The #1 Reason Counseling Often Fails

A firestorm erupted recently when I wrote a blog that was deemed critical of the counseling profession. I have lots of friends who are counselors—excellent counselors—and several seemed to think I was including them in my critique of incompetent counseling. Meanwhile, I also have countless friends who’ve been helped by skilled counselors, and they rose up to defend the counseling profession and share their gratitude for a job well done.

My blog’s main point was simply that effective counseling must endeavor to get to the heart of the matter, not just address the symptoms. Admittedly, this is no easy task, but Solomon said it’s a worthy objective: “Counsel in a person’s heart is deep water; but a person of understanding draws it out” (Proverbs 20:5 CSB). A good counselor must be “a person of understanding,” able to probe the “deep water” of a person’s heart. Definitely not an easy job.

The prophet Jeremiah had a similar message: “They have healed the brokenness of My people superficially, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ but there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14 NASB). Indeed, there is no genuine and lasting peace in a person’s heart unless God’s Spirit is allowed to penetrate deeply and touch the broken places—strongholds usually well-protected by our defense mechanisms.

Let’s be honest: We all need more than superficial healing, don’t we? At one time or another, we need the kind of transformation and restoration King David so desperately sought:

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit (Psalm 51:10-12 ESV).

David’s cry for inner transformation brings up the number one reason why counseling so often fails. Yes, there are incompetent counselors out there, but there’s a problem much bigger than that:

Counseling most commonly fails because the counselee either doesn’t really want to change, or doesn’t want it badly enough to take the necessary steps!

This principle is illustrated in a seemingly crazy question Jesus asked a disabled man at the Pool of Bethesda one day (John 5:2-9). The man was with a crowd of people who were waiting for an angel to stir the waters so they could be healed. The scene was similar to a doctor’s crowded waiting room during flu season, except that these people had much more severe ailments: They were blind, lame, or paralyzed, often suffering conditions that had already lasted many years.

Amid this crowd hoping for healing, Jesus had the nerve to walk up to this one disabled man and ask, “Do you want to get well?”  (v. 6 NIV).

Think about it. Wouldn’t EVERY sick person want to be healed? The answer is clearly no, sometimes we really don’t.

You see, if we’re healed, we won’t have as much to complain about. Nor can we play upon people’s sympathy or get handouts. We’ll be forced to quit making excuses for why we can’t support ourselves or make the world a better place.

Jesus’ question was particularly audacious because of where it occurred. This man was in line for healing, or so it seemed. Wasn’t it obvious that he sincerely sought to be healed? No, people go to doctors and counselors every day without any intention of following through on the advice they receive.

Another intriguing part of the story is that Jesus didn’t allow the man to be a passive bystander during his healing. The Lord gave him an assignment, something to DO: “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk”  (v. 8 NIV). Basically, Jesus was telling him to do the impossible—something he had been unable to do for 38 years!

This is important: Many people claim they want to be healed…or lose weight…or cast off depression…or find better relationships. But when a counselor tells them such things may require some CHANGES or even some WORK on their part, often the counselee is unwilling.

Typically, people’s unwillingness is masked by excuses, just like this man tried to offer Jesus:

“Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me” (v. 7 NIV).

If we want to get better—no matter what the issue may be—we must be willing to confront and discard our excuses. In this story, Jesus the Wonderful Counselor was able to break through an excuse this man had been using for years. Only then could the disabled man receive his miracle of healing.

We all have our excuses, don’t we? I guess that’s why we need good counselors.

P.S. If my last blog was too hard on counselors, perhaps this one is too hard on those who need physical or emotional healing. It’s certainly no fun to be emotionally paralyzed or in pain, especially if the condition has gone on for a long time. But the good news is that Jesus can pick you out of the crowd and give you a new beginning, if you let Him. Do you want to get well?

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Ron Goes for Counseling

After dating several women who told him he had “issues,” my friend Ron finally decided to look for a good counselor.

“That’s a great move,” I encouraged him. It was all I could do to stop short of adding, “And it’s about time, Ron!”

Yet the conversation grew darker when he asked my advice on how to go about finding a counselor who could actually do him some good.

“That’s a tough one, Ron. You’re a pretty hard case,” I chuckled. “And 95% of the counselors out there are either well-meaning but incompetent, or else they’re total frauds, just out to make money.”

I later had to admit that I had no scientific basis for my “95%” statistic. Perhaps the situation in the counseling community is even worse than that!

When Ron asked why I was so down on the counseling profession, I told him my Parable of the Dandelions.

“There are four kinds of counselors, Ron,” I explained. “Picture someone approaching four different advisers for input on controlling the dandelions in his yard.”

Counselor #1: This kind of counselor looks at the yard and says, “I don’t see any dandelions. I think you’re doing great!” This is the counselor of choice for those in denial. The person going for counseling denies he has any addictions or psychiatric conditions, and the counselor comforts him by agreeing!  A variation of this is the kind of counselor who provides reassuring comparisons: “Well, sure, you have dandelions. But there’s no need to worry about it, because all your neighbors have dandelions too!”

Counselor #2: This kind of counselor specializes in validation. After spending an hour with the patient and charging $160 or more, the counselor says, “Yes, you surely are depressed” or “Yes, you really do have a lot of anxiety.” Of course, the counselee already knew  that before spending his $160, but it feels good to have someone validate and confirm all the things he’s been feeling. The problem with this, quite obviously, is that nothing has really been solved  by the counselor. In essence, he’s just saying, “I see the dandelions you’re talking about!” Frequently, this kind of counselor also tries to validate your perspective on the cause  of your problems. By the end of the counseling session, you’ve found other people to blame for your troubles, leaving you guilt-free. “I agree with your assessment that your spouse is a jerk,” the counselor assures you. “So it’s no wonder you have anger issues.” Or you’re told, “Your self-esteem problems are all the fault of your parents.” You feel a remarkable sense of relief in knowing you’re not to blame for your current condition—but your condition never changes when you insist on shifting all the blame to others.

Counselor #3: This kind of counselor goes a little further than Counselor #2. “Yes, you definitely have dandelions, and we’re going to do something to fix that!” However, Counselor #3 opts for the same approach I once took when my dad told me to get rid of the dandelions in our yard: I simply pulled off the dandelion heads, and soon the yard looked dandelion-free. Counselor #3 typically accomplishes this by providing medication to mask a person’s pain, anxiety, depression, or other unpleasant symptoms. The greater the emotional pain, the higher the dosage that is prescribed. I’m sincerely thankful that medication can relieve some of these troublesome symptoms, and some people need that approach, at least in the short run. However, I can’t help but remember what happened when I pulled off the dandelion heads in our lawn. For a few days, it seemed like I was a genius, eradicating all signs of dandelions. But soon the dandelions were back, even more prevalent than before. And that’s why we need counselors like #4…

Counselor #4: I’m convinced that most counselors fall into the categories of #1, #2, or #3. You might wonder how they stay in business when they’re so ineffective. The answer to that question isn’t hard to find: Instead of truly being healed and delivered from their sins and dysfunctions, many people would prefer to live in denial, find affirmation that their problems really aren’t so bad, or find medication that will cover up the symptoms. In contrast, Counselor #4 understands that our emotional “dandelions” must be honestly acknowledged and then pulled out by the roots.

My friend Ron, like so many other people, stands at a crossroads. It’s tempting to pay a counselor to tell him he’s not nearly as messed up as those women say on his dates. And if he had some good medication, he probably wouldn’t worry about their opinions anyway.

The search for competent help won’t be easy, but I’m praying for Ron to find Counselor #4—someone with the spiritual discernment and patience to unearth and remove the roots of his emotional pain.

Tell me what you think. Am I being too hard on the counseling community? What kinds of remedies have helped you  find help and healing for your emotional wounds? Ron could use your advice.

#PrayForRon

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