Biblical counseling training, like a lot of other training, is often subject focused. That means we have a class or a conference on depression, or conflict resolution, or worry, or parenting teens. This is very helpful. After all, learning more about a particular problem helps one think about how the Bible addresses that issue.
However, and this is a very big ‘however’, we cannot allow our knowledge of a subject to keep us from listening to what people are saying.
Let’s use an illustration to explain the point. Some counselees say that the reason they are seeking help is “depression.” Inevitably, as a counselor, I begin thinking about what I know about depression. But think about some of the variables …
Differences of meaning
Depression is a rather broad term in our society. When my wife asks me how my day was I might respond with “depressing.” I am not saying that my condition is depression. I am expressing the fact that my day had some challenging moments. Maybe I did not accomplish as much as I had hoped and now I am looking at a long night of work to catch up. Maybe someone criticized me and I struggled knowing how to respond. I could have just as easily used “challenging,” or “beat up” to describe my day.
Another person might say they are depressed because today is the one year anniversary of their spouse’s death. Again, this person is not necessarily describing the summary of their life. They are expressing the fact that today is a sad day as I am reminded of being alone. They could have used the term “sad” or “grieving.”
Another person might use the term depression to describe an anxiety that they have regarding their life, their finances, a relationship, or their fear of the future. In this case, they could have used the word “worry.”
Yet another person might use the term depression to refer to a state of being that has existed for a prolonged period of time where they have stopped doing the activities of normal life.
My point is not to provide counsel to all these people, but merely to show that even the term “depression” needs some definition from the counselee. The only way you get that definition is to listen.
Differences in motivation
I alluded to it earlier but the motivation associated with the counselees “depression” could be quite varied. In some cases, the counselee is motivated by the lack of productivity, movement, or accomplishment in their life. A woman, who wants to be married for instance, might describe her condition as “depressed” because she is not married. A man who is now 45 realizes that his corporate ladder is not very long and he is about as high as he will ever reach.
Others may be motivated by a traumatic event that took place in their life that they are not sure how to process. Maybe a child died in her arms, a person experienced physical or sexual abuse, or someone did something that now creates intense guilt.
I could go on. My point is to illustrate that one of the key skills for any counselor is to listen to the person in the room. Their “depression” is connected to their story. It might be that one depressed person has more in common with a drunk, then he or she has in common with another depressed person.
Here are a few tips to help you improve your listening:
- Ask the Lord to help you listen and ask good questions so that you counsel the person, not the “condition.”
- Ask them what they mean when they use certain terms. Instead of defining “depression” yourself ask them to define it for you. Ask them what is true of them that leads them to the conclusion that they are “depressed.” You might discover that the Bible uses a different term.
- Ask them to confirm that you understand. Sometimes counselees think that unless we agree with them we don’t understand. That is not what I am saying. I am saying that we do not understand someone unless we can repeat it back to them.
- Remember that while “depression” might immediately encourage you to think about certain Biblical truth and passages, be patient and let the counselee speak. It might be that you will need to change your plan to minister more compassionately and competently.
Please let us know if you have other ideas.