Wise Counsel 101

Since moving to Putnam, I’ve had more chats over coffee (well, hot cocoa, anyway) than I can count. This is one of my favorite parts of ministry as an introvert. I get to skip the typical small talk and dig deep one-on-one about what really matters: people’s hearts. Sometimes it’s not at the coffee shop—though it should definitely be on my business card as my place of work. Sometimes it’s at the church, alongside my husband, walking couples through difficult relationship issues. Or it’s on a living room couch as we do premarital counseling with a starry-eyed pair of twenty-somethings. Or it’s with a friend via texts, emails, private messages, or phone calls. The thing is, counseling doesn’t only occur in a therapist’s office; it’s a rhythm of life.

You’ve been given people to influence, those who hold your words in high esteem. Even if it’s just one or two individuals. In His goodness and mercy, God placed you in their lives to direct those hearts toward Him. You don’t need a counseling license. You don’t need a therapy couch. You don’t need a doctorate, or a specific background, or a quiet personality, or a ministry position, or a handle on every single thing ever. All you need is a heart that says yes. Yes, I will learn truth. Yes, I will open myself up to discomfort. Yes, I will put others’ needs before my preferences.

When you come to grips that you don’t have to know everything to be a counselor, freedom enters in and breathes peace to your mind. Everything becomes a resource. Each experience, painful or ecstatic, turns into something the Lord can use to teach you. And then you turn around and teach it to someone else. The truth is that God intended for you to be a conduit of His wisdom because it’s the only thing in this dead world that brings life.

Always, always, always start by getting into the Word. Listen to it, read it, doodle it, paint it, study it, meditate on it, memorize it. It’s your single greatest storehouse of truth, and it’s always available to you. Find a translation you like (or three) and plaster those words all over your heart and mind. If all you have is experience (or worse, opinions) but no biblical truth, you’re throwing a potato chip at someone who desperately needs a thick, juicy steak to survive.

Then, if necessary, go get some biblical counseling from someone you respect. It might be a long-term thing, or it could just be for a single issue. This will do two things: it will help get you into a healthier place to counsel from, and it will give you an up-close picture of someone who’s doing it well. Allow the Lord to work in you so that you can ultimately help others. Watch for specifics: how they make you feel safe and valued, their posture, their tone, their methods. What can you pick up from them?

A great next step is to practice listening to your friends. Make understanding (rather than communicating) the ultimate goal. Look online for some good listening exercises. You might feel silly, but there’s not one relationship on the planet that couldn’t benefit from great listening skills (which are frankly pretty rare). And honestly, if your friends don’t feel heard around you, they probably won’t approach you when they need help. It doesn’t matter what you know if you don’t know how to listen. Ask questions, provide a refuge from fear, and lean in to who they are.

If you deal with a certain topic a lot, read up on it from a biblical perspective. Do some research. Get creative in what you consider teaching tools. You can use movies, books, blog posts, concerts, magazines, news stories, your personal history, anything really to illustrate a biblical truth. Our culture is a story-oriented one, and it helps to be able to pair solid Scripture with illustrations and examples. The more material you expose yourself to (especially Christian books and online sermons which offer both the Bible and analogies), the more you’ll have in your arsenal just waiting for the opportune moment. Simplicity is important, too. Just share what God has taught you along your journey and how it’s impacted you. Sometimes grace-saturated experience when you’ve come out on the other side is the best gift you can give. This is a chance to be who the younger you needed: a big brother or sister to walk with, pointing to the cross in the middle of the storm.

Not everyone is meant to be an in-depth therapist, so let that pressure go. As a matter of fact, it’s enormously helpful to have a great Christian counselor’s contact information on hand for whenever you need it (either personally or as a referral for the more intense issues). But I firmly believe that every believer needs a basic concept of how to sit with a friend or family member and lovingly speak the truth into normal situations that come up. And hey, it’s a great excuse for a hot cup of coffee.

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