Signs & Wonders and Counseling Outcomes

When Ed came to Christ his desire for alcohol was completely taken away. He had gone from being a binge drinker to a complete teetotaler  within a weekend. That dramatic change explained, in part, why he had so much confusion over his struggle with heroin. If God had taken the one away with miraculous ease why was this addiction so persistent? While the Spirit of God does sometimes produce change in dramatic and instantaneous fashion, more often He utilizes an ordinary and slow means of progression. In light of this, Biblical counselors must help their counselees have realistic expectations regarding counseling outcomes.

It is often acknowledged within theological study that the Spirit of God is capable of the dramatic, of signs and wonders. The book of Acts is filled with such demonstrations. Yet, theologians contend, more often than not He works through rather ordinary means of grace. While we may long for signs and wonders, and perhaps see them, we should not negate nor minimize the more normative means of the Spirit’s activity. What is true In theological study is also true in therapeutic work. The Spirit can demonstrate His power and presence through the miraculous, but we should not expect this to be the only (nor the dominant) way that He works to produce change in individuals. 

Ed is a good example of this truth. The momentum of Ed’s conversion carried him forward in much holiness. It seemed to him, that at that moment his entire life changed. When he got injured on the job several years later, however, things were different. By this time the rate of his sanctification had slowed. The routines and banality of life had begun to overshadow the excitement of following Christ. He was still a faithful believer, and he was growing in some ways, but he had also experienced seasons of spiritual dryness and disappointment. Taking pain pills seemed to make frustrations melt away. He felt good when he took them, and when he took more than was prescribed he felt even better. Eventually he was burning through a month’s prescription in a few weeks and the gap between his last pill and his next refill was too long. He began to pursue street drugs to help take the edge off his pain. From one bad decision to another he eventually found himself buying heroin. 

Ed had tried to quit multiple times in his life. He had been through rehab, he had confessed his sin, he had prayed and cried out to God more times than he could remember. Nothing seemed to be working for him. In moments of real despair he began to doubt his faith: Am I really a Christian? Does God really care about me? If God took away my alcoholism why won’t he take this away? Is God punishing me? Is God even real? These questions haunted him as he continued to fight his addiction. Where was the miraculous healing that he was sure God was going to grant him?

Biblical counselors must help Ed by modeling realistic expectations in counseling outcomes. Many faithful counselors will admit in theory the reality that change is slow, that God utilizes ordinary means, but often we are as guilty of faulty expectations as Ed. Many counselors believe that while change is hard, once given the right theological information change should occur at a decent pace. There is a long-standing model within Biblical counseling that suggests six sessions is all that is required for change to begin. If a case takes longer than this it is for exceptional reasons, and even then should not go much longer. Counselors themselves can get frustrated when it feels like a counselee is not implementing change quick enough, or falling back into sinful patterns again. It’s tempting to want to wash our hands of the case, to accuse the counselee of willful disobedience and neglect. We must remember that the Spirit often moves slowly. We must remember that while dramatic change can sometimes occur, the Spirit often works through more ordinary means of helping people realize progress. 

Chiefly, Christian counselors must acknowledge that the Spirit of God delights to work through human counselors. This fact is a sure guarantee of the slow pace of change. As Eric Johnson has written:

All therapy involves at least two human persons. Christian therapy is distinguished by the explicit involvement of at least three persons – two human and one divine, who indwells the humans if they are Christians. Discussion in session of this profound, mysterious, interpersonal resource is warranted. This is not a merely human enterprise. At the same time, it is also a thoroughly human enterprise, since the Father’s primary soul-healing intervention occurred throughout the very human Jesus Christ, and on that basis, the Spirit now works through the humans present, in spite of their limitations and sin, guaranteeing that progress will be typically slow and halting. (God & Soul Care, 116)

Even the best counselors are limited in their competency, knowledge, and effectiveness. As the Spirit works through them He works in spite of them, and yet He often allows progress to follow the stammering methodology and skill of the counselor. We acknowledge that progress is slow, then, because counselors themselves are imperfect mediators of God’s transforming grace. 

The reality of the Spirit’s mediation through ordinary means, including imperfect counselors, means that Biblical counselors, and their counselees, must have realistic expectations regarding counseling outcomes. The notion that effective counseling can be accomplished in six sessions should be outright dismissed as absurd. God may heal in six session (He may even heal in one) but He also may not, and, in fact He often doesn’t. Both counselor and counselee must be willing to persist in their role, taking their own responsibility seriously, and waiting on the Lord. Counselors, in particular, must be “patient with all” (1 Thess. 5:14), and must yield to the Spirit’s timing. 

God does sometimes work in signs and wonders, with dramatic demonstrations of His power and healing. We should long for and pray for such demonstrations, and yet we must be careful not to expect more than God promises. Outcomes may be less dramatic, and may move much slower than we desire. No change, however, is ever less miraculous, and so, at whatever pace and to whatever degree, all change should cause us to celebrate the Spirit’s work.

1 Comment

  1. “All therapy involves at least two human persons”

    So very true. I think that part of the glory of this is that God never created us to ‘stand alone”. Right from the beginning, He created Adam AND Eve. It ‘was not good for Adam to be alone” with Eve defined as a “help-mate”. This is a reflection of the very nature of the Trinity.

    I have always counseled others to NOT try to tackle their problems ALONE, but to partner with someone who can assist them. We too readily choose to do it alone, often to hide our imperfections from others. Transparency runs counter to our sinful hearts, but it is our friend. I have seen too many crash and burn as they insisted that they could handle it, that they could do it alone. This runs counter to God’s creation of Man.

    “a three fold cord is not easily broken”

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