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The Unlikely Route to Helping Counselors Become More Like Christ

As I look back on 56 years of living in relationship with Christ, and reflect on what happened this last hour, one thought becomes clear: if a wrongly optimistic pilgrim fails to learn the art of recovery, naively thinking there’s not much to recover from, movement toward Christ-likeness will stall.  Never permanently, of course.  God means to make us like His Son, and He will get the job done.

But bumps along the way can slow down and, for a time, even stop the process.  We can (remarkable thought) grieve and quench the omnipotent Holy Spirit.  For a season.

An hour ago, I was sitting quietly and happily with 5 books scattered around me, 3 of them open.  The open ones were my NIV Bible, John Owen’s last work The Glory of Christ, and Walter Hooper’s daily readings from C.S. Lewis, The Business of Heaven.  The other 2 – The Message and my new favorite commentary on Daniel (the Bible book I’m immersed in at the moment) – were lying nearby, ready to be opened at a moment’s notice.

I was poised, ready to begin writing this article.  As a writer, I’ve learned that the creative process is most fragile as it begins.  A thought was taking life, a direction was faintly emerging, a not quite discernible rhythm was suggesting a flow.  My blank pad of white paper was staring at me, daring me to violate its barren innocence with scribbled words and phrases that could mature into an article.  The fragile flow had started.

And then the phone rang, my cell phone.  My fault.  I hadn’t turned it off.  Caller ID informed me a good friend, a man I enjoy talking with, wanted to talk with me. Not now, I could hear myself silently scream.  Don’t you know I’m right this moment listening to the Spirit? How dare you interrupt!  I irritably held down the appropriate button until the screen said “Goodbye”.

Then, not 60 seconds later, the land line shrieked.  This time, the caller was another much appreciated and much valued friend who I knew had legitimate reason to call.  No matter. I furiously refused to pick up.  The creative flow had stopped.  I could think of nothing else.  The silent scream erupted into a noisy yell that triggered a headache.  I was going down, fast.

I glanced over at the book by John Owen, already opened to page 266.  I read these words from my Puritan pastor: “I would ask of some, whether they have been able to maintain spiritual peace and joy in their souls.” Perhaps in resistance to the convicting power of those words, out loud I shouted “No! I can’t find one uninterrupted morning to let the Spirit direct my heart and mind to write an article for Christian Counseling Today.”  I nearly decided to call the editor and say I couldn’t meet the deadline.

I sat for 10 minutes, with neither peace nor joy even making an appearance in my soul, wondering if I’d ever get back the rhythm that had vanished.  The idea of repenting didn’t occur to me.  Of what?  I was the noble victim, interrupted from kingdom work by poorly timed phone calls.  Nobody’s fault.  Just life in an imperfect world.

For reasons I couldn’t see at the time, I thumbed back a few pages in The Glory of Christ till I came to a passage I had before underlined.  I stopped on pages 259 and 260 and read these highlighted words: when sincere believers experience anything that “…casts them into great perplexities, …it makes them restless for recovery.”

That phrase, after staring at it for 20 seconds, began a new flow, released (I now think) by both the phrase’s convicting and inviting power.  I had something to recover from, something not merely inconvenient, but something wrong.  “Oh, but it’s only human to get frustrated”, you might say.  I heard myself say the same thing.  But that’s precisely the problem.  My frustration was the natural response of a fallen human who, though forgiven, has a way to go in becoming like Christ.  But at the same time, I felt invited to get back on the narrow road that leads to life.  I was restless for recovery, and glad to be.

Now here’s my point: as counselors, we must never take lightly the truism that “no one can give to another what he does not possess himself.”  Lewis wrote that on page 33 of Hooper’s anthology.  We Christian counselors are uniquely and primarily in the business of helping people whose life in some way is not going so well to become “little Christ’s” (another Lewis phrase).  To fulfill our mission, we must be intimately and personally aware of the art of recovery from spiritual slippage to regaining a spiritual foothold.  We need to know what it means to be restless for recovery from failure and discouragement, and to have some experience with following, not grieving or quenching, the Spirit as He leads us back to the way.  Otherwise we will not be able to recognize that holy restlessness in our counselees and will instead patch them up and send them home no further along in the process of spiritual recovery.

I sat with a young couple for three hours yesterday.  Their marriage is a difficult blend of loving commitment and excruciating pain.  In order to help them become more like Christ, I had to keep 3 things (among others) clearly and firmly in mind.

FIRST:  I needed to be single-focused in my priority, not to heal their marriage with communication techniques and the like, but rather to draw them toward the goal of Christ-likeness, and to know what that would look like and how they could find the power to move toward that goal in the middle of their fiercest fight and worst pain.  There is no course to follow in getting there but to expose (1) the self-centeredness energizing so many of their actions and (2) their pursuit of a lesser goal than Christ-likeness.

SECOND: I had to press my spiritual ear so close to their spiritual center (both are Christians) to hear the cry of their soul to delight God, to put words to the desire that no change in their marriage would satisfy.  Beneath anger is hurt.  Beneath hurt is unsatisfied desire, emptiness, terror.  And unsatisfied desire leads either to bitterness and hardness that refuses to give or to repentance and to embracing the desire, above all others, to become an “ingredient in the divine happiness” (yet another Lewis phrase).  And that desire generates worship, and the increased capacity to love those who hurt you the most.  That’s the way Jesus loves.

THIRD:  I needed to gently locate my counselees in a ditch of their own making, the ditch of relational sin and relational disappointment.  Only from that deep, foul-smelling and humanly inescapable ditch will anyone humbly look up to see the tender smile of the only Good Samaritan, Christ Himself.  Only from the ditch of brokenness over sin that before felt justified and of despairing disappointment over unmet desire that had long lain buried beneath the demanded hope that one’s spouse (or another mere mortal) would provide satisfaction, only from that ditch will the glory of Christ become visible.

And until we see His glory, the glory of God revealed in the face of Christ (II Corinthians 4:6), we will remain unrepentant of our deepest sins and undrawn to our heavenly spouse, the only source of true peace and real joy.

The conclusion of the matter?  Don’t lead your counselees into the ditch.  They’re already there.  Help them know it.  So are you. Admit it.  Help them face their demanding narcissism and feel their unsatisfied longings.  Then, if the Spirit is doing His work (He always is), they will become restless for recovery, not more entitled to help or demanding of satisfaction but humbly dependent on the only One who can lift them from the ditch and place their feet on solid ground.

That’s what the Spirit did for me an hour ago.  When I’m at my worst, I more clearly see God’s best.  And when I see Him, nothing matters more than becoming like Him, for the pleasure of the Father, by the power of the Spirit.  It’s from the ditch that I feel a holy restlessness.  It’s from the ditch that real change takes place in my counselees.  It’s from the ditch that together we are given wings to soar like eagles into the heavenlies, into the life-giving rhythm of the eternal dance.

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