Time changes us all. Or rather, we all change over time. As a young man I was impetuous and impulsive, but over time I find myself much more careful, slow to act even. As a young man I was far more gregarious and extroverted, but now I tend to be more introverted. The concerns and insecurities of youth have changed with age, and while I may still struggle with insecurities they are uniquely different to this stage of life. All of us experience this and good counseling must take into consideration these unique details of age. Effective counselors must approach people according to the unique stages of their life.
The principle for such a practice is not merely pragmatic, we see it exemplified in Scripture. Writing to one young pastor, the Apostle Paul says:
But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine. 2 Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness. 3 Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, 4 and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, 5 to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled. Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled. (Titus 2:16)
Notice that Paul has different instruction for each individual that is contingent upon, or related to, their present stage of life. The older are to focus on sober-mindedness, dignity, self-control, and steadfastness. The younger men have one challenge: be self-controlled. Paul recognizes that for younger men this is a significant challenge and their unique stage of life warrants emphasizing this instruction. He does the same thing with older women and younger women, again emphasizing instruction relevant to their present struggles and concerns.
Good counselors want to imitate Paul in this manner. We want to be sensitive to the age of our counselees. Scripture invites us to do this, and common sense supports it. Consider two different counselees at the vastly different stages of life. Jeremy Pierre models this for us as he writes about counseling a teenage boy and a seventy-year-old man. He writes:
An adolescent boy faces hormonal and social realities quite different from the seventy-year-old married man. The teenager is faced with the challenges of rapid bodily transition, the awakening of new physical urges, and the awkwardness of disproportion. For his part, the seventy-year-old married man faces the financial and health implications of an aging body, the loss of basic abilities he once assumed, and new types of pain that are not accompanied by the youthful hope of conquering. The adolescent boy is facing the difficulties of stewarding his potentiality, the old man of stewarding his legacy. People should be approached differently according to the present circumstances of their stage in life…(The Dynamic Heart in Daily Life, 95)
The age of your counselee is a crucial factor in the kind of counsel, encouragement, help, and hope that they most directly need. To offer anything less is to flatten counseling into trite platitudes that while true, do nothing to effectively apply Scripture to the unique details of a person’s situation. All counseling should be contextual and that requires sensitivity to the age of your counselee.
It is true, of course, that all of God’s truth applies to all of us. There is a sense in which the adolescent boy and the seventy-year-old man could be given the same counsel. Both need to “seek first the Kingdom of God.” Both need to “consider the interests of others as more significant than their own.” Both need to trust God, keep His Word, and die to self. But applying Scripture to their lives in very practical ways requires more than these surface level truths. “Seeking the kingdom,” trusting God, “keeping His Word,” and “dying to self” will look different for each depending on the various nuances of their personality, stage of life, challenges, and temptations. Effective counsel seeks to apply truth in the details, not simply at the broad level. All of God’s truth is relevant to all of us, but it’s not relevant in the exact same way at the exact same time. So, for example, if I struggle with doubting my salvation, the Biblical warnings about “falling away” are applicable to me, but they are probably not the most relevant right now. In fact, such warnings may compound my fears. They are true for me, but what I most need in the moment of doubt is the assurance of God’s love and dependability, not the warnings. The same is true for the various issues of age. The whole Bible is true for each and every one of us, regardless of age, but it is not all relevant in the same way at the same stage of life. Considering age allows us to tailor the counsel most needed for the individual’s unique situation.
So, consider the age of your counselee. Ask yourself, of the counselee, “what unique realities does this person have to respond to” (Pierre, 95). Age impacts body, mind, social context, pressing concerns, and future goals. If we fail to consider these factors we will offer simplistic and reductionist counsel that does not meet people where they are at, and does nothing to move them forward. Age matters and wise counselors know this.