The story is told of C. S. Lewis walking into a room where several of his university colleagues were discussing what made Christianity different from other religions. They asked Lewis what he thought and he replied, “That’s easy. Grace.” So true and so precious: we are saved first to last by God’s sovereign, amazing, inexhaustible grace. I’d like to share a personal story from several years ago and then draw out some counseling implications.
On March 2, 1991 I had an experience with Jesus Christ that helps me grasp something of the importance and transforming power of grace. On this particular Saturday morning I felt led to write out a general confession of my sins to God. Here is what I wrote: “I don’t feel love for God or others; lack of compassion. I’m often motivated by pride, guilt, fear, and self-righteousness. I don’t want to do God’s will or be like Jesus. I resist and rebel. I don’t do all I should for God—prayer and worship, encouraging and helping Christians. I don’t reach out to the poor and needy as I ought. I don’t witness to others. I am very self-centered and a hypocritical Pharisee. I see what I should be but I’m not even close. I am a sinner who desperately falls short in loving God and my neighbor.” Not a very good track record for a believer of several years, Bible teacher, worship leader, and elder!
I knelt down by the side of the bed and began to pray and confess these sins. As I did, God’s grace came upon me in a wonderful way. It was a deeply bittersweet experience—bitter because it was all true; sweet because I felt totally loved, forgiven, and accepted. I began to weep and laugh for joy. Then I was aware of two thoughts in my mind: “Go your way; your faith has saved you” (much like what Jesus said to various people in the gospels), and “Grace, grace, most beautiful word.” This led to immediately writing a song titled, “Grace Grace, Most Beautiful Word.”
Grace, grace, most beautiful word
That ever this wretched sinner heard.
Jesus, Savior, name above names,
I call on your grace and you save me
From myself, again.
How many times have I fallen from grace?
Lost my first love, lost sight of your face.
Wandering in darkness and dying of thirst,
Craving the blessing but feeling the curse.
Intending to witness, I just start to brag,
Weaving a garment of self-righteous rags;
Wanting to serve but resisted by sin,
I fall through my weakness again and again.
A prisoner of sin, now I’m starting to see
Jesus alone can set prisoners free;
The shackles of sin are broken by grace,
I’m released by the power of the Savior’s embrace.
My faith not in me but securely in Him,
I rise up to run, I now run to win.
In returning and resting in Jesus alone,
The wandering is over, I’m finally home.
As I have reflected on this time with the Lord, I have gleaned several counseling implications about the use of personal stories in counseling and the power of the gospel to impact heart and life.
Personal testimony can be helpful in counseling if used wisely.
Our own stories help us relate personally to our counselees and show the power of the gospel to bring change in real life. As we share our stories we need to make sure we don’t exaggerate or turn the attention away from the counselee and Christ to ourselves. My first pastor said testimonies should follow the A, B, C’s: Accurate, Brief, Christ-centered. (Biblical example from Psalm 40:1, 3: “I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry…He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord.“)
Confession and forgiveness are at the heart of our faith and the catalyst for change.
It was as I confessed these sins that God met me with his sweet, forgiving, liberating grace. Be sensitive to the Holy Spirit when counseling and look for opportunities to move the counselee from discussing recent struggles to actually confessing them to God. If the counselee is uncomfortable doing this with you, encourage them to do it privately. You might also want to model out loud what such a confession might sound like. (Biblical example from Luke 18:13: “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.”)
The gospel of grace is the ultimate cure for believers as well as unbelievers.
My own conviction of sin and need for grace has grown over the years as my testimony and song shows. Many believers are weighed down by a sense of failure and imagine God is disappointed and angry with them. This keeps them from running to Him for mercy. The fact is that although God hates our sin and wants to deliver us, He is always drawn in love and compassion to his struggling children. (Biblical example from Luke 15:20: “And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.”)
Justification, adoption, and sanctification, while objectively distinct, are subjectively inseparable.
In the moments of confession and prayer I experienced all three of these beautiful gospel graces.
- Justification: I had a fresh experience of being totally forgiven and completely accepted by God.
- Adoption: Even more, I felt embraced in a sweet and strong familial love. This made me weep and laugh for joy.
- Sanctification: My heartfelt joy in God immediately translated into an act of worship and service: I wrote a song that expressed my heart and became a regular worship song at our church.
Counselees need all three graces to thrive and all three are offered in the gospel. (Biblical example from 1 Corinthians 6:11: ‘And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”)
All our gospel-based testimonies are gloriously different and all have a potential part to play in our counseling. Ask God how you might “tell the glad news of deliverance” (Ps. 40:9) in your own life in such a way that counselees are drawn to the beautiful Savior to be “transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18).
Questions for Reflection
Reflect on your own relationship with the Lord. What people, means of grace, and experiences have contributed to heart and life change? What counseling implications do you see?
Do you tend to be too eager or reluctant to share your story with counselees? How could the “A, B, C’s” help you to share more effectively?
Who might benefit from hearing how God has saved and changed you?
Pat Quinn is the Director of Counseling at University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan where he counsels and trains lay counselors. He is a regular blogger for the BCC and contributed to the BCC book Scripture and Counseling.