Footprints of Hope

Christian Counseling

By Stephen Arterburn, cofounder of Minirth Meier New Life Clinics

  1. Christian counselors help people face the truth about themselves.

  2. Christian counselors help people move from facing the truth to sharing it.

  3. Christian counselors help people become responsible.

  4. Christian counselors help people become accountable.

  5. Christian counselors help people feel right about themselves.

  6. Christian counselors help people forgive and love others graciously.

  7. Christian counselors help people focus on those who come after them.

  8. Christian counselors help people focus on heaven, not earth.

  9. Christian counselors help people see that everything relates to God.

  10. Christian counselors help people turn their misery into a ministry.

For those who know me, it's no secret that I have a troubled past full of self-obsession and promiscuity. But then everything changed when I attended a Bill Gothard seminar during college. At least it changed for a while. Although it was a great seminar, there were deeper problems that I needed to deal with through a process of emotional and spiritual healing . I did that with a Christian counselor who helped me regain the commitment I had made at the close of the life-changing seminar.

I believe in seminars, quick conversions, instant healings and deliverance from demons. Yet after the initial spurt of spiritual growth that such experiences bring, there often needs to be some solid Christian counseling if the progress is to be maintained.

Those who are delivered still have a free will and can return to their sin, as I myself learned. Just as the Bible so graphically describes, a dog may return to its vomit.

In some circles the controversy over the compatibility between Christianity and psychology still rages; however, faithful Christian counselors are ministering to thousands of hurting people each day with the help and hope that only Jesus Christ can bring. As genuine ministers of God, they counsel, encourage, confront and even preach at times, depending on the needs of their clients.

There are fundamental differences between Christian counselors and secular, humanistic therapists. The following are 10 hallmarks of authentic Christian counseling-Bible-based counseling that honors God and enriches lives for eternity.

1. Christian counselors help people face the truth about themselves. This requires challenging people to look at the lies they have believed, break through the delusional camouflage of their souls and see who they really are.

In the Life Recovery Bible, Jeremiah 6 :14 says, "You can't heal a wound by saying it's not there." Effective Christian counselors work to find the cracks in the denial system and pull them apart so the wall of self deception finally crumbles and the "real" person comes out of hiding. Living in denial is living a lie; and God does not heal a lie.

I recently talked to a man who refused to get counseling after he molested his daughter. His reason? He believed he had already been delivered from the generational sin of incest passed on from his mother. No one knew of his sins until his daughter, at age 35, finally told her mother. The problem is that by then seven other molestations had occurred- after his "deliverance." He is just now getting out of federal prison.

I often wonder how many lives are destroyed by Satan with the lie that being counseled is a sign of weakness instead of strength. Quite the contrary: It takes strength to face the truth about ourselves and then change through the power of the Holy Spirit.

2. Christian counselors help people move from facing the truth to sharing it. They help people break through the sickness of their secrets. The sinning psalmist said, "When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away" (Ps. 32:3, NASB). In secrecy there is sickness, and in openness there is healing. James 5:16 instructs us to confess to each other as a step toward healing.

As we are honest about our sins, we become a model of a church where people can come to heal, not hide. Ideally it would be wonderful if ever y one in every church had the freedom to stand up and openly confess their sins, without becoming a topic of gossip or the recipient of stern judgment. Until that day, though, it is often with a counselor that the shroud of silence is first removed so the healing process can begin.

3. Christian counselors help people become responsible. Most of us prefer to focus on the sins done to us. But true Christian counselors will direct us to correct the sins done by us.

They challenge us to change by fixing the ongoing problem rather than helping us find someone on whom we can fix the blame. Ultimately it is only as we move out of the past and into the present that problems can be resolved instead of reproduced in our relatives and other relationships.

We also need to recognize that there are limits in affixing responsibility to those we counsel. A woman who was molested when she was 5 is not responsible, and a Christian counselor will help that person shed the shame that came with victimization.

At some point, however, this hurting soul must see that no matter how horrible the memories, nothing will change until she decides to forgive and move on. Although she isn't responsible for the molestation, she is responsible for not allowing that trauma to thwart her relationship with the loving God who stands ready to comfort and heal.

4. Christian counselors help people become accountable. They encourage people to reconnect with others instead of withering alone in the desert of self justification and self-imposed isolation.

Proverbs 14:12 tells us that before every person there is a wide and appealing road that seems right but always ends in death and destruction. Often people are unable to stay off the road of destruction and press into the narrow path of fulfillment and eternal life unless they are in an accountable relationship.

This point might be argued by some and quickly overlooked by others, but it is crucial to restoring ministers who have lost their first love or their moral compass. We are plagued in the Christian community with scores of leaders who are accountable to no one.

They are allowed to self-destruct in the sins of self-will while elders and deacons frequently stand around watching in silence. I have sadly watched too many ministers forfeit fruitful ministries because they refused to submit themselves to other leaders in accountable relationships.

5. Christian counselors help people feel right about themselves. Though many secular humanists make it their primary aim to help people feel good about themselves, a Christian counselor often must confront behaviors that feel good but ultimately leave the person not feeling right.

They encourage tough, godly decisions, despite knowing that such decisions may temporarily produce some unpleasant feelings. They know that if a person does the right thing long enough, he or she will eventually start feeling very good about themselves.

Often it is pain that has brought the person to a willingness to seek help. A counselor who believes the counseling mission is simply to alleviate pain as quickly as possible can be working in direct conflict with God's plan, for God frequently uses pain to bring people back to their senses and back to Him.

Because some people have the misconception that a counselor's job is to relieve pain instantly, they are quickly dissatisfied with their counselor and quit before the work is finished. Instead of functioning as a human Tylenol capsule, the Christian counselor's job is to aid a person's transformation to a godly lifestyle.

6. Christian counselors help people forgive and love others graciously. To be forgiven and then forgive is a gracious act of love, with supernatural power to change the lives of both the forgiven and the forgiver. Only the cross of Christ allows this dimension beyond traditional treatment techniques or counseling practice.

Once we have sought, realized and lived in Christ's gift of forgiveness, we can then courageously forgive any who have harmed us. Those who don't forgive become perpetual victims and are prevented from experiencing the forgiveness God has made available.

Some criticize this focus on forgiveness, since it is so undeserved by the unrepentant victimizer. I agonize for those who are asked to forgive an abusive parent who committed despicable acts against them. For them, forgiveness is extremely difficult and may take years to complete.

While wholehearted forgiveness cannot always be extended quickly, godly counselors encourage the abused to enter into the process. Forgiveness does not condone the action, but it is the only thing that can free the forgiver from being controlled by an abusive past.

7. Christian counselors help people focus on those who come after them. The sick sin of self-obsession is at the root of every delayed conversion and every recovery not achieved.

A person's swollen sense of entitlement drives him to cling to his right to drink, his right to display outbursts of anger or his right to allow any others problem to engulf his life. Christ-centered counselors help the focus change from self-contrivance to contribution.

Leading people to the beginning of a new life can be helped by having them consider the scene at the end of their lives and what substance will be left to those who come behind. The Bible tells us to leave an inheritance to our children and grandchildren.

No amount of money compares to the value of a heritage ripe with character, integrity and empty shoes that can only be filled by acts of servanthood in humble submission to God's will. The Christian counselor helps people ponder these things rather than what would feel good today.

8. Christian counselors help people focus on heaven, not earth. Their function is not only to remove pain, implement coping skills or encourage the replacement of negative choices with positive ones. Much more important, their assignment is to help fellow strugglers see where they have been trapped by the world's lure of power, sex and money (see James 4:4; 1 John 2:15-17).

While helping people tear apart their worldly alliances, Christian counselors introduce them to the difficult task of delaying gratification now, because it humors the God with whom we will live eternally. As for those who have not accepted Christ, by making heaven a possibility, the counselor is free to encourage them to do so as long as he doesn't manipulate compliance or force acceptance. In all they do, Christian counselors have an opportunity to attract people to the faith by their compassionate actions and lives of integrity.

9. Christian counselors help people see that everything relates to God. Whether we are dealing with pain or privilege, it all relates to God.

There are those who come to counseling who are madly in love with a God who they believe is a genie existing only to perform for them and pamper them. Others are deeply disturbed by the belief that God has betrayed or abandoned them because He did not stop the cruel forces of this natural world from inflicting pain.
Every choice relates to God. Every limitation is an invitation for God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Every relationship is a godly opportunity to be His healing hands.

This is vividly illustrated in Rembrandt's painting of a father's hands on the back of his son in a tight embrace. Seeking to reflect God's character, Rembrandt painted one strong hand of a man, showing God's power and justice, and one feminine hand beside it to show His grace.

Indeed, God's hands of power and grace are always upon us, in both adversity or prosperity. While we tend to focus on rules, reputations, rituals, results and relief, He wants to turn every event into an opportunity for us to grow deeper in our relationship with Him.

10. Christian counselors help people turn their misery into a ministry. As Paul shares in I Corinthians 1:4, Christian counselors are able to comfort others as God has comforted them. They are privileged to assist in moving the focus away from what was and what might have been into what is and what can be.

People often come for help in great pain and destitute of joy. Yet, rather than focusing on how to make sad people happy, we should concentrate on helping people turn their pain into a purposeful mission. The counselor must show them that the vast emptiness of our souls can be filled with divine euphoria when we risk reaching out to others.

One of the greatest turning points in my life was when my pastor referred me to a Christian counselor 16 years ago. God used that life-changing step to lead me on a mission to start counseling centers that could help fellow strugglers avoid the same traps that had ensnared me.

The efforts of our counseling centers are rewarded when lost wanderers stagger into our doors of hope and walkout with a new mission, trusting Christ as the source of their strength. At such times, we feel honored that Christ has chosen to deliver His sufficiency through us as we participate in His soul-changing ministry.

Perhaps you have gotten caught up in the debate over whether counseling and psychology can really be Christian. I would encourage you to step out of the debate long enough to look again at the principles I have shared and see that they are indeed scripturally based.

To successfully address the overwhelming needs of our broken and dysfunctional society, pastors and Christ-centered counselors need to become partners in providing counseling that is authentically Christian. Rather than pastors viewing Christian counselors with a wary eye, it is time to form a godly alliance to heal hurting people with the love and power of Jesus Christ and His Word.

Footprints of Hope