Sometimes I’m asked, “How do you develop a counseling plan for someone?” It’s a great question that’s hard to answer. I try putting together counseling plans for people, but they never seem to work out the way I set them up. People ministry, at least for me, doesn’t organize well. I find the messiness of it works against planning. I’m not against plans, I just can’t seem to fit counseling easily into them.
Then I discovered GPS. What a great concept. An app on my smart phone that allows me to be ‘here’ wanting to get ‘there,’ and creates a reasonable way to do that. It’ll even talk me through all the twists and turns in a soothing counselor’s voice. What I love about GPS is that it isn’t all that concerned if I wander in unexpected directions or take wrong turns. It simply recalibrates the course because it keeps track of where I am and doesn’t forget where I’m going. One thing a GPS can do is allow me to set certain stops in place along my route—places I want to make sure I go through on my way. No matter where I turn it keeps those points as markers for the journey.
I think a counseling plan can work with a GPS orientation. Know where you are starting from and where you’d like to get to, set some key markers along the way, and then set out on the journey. I’ve developed a general counseling map with five key markers that I try to follow in all my counseling. Sometimes it provides a straightforward sense of momentum; other times it has to keep us moving as we seem to take every scenic route and rabbit trail possible. But with the general direction established and markers along the way, I can usually guage progress and make sure the counseling doesn’t dead end or run off the road in an unhelpful way.
Marker 1: Having a Common Purpose
Counseling is conversation by agreement. What will bring this person to see you? How does that affect how you interact with them? Not everybody comes to counseling because they want to be there. What is your understanding of your role—is that consistent with what they are looking for?
For meaningful counseling to occur, a counselor needs to “know” the person in a way that the person recognizes that they are being understood, not just being diagnosed. What is the role of Scripture in their understanding of their struggle and its resolution? Are they willing to entertain the claims of God in the Bible on their lives? This first marker makes sure everybody has a similar idea of where we want to go. It is best established in open conversation before any commitment to a longer counseling journey is made.
Marker 2: Getting Rooted in the Gospel
The biblical counselor faces a consistent obstacle on the counseling journey. What we fundamentally have to offer in counseling is confidence in the transforming power of the Gospel. But that is generally not what people are interested in. They want solutions and answers. We want to see the Gospel “bearing fruit and growing” (Col. 1:6) in their lives.
In trials, the Gospel is always under attack. Even if someone is a confessing Christian in a good church, struggles can be so life-absorbing that any sense of Gospel hope can be difficult to discern. Our confidence in the Gospel is tested in counseling as well. When people don’t want what the Gospel holds out for them, are we tempted to abandon it in favor of practical advice or moral persuasion? For biblical counseling to progress, the Gospel needs to be rooted in the heart of everyone involved.
Marker 3: Building in Community
There is a very important principle of biblical change that is often overlooked in counseling. Sanctification is a community event. In fact, there is very little biblical evidence that any sort of meaningful change can occur in a person’s life apart from the fellowship, care, and instruction that takes place in the local church. If there are change strategies we can offer that don’t require participation in the fellowship and ministry of the church to apply, then they aren’t the stuff of biblical counseling.
A counselor must be careful that he doesn’t become the primary or exclusive voice in a person’s life. That is not sustainable care. Meaningful ministry necessarily involves helping a person recognize and properly access the varied means of grace available to them as a member of the body of Christ in a local church.
Marker 4: Pursuing Heart Transformation
The counseling journey will invariably engage someone on the level of their volitional and experiential personhood—what the Bible calls the heart. We need to help people understand their life struggles as heart struggles. Regardless of outward circumstances or mental/emotional/physiological pain, that’s where true change begins to happen first.
Any counsel that leaves sin at the level of behavior and the heart in a comfortably passive state will close the door on Gospel hope. All true change is Gospel change—it is the grace of God overpowering the false worship of the heart with the true worship of the Savior.
Marker 5: Doing Biblical Change
The goal of counseling is change—real change. Arriving at the end of a counseling journey is more than teaching constructive coping skills. It is more than coming to terms with things we can’t control. It is more than helping people gain insight into what makes them tick.
We know that counseling is having its desired effect when people express a renewed sense that God is with them and for them because Jesus has died on their behalf. The journey of counseling is meant to bring everyone to a commitment to live a life of obedience to God for His glory. Our desired outcome is a trust in God that is only explainable if God is real, sovereign, and good. If we see signs of these things along the way we can be confident we’re on the right road.
Join the Conversation
What is your biblical counseling GPS?