The Journal of Biblical Counseling Volume 14 Number 3 Spring 19962
From the Editors Desk
How Healthy Is YourPreparation?David Powlison
A student recently asked me, What doyou do to prepare for a counseling session?And why do you prepare in the ways youdo? Those are good questions. They drewme to consider the difference betweenbeing well-prepared and ill-prepared.Heres what happens when Im doing itright.
First, I follow through on my commit-ments. If I said Id make a phone call, I doit. If I planned to write the person a letter,or design a personalized homeworkassignment, or copy an article, I get it done.If I intended to seek advice from anothercounselor, I pursue it. Tangible love plays asignificant role in pastoral progress. Itaffects me, for one thing. I find that when Ihave acted to love someone, I care more insubsequent interactions. I probe more care-fully. I listen better. My counsel is warmerand more personal.
It also affects the other person. He expe-riences the immediate blessing of myaction, and also observes and experiences amodel (albeit a small one) of the sorts ofchanges God is typically working in hislife, too. So why do things for people? Howcan we not do such things if Christiancounseling is simply one part of makingdisciples of Christand Christ is makingme a disciple, too? Such actions simplyexpress what it means to be Christs peo-ple.
Second, I check out my own attitudesand life. If Im bitter or anxious, grumpy,fearful, or presumptuous, I deal with it.Sometimes my sin may relate to the personIll be counseling. I might be viewing theupcoming meeting as too hard, feelingintimidated or anxious. Perhaps I recog-
nize that Ill be tempted to play it saferather than risk speaking the truth in love.Perhaps I realize that Im tempted to dis-like someone, and so to become harsh orimpatient. Or I might be viewing the meet-ing as too easy, feeling overly confidentand in control. At such times, Im temptednot to prepare, not to pray for God to work,not to care intensely, but to simply gothrough the motions.
Sometimes my sin or struggle pertainsto another part of my life. Perhaps Im fret-ting about money or unfinished tasks;maybe I havent resolved a spat with mywife. Biblical counseling takes its ownmedicine first, to the praise of Gods grace.I find that the state of my own faith, repen-tance, and obedience is the single most sig-nificant factor affecting the counseling I do.When Im a changing person, Im betterable to help others become the same.
Third, I read and study the Bible. I dothis extensively (through the Bible eachyear) and intensively (focusing in on par-ticular passages). In the first half of 1995,Titus was my companion. For the past sixmonths, Ive been slowly working my waythrough Psalms. Over the past couple ofmonths, Ephesians has taken center stage.Why? Because I need the same radicalreorientation as those to whom I minister.And when Im thinking straight, counsel-ing blossoms and bears sweet fruit.
Fourth, I think hard about those withwhom Ill meet. I go over notes, especiallyfrom the previous meeting, if I have them.I often take fairly extensive notes eitherduring or after a meeting, and then go backthrough them with a yellow highlighter.Im looking forand praying to under-standwhat I call the watershed issues.Where is this person facing a significantchoice to live out either the former man-ner of life or a new life of specific faith andlove? Gods grace is at work in people,teaching us to say No to our natural dark-ness and selfishness, and to say Yes to thelight (Titus 2:11-15; Ephesians 4:17-5:10).
The Journal of Biblical Counseling Volume 14 Number 3 Spring 1996 3
Ill ponder the issues on which my previous sessionwith my counselee turned. Where did we get to?Where does this person typically get stuck in life? Ifour previous session was on target, then identifyingthe watershed issue usually led to setting some goalstogether: a choice to embrace the truth in faith, a com-mitment to act in obedience. Ill want to follow up onthat, to see what has been done with counsel.
My concern to identify watershed issues arisesfrom several foundational truths. Our Father is a vine-dresser who prunes those He loves (John 15:1f); He isa father who raises children intentionally, with spe-cific goals in mind (Hebrews 12:5ff). Ministry relies onthis sovereign and gracious providence. A personsstruggles typically organize around key themes, andwhen I counsel, I want to offer new and specific wis-dom to replace my counselees characteristic flesh.As I know a person truly, I get to seeand seizetheparticular form of his or her struggle to believe and toobey.
Fifth, I pray for each person, asking God to work.Obviously, people dont change because they go tocounseling. They change significantly because Godworks in them and they work out His call: Work outyour salvation for God works in you both to willand to do His good pleasure (Philippians 2:12f). So Iask the Holy Spirit to bring to my counselee a convic-tion of the truth both about himself and about the Onewho is full of grace and truth.
I pray for myself, also. I need all the requisites ofpastoral care: wisdom, clarity, courage, a breadth anddepth of biblical knowledge. I need many abilities: tolisten hard and well, to enter the persons world, toapply Scripture, to speak the word that builds up andgives grace, to communicate love, to be honest, to getpractical, to be patient with them all. I ask my fam-ily and coworkers to pray both for me and for those Icounsel.
Sixth, I set a rough agenda for our meeting. Itmight be as open-ended as finding out whats reallygoing on. It might be as specific as teach and role-play reconciliation principles, or check out whetherthey are still avoiding each other, or Psalm 31: therefuge thats an alternative to self-pity, fear, anger, andescapism. Sometimes my agenda includes a specificexhortation to myself. You spoke too quickly lasttime; ask that one more question or think for five moreseconds before you speak. Or, You were vague andminced words; just say it clearly and boldly. Or, Bemore cheerful and humorous. Or, Be more serious;humor almost offended last week.
Biblical counselors differ on how detailed theiragenda is and how consistently they intend to stick to
it. Some take a rather programmatic approach to dis-cipleship. I do this sometimes, but I lean towards themore flexible end of the spectrum. I think thestrengths of tightly structured counseling emergewith counselees who are either highly committed tochange or who are pointedly rebellious in a high-handed way. In the broad middle, Ive found that itsbetter to let the specific agenda emerge in the give-and-take of an honest relationship. I like to look forwhats happeningWhats hot off the press? I mayset an open-ended Titus 2:11-15 agenda and see whatemerges. Usually the watershed issues play outafresh, and face-to-face ministry takes on vibrancyand immediacy. The person has reacted to events ofthe day or week past. The person is reacting to thingshappening right now. The person is already reactingto events of the day or week ahead. Counselingbecomes immediately relevant.
Many of the greatest joys of face-to-face ministryemerge amid the unpredictability of human reactions,in the need of the moment, in the challenge of win-ning a person whose commitment to change is fickle,in disarming a person whose anger and defensivenessfill the room, in the delicate task of wooing andencouraging the faint-hearted, in hearing some darkor painful secret that had never been voiced before, inwitnessing acts of courageous faith and godliness. Ithink structured programs have their place, and per-haps the situation in which you typically counsel isone that highlights the strengths. But let me argue abiblical rationale for making the most of opportunitiesto approach counseling with a more open-endedagenda. Im impressed by the wondrous flexibilitymanifested by Scripture itself. No two prophets, notwo psalms, no two gospels (indeed, no two interac-tions between Jesus and his hearers), no two apostolicletters are quite the same. Gods unified truth getscommunicated in diverse ways tailored to the diverseneeds of audience and situation. So biblical counsel-ing should also prize freshness and flexibility, insightand creativity.
Seventh, I often review basic principles of coun-seling to orient myself. I hadnt thought about thefact that I did this until my student posed her ques-tion. Here are some of the reminders posted in thevicinity of my desk.
How can even this situation prove redemptive? If Inever lose hope in Christs gracious control andredemptive agenda, I will be able to communicate thesame to those I counsel.
Most people dont know that their biggest problem isnot out there in the world; its in here in their own heart.Always move the agenda towards the person sitting
The Journal of Biblical Counseling Volume 14 Number 3 Spring 19964
in front of me. Love. Know. Speak. Do. Counselors care, probe,
speak Ephesians 4:15 and 4:29 truth, and help peoplemake concrete changes. Am I covering all the bases?Am I on the right base now?
Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the nameof the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God theFather. I am a servant called to be faithful and full offaith, not a technician called to fix it.
Get to specifics. Go towards specifics. After all thetalking is done, what are you going to do about your water-shed issue this week? Change happens in the details, inthe step-step-step of your walk. Effective counselingmoves towards substantive change.
This life, therefore, is not righteousness but growthin righteousness.We are not yet what we shall be, but weare growing toward it. Small changes accumulate; aglimpse of fina