Counseling is not, to quote Jay Adams, the “magic hour.” That is to say, one hour a week, meeting with a counselor, does not resolve problems. Real transformation happens as individuals seek to apply what the learn in counseling in between sessions, as they do hard work, as they follow-up and build on discussions in session. It’s for this reason that Biblical Counselors ought to give good homework to their counselees. In this series I am going to look at how we craft effective homework, but to start the topic off we should carefully consider why we give homework. There are two important rationales for giving homework.
Believe it or not, homework actually benefits the counselor. Homework is most obviously about helping the counselee understand themselves, understand their problem, and understand God’s provisions – and then helping them to live in light of those truths. But it also has implications for the counselor and can be real help to us as we seek to help others. So, here are four ways that giving biblical homework helps the counselor:
For Data Gathering – Homework can be a unique way to glean more information about the individuals we are seeking to help. Through homework you can learn about their daily habits and routines, their desires and fears, their patterns of behavior, and their beliefs. Giving a journaling assignment, for example, can uniquely reveal such things. Inviting counselees to read and study scripture can help to highlight their level of Biblical knowledge, ability to apply Scripture, and understanding of the principles of good hermeneutics. You can learn a lot from homework.
Recently I had a counselee write a paragraph about what they felt was their biggest hindrance to change. They wrote about how they didn’t believe things would ever get better. That was insightful for me. It revealed a level of hopelessness in the individual that was actually keeping him stuck. I might have eventually got there, but when he wrote it out we saw it together and I was able to immediately respond to it and tailor my counsel to help him address his doubt. In the sessions I had been giving counsel on the problem, but beneath the surface was this disbelief that was compounding the issues. Homework brought it to the surface. It allowed me to get more data to be more helpful.
For Prioritizing the role of the Holy Spirit – Homework also reminds us that we cannot produce change. My counsel is not what makes the difference, the Spirit of God must apply the truths to the heart of the counselee. Homework is an opportunity for the Spirit to work apart from me. The Spirit is the real counselor, and in my efforts to be helpful I can sometimes get in the way, or over-emphasize my role. Homework provides people an opportunity to engage with the living God and to find “grace in [their] time of need” (Heb. 4:16).
I remember vividly the first time I counseled an individual with OCD. I didn’t know much about the nature of the problem or what would be helpful. I was in over my head and I felt it, but the Spirit of God was working through the homework that I gave the young man and brought about a rapid change in him. It wasn’t me, it was the Spirit of God who changed him. Biblical homework was a means by which the Spirit of God could work in this young man’s life to help him grasp new truths, apply them consistently, and discern his own thoughts more accurately. Homework removes us from the equation and reminds us that we may plant and we may water, but only God can cause the growth (1 Cor. 3:7).
For Increasing the Counsel Given – Good and intentional homework should build on what we do in the counseling session and keep the progress moving forward beyond the session. One hour may feel like a lot of time to the novice counselor, but the longer you practice the more aware you become of how limited you time with an individual is. In one hour, or perhaps an hour and a half, I am trying to review homework, hear their assessment of progress, discuss particular hang-ups or problem incidents from the week, and guide them in an extended discussion of how Scripture speaks to their deeper heart level issue. That is a lot of ground to cover in a short amount of time. Good homework benefits me as a counselor, by allowing me the opportunity to extend counseling beyond the session itself.
As a counselee does the assigned work at home throughout the week they are reinforcing the principles from our discussion. They are listening to God’s Word as it speaks to their present situation from a different angle or with fresh insight. They are seeking to apply the principles and concepts to their daily life in ways that make a difference. All of this adds to the counsel that is given and builds upon what we discuss. It allows my counseling to be more effective because it is not limited to one hour, once a week.
For Preventing Dependency Upon Us – Counseling is burdensome work in many ways, and it is easy to feel overwhelmed, and responsible for every person’s progress. Compassion fatigue can be a real concern for counselors. Homework provides us an opportunity to provide help within important boundaries. It reminds counselees that they are required to do some hard work to make progress, that they cannot depend on their counselors to change them. Biblical homework takes that responsibility off of the counselor, and serves to emphasize the counselee’s personal responsibility. To grow they must apply what they learn between sessions.
Early on in my practice I remembered working with a gentleman who was so crippled by fear that he couldn’t make even basic life choices. He would call me multiple times during the week to ask for advice. Advice about parenting, about calling a friend, even once about choosing some new home furnishings. At first I took every call and attempted to help him answer every question, but after a year of this I knew I wasn’t actually being helpful, and, worse, I was starting to become bitter and resentful towards him. So, I began to delay returning phone calls, and nearly every time I did he was forced to make a decision on his own. Slowly he learned that none of his decisions were actually as serious as he thought, and that he could, in fact, be trusted to make choices. As I gave him more and more homework he was learning independence from me, and dependence upon God. It also freed me up to be more helpful and not feel resentful.
Homework is important for counselees, but it impacts counselors too. Failing to give homework will hurt your counseling in the long run. it will limit your effectiveness, keep counselees dependent upon you, and focus on your ability in session instead of God’s power in the life of the individual. Give homework as much for your sake as those you help. Next week I will look more at how counseling directly benefits the counselee.