What Can You Do When Your Counselee is Stuck?

Being on the receiving end of biblical counseling can be a real challenge. Heart change is hard work, and sometimes counselees become “stuck” in the process. Some things may be getting easier and better, but some areas seem more stubborn, and change is slow or nonexistent. When this happens to a counselee of mine, she and I need to work together to figure out what’s going on. When my counselees become stuck, I have a number of questions that I use, to find out where the kink is in their process. In this and my next two articles, I’ll share some of those with you.

Is the counselee truly saved?

This is the first and most important question that must be answered. If the Holy Spirit is not residing in the heart of a counselee, then no amount of Scripture, exhortation, or biblical encouragement will bring lasting change. Counselors teach, but it is the Spirit of God who changes hearts. Ask her to tell you again her testimony of conversion. Help her to see if there truly is evidence of the fruit of salvation in her life. Ask her where God is in her problems. Where has He shown Himself faithful in her life, and how does the Spirit of God inform her speech, actions, and decisions?

If you come to the conclusion (as best you can as a mere human) that she is saved, then help her to develop assurance of salvation. Many counselees have been stuck in sin for so long that they begin to doubt their salvation. If you are truly convinced that the Holy Spirit does dwell in her heart, then help her to see His great love for her, and teach her about the mercy and grace of God. (A.W. Pink’s Attributes of God is a great tool for this.) As she learns to rest in Christ and what He has done for her, you may begin to see more evidence of change happening, both in your conversations and in the evidence from her life that she shares with you each week.

If you cannot see evidence of salvation, then your task becomes evangelism. Plead with her to see her need of Christ, to confess and repent of sin, and to submit to God’s authority in her life. If she insists that she is saved, but the evidence shows otherwise, you may need to check in with her pastor to get more history and context for your evaluation. If she is unsaved and remains so, the best you can do is to give her practical help for her presenting problem, paired with evangelistic teaching.

Does she desire to change?

Sometimes, counselees come at the request of a spouse or other family member. Their counseling issues have become so disruptive to the family or the relationship that the people close to them have convinced them to get help, even though they don’t see the need for change. These are tough cases, because, the motivation is external, and not a desire of the heart. If she doesn’t have a true desire to change, or doesn’t develop one over the first few sessions, your work may be in vain. You may have more impact by offering your counsel to the referring family member, to help them with their own response to the stubborn heart of your counselee.

Is she doing the homework?

Homework is absolutely essential to heart change in biblical counseling, and the right kind of homework is key. Have you given your counselee homework assignments that are immediately relevant to her problems? Have you taken enough time to listen and discern what the deeper issues behind the presenting problem are? For example, I had one counselee who reported that she just could not stop procrastinating, and was often late in turning in assignments at work. She was always worried that her boss would be angry or would fire her. The problem she put on her paperwork as the reason for coming to counseling was low self-esteem and obsession with others’ opinions of her. When I first saw this, I thought that her biggest problem was fear of man. As I listened and got to know her, I discovered that underneath that fear was a firmly ingrained perfectionism that she had nurtured her whole life. Though these two problems are often related, this information changed my plans for her homework.

One other thing I want to mention about homework: The majority of it should be reading, meditation, and study of Scripture. There are many good homework resources and assignments, but none of them will have the same impact as an in-depth study of Scripture. No human-made book or article is living and active in the heart of your counselee; nor will it pierce to the division of soul and spirit, joint and marrow like the Word of God. Simply stated, the Bible packs a punch against the enemy of the soul that no other resource can offer.

Is your counselee actually doing the homework as assigned? You can spend hours piecing together just the right assignments to get to the heart of your counselee, but if she doesn’t do it, or does it in an incomplete or halfhearted way, it will not have the impact you intended. One of the first conversations I have with my counselees (usually in the first session) is about the importance of homework. I let them know right up front that heart change happens in the six days between our visits, not necessarily in the hour we are together each week. While it is the Holy Spirit that changes hearts, the counselee’s own will must cooperate, and part of this will be recognizing her own sinful thought patterns as she completes the homework, and working to change them.

I hope that you’ve found this post helpful and that these questions for the counselee will help you both to discover what may be missing in the process of biblical change. Next time, I’ll have some questions for you as the counselor to ask yourself, which may help reveal the sticking points. In the final article of the series, I’ll talk about a few other “failure factors” that might be impacting your ability to get a counselee over the hump.