This post documents an actual counseling conversation between a biblical counselor named Terry and a depressed, middle-aged woman who we will call Kim. Kim had recently gone through a divorce that had left her spiritually broken and financially destitute. When Kim came in for counseling, she was so depressed that she could not focus well enough to fill out her paperwork. During the first session, Terry listened carefully to Kim’s story and made sure he had a thorough understanding of her experience.
We will pick up the story during the second session. Although still depressed, Kim is functioning a little better on this occasion. Instead of peppering Kim with a list of biblical commands, Terry sets out to offer Kim H-O-P-E in a way that promotes the gospel in her heart and helps her make sense of her suffering:
- H: Honor the Person’s Suffering
- O: Offer a Christocentric Perspective
- P: Pay Attention to the Person’s Current Situation
- E: Explore How the Person’s Suffering Ties to God’s Redemptive Story
H: Honor the Person’s Suffering
Terry: [Remembering the gist of their last meeting] Tell me Kim, I’ve spent some time reflecting on your story from last time and I’ve got to tell you, it really seems as though you have had everything that you considered important ripped out of your hands. Help me understand what it is like to give your entire being to your husband only to be betrayed and violated in such a horrible way.
Kim: It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever been through. I don’t know how I am going to make it. He is my entire world. I am afraid that I will die penniless and all alone. My whole life has been a waste.
- Terry quickly picks up on some of the sinful themes running through Kim’s story. The marital relationship is an idol promising her eternal bliss; she is relying on her ex-husband instead of Christ for her financial wellbeing; and she is fearful of the future. Although Terry wants to address these issues, he first wants to help Kim see them. Terry recognizes that Kim is deeply depressed and seeing everything as “dyed black.” Kim fits Richard Sibbes’ description of the melancholic person. Sibbes said that, “Melancholy persons are in a perpetual darkness, all things seem black and dark unto them, their spirits, as it were, dyed black.”[i] Terry has to bring the Light of the World into Kim’s line of sight. He has to give her another perspective.
O: Offer a Christocentric Perspective
Terry: You know Kim, as we sit here, I find myself thinking that it might be helpful for you to look at your struggle from a different perspective. Would you be willing to work with me to see if we can figure out if there is another way to see your struggle?
Kim: I don’t know. I guess, but it really seems kind of pointless.
Terry: I can understand that, but we might actually stumble across something that will help you make sense of your story.
Terry: Great, as I reflect on your story, I am reminded of the Apostle Paul. In his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul encouraged them by helping them see their trials from a different angle. Could you read 2 Corinthians 1:3-5 for me?
- Kim reads the requested passage.
Terry: Now, what does Paul tell the Corinthians about their suffering?
Kim: Well, he tells them that they will be comforted in their afflictions.
Terry: Good. Why does Paul say they will be comforted in their afflictions?
Kim: What do you mean?
Terry: Take a close look at the middle of verse 4. There is a hint there. What follows the “so that” in the verse?
Kim: Oh, I see. It says, “that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”
- Terry wants Kim to broaden her perspective by seeing things as Paul saw them. Terry wants Kim to see that her suffering is not without meaning and that by experiencing these trials, she not only shares with Christ in his sufferings, but as a Christian, she will ultimately share in his comforts (v. 5). As they discuss this passage, Terry notices that Kim does not seem to think that this passage applies to her situation.
Terry: Kim, it seems that you are having a hard time accepting that this verse is true for you. Am I right about that?
Kim: Honestly, yes. I mean… this passage comes from Paul. He was a spiritual superman. He didn’t go through what I have been going through. I just have a hard time believing that I can feel the comfort of Christ because I don’t feel comforted at all.
Terry: I can see how you would feel that way. I think if I was in your situation, I would have the same hesitancy that you have. But before we give up, can we go a little further to see if we can find anything that might help?
Kim: I guess.
- Terry resonates with Kim’s struggle and her lack of faith. He could confront her sin at that moment, but at this point, Kim still doesn’t see how she has sinned. Terry has more work to do. He has to help Kim tie her personal experience to Paul’s struggles. He has to help her connect her story to the Story of Redemption.
P: Pay Attention to the Person’s Current Situation
Terry: Great. Let’s keep looking. Why don’t you read verses 5-9?
- Kim reads 2 Corinthians 1:5-9.
Terry: Excellent. Now help me with a few things. First, as you look at verses 8 and 9. What tense is Paul using?
Kim: [after studying the passage for a moment] It looks like he is using the past tense.
Terry: Correct. Now, I wonder if Paul really felt the comfort of Christ when he was in the middle of his struggle?
Kim: I don’t know.
Terry: Well, take a look at the passage again. How were things going for Paul when he was in Asia.
Kim: It doesn’t look like things were going too well!
Terry: Exactly! In fact, what does verse 9 tell us about how Paul thought that things were going to turn out?
Kim: He thought he was going to die. He was overwhelmed.
Terry: [with a slight smile] Does that sound like anyone you might know?
Terry: Yes, you. You are a Christian, just like Paul. As Paul looks back on his time in Asia, what does verse 9 tell us that he has learned?
Kim: It says that he learned how to rely on God instead of himself.
Terry: You are right. Now, help me with this; how have you been relying on yourself during your affliction?
Kim: I’m not sure.
- Although Kim is slowly starting to see the relevance of this passage to her struggle, she hasn’t made the connection yet. Terry now wants to narrow Kim’s focus to her specific situation so that she can see the specific similarities between her story and Paul’s.
E: Explore How the Person’s Suffering Ties to God’s Redemptive Story
Terry: Let’s spend a few minutes talking about your “Asia.” Paul had a rough time in his Asia, let’s talk about time that you are having in your Asia.
- Kim then gives a precise description of her experience. Terry listens closely; noting the themes of sin and suffering that form the plot of Kim’s story. After Kim finishes, the two then discuss the ways that she has been relying on her own effort in getting through her divorce. Terry helps Kim identify specific ways that she has been sinning against God. They discuss her sinful fears, lack of faith, and manipulative behaviors. Terry encourages Kim to repent of these sins, to ask God for the grace in forsaking them, and to give her a new Christ-centered vision for her life. After supporting Kim in a prayer, Terry moves to an assignment for Kim.
Terry: Kim, it seems that you are really starting to head in the right direction in the middle of your trial. Here are three things that I would like for you to do this week. First, I want you to memorize 2 Corinthians 1:3-5. Second, I also would like for you to reflect on how God has been sustaining you as you find yourself stuck in “Asia.” Finally, I want you to find one other hurting person in your church, ask them how you can serve them during their struggle, and simply do it for them. Are you willing to do those things?
Kim: Yes. I think that I am.
- This vignette shows the importance of patience in counseling depressed people. By allowing the Spirit to work in the counseling process, the counselor injects the light of H-O-P-E into the dyed black perspective of the most melancholic parishioner.
Join the Conversation
What are some other ways that you have found to bring the Light of Christ and His HOPE into the dark world of a depressed Christian?
[i] Richard Sibbes, Light From Heaven, (Lafayette, IN: Sovereign Grace Publishers, 2001), 78.