages in Word ministry is susceptible to seeking identity from it. I am not primarily a preacher in our church, but when I talk to the guys who are, they talk about the temptation to get their identity from their public ministry more than their standing in Christ. I think biblical counselors have the same challenge. Fundamental to what makes counseling biblical is the fact that confidence for change is not determined by our gifts, our knowledge, our experience, or our efforts.
A great text reminder on this is 2 Corinthians 5:20-21. “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
The role of the biblical counselor is to represent and encourage a change agenda that is set by God, governed by His Word, and empowered the Spirit. Our fulfillment can be real and genuine as long as it is based in faithfulness to the role we play in God’s activity. I’ve found that keeping this text in mind has helped me carry far more burdens, and walk far more lovingly with people over time. There is great freedom in ministry and in life when our identity is as reconciled sinners and our ministry is as ambassadors for Christ.
Join the Conversation
Today’s post is about identity—how we view our counselees (as people, not as problems) and how we view ourselves (who we are in Christ). How can these two “identity lessons” impact you and your ministry?