The Trouble with Trust in Counseling

December 17, 2013

The Trouble with Trust in Counseling
Andy Farmer

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Andy Farmer

The Trouble with Trust in Counseling

Growing up in the Deep South meant a certain rite of passage around the age of sixteen—dipping snuff.  My first dipping of the snuff took place sitting on the hood of an Olds Cutlass. My slightly older and supposedly wizened buddy prevailed upon me that my manhood was at risk if I didn’t dip. So, I grabbed a pinch of the dark, damp tobacco and (as the commercial said) put it between my cheek and gum. It was a different and not altogether unpleasant sensation. So I swallowed it. This was not something I had been warned against. Regarding what happened next, let’s just say my evening ended prematurely.

I learned two important lessons that night. One is that whatever the supposed benefits of snuff-dipping; they didn’t offset the potential downsides. The other is never trust somebody who tries to get you to do something by questioning your manhood.

Trust is a mysterious and fragile thing in relationships. It is all the more so in counseling. Traditional therapeutic theory places trust at the heart of the counseling relationship. What differs in therapy methods is the focus of the trust. Therapy can be built around self-trust; or around trust in expertise or system. However, most commonly trust is about the counseling relationship. In therapy, you hear words like connection, rapport, reciprocity; words that express a mutuality of trust. But underneath this shared vision of trust is the basic fact that the client is the primary trustor and the counselor is the primary trustee. That’s the way it works.

Trust-Damaged People

The trouble with trust comes because most people who are seeking help bring with them problems of trust. Perhaps their ability to trust has been damaged or destroyed by the wrongs done to them by others. Or, maybe they are meeting with you because they have trusted the wrong things, or the wrong people, and problems have erupted in that pursuit. At the very least a new counseling appointment creates a choice to test out trust with someone who may ask you to be vulnerable, but with whom you have no prior relationship.

Much literature and training is devoted to developing trust relationships in counseling. However, the biblical counselor (and pastor) has a far more important task. We are motivated to help people trust something beyond the therapeutic relationship; in fact something that is beyond the ordinary realm of human trust.

Biblical counseling begins with the call of Proverbs 3:5, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” In New Testament language, we are called to help people place their fundamental and functional trust in Jesus Christ and his finished work in cross and resurrection. Think about this for a second. When someone sits with you in counseling or interpersonal ministry, your task—your privilege—is to turn his or her attention away from self, away from you, and onto a Risen Savior.

To do that effectively, we need to consider two things. First, the Bible never calls people to trust each other. We’re called to love, obey, serve, etc.—all of which can involve elements of trust. But trust is really more of a fruit of biblical relationships, not a command. Therefore, we never call someone to trust us as counselors. Counseling trust is earned, not required. Second, counselors (and pastors) are in an awkward position. If we do well, then people start to trust us, maybe more than they trust God. If we do poorly then people lose trust in both God and us. It’s a balancing act with some serious consequences if we don’t handle it well.

Working Trust in Counseling

So how do we work with trust in the fine balance of counseling ministry? One way might be to think of it in terms of big “T” trust and little “t” trust. Big “T” trust is reserved for God alone. It requires an open Bible and sound doctrine. It calls us to the skills of interpretation where we help re-frame the mess of life with the hope of the Gospel. Big “T” trust presents the fear of God in attractive ways and the love of God in compelling ways. Maybe most challenging to our desire to be effective in ministry is that we cannot deliver big “T” trust as a counseling outcome. We can only point to it, pray for it and walk with people until it comes to them as the gift from God it has to be.

Little “t” trust is what we want to happen within our counseling relationship as God is granting big “T” trust. It is something we can work at. We can work alone in it by being good listeners, seeking to understand, looking for opportunities to encourage, and providing a safe environment for vulnerability and confession. We can also work in cooperation with our counselees by establishing clear but malleable goals for our time, sharing our own struggles and weaknesses in appropriate ways and seeking feedback for how we’re handling the counseling ministry. Most of all, little “t” trust is built in prayer. Through prayer in the counseling session we acknowledge the need for God by everyone in the room and we consciously and vocally reject confidence in any change we can produce apart from God.

Join the Conversation

Biblical counseling is working toward big “T” trust through little “t” trust. It’s a balancing act. Some of us slide toward one more than the other. Are you a big “T” trust counselor—good truth, but maybe offered from a distance? Are you a little “t” trust counselor—relationally invested but maybe truth deficient? Maybe more to the heart—where is YOUR trust? Is it in your skills, knowledge, or experience? May we as biblical counselors trust the God to whom we are pointing more than we trust ourselves. And may we build counseling relationships were the trustworthiness of God is the message and goal of all we say and do.

One thought on “The Trouble with Trust in Counseling

  1. Thanks Andy. I appreciated your handling of a very important dynamic in the counseling relationship. I especial appreciated the way you divided the very real workings of trust between a counselor/counselee. The big “T” little “t”description points to the danger of wrongly placed trust without diminishing the very important goal of helping the counselee learn to trust God. Prov. 3:5-6 is a very simple but immensely practical command.

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