by Dr. Juli Slattery
All your own efforts and gumption, your prayers and advice-seeking, your reading and research—you've tried it all, and still your struggle persists. You've reached it: the point at which you know you need help. You need a counselor.
Maybe a loved one has died suddenly. Or maybe you and your spouse can't communicate without hurtful words. Or perhaps memories and pain from the past seem to be seeping into your everyday life. Maybe your teenager won't listen to a word you say. Or maybe you can't stop binge eating.
You've tried many avenues of help—books, advice from friends, asking for prayer—but you're still stuck. You're so stuck that you realize it's time to take the plunge into counseling. But where do you go from here? How do you find the right person to help you? After all, this is your life we're talking about! You need more guidance than just a quick Google search.
Here is the truth about counseling: the only tool that really matters is the counselor himself or herself. All the counseling training and experience in the world actually mean nothing if the counselor is someone who lacks wisdom and maturity. The fact that a social worker or psychologist is on the list of your insurance company as an "approved provider" also means next to nothing. And, unfortunately, the label "Christian counseling" may not mean much either.
Choosing a counselor is a very important decision. The wrong advice, even from a well-meaning professional, can result in tremendous harm and damaged relationships. So where do you start? What should you really look for in a counselor?
Proverbs is essentially a book about how to live wisely, and it's a great place to begin your journey of selecting a counselor you can trust. Let's take a look at some of Solomon's advice for finding wise counsel.
1. A wise counselor fears the Lord
People often ask, "Is it okay to see a counselor who is not a Christian?" It may seem impossible to find a Christian who is covered by your insurance or who lives within a 60-mile radius. This also may be an issue if you are seeking a very specific type of counselor. (For example, your son has Asperger's syndrome and you want to find him a counselor with that specialty.)
You may use an accountant or a cardiologist who is not a Christian and it doesn't make a huge difference in the advice given. However, counseling usually involves moral and spiritual decisions. A person's worldview concerning right and wrong, the meaning of life, and so on, will inevitably find its way to the counseling room.
Proverbs tells us, "Fear of the Lord is the foundation of wisdom" (9:10). Fearing God means acknowledging that he is the One who defines right and wrong—that we ultimately will bow before a God who is greater than we are. Whether or not a counselor is a Christian, it is imperative that he or she respects your desire to honor the Lord. If you are seeking counseling on an issue that clearly involves moral or spiritual elements (such as sexual abuse recovery, marital struggles, suicidal thoughts, sexual identity issues, and so on), your counselor should be a mature Christian, equipped to give you wisdom that represents the truth and love of Christ. It is worth driving the extra 30 minutes and paying the "out of network" fee!
2. A wise counselor has a good name
Proverbs reminds us that "A good name is more desirable than great riches" (22:1, NIV). If someone asks me how to find a good counselor, my advice is typically to ask around. Ask your pastor, ask your friends, and ask your doctor, gathering recommendations from people you trust. Counselors develop a reputation based both within their professional field and the Christian community. If you hear the same name recommended two or three times by people you trust, that's a big plus.
3. A wise counselor is willing to "wound" you
While they provide affirmation and encouragement, at some point, wise counselors will speak hard truths. "Wounds from a sincere friend are better than kisses from an enemy," Proverbs 27:6 tells us. A counselor is more than a glorified buddy; he or she ought to be someone who actually counsels. After several visits with a counselor, there should be some uncomfortable conversations, such as questions that make you squirm, perspectives that challenge you to see your contribution to a problem, or "homework assignments" that ask you to step out of your comfort zone.
There are some bobblehead counselors who are happy to give you a weekly dose of affirmation for the rest of your life. If you want someone to always agree with you, save your money and just get a dog!
4. A wise counselor encourages a team
Proverbs 15:22 says that "Plans go wrong for lack of advice; many advisers bring success." Does this mean that you should be seeing two or three psychologists at a time? Of course not. However, you should always have a team of counselors and advisers. Your family physician can help with hives, but probably knows little about a brain tumor. Your pastor can help you with spiritual questions, but probably isn't equipped to help with an eating disorder.
Wise counselors know their limits. They will encourage you to depend upon a multitude of advisers. They won't try to be your mentor, friend, spiritual director, financial guru, parenting expert, and nutritionist. A counselor who nurtures dependence or gives the air of a know-it-all is a big red flag!
5. A wise counselor's words are life-giving
"The tongue has the power of life and death," Proverbs reminds us (18:21, NIV). Further, "the words of the wise bring healing" (12:18) and "encourage many" (10:21). Can you discern life-giving words? They aren't necessarily fluffy, happy statements. In fact, sometimes the truth hurts. Whether the occasion calls for encouragement or a rebuke, a wise counselor promotes life. Ask yourself the question, "Is this counsel building life and vitality into my marriage, my friendships, and my relationship with God?"
6. A wise counselor does his or her homework
"Take a lesson from the ant, you lazybones," Proverbs 6:6 urges us. "Learn from their ways and be wise!" You may be wondering what studying ants has to do with getting good advice. Solomon was encouraging all of us to study creation and to learn principles for wise living. Similarly, a counselor or psychologist has chosen the profession of studying how we live and interact in order to pass on wise advice.
Being a spiritual person and a good listener is no excuse for ignorance. The person you trust for advice should always be a student, dedicated to learning about how to more effectively minister to those seeking counsel.
7. A wise counselor knows the limits of human wisdom
"My daughter died of cancer a few months ago. She was only 8 years old." How ought a wise counselor respond to such a devastating statement? There are no explanations or rationalizations about why God would allow such tragedies to happen. Sometimes the wisest counselor will just be silent and cry with a person in such deep pain.
Many things in this life that are beyond our understanding. Proverbs 20:24 (NIV) observes, "A person's steps are directed by the LORD. How can anyone understand their own way?" While we grapple with the whys, true wisdom always knows its limits. God can comfort the broken-hearted without always explaining himself. As a clinical psychologist, I cannot heal the wounded. I cannot restore a broken marriage. I cannot make sense of tragedy. But I can compassionately lead someone to the true Counselor who can do all of this and more.
So, what about once you've gleaned Solomon's advice and have picked a wise counselor? Does that guarantee that you will come out better on the other end? Not necessarily. While I have listed seven criteria for wise counselors, I will only give one for a wise student (or client): A wise student is open to reproof.
Proverbs 15:31–32 reminds us, "If you listen to constructive criticism, you will be at home among the wise. If you reject discipline, you only harm yourself; but if you listen to correction, you grow in understanding." The number one reason why counseling can be a waste of time and money is that the person seeking counsel doesn't want to do the hard work. He or she is hoping that someone with a bunch of fancy degrees on the wall will waive a magic wand and make the pain go away. The person is hoping for the inspired advice that will undo years of fighting and foolish decisions.
Yet, as with much of life, you will get out of counseling as much as you are willing to put into it. Great counseling will require something more than your checkbook. It will require you to be courageous in facing pain, steadfast in choosing wisely, and humble in seeing your need for God's truth and grace.