Later this week a Christian man named Andrew will begin counseling with his pastor in a last stitched effort to overcome a sin that he has long struggled with. Andrew is 32, has been married for 8 years, is the father of 3-year-old twins, is an active member of his church, and is hooked on porn. He’s been viewing pornography since he was a teenager, and with exception of a month here and a few weeks there, has not yet found victory over his addiction. His wife has been living under the impression that Andrew’s struggle came to an end, at least as a daily struggle, several years ago. She has no idea that he continues to succumb to his craving for internet pornography on a near daily basis. And Andrew is at the end of his rope. He is plagued with shame, afraid to lose his marriage, and is terrified at the kinds of desires that rage on in his heart day after overwhelming day. So, Andrew has come to the point where he sees no other option but to tell his pastor and ask for counseling.
What will it take to make Andrew’s counseling experience with his pastor ultimately successful?
When it comes to counseling, I am neither a gray-haired expert (far from it, actually) nor a green-eared novice. I have been through intensive counseling for myself over the course of several months. I have taken master’s level courses in biblical counseling through a reputable institution. I have observed more counseling sessions than I can count. And, I have served as a counselor for people in and around my church for a number of years at this point. Though my level of experience pales in comparison to many others, it has been sufficient to lead me to the firm conclusion that there is really only one way to guarantee a successful counseling experience. And I do mean guarantee. But, this way has almost nothing to do with the counselor and almost everything to do with the counselee.
How do you ensure success in counseling? If you are a counselee, what can you do to ensure that your experience in counseling will prove successful? Simply this: Be willing to do whatever it takes to honor the Lord in your situation.
Doing Whatever It Takes
Jesus’ words in Matthew 5, directed at the issue of lust in particular (see 5:27-28) cut straight to the heart of the matter.
Matthew 5:29-30 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.
Interpreters are quick to point out that Jesus is not speaking in precisely literal terms here; but his true point is no less radical than a woodenly literal interpretation of his words would be. Jesus is saying that in dealing with sin (sexual sin in context, but all sin in principle), if you are not willing to take extreme measures to overcome it, you will not find victory over it (and you may very well be so overtaken by it that it leads you to hell). In dealing with sin, only serious, deliberate, and radical measures will suffice.
The way this translates to Andrew’s situation is rather obvious. He may feel terrible about his ongoing struggle with lust. He may feel shame over his inability to say no to temptation. He may be depressed over the effect he knows his struggle is having upon his marriage, and will have upon his marriage, should his wife find out that he continues to look at porn to this day. But there is really only one question he needs to answer that will determine whether his pastor (or any counselor, for that matter) will be of any real help to him in this struggle: Is he willing to do whatever it takes to honor God in this situation?
That is, is he willing to dig into the Scriptures to see his sin for what it is, and to see God as the holy, gracious, and faithful God that he is, and to gain an understanding of the real threat that his sin poses to his soul, and to learn about the true marks and nature of repentance, and to see the beauty of Jesus his Savior that he might grow in his love and desire for him, and to understand his need for the Spirit’s help and power in putting to death the deeds of the flesh? And is he willing to pray sincerely and regularly and specifically for God’s help in his battle? And is he willing to confess his sin openly to the Lord, and to his counselor, and to his wife (if, when, and to the extent that is necessary), and to a faithful Christian friend or two (preferably in his local church) who can hold him accountable? And is he willing to throw away his computer, or trade in his smart-phone for an old crusty flip-phone to make the internet less accessible? And is he willing to only view the internet when his wife is present or in a public place that makes viewing porn impossible? These are the kinds of questions that Andrew needs to answer. How far is he willing to go to be obedient to the Lord? Is he willing to do whatever it takes?
Truly, this principle can be applied to any situation. It applies to the 70-year-old widower struggling with depression, and to the middle-aged single woman plagued with loneliness, and to the teenager involved in a sexual relationship with his girlfriend, and to the married man and father of four who just lost his job. Not every struggle is the same combination of sin and circumstances, and not all difficulties can be resolved with obedience (in fact, some difficulties can be compounded with obedience), but in every situation and every struggle, the primary question for a Christian boils down to discerning what is required to be fully obedient to the Lord.
When Counseling is Successful
In my experience, those counseling sessions and counseling seasons that have ended well (and there have been many that have ended not–so-well), involved counselees that were willing to do whatever it takes to honor the Lord in their situation. Many have come to me looking for quick fixes, blaming other people for their circumstances or their problems, keeping my counsel and God’s Word (more importantly) at arm’s length; willing to do the things that made sense to them and resistant to the things that would require a great deal of work and sacrifice. Others have informed me with the confidence of a seasoned counselor of the things that they needed from a counselor and the things they didn’t; seeking to manage the process of counseling and protect themselves from questions that might encourage them to probe deeper into their motives and idolatrous loves than they had been probing on their own. I’ve encountered a number of folks who seemed to simply want for me to reflect their own evaluation of their problems back to them, as if my job was simply to affirm their perspective of their situation and their responses to it.
But, as you can probably guess, most of those counseling situations didn’t end very well.
The ones that did end well were those where the counselees came to see the value of radical, sacrificial, and sometimes extreme action in response to their difficulties. In those cases, probably the best thing I did was to ask them whether they were willing to do whatever it takes to honor the Lord in their situation, and to encourage them to answer with a yes. Any person who answers that question with a yes, is bound to make progress in the faith and to see counseling bear good fruit in their lives. Those who answer no, are almost guaranteed to see counseling come up short.
So, if you ever find yourself in the shoes of a counselee, dear reader; regardless of the problem you are facing, I encourage you to ask and answer this simple question: Am I willing to do whatever it takes to honor the Lord in my situation? If you are, find out what it will take, and do it – with the help of your counselor as he/she faithfully points you to Christ and his Word, in the power of the Spirit as he uses the Word to renew your mind (Rom 12:2), and for the glory of God who lavishes you with love and grace in Christ. If you are willing to rip out your eye or cut off your hand to honor the Lord, by God’s grace, you are likely to make some progress with the help of biblical counsel. If you are not willing to take those measures, counseling probably is not going to be of much help to you.
As for you counselors, if you want to see the Word bear fruit in the life of a person you are counseling; after you have put the work in to properly understand their situation and particular struggles, as you move to begin offering counsel to your friend or fellow church member, I might encourage you to take some time to ask your counselee the simple question, Are you willing to do whatever it takes to honor the Lord in this? Make it clear that this is necessary for the success of your counseling relationship, and encourage them to approach their current situation with a sober-minded commitment to honor the Lord, whatever the cost. Help them to see that doing so will be worth it and will pay significant dividends in the long run. This will pave the way to a fruitful counseling relationship, and is the only real way to ensure the success of it – because honoring the Lord is the ultimate definition of success.