Gentleness in Counseling

Recently I walked away from an evening of counseling thinking about the incredible privilege it is to sit down and talk to people who wish to hear what God’s Word says about some their deepest hurts and challenges. There is a level of trust and vulnerability in that process that is delightful to experience. The question that came to my mind then, and often is; how should such persons be treated when they open their hearts and lives like that?

One passage of Scripture that guides our answer is 1 Thessalonians 2:7–9 where the apostle Paul was able to joyfully affirm, “But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children. Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us. For you recall, brethren, our labor and hardship, how working night and day so as not to be a burden to any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.” Our counselees should not only receive sound doctrine from us but also a Christlike approach that puts skin on these poignant verses.

Tender Care

There are few pictures more tender than a nursing mother patiently providing nourishment for one of her children. Admittedly, we do not always think about the apostle Paul in this fashion. Instead he is the one who withstood Peter to his face (Galatians 2:11), argued against including John Mark on the second missionary journey (Acts 15:37-41) or called out a local church for their legalism (Galatians 1:6-10). Yes, he was all of those things and more and sometimes counseling has to have a confrontational edge. However, that same apostle also related to his sisters and brothers in Thessalonica in a way that could be compared to a nursing mother. Those of us who counsel should ask if the same could be said of us.

Commentators point out that the phrase “tenderly cares” literally means “to warm” (Morris, Tyndale, p. 49). It was even used in the LXX version of the Old Testament of a mother bird (Deuteronomy 22:6). At Faith we have a saying; there is a difference between being a counselor and being a policeman – between being a counselor and being an engineer – or between being a counselor and being a lawyer. I mean no disrespect to those important professions. But our counselees deserve a standard of care that is far more personable. There should be safety and warmth even as they disclose thoughts, desires, words, and deeds that are decidedly cold. Is that what they regularly receive? From me? From you? From us?

Fond Affection

Paul liked the Thessalonians. Paul loved the Thessalonians. He had fond affection for them. I imagine some might object by telling a story of a counselee who was extremely difficult to love. True, but could the God of heaven and earth make similar observations about you and me? Our affection for others has a potential source that is powerful and divine. Jesus is the vine and we are the branches. I want my counselees to know that, in spite of their failures and foibles, that I am glad I have the privilege of spending time in their presence.

Our hearts can easily flood with pictures of our Savior loving people in spite of what they had said or done. His offer of living water to the woman who had had five husbands. His tears for those doubting during a time of grief. His provision for His mother while dying on the cross. Yes, our counselees need principles from Scripture if we are to serve them well. But the older I get, the more I am persuaded that counseling is less a science and more an art. An art that is deeply relational. Do our counselees know that we love them?

Purposeful Incarnation

Many of us have heard stories of some of our secular counterparts who tell clients if they happen to meet outside the office to “act like you do not know me.” Perhaps some professionals have reasonable justification for such a position, but that is far different than Paul’s posture in the verses before us. He did not simply impart the gospel of God to them although that certainly would have been a marvelous gift. It was more, which might seem heretical were the words not right before us in the text. “Not only the gospel of God but also our own lives.”

Why? Because they had become very dear to him. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). One of my favorite aspects of the counseling process is the significant friendships that are often formed, typically with a person you would rarely have bonded to in real life. But God brings you together in a very unique setting and calls upon you to practice gentleness in counseling. With whatever time remains for me, I want that to be increasingly true.

Steve Viars
Dr. Viars has served as a pastor and counselor at Faith since 1987. He is an author, national speaker, and Vice President of the Board of Directors for the Biblical Counseling Coalition.