James (Steve) Clay, MABC, LPC
Author: James (Steve) Clay, MABC, LPC

As all biblical counselors know, getting people to do what they need to do to change is perhaps the greatest challenge in the counseling process. On the one hand, we all realize that ultimate change is the product of God’s sovereign work in the heart. Salvation is the result of God’s initiative and decisive calling, in which the blind eyes of the unbeliever are given sight and light comes into the soul (2 Corinthians 4:3-6). On the other hand, once light is in the heart by which the glory of Christ is seen and desired, the believer must grow by grace, sin must be mortified, and Christ-likeness pursued and realized. How is this accomplished? What is the role of God’s sovereign grace in this process and what is the role of the believer, and more particularly, in reference to this blog, the role of the counselor?

Let’s go a little deeper. People do (freely) only what they want to do, or they do those things that will get them what they ultimately want. Our wills before salvation are in bondage to everything other than Christ. In that condition our desires and delights are separated from the enjoyment of God. In other words, God is unattractive. He is not desirable. Therefore, ungenerate people will not pursue those things that gain them more enjoyment of Him. Believers, on the other hand, have tasted the Lord and seen that He is good. Their minds are no longer blinded from the joy of His glory. They have wills that are no longer in absolute bondage to sin, but rather now, through God’s grace, see the desirability and delights of knowing God.

Knowing this demands that we address counseling concerns from the vantage point of desires as ultimately determining the direction of the human heart. Discernment of the affections of the heart is critical in ascertaining an adequate understanding of stated problems and needed action in people’s lives. Therefore, in biblical counseling, there will be two concurrent goals considered in soul care. One is that of addressing the suffering of the counselee. The concerns that he or she brings to us becomes an immediate context for understanding the direction of heart affections. These are usually legitimate concerns, real suffering in real life situations, involving real pain. However, because the heart of man is unceasingly struggling with affections disconnected with delight in God and living for His glory, suffering is often skewed and distorted in terms of understanding. Affections of the heart are then turned into that which desires the comfort and pleasure of escape from suffering, rather than embracing suffering as a means of knowing God more fully and delighting in His steadfast love in the midst of suffering.

Therefore, the obvious goal of the counselor, though not so obvious to the counselee, is to address the revealed affections of the heart in the midst of the person’s suffering and work toward a change in those affections through the Gospel. Reliance on the sovereign grace of God is clearly essential, for the affections of the heart do not change without the gracious work of God. However, there are a few key strategies at the human level that work in concert with God’s gracious work.

The effective counselor is first and foremost prayerful, knowing that apart from God’s wisdom and intervention no permanent and effectual change will occur in the heart of the person seeking counseling. Prayer is encouraged to the counselee. Specifically, he or she is encouraged to seek the Lord for the very desires that promote change, namely deeper affections for Christ and motivation to seek His glory. It is a habit of mine to reframe the current struggles expressed by the counselee as relating to the need for stirred affection for Christ. Prayers for understanding and delight in God’s Word are also highly encouraged, as are prayers that are consistent with God’s revelation of Himself and of the gracious work He has done in the Gospel. The intention of these prayers is to call on God for help, but also to make God, rather than self, the focal point for the counselee. Apart from the work of the Spirit in the heart of the counselee, sought earnestly in prayer, all other counseling efforts will fail to achieve the ends to which great love for Christ are realized. Without that “wanting” for the Lord, motivation for heart change will wane as competing pleasures will seem more palatable and immediately attainable.

The manner of love in which the counselor brings to the counselee is another means of engendering new affections of the heart. Incarnational representation of Christ in His merciful and gracious character is an effective means of opening hearts, making them receptive to teaching about the redemptive work of Christ in addressing personal problems. Genuine concern and careful listening, suspending judgment and thoughtful feedback, prepare the heart to receive truth. Building a warm, trusting relationship expands the opportunity to address real heart issues, in which competing desires are discerned, exposed, and lovingly confronted.

Teaching biblical truth is another necessary component for stirring affections for Christ. Developing a profound understanding of depravity and the need for grace, showing the effective work of Christ in the Gospel, enlarging the view of God in all His excellencies, power, justice, and love, all work toward strengthening the counselee’s understanding toward truthful affections. Identifying specific passages of scripture upon which meditation and memorization are aimed grows the depth of repentance and changes desires. Bible content becomes a means of more effective and specific prayer, a light to see the cause and purpose of suffering both generally and also in the current situation. Teaching the counselee to think on things that are true (Philippians 4:8a) keeps the focus and perspective away from lies that accompany suffering and on Christ who is the Truth and Source of all delights.

While there is more to biblical counseling than encouraging changed affections for Christ, all other efforts are fruitless without it. Counseling that does not address the affections of the heart reduce change to addressing pragmatic issues in the individual’s life without a focal point of purpose outside of self. Idolatry remains. Self is left enthroned, and sin continues to have power to blind and steal real joy. Therefore, it is greatly encouraged that in a fundamental way, biblical counselors set the goal for changed affections as primary and even preliminary. While it is wise to hear and show genuine compassion for the counselee’s present suffering, it will not be long for the biblical counselor before he or she begins to dig for competing desires, which are the real cancer and a contributor to that suffering. Seen that way, our love for the counselee will demand that we get things in right order, wisely and graciously.