The wise pastor John Newton had a great perspective on Christian growth and change:
“A Christian is not of hasty growth, like a mushroom, but rather like the oak, the progress of which is hardly perceptible but in time becomes a deep-rooted tree.”
I know what he’s talking about by looking in my yard. During late August, I often find mushrooms growing in my front yard where the remnants of an old tree still remain. They sprout right out of the ground overnight. But with just a little dryness in the soil or chill in the air, they are gone. In my back yard there’s an oak tree, strong and tall. It seems like it never changes, till I look at pictures of my yard from years ago. It’s only by looking back that I recognize the ‘hardly perceptible’ growth of a tree that was little more than a seedling when I first encountered it.
Old Pastor Newton’s perspective is encouraging to me when I ponder my spiritual life. But his words and that image of slow growth also grounds me as a counselor. Counseling is an encounter with what we call in our vernacular, “presenting issues.” Any good biblical counselor knows that presenting problems typically express deeper heart-based concerns. These “roots” are what get our attention, and hopefully our ministry efforts as well.
But even in looking at heart issues in counseling I find it tempting to expect oak-sized change with mushroom-like immediacy. If I’m really honest, it’s tempting to counsel with a breakthrough mentality – that what is needed for every counselee is an experience of insight or conviction that ushers in a new era of maturity. Ok, maybe we’ll need some follow-up, some accountability, and a growth plan. But these are just the clean-up operations; the real work of change has been inaugurated in my office.
Then nothing happens. Or, maybe more accurately, the same old same old happens. That clarity and insight from our conversation gets lost or jumbled. The plan for change never gets off the ground. Discouragement sets in. For both of us. Are we on the right track? Have we made any progress? What have I missed?
Usually what I’ve missed is the oak-tree-reality of change. I’ve over-emphasized my role in the process, believing that simply because someone ‘gets it’ we’re on our way to good things. I’m looking for change to sprout up before my eyes, and not for it to take root slowly and deeply over time. And, sadly, I’ve projected onto the counselee an expectation for change that I hope no one ever projects on me. How can I avoid the mushroom/oak tree mistake? Here are some things I try to keep in mind.
Counseling Is Not Problem Solving
Problems do present themselves, demand to be addressed, and maybe even get in the way of spiritual growth. An effective counselor will learn how to work on the problem level with solid biblical counsel and advice. Counseling digs around the roots and looks to prune off dead or diseased ways of handling life. But we are at the same time fertilizing the roots with relevant, enduring truth, watering it with prayer and encouragement – always looking for the tiny fresh buds of faith, hope, and love that indicate the work of God in a person’s life.
Counseling Is Offering Wise Words in Due Season
Counseling always has context. There are times to say the hard things, to hold someone to appropriate accountability and faithful application. But there are times where the storms stress the resiliency of hurting people. A man who is neglecting the needs of his family may need correctional care. But if he suddenly gets laid off from his job do you as a counselor have the wisdom to adapt your approach to the unexpected trial he now faces? Over time God takes people through seasons of fullness and futility. Can we counsel well in every season?
Counseling Is Sowing for Future Growth
The most valuable counsel is not practical, but practice-able principle. We may share important truths that speak to an immediate issue, but the true worth of what we say matters if it can settle in as an enduring insight that can be applied through a variety of experiences. For example, we can help someone identify when they are telling a lie and repent of the sin, but in the long run we will serve them much better to help them develop a hunger for walking in truth.
Counseling Is Clearing the Way for a Consistent View of the Savior
William Smith, one of my counseling professors in seminary, once said something that has come very close to the heart of what I want to do as a counselor. I try to keep two objectives in mind – to help people see Christ, and to help them deal with things that keep them from seeing Christ.
This simple approach to agenda is so helpful when I think about the daunting task of addressing “presenting problems” with a long-term view in mind. No matter what I need to do to address an immediate issue I try to keep my focus on helping a counselee see and taste of Jesus Christ. He is their portion and deliverer in present and future trials. He is the one who will never forsake them, will always be with them, will make all things work to eventual good for them. Jesus is the sun for their growth, the good soil for their roots, the shelter for their storms.
Mushroom growth comes and goes, but the progress of the deep-rooted tree is the commitment of their Savior and Lord. Would the person you are ministering to know you have their deep-rooted growth in view no matter what the issue is that brings them into counseling?
Questions for Reflection
What does it feel like to you when someone tries to help you and they seem to have a change agenda for you in the process? When you are counseling someone how do you discern when your approach to change is tending toward problem solving and not contributing to God’s work of change in the person’s life?
Andy Farmer has been a pastor at Covenant Fellowship Church in Glen Mills, PA since 1993. He serves the Sovereign Grace family of churches in biblical counseling and church planting. Andy is the author of Trapped and Real Peace.