I was meeting with a couple facing profound and long term marriage problems. Trying to get a foothold on the mountain of issues they faced I just threw a question out into the air.
“What good do you bring to your marriage?”
I thought I’d get something—“I bring home a good salary…” “I keep things pretty organized …” I would have taken anything. But I got literally no response from either spouse. They were beyond discouragement in their situation. I realized that probing for problems was futile—all they had were problems. I needed an entry point that got behind the problems to their hearts.
Paul’s words from 1 Thessalonians 5:8-11 came to mind.
“But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.”
The Profound Ministry of Encouragement
As pastors and counselors we can get wrapped up in the intricacies and complexities of people’s problems—seeking to sort out the foolish choices and address the heart deceptions that lead people away from their source of life in Jesus. But do we give enough attention to the simple but profound ministry of encouragement? According to Paul, we can’t afford not to. At its most basic level, encouragement connects people in their need with God in His provision. The content of true encouragement is the Gospel and its promises. It takes someone who is a functional God-doubter and leads them (back) to the baseline of who they are in Christ.
The word translated as “encourage” in this text above is parakaleo. The Greek term occurs in some form over 100 times in the New Testament. Its basic meaning is “to come along side,” but what that looks like is determined by the context and can range widely in meaning. It is a broad concept expressing the range of ways God comes along side us, and we come along side one another. Its use here by Paul seems to be instilling confidence in God to live for His glory (as well as in Hebrews 10:25). We also see this word translated as “comfort” in 2 Corinthians 1:3-7, where the need seems to be consolation for those in trial. And in Hebrews 3:12-13, it is translated “exhort” with a stronger emphasis on warning. As Paul says here, we are called to “build one another up” with words that connect people in their need with God’s provision and call upon their lives.
But is this common ministry that significant in the complex environment of counseling? Too often I have ended a counseling meeting with confidence that I was able to help someone get perspective on their situation, focus on their problem, and direction for their application. But I’ve completely missed the opportunity to bring encouragement. I’ve left the meeting satisfied with my clarity. They have left with insights but no faith to apply them.
What I’ve learned over the years is that encouragement is not just an important tool in my counseling toolbox, it should be the enduring effect of what I want others to experience from me. In his classic work on 1 Corinthians 13, Charity and its Fruits, Jonathan Edwards expresses a vision for how this coming along side can have a profound effect on the lives of God’s people.
“Saints, too, may be the instruments of comforting and establishing one another, and of strengthening one another in faith and obedience; of quickening, and animating, and edifying one another; of raising one another out of dull and dead frames, and helping one another out of temptations, and onward in the divine life; of directing one another in doubtful and difficult cases; of encouraging one another under darkness or trial; and, generally, of promoting each other’s spiritual joy and strength, and thus being mutually fellow helpers on their way to glory.”
So how can we make sure encouragement doesn’t become an afterthought in counseling? Here are some suggestions.
Before a meeting think specifically about a weakness or vulnerability your counselee has and how you can speak into that in a way that will bring courage where there is temptation to defeat. Meaningful encouragement isn’t so much about pointing out strengths but speaking redemptively into weaknesses.
Look and listen for small areas of insight, application, or illumination from your counselee. Stop to celebrate those, make much of them. The temptation in counseling is to hold off affirmation until there is definitive change. But this can have a starving effect on someone’s motivation to change. We need to help people see grace where they don’t see it.
Ask your counselee, “Do you feel encouraged when you leave here?” If the answer is somewhere in the vicinity of “no” you may want to allow your counselee to help you a bit on how you can come along side them better.
If you’re meeting with a person over a prolonged period of time consider taking one whole session to simply encourage them and thank God for what He is doing in their lives. Put aside the presenting issue, open up an edifying passage of Scripture, and simply fellowship over it. Encourage each other with God’s word.
The words of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones stay close to my heart as I counsel others:
As we travel through this journey of life we are to help men and women by a word, a word of encouragement, a word of cheer, perhaps a word of rebuke, but a word that will remind them that they are under God, and that if they are in Christ they are precious to Him.
Encouragement isn’t all we do in counseling, but I’m not sure there is anything we do that is more effective than encouragement.
Join the Conversation
What are additional ways that biblical counselors can speak words of gospel encouragement into people’s lives?