Many of us who counsel do not have the advantage of chronology. In the shape of God’s ideal design, grey hair and wisdom run on parallel tracks (Prov. 16:31). There are times, however, that we find ourselves counseling individuals who far outrank us in terms of years lived, anniversaries celebrated, and children raised.
I’m a young counselor. I’m thirty years old and have been married for just shy of four years. I have one son and another one due in a couple of months. Even though I’ve been well trained in counseling and have been doing counseling for several years, my lack of life experience doesn’t naturally engender a great amount of confidence in many counselees I meet with.
A Valid Concern
I get it – it’s entirely natural for counselees to be concerned about the relative youth and inexperience of their counselor. “You’re half my age – the age of my children!” “You’ve been married a quarter of the time we have, what makes you think you can help us?” “You don’t understand what it’s like to struggle with this for years.” These aren’t hypothetical questions; they are questions I hear often at the beginning of my counseling cases. Many counselees come to counseling as a last resort. They’ve tried to fix whatever ails them on their own, often with the result of further pain, confusion, and hopelessness. Counseling isn’t a game to the counselee, and it’s naturally alarming when – in their minds at least – the last individual between themselves and despair is half their age.
Returning to the Fundamentals
Young counselors are forced to return consistently to the fundamental assumptions of biblical counseling. Lack of chronological advantage means that whatever departures I make from the sufficiency of Scripture or from Christ as the foundation of all hope become more readily displayed as ridiculous or silly. “I think” declarations don’t carry much weight when you’re half someone’s age. Let me suggest five central opportunities that we have as young counselors – five ways that we can care well for God’s people and grow in our craft as practitioners of biblical soul care.
- We have an opportunity to remind people about the true source of authority in biblical counseling. Biblical counseling is rather unique in asserting that the ultimate power for transformation lies neither in the counselor or the counselee. If the possibility of help for my brothers and sisters ultimately rested upon some precise methodology or on my own life experience, they would have good cause to be concerned. But that’s not the case. I have no more authority over a seventeen-year-old counselee than a sixty-year-old counselee. The world confuses chronology with authority; the Bible does not (1 Tim. 4:12; Job 32:6-22).
John 15 is a helpful chapter for counselees as we talk through matters of sanctification – “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). It’s equally applicable as a starting place for us as counselors. Apart from Christ and his Spirit, our counseling will be in vain at best and harmful at worst.
- We have an opportunity to reflect upon the nature of shared life experiences. Often the root objection towards younger counselors is “You haven’t experienced what I’ve experienced!” This is quite often true. However, this is often no less true for older counselors than their younger colleagues. I’ve never committed fornication, smoked illegal substances, or hit my wife in anger. I do know what it’s like to lust, seek escapism, and grow angry. Every single counselor has a shared experience in the roots of sin that lead to the more serious outward manifestations. Because of our shared experience in striving against the same sinful roots, we have much in common with those who have walked paths we have not (1 Cor. 10:13).
- We have an opportunity to practice humility and remember our insufficiencies. With the above points being true, we also have to remember the limits of our experience. I would much rather be a sixty-year-old counselor than a thirty-year-old counselor simply because I anticipate being a better counselor at sixty than at thirty.
There is a wealth of experience gained by actually raising teenagers rather than speaking into situations that are still yet hypothetical to us. Likewise, we haven’t seen the sheer number of cases that older and wiser counselors have to draw from. This reality compels us to be humble and be mindful of the way we seek to apply the Word in particular cases (1 Tim. 5:1).
- We have an opportunity to grow as counselors. Improvement only comes with practice. The most experienced counselors did not get that way merely by reading about counseling, but by doing it. In my first marriage counseling case I was asked, “Have you ever done marriage counseling before?” “No, I haven’t.”
In the grand sweep of the Christian church, there probably are counselors who are more equipped than you are to handle the cases that come before you. But the Lord has placed you, an individual who may be short in comparative years, but who is filled with the Holy Spirit and equipped with the Word of God which is sufficient to care for those in your charge. As you’re in that place, the Scripture’s command is simple – grow (2 Pt. 3:18).
- We have an opportunity to learn from others who have counseled well. By God’s kindness we live in an age where we can pick up a phone and receive advice and wisdom within minutes. In the hour I’ve spent writing this so far, I’ve received one phone call asking for a counselor recommendation and another from a student hoping to observe counseling to sharpen skills. My own counseling has been greatly improved by learning from those who have counseled many cases similar to mine. Paul urged the Corinthian believers to follow his example as he followed Christ (1 Cor. 11:1). We are wise to do the same with those who have much to teach us.
Nate Brooks serves as the Coordinator of the Christian Counseling Program at Reformed Theological Seminary – Charlotte. He counsels and teaches at Oakhurst Baptist Church in Charlotte, NC. He blogs regularly at https://natejbrooks.wordpress.com/.