Listening and Instructing in Counseling: How Much of Each?

I’m not writing this post as a counselor, but rather as a student of the Bible.  Today I’m less interested in what is effective in counseling, though that is certainly a worthwhile inquiry (even if it should be pursued by someone more qualified than I).  Today I want to investigate whether the Bible has anything to say about how much emphasis a counselor should place on listening and how much on instruction.

This is the kind of question thoughtful Christians should be asking all the time, but that we often fail to ask.  I believe that before inquiring into the efficacy of a particular approach, we as biblical Christians should first ask whether the Bible has pointed us in the right direction.  If it has, then a Christian who holds to a high view of Scripture will acquiesce to what God has already indicated in his Word, even if intuition—or the current state of psychological research—disputes that view.  The amount of emphasis that should be placed upon listening in comparison to instruction is a good example of an issue the Bible does have something to say about, but about which Christians often haven’t been adequately attentive.

It appears that a counselor who desires to learn what the Bible says about speaking and listening will come to the following conclusion:  we need to avoid extremes.  A counselor should both carefully listen and instruct, without unnecessarily overemphasizing one at the expense of the other.  What is the evidence for this?  Following are a few biblical signposts.

The Importance of Listening:  A Few Examples of a Biblical Theme

“let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19)

“So the king did not listen to the people.  And when all Israel saw that the king did not listen to them, the people answered the king, ‘What portion do we have in David? We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse. To your tents, O Israel! Look now to your own house, David.’ So Israel went to their tents” (1 Kings 12:15-16)

“Oh that you would keep silent, and it would be your wisdom!  Hear now my argument and listen to the pleadings of my lips” (Job 13:5-6)

“I consider myself fortunate that it is before you, King Agrippa, I am going to make my defense today against all the accusations of the Jews, especially because you are familiar with all the customs and controversies of the Jews. Therefore I beg you to listen to me patiently” (Acts 26:2-3)

The Importance of Giving Instruction: A Few Examples of a Biblical Theme

“reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.  For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Timothy 4:2-4)

“As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith.  The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:3-5)

“Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you.  Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning.  The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Proverbs 9:8-10)

These complementary themes—of listening and instructing—would appear to exclude counseling models that overemphasize listening, on the one hand, or instruction, on the other.  In practice, the theme of listening would appear to exclude one extreme—sometimes found among people describing themselves as biblical counselors—where a counselor spends little time listening and most of his or her time instructing.  Listening is indeed crucial, otherwise the proffered counsel may not connect with a person’s needs, nor may a counselee feel truly cared for.  At the other end, the theme of instructing would seem to call into question Rogerian approaches where a counselee spends most of a session trying to work out his or her problems in the presence of a trained questioner.  Counselees indeed need someone to really hear and understand them, but they also need a person wiser than themselves to instruct in how to live healthy, prudent, and God-honoring lives.

The Bible emphasizes both listening and instructing.  Shouldn’t we seek to emphasize both?

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