Compliant or Repentant?

Some counselees tell you like it is. If they are repentant, the radical change proves it. If they are not repentant, they will tell you. If they think you are doing a great job helping them, they will thank you. If they think you are not doing well, then will bluntly explain that you need to grow.

Those situations can be hard on the heart (or easy), but at least the counselee is open, honest, and willing to communicate their thoughts. You, as the counselor, know where you stand and where your counselee stands.

Your counseling may end well, or it may not end well. It will end in a way that everyone understands what is happening.

The situation is more difficult when a counselee is not as forthright. I want us to consider the counselee who continues to attend the session. The counselee who is pleasant, kind, agreeable, and compliant.

Counseling a compliant counselee is a pleasant experience. Since they keep their thoughts to themselves it is nice to work with them. They will not express their anger toward you. They will not express disappointment in you. They will look like they are owning their struggles. They will agree that God’s work, presence, and word helps them.

In other words, they will say all the right things. They are compliant. They even graduate from counseling as a compliant person. But are they different?

I think parents can relate to this. Children might be compliant, but given a little freedom the true heart comes out. Employees or subordinates might be compliant, but if given a little power they will seek to crush you like a bug. Counselees might be compliant, but after counseling they return to their old patterns.

I am having more conversations with my counselees about the issue of compliance and repentance.

Compliance is different than repentance. However, what makes this so difficult is that compliance and repentance share a lot of common outward expressions. For example,

  1. Compliance and repentance admit wrong.
  2. Compliance and repentance agree that something must be done.
  3. Compliance and repentance listen and are respectful.
  4. Compliance and repentance thank you for being willing to serve them.
  5. Compliance and repentance make behavior changes.

Compliance is better than outward stubbornness and prideful bravado. At least it is better in the sense of more pleasant to work with. But it is not the genuine heart change that the Bible speaks about in so many places. In addition, compliance could be an acquired skill of manipulation perfected through years of both self-deception and the goal of deceiving others.

With so much at stake, how should we, as counselors, choose to respond?

Here are 4 suggestions as you work with your counselees.

  1. Believe your counselee. 1 Cor 13 reminds us that love believes all things. That does not mean we have to be naïve. It means that we make the choice to believe the best about a person. Counseling can lead a person to be a cynic. Some counselors have a few battle wounds. Do not give into the temptation to look at everyone through the lens of a cynic.
  2. When you speak about repentance talk about compliance as well. Almost every counseling case is going to involve repentance to someone about something. When I teach on repentance from Daniel 9:1-19 or 2 Corinthians 7:10 or Ephesians 4:22-24 I talk about compliance as one potential danger to true repentance. I am not confronting my counselee. I am warning them that all of us are tempted to be compliant without repentance.
  3. Ask questions if you suspect that your counselee is compliant rather than repentant. Accusations can make the heart hard, but a question can prick the conscience. Sometimes Nathan’s confrontation of David (2 Samuel 12) serves as a helpful model. Compliant people often find compliance annoying when someone they want to change says they will but refuses in the end. I do not like to accuse my counselee of being compliant without asking their opinion first.
  4. Compliment them for their willingness to engage and listen but call them to repent. Sometimes counselor move on. They do not know what to do so they just keep going. I suggest you pause and even assign the same homework. Sometimes in counseling there is an obstacle that cannot be cleared on the first try. Give them second, third, … whatever it takes … attempts because without repentance they are not moving forward.

How has the distinction of compliance and repentance helped you?

Rob GreenRob 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.