Changing the Counselees’ Goals

Admitting that one needs help is not easy.  Even in a church where it is clear that “everyone needs counseling” there still requires a certain amount of humility or desperation to motivate the person to seek spiritual guidance.  In many cases, counselees’ have sought help in other forms such as conversations with people they trust, praying, reading their Bible, or visiting a doctor.  In each of these situations the counselee did not receive the relief that they desired.  That is why they came to see you.  This person continues to seek relief.

Two of the more common ways that counselees seek relief are:

  1. Relief from symptoms.  Some counselees come due to depressions of various kinds, pain from issues like fibromyalgia, and concerns such as fear or worry which have resulted in unpleasant ailments.
  2. Relief from difficulty.  Many counselees struggle in their marriage, they struggle with one or more of their children, they struggle with the involvement of biological parents (in the case of divorce and remarriage), or they struggle due to financial pressure.

We can understand why they want relief; life is hard.  What our counselees want is for their lives to be easier, more pleasant, more exciting, and more satisfying.  If we, us counselors, are honest, we want some of those same things too.  But just as it is true for us, so it is true for them – we cannot live our lives simply to get relief from whatever may be unpleasant.  This means that early on in our counseling we must work to help our counselees adopt a different goal.  While much can be said, the following three points can greatly help you:

Point 1:  Listen Carefully to their Story and Do not dismiss their pain

One way to really turn people away is approach ministry to them without the care, compassion, and grace of Jesus.  Regardless of the source of the counselee’s pain, the pain still exists.  Whether that pain comes in the form an illness of some kind, or whether it is simply the natural consequences of sin the counselee is still experiencing the sting of pain.  Part of loving them is helping them deal with their pain.  It is interesting that in the story of the good Samaritan we find no condemnation for the foolishness of traveler.  The Samaritan does not say “well, this guy was a moron for travelling this dangerous road by himself, so he is actually getting what he deserved.  After all, there is a price to be paid for being stupid.”  Instead, the Samaritan cares for the man; he loves him. 

In our counseling, we are wise to follow this lead and acknowledge their pain.  Many counselees leave counseling in the early stages because they did not believe their counselor really understood them, cared for them, or loved them.  You cannot hope to change your counselee’s goals if you do not listen and acknowledge their hurt.

Point 2:  Help them see that Jesus offers them a better pleasure than the relief of symptoms or difficulty

We ultimately want them to please and glorify the Lord in all they do (2 Cor 5:9, 1 Cor 10:31) regardless of whether they get relief.  The testimony of the Scriptures is that Christ should have first place in everything (Col 1:18).  Therefore, it is wise to help them see that the joy and satisfaction that is found in a deep and personal walk with Christ is actually a better joy and a better satisfaction than the joy and satisfaction associated with the relief of symptoms or difficulties. 

In D. A. Carson’s book How Long, O Lord, Carson makes this very point in a section he called something like “there are some things worse than dying.”  In that section he explains that he would rather die than disobey the Lord by committing adultery and that he would rather die that by his life renounce all that he has taught his students over the years.  That is precisely what I am driving at here.  On the one hand, we hope our counselees do get relief, but not simply to make their lives easier.  We want them to be more godly.  We want their relationship with Jesus to deepen so that they could confess similar things as Carson. 

In some cases, as counselees become more committed to Jesus they will get relief.  In other cases, however, relief will be fleeting.  The counselee, however, who clings to the message and person of Jesus (his predicted coming in the OT, his arrival, his death, his burial, his resurrection, his appearances, and his promised return) with have a joy and satisfaction that is able to transcend all challenges and difficulties.  In order to change your counselee’s goals, you need to give them something bigger and better than relief to live for.

Point 3:  Interact with them on how the pleasure and joy found in Christ works out in the everyday struggles of their lives

If you believe points 1 and 2 (and you have ever tried to do them), then you know that the execution piece can be very difficult.  Living for Jesus when your spouse does not is very challenging.  That is why in your counseling it is helpful to walk through specific instances in their lives to discuss and demonstrate how a person with a wholehearted commitment to pleasing Jesus responds and how a person interested in an easier life responds.  These personal interactions can be a great time of mutual learning of what it looks like to really live for Jesus.  As is often the case for us, interaction of this kind often brings conviction to the counselor as well.

In the comments please let us know what other tips you have used to help counselees change their primary goal.

Rob Green
Pastor Rob Green oversees Faith Biblical Counseling Ministries. A seasoned counselor, Rob also teaches others how to counsel--through FBCM's training conferences and Faith Bible Seminary's MABC program.