Perhaps one of the most sobering passages for any Christian is found in John 15:5, where Jesus says to His disciples, “apart from Me you can do nothing.”
Apart from Him, we can do nothing.
It is particularly humbling to consider the implications of this statement in the counseling relationship. I am called to use God’s word to teach, reprove, correct, and train (2 Tim 3:16), but apart from the work of Christ in a counselee’s life, it is a fruitless endeavor (Phil 2:12-13).
The Non-Christian Counselee
Now consider the common scenario of a non-Christian coming in for counseling. What hope does he have? Romans 8:8 says, “those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” If the work of Jesus is absolutely necessary for a Christian to grow and change, what good will counseling be for the non-Christian?
We find hope for this situation in 2 Timothy 4. Paul reemphasizes the role of Scripture as he calls Timothy to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (2 Tim 4:2). In the same breath, he goes on to compel Timothy to “be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Tim 4:5, emphasis added).
The proper administration of the word of God necessarily includes evangelism. The counseling room is no exception.
A Counseling Conundrum
A proper theology of lasting change presumes the work of the Holy Spirit as necessary (Eph 4:23). The counselor is thus challenged with two issues. The first is a theological reality: those who are not in Christ do not have the Spirit (Rom 8:9). The second is practical: leaving a non-Christian counselee’s presenting issues (the stated reasons for coming to you) unaddressed will inevitably drive them away quickly. In other words, if all you ever talk about is their need for Jesus, most folks will not naturally make the connection between their current struggles and their hostility towards God.
What is the solution? I would suggest a threefold approach.
#1 – Evangelize
Paul exhorted Timothy to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim 4:5). If you are working with someone who does not know Jesus, unashamedly proclaim the gospel and their need for a Savior (Rom 1:16). The Lord in His providence has given you an opportunity to administer the good news to a person who desperately needs it.
Call them to repentance of their sins (Acts 4:10-12). I recall one particular couple I worked with where the wife was a faithful believer, but the husband was not. Towards the end of counseling, I was spending an average of 20 minutes per-session walking him through the gospel and compelling him towards Romans 10:9: “…confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead…” Unfortunately, he never embraced Christ during our time together—I still pray for him as he comes to mind.
Evangelizing your non-Christian counselee addresses their spiritual reality as being separated from a holy God and their primary need of Christ’s forgiveness.
What of the practical issues?
#2 – Counsel
After Paul tells Timothy to “reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction,” he goes on to describe the nature of folks who (arguably) do not know Christ (verses 3-4). Paul does not change his charge on how to preach the word to this group. Teachers (e.g., counselors) are still called to unalterably administer Scripture and provide tangible application to their hearers (Mark 10:17-22, Luke 11:28, Rom 2:13).
Provide biblical solutions to your non-Christian counselee regarding his anger, his lust, his finances, his depression, his adultery, etc. Where he is sinning in a specific area, frame it biblically and call him to repentance. Show him that God’s way is ultimate in every facet of life (2 Pet 1:3). Assign homework that causes him to adhere to biblical practices.
Lord willing, Jesus will become attractive to him for the right reasons. Additionally, he will keep coming back as the word of God proves applicable to his life. This of itself will provide an inroad for the gospel.
But what if he keeps coming back but things aren’t working out for him?
#3 – Frustrate
I used to serve at an after-school center for inner-city children. Their home lives ranged from somewhat stable to utterly abysmal, resulting in a wide swath of behaviors. That did not prevent us from having a set of biblical principles and reasonable rules by which we expected all children in our care to adhere to. Several kids did fairly well with the guidelines; others did not…
I recall one young lady in particular (we will call her “Brit”) who was frequently called into our office after violating rule after rule. To Brit’s credit, she would honestly try to follow our principles—she just continually fell short.
One evening, she was called into the office once again to discuss a rule violation. Another pastor and I asked her what happened, and she exclaimed, “I can’t do what you are asking me to do!”
Our reply? “That’s right—you can’t. You’re trying to obey the rules but end up obeying Brit every time. You need to start obeying Jesus.”
That was enough to convince her 8-year-old mind that she needed Jesus. By God’s grace, she submitted herself to Christ’s lordship and accepted His forgiveness for her sins right in that office.
It is true that counselees need the Holy Spirit for change, and only get Him through salvation (Eph 1:13-14). When they inevitably fall short, use that as an opportunity to humbly discuss your own inability to perfectly obey, but your subsequent forgiveness in Christ. Then move to the empowering work of the Spirit of God in the life of the believer (Rom 8:13).
Utilize their frustration. Use whatever godly means necessary to win them to Christ (1 Cor 9:22-23).
Easy as One, Two, Three…
It’s simple enough to suggest a three-step process to winning your counselee to Jesus. Implementation and efficacy are not so straight-forward.
Use wisdom in navigating your relationship with a non-Christian counselee. You may come to find that they are receptive to hearing more about Jesus (though they came in for another reason) and you are able to focus on teaching about him (Acts 8:26-35). Conversely, you may find that you need to be much more strategic in delivering the gospel (Acts 17:22-34).
Additionally, we are called to be heralds of the good news of Christ—the onus of salvation is not on us. In other words, the herald simply reports the news, he is not the one who has caused it, nor is he ultimately responsible for his hearer’s response (1 Cor 3:5-7). Do not be discouraged if you are faithfully ministering to your counselee and he does not end up embracing Christ. Remember: apart from Christ, we can do nothing (John 15:5).
Humbly carry out the work of an evangelist, and do not abandon this charge in the context of counseling.