Making Christian Counseling Christ-Centered:
The Role of the Holy Spirit in Pastoral Counseling
Any serious effort to make counseling truly Christian will involve a careful look at the way Christ went about His counseling ministry.
By Richard D. Dobbins
Today, we may more accurately describe much that goes on under the rubric of Christian counseling as counseling done by Christian psychologists and professionally trained counselors. Usually, these are well-educated professionals with excellent counseling techniques and rich counseling experience. They often do their counseling in churches or church-related settings. Unfortunately, this is how some people define Christian counseling.
In many instances, however, there is an obvious hiatus between the Christian faith of these counselors and their counseling practice. They may be devout Christians and excellent counselors, but there is little about their counseling that is uniquely Christian. They have tightly compartmentalized their counseling practice from their personal faith. What is missing in these cases is a vital integration of these two aspects of their practice.
How Does One Achieve an Integration of Faith and Counseling?
First, to make counseling truly Christian we must bring our faith and our counseling together in our mind. This begins by recognizing Christ as the only wonderful Counselor. He becomes our model. We not only make Him Lord over our lives, but also over our clinical education and practice. We look to Him as our clinical supervisor who oversees all we hear and say in the counseling office.
Regardless of the theoretical orientation of our training (dynamic, cognitive, behavioral, object relations, eclectic, etc.) we need to place all we have learned about counseling from our education, training, and experience into the hands of Christ. Then, we can trust Him to help us apply our skills as we believe He wants us to in ministering to those who seek our help.
In each session we must make a conscious effort to see our counselees through our Lord’s eyes and understand them through His heart and mind. This will help us better serve Him and them.
As we assume this spiritual posture, Christ enables us to become an effective conduit linking the heart and mind of our counselees with the heart and mind of Christ. When we are successful in this endeavor, the unlimited resources of His wisdom, power, and grace divinely augment our training and experience in the counseling process, bringing it to a new level. In this spiritually enriched environment, the power of God breaks the bondages of our counselees, heals their hurts, and provides the guidance they need in resolving other issues in their lives.
Without a conscious effort on our part to invoke this divine dimension into the counseling process, we limit the help we can give our counselees to whatever professional skills that have grown out of our education, training, and experience. As you can see, God is challenging each of us to discover ways of consciously acknowledging Christ’s involvement in our relationship with our counselees.
In my practice, I remind myself at the beginning of each session that Christ is in the counseling office with the counselee and me. He knows the counselees the way I need to know them. He knows how to motivate them to use their pain as stepping-stones that can lead them from where they are to where He knows they can be.
Entering each session I try to be aware of my need of a spiritual awareness that will allow the Lord to share this information with me. This is my goal. I also end each session by praying that the Lord will help me serve this person (or couple) the way He wants me to serve them. I ask Him to help me be to them what He wants me to be. This keeps me aware of my limitations and reminds me of my dependence on the Lord for guidance.
Such a prayer also focuses the attention of the counselee on Jesus as his primary source of help. This lessens the tendency for the counselee to form an unhealthy dependency on me and encourages him to build a healthy dependency on Jesus.
Any serious effort to make counseling truly Christian will also involve a careful look at the way Christ went about His counseling ministry.
How Did Christ Approach Counseling?
The Gospels clearly indicate compassion was the dominant characteristic of Christ’s counseling ministry. At least 14 times in the New Testament the writers used some form of the word compassion to describe Christ’s interaction with people.
What is compassion? It is the ability to put yourself, as nearly as possible, in another person’s place. Compassionate counselors are tender toward counselees and responsive to their needs. In their mind, they reverse roles with the counselee. They use the information they have gathered about the counselee to imagine what it would be like to be them in their situation.
Christ’s compassion is obvious in His dealings with the woman at the well in John 4 and the woman caught in adultery in John 8. Jesus did not condone the multiple marriages of the woman He met at the well nor did He sanction the relationship she had with the man she was living with who had not bothered to marry her. Neither did he approve of the adultery of the woman in John 8. Nevertheless, He was sensitive and tender in His approach to these women.
Jesus often condemned the self-righteousness of the Pharisees. They were not among His favorite people. However, when Nicodemus sought Christ’s help (John 3), Jesus was compassionate in His dealings with him, even though Nicodemus was a Pharisee.
Another prominent characteristic of Christ’s counseling is what I call lovingconfrontation. For example, even though her multiple marriages and her current common-law relationship were delicate issues, Jesus confronted the woman at the well about them by asking her to go call her husband.
He also acknowledged the sinful state of the woman taken in adultery, by charging her to go and sin no more. Jesus reminded Nicodemus of the difference between natural birth and spiritual birth confronting him with the need to be born again.
Jesus always found a way to lovingly confront people with the truth. He was never rude or insensitive to those who were honest enough to confess their sins and admit their need of His help. He would not allow them, however, to avoid the issues that brought them to Him.
Both compassion and loving confrontation are necessary in helping people face the difficult circumstances and painful relationships in their lives. Christian counselors need to continually ask the Lord to expand these graces in their lives.
How Is the Holy Spirit Involved in Counseling?
In John 14:26 Jesus said, “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”
The Holy Spirit is a teacher. He will not only bring to our remembrance the teachings of Christ, but He will also bring to our remembrance things we need to recall about our counselees.
The Holy Spirit will also take the things we have learned from the social sciences and teach us how to translate them into a higher realm of spiritual insight. Specifically, if we have an ear to hear what the Spirit says, He will teach us how to take what we have learned about human development, mental illness, diagnosis, and counseling techniques to a new level.
At the same time the Holy Spirit is functioning in the mind of the counselor He is also at work in the mind of the counselee. In John 16:8 Jesus says, “And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment” (KJV). As you compassionately and lovingly confront the counselee with the circumstances that brought him to you, you can rely on the Holy Spirit to create uncomfortable levels of tension within the counselee that will motivate him to make the redemptive changes Jesus wants him to make to find the healing and deliverance he needs.
At the same time, you can count on the Holy Spirit to give you the inner strength necessary to tolerate increasingly intense levels of stress created by the counselee’s conflicting attempts to simultaneously escape from and deal with his spiritual and emotional pain. Without the ability to deal with your own mounting levels of anxiety, your need for comfort may lead you to retreat from issues in the person’s life that need to be pressed further. At that point the limits of your comfort level interfere with the mounting level of stress needed for motivating change in the counselee. Allowing the Holy Spirit to help you build your tolerance for rising levels of tension when facing difficult counseling moments will make you more effective in precipitating the redemptive changes Christ wants to bring to your counselees.
Remember, until the pain of remaining the same hurts more than the pain of change, people will prefer to remain the same. Intolerable levels of pain are essential in moving people from where they are to where the Lord wants them to be. Developing a higher tolerance for conflict and stress than your counselees will enable you to move them compassionately through the difficult season of life that prompted them to seek your help. During those uncomfortable moments in this process, it is comforting to know that people can deal with unpleasant certainty easier than they can deal with uncertainty. Successful counseling moves people through uncertainty to certainty.
Spiritual Gifts in the Counseling Process
The gifts of the Holy Spirit are also valuable resources for the counselor, particularly for those who are Pentecostal or charismatic. In 1 Corinthians 12:7–12, the apostle Paul defines three sets of spiritual gifts. Gifts of the mind include the word of wisdom, word of knowledge, and discerning of spirits. There are verbal gifts: diverse kinds of tongues, interpretation of tongues, and prophecy. Finally, there are the power gifts: faith, working of miracles, and gifts of healing. All of these gifts supernaturally enrich counseling.
First Corinthians 12–14 deals with the orderly manifestation of these gifts in public worship and in the believer’s private life. A biblical understanding of how these gifts function in the counseling relationship can enable us to be more effective counselors.
The gifts of the mind can greatly enhance the diagnostic process. A trained clinician develops skill in using visual, auditory, and tactile senses in diagnosing a person’s problems. When the gift of discerning of spirits becomes a part of this process, it takes your diagnostic skill to a new level.
The secular approach to counseling sees a person’s current mental activity as the natural outgrowth of the interaction between and among his personal history, the present circumstances of his life, and the neurochemical processes of his brain. There is no acknowledgment of any spiritual or supernatural impact on this process.
Although Christian counselors acknowledge the important role these natural elements play in a person’s mental activity, we believe one’s spirit largely drives the mental process. Thinking is always spiritual warfare.
In 1 Corinthians 6:19,20 Paul makes it clear that the purpose of the body is to express the presence of God on earth.
In Romans 6,7, however, Paul acknowledges the powerful role sin plays in attempting to make our body the servant of evil. In Romans 6:16 he states our human dilemma, “Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?” (KJV).
At the same time that eternal life is stimulating the mind to entertain urges, fantasies, and ideas that would result in an expression of divine life, sin is stimulating the mind to entertain urges, fantasies, and ideas that will result in the expression of evil. The human will is caught in the middle of this struggle.
The will determines the expression of the mind or spirit as choices are transmitted through the brain to be expressed in the body. By observing the attitudes and behavior expressed through a person’s body you can determine the spiritual influence that is winning the battle for the person’s will.
The gift of discerning of spirits is a valuable tool for the Christian counselor for helping understand the current status of the counselee’s spiritual battle. The clinician does not set aside his skills in this process; rather, the Holy Spirit augments them.
A word of knowledge
Excellent clinicians become experts in joining the dots of a person’s history to get the picture the person presents. However, a word of knowledge from the Holy Spirit about the person amplifies these skills. Such a word often makes its way into the mind of the counselor as an intuition or hunch.
This is why a counselor needs to exercise care in determining how and when he introduces such a word to the counselee. The counselor should never impose this word of knowledge on the counselee. Presenting it as a suggestion gives the counselee an opportunity to accept it or reject it.
A word of wisdom
Anyone counseling people knows there are critical moments in your care of them. As a counselor, you acquire a natural wisdom for managing times like these. However, the Christian counselor is not limited to the natural wisdom that comes from experience.
James reminds us that wisdom is available from God to those who are humble enough to ask for it. “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God who gives to all liberally” (James 1:5, NKJV).1
However, there is a special word of wisdomthat the Holy Spirit can give us in clinical moments when we need His guidance. It alters what we would normally say or do. In retrospect, we easily recognize its divine origin by the healing impact its implementation has on the counselee.
Tongues, interpretation, and prophecy
These verbal gifts put at the counselor’s disposal a level of fluency beyond his natural ability. This is especially helpful in disciplining and directing the counselor’s dialogue with the counselee.
The private gift of speaking in other tongues also provides the Pentecostal or charismatic counselor a delightful means of debriefing himself after each session. During this time he can release tensions and stress from previous sessions to the Lord that would be difficult to articulate. He may also use this personal gift to make intercession for his counselees according to the will of God (Romans 8:26,27).
Faith, working of miracles, and gifts of healing
According to Hebrews 11:1, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (KJV). If counselors are to be effective, they must be people of faith. Even secular counselors must be able to inspire hope in people.
Notice the relationship between faith and hope. Faith grows out of hope. One of the early priorities of the counseling process is to inspire hope in the counselee. Hope inspired by the Holy Spirit can give birth to a gift of faith that enables both counselor and counselee to believe that the recovery hoped for will become a reality.
On rare occasions there is a divine breakthrough that goes beyond faith and hope — a miracle. Years ago, I remember seeing a missionary family from the Solomon Islands. Late one night four drunken Islanders invaded their house and terrorized the family in every imaginable way until daybreak.
Within 3 days they were at EMERGE. What they did not know was that a year before this tragedy God had brought a Christian children’s psychiatrist from communist Albania to be there for their children. The communist government paid her family’s travel expenses and the money necessary for her Christian training. These missionary’s children responded well to therapy. Today they are both serving God.
Things like this do not happen often. That is why we call them miracles.
In addition, the Holy Spirit distributes gifts of healing to our counselees. Although, as Christian counselors we play our part in the process of bringing people to healing, we recognize the gift of healing that comes to our counselees is from the Holy Spirit — not from us.
Christ-centered counseling requires more than devoted Christians who are expertly trained in the fields of professional counseling. It is the infusion of the presence of Christ and the Holy Spirit into the counseling process that makes Christian counseling Christ-centered.
1. Scripture quotations marked NKJV are taken from the New King James Version. Copyright Â© 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.