Counseling When You're Not a Counselor
By Kathy Collard Miller
As Barbara sat in front of me spilling out her story, I initially felt helpless. How could I, a layperson, help her? Yet as we talked, God gave me wisdom and she left having insights into her problem. When we aren't professional counselors, helping others with their struggles can be a challenge. Yet it can be done with compassion and competence. As a speaker, it's my great joy to counsel women at events, and I'm amazed at how God gives me insights and instruction to share with them, even though I'm not a trained professional. But it's still scary ground. How can we learn?
First, we can learn what not to do. The book of Job gives us some warnings about the wrong kind of counselor. In fact, Job called his friends "miserable comforters" (Job 16:2) and we can avoid being known that way by remembering these points.
What NOT to do
Job's friends give Job the impression that the innocent do not suffer; therefore Job must be guilty of something. Eliphaz says, "Consider now: Who, being innocent, has ever perished? Where were the upright ever destroyed?" (Job 4:7).
I also notice that these "counselors" give pat answers without compassion. Eliphaz also says, "As I have observed, those who plow evil and those who sow trouble reap it" (4:8). Unfortunately, I was a "sorry" counselor one day when a new acquaintance told me she recently had a miscarriage. Not knowing what to say, I replied, "Well, the Lord will give you another child." I realized later that by saying something obvious and without understanding, I had totally missed an opportunity to minister to her in her grief. If you've read about Job's friends, you may have noticed they didn't ask any questions. If they'd really wanted to know Job's heart, they would have found out he had a tremendous passion for God. The best question we can ask is, "How does this problem make you feel about God?" By helping her identify the wrong ideas she might have about God, we can help her see the truth.
Then in Job 8, Job's friends have already decided his guilt. You can almost hear Bildad not wanting to hear any of Job's grieving feelings or doubts—just like today when some Christians say we shouldn't express a struggling faith in God. Actually, Jesus responded graciously to the father who said, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief " (Mk. 9:24)! God honors honesty--He knows our feelings and thoughts anyway. It's okay for our "counselee" to express her feelings and doubts.
Also, in Job 11:13-19, we find another "sorry" attitude of, "If only you would..." Saying that to someone is never helpful. It only makes it seem like you're giving them a guarantee of a fast solution and usually there aren't any fast solutions to emotional pain. The story continues and Bildad says, "When will you end these speeches? Be sensible, and then we can talk. Why are we regarded as cattle and considered stupid in your sight?" (18:2-3). What he's really saying is, "Accept everything we say without argument or discernment. We know what's best for you." But isn't that really like playing God--to tell someone everything they should be doing? We can avoid being such an insensitive and unwise counselor.
All along, a man named Elihu has been listening to Job and his friends. And he's been quiet, but finally, he can't stand it anymore and gives his two cents' worth. He bursts out, "I too will have my say; I too will tell what I know. For I am full of words, and the spirit within me compels me" (32:17-18). If Elihu had stayed quiet, he most likely would have been considered the wisest of them all. Most often, hurting people need a quiet counselor who listens carefully as they talk in order for them to work through what God is saying to them.
Other Inappropriate Responses
- "I can't believe you did/said that!"
Unrealistic expectations of their ability to cope
- "Why haven't you conquered this yet?"
Making promises you can't keep
- "I'll always be here for you!"
Saying something reassuring that may not be true.
- I made this mistake some time ago when a friend faced cancer. She asked me, "You don't think it's God's will for me to die, do you?" I replied, "Oh, no, I'm sure that won't happen." But I was wrong and when she died, I knew I had misrepresented the Lord.
What TO do
Now, let's look at some positive responses.
Help the hurting person find the underlying cause of her hurt.
Often, someone is focusing upon what seems to be the obvious, current reason for her pain, but sometimes, the cause may be from her past. I once talked with a woman who was very angry with her husband because he wouldn't attend their daughter's drill team performances. I asked her about her childhood and among other things she said, "My father never watched my band performances." She saw the connection and realized because she'd never forgiven her father, she was overreacting to her husband's responses. In tears, she said she wanted to forgive both of them.
Reflect back their feelings (Rom. 12:15)
Say things like, "I can really hear the hurt in your voice," or, "I sense you might be feeling angry about that." Express realistic expectations of growth or healing (Phil. 1:6). Don't promise instant deliverance or fast growth. Healing and growth usually take a while but women will grow closer to God as they work through the struggle.
One of the most important biblical concepts I speak about is the "One Percent Principle." I teach others to make small steps of growth rather than making 100 percent goals, which are unrealistic and create a sense of failure. When you advise steps of growth, make them small.
Help in practical ways (Rom. 12:13)
If a woman needs help, find someone or direct her to someone who can give her the assistance she needs. Many times your counselee doesn't have the emotional strength to follow through. Making a few phone calls on her behalf may be the difference between success and failure.
Pray with her (Phil. 1:4)
It's often effective to pray something like, "Heavenly Father, Suzie is really feeling depressed and desperate right now..." Bringing her pain before God's throne will comfort and affirm her.
Say too little rather than too much (Jas. 1:19)
It may be hard, but sometimes your silence is more supportive than lots of words. I remember a time when a woman shared a deep sin and I was speechless. Later she told me that my silence was encouraging and helped her move out of her struggle. I'd thought I'd been a failure to not have the right words, but God knew what she needed.
Don't compare her situation to someone else's unless it has value (Gal. 6:4)
Telling them about so-and-so who is also struggling with the same thing has no value unless there's some practical point to it. Otherwise, she could feel like she is in competition with someone else to see who has the most pain.
Find out her definition of support (Gal. 6:2,5)
What exactly does she think will help her? Ask, rather than assume. Your questions will also direct her towards a point of action. Asking questions also helps her think more clearly than if you just told her what she should do.
Appropriate Responses From Scripture
Scripture shows positive, godly counseling responses. For instance, we can learn from:
- Aquila and Priscilla as they counseled Apollos: they didn't do it publicly but invited him to their home to discuss it privately (Acts 18:26).
- Jesus with Mary and Martha when Lazarus died: Jesus didn't put them down for their grief but gently pointed them to the truth (John 11).
- Ruth's response to Naomi: by Naomi's own confession, she was deeply depressed; yet, Ruth was supportive and never told her, "You shouldn't feel that way; just trust God (Ruth 1)"!
- Nathan confronted David about David's sin by telling a story which involved David's emotions, rather than just condemning him for his adultery (2 Sam. 12).
I'm confident that these ideas will help you to be a compassionate and competent counselor so that you can "strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble" (Heb. 12:12).