As a biblical counselor, I sometimes encounter counselees who seem immobilized. They appear simply unable or unwilling to move forward, languishing in despair, relational struggle, and sin. Even when seeming to understand Scripture and claiming conviction, they remain unchanged.
In one such occasion I was helping Ron, a professing believer, evaluate his role as a husband and spiritual head of his home. Over three meetings we had examined his salvation and studied numerous scriptures pertaining to spiritual submission (Jas 4:5-8), authority (1 Cor 11:3), leadership (Eph 5:22-29), love (1 Cor 13:3-7), forgiveness (Matt 6:14-15), and accountability (Rom 14:11-12).
In each example the counselee expressed grief and claimed conviction to lead and love his wife as Scripture instructs. But near the end of the third meeting the discussion veered off course:
Ron: I know the Bible is true and God expects me to do these things. But how can I?
Counselor: What do you mean?
Ron: How can I lead when my wife will not cooperate? How can I love someone who is cold and distant?
Counselor: So you are unable to obey God’s teaching because of your wife’s condition?
Ron: I would be a better Christian if I were married to a godly woman. I just don’t see how I can do anything until she gets it together.
Ron’s stated reason for coming to counseling was: “I need to learn how to lead my home as a biblical man.” But Scripture was revealing Ron’s heart. He was not lacking in knowledge and desiring instruction. Instead Ron was an angry man, projecting blame onto his wife for his failure to obey the Word. Repeatedly he denied responsibility and continued to point externally to various obstacles that impeded his growth and obedience in the Christian life.
As I pondered Ron’s orientation, I recalled many of Jesus’ interactions with individuals. So many times in Scripture, the Lord asks riveting questions, and makes pointed statements, that ultimately reveal the true intent of an individual’s heart. One such interaction occurred beside the pool at Bethesda. In John chapter five, the Bible records:
Now there is in Jerusalem by the sheep gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew Bethesda, having five porticoes. In these lay a multitude of those who were sick, blind, lame, and withered, [waiting for the moving of the waters; for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool and stirred up the water; whoever then first, after the stirring up of the water, stepped in was made well from whatever disease with which he was afflicted.] (Jn 5:2-4).
Scripture states that a man “who had been ill for thirty-eight years” (v 5) was waiting under the portico for someone to help him into the healing waters. Jesus approached the man and asked: “Do you wish to get well?” (v 6).
Why would Jesus ask this question? The man was already waiting in a location known for healing. He was in close proximity to a cure. Surely Jesus could see his desire. But Jesus asked questions not for the purpose of information [He already knows the heart of man (Jn 2:25-25)]. Rather He asks questions for the purpose of revelation, conviction, and transformation. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God spoke:
“I, the LORD, search the heart,
I test the mind,
Even to give to each man according to his ways,
According to the results of his deeds” (Jer 17:10).
Clearly the Lord was searching the heart of this infirmed man who had suffered for nearly four decades. Jesus challenged his motivation to be healed. And what was the man’s answer?
“Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, but while I am coming, another steps down before me” (v 7).
The sick man offers his excuse. He blames his circumstance and other people for his continued illness. Most who had been suffering for these many years would claw their way into the stirred waters! But this man waited on the side for someone to help him.
In this interchange the reader sees that the sick man’s physical infirmity was only part of his problem. Jesus needed only to speak a word [which He soon did (v 8)] and the man would be physically healed. But in every healing scenario in Scripture we see that Jesus had a spiritual intent. His purpose was not to provide relief of human suffering only, but to illuminate the heart of man, and the defilement of sin, so that the one ailing could be truly and completely healed (spiritually and physically).
In the aforementioned counseling case, Ron wanted relief from conflict with his wife, but he was resistant to the exposure of his truest spiritual need. Taking Ron to this passage in John I asked:
Counselor: Do you wish to get well?
Ron: Get well? Of course I want things to get better. But there is only so much I can do with a wife like mine!
Counselor: Your marriage is not your problem?
Ron: What? I don’t think you are listening…
Counselor: Your marriage can’t be healed until you are have been changed.
Ron: Why should I change? Can’t you see how difficult my situation is?
From here the counseling shifted to Ron’s heart. He was an angry, bitter, and unforgiving man. He was self-centered, prideful, and had no awareness of his offense before a Holy God. He was so focused on his wife as the impediment to his well-being, that he had lost total focus and intimacy with Christ. He was separated by a sinful heart, excluded from the authority and empowerment he needed to transform his hurting marriage.
In challenging his motivation, I was able to redirect his focus from the marriage to his vertical relationship with Christ. With repentance came a restored connection that now enabled Ron to not only see the truth of Scripture, but to be transformed by its instruction. With time he began to live an obedient lifestyle, devoted to God’s order and call for leadership. Soon his wife would follow.
In counseling we must look beyond the obvious, and with Scripture, “…judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12). After Jesus healed the sick man at Bethesda, there was one final encounter, wherein He spoke openly about the man’s true problem and gave a final admonition:
Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “Behold, you have become well; do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse happens to you” (Jn 5:14).
Jesus knew the deeper reasons for this man’s illness and sought to change him for eternity and not for the moment only. There are countless reasons for human suffering. To provide relief without the pursuit of deep and lasting transformation is not the method or manner of Scripture. God certainly answers and cares for our earthly pain, but He is always drawing us to salvation, sanctification, obedience, maturity, and service.
As Biblicists we must always address the motivations of our counselees knowing that nothing in life finds freedom apart from the spiritual transformation of the heart. When using the right questions that require a scriptural response, along with specific scriptural application, the heart can be opened and enduring healing can be achieved.