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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3 thoughts on “The #1 Reason Counseling Often Fails

  1. Well, have to weigh in on this one. The word “counselor” only appears in the New Testament in three places. Two of the references in Mark and Luke are made to Joseph of Arimathea and have a legal context. The other occurrence is in Rom. 11:34 where Paul asks ” Who has been the Lord’s counselor?”
    Ideally, our “counselors” in the New Covenant are the men and women who comprise the five-fold ministry . Eph. 4:11-13 reads, “And He gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: till we all come into the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God , unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”

    • Susan, you raise a very good question, probably one that deserves an entire book in response. Who were the counselors in New Testament times? Mostly the pastors, teachers, and elders, I assume. Since prophetic ministry was for “edification and exhortation and comfort” (1 Corinthians 14:3), I assume that prophets were involved at times too. And many people needing “counseling” actually needed to be born again, so evangelists could have a role as well. Some of the critics of my recent blogs assume that we need “professional” counselors and psychiatrists to treat serious mental illness such as bipolar and schizophrenia. Perhaps so. But from a Biblical perspective, it is undeniable that some people need deliverance rather than counselor. Discernment is needed, and I don’t claim that this is an easy area. But I think it’s time for the Christian counseling community to engage in an honest assessment of the effectiveness (or lack of effectiveness) of their current approaches. I’m afraid we’ve lost our appreciation of verses like Romans 1:16, which says the Gospel if “the power of God for salvation” (Greek sozo, meaning wholeness in spirit, mind, and body). It seems we’ve often put our trust in people, medication, and pop psychology instead. Thanks for your feedback!

  2. Jim,
    Ron’s experience with a lousy counselor is a common one, proving that when you need real inner change there is only one place go and, as you point out, you must be willing to give Him all and do the “work ” of deepening your relationship with Him.
    While your first blog might have been a wee tad harsh on “counselors”, I wouldn’t give the profession as a whole a passing grade either.
    Dave

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