I have served as a counselor now for fifteen years. I would like to say that during those years I have perfected my craft to the point that I witness stunning results with every person I serve. To make such a claim, however, would reek of dishonesty. The fact remains that even with fifteen years under my belt, I continue to encounter people and situations in which my perceived effectiveness as a counselor is less than impressive.
Pastoral counseling can be discouraging
Whether you are new to the world of counseling or a seasoned veteran, my assumption is that you can relate to being ineffective in your work with others. While such ineffectiveness is always an occasion to assess your competence (or lack thereof) in certain areas, your deficiency in certain skills, or your need for continued development, these moments may also serve as contexts for profound discouragement. You know the moments I’m referring to—you held your first session with someone, the session drew to a close, you asked him when he would like to return, and he declined, citing a need for a better fit. Maybe it’s the time you worked with a couple for three solid months, you felt they were making significant progress, and one day the husband started off the session with, “I’m done. I visited an attorney yesterday, and divorce papers are coming.” Perhaps it’s the counselee who signed the no-suicide agreement only to call you the next day from the psychiatric hospital to let you know she downed an entire bottle of Tylenol. Even more overwhelming, maybe all three of these events happened in the same week!
Jesus also faced discouragement in ministry
When you are not afforded the opportunity to witness significant results from your pastoral counseling, it becomes tempting to give in to hopelessness. Your insecurities may mount, and your work focus may turn from loving God and others to your own meager performance and perceived failure. Yet, it doesn’t have to be this way. During these times it is comforting to know that The Counselor, Jesus, understands your predicament all too well. You may have never heard this before, but Jesus also experienced a profound existential crisis while serving and ministering to others. The book of Isaiah predicts the Messiah’s experience: “And he said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’ But I said, ‘I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity …” (Isa. 49:3–4a ESV).1
While it is difficult to imagine our Lord experiencing a sense of futility while ministering to others, that is exactly what this passage suggests. Jesus felt that His labor was in vain and that He was spending His energy in futility. This was a real inner struggle for Him. The Gospel of Matthew affirms Jesus’ sorrow when He cried out, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matt. 23:37 ESV).
Yet Jesus remained centered on His Father’s plan
His frustration is almost tangible. Yet, this existential dilemma did not overcome Jesus to the point of sin or despair. It simply pressed Him further into the trustworthy plans of the Father—and the Father’s plans were stunning! The rest of Isaiah 49:4 illustrates this beautiful bond of trust even in the midst of perceived futility: “… yet surely my right is with the LORD, and my recompense with my God” (ESV).
While others resisted His ministry, Jesus’ bottom line was their response not to His efforts but rather to the sovereign purposes of the Father. He submitted His sense of futility to the One whose purposes were perfect and sure. He understood that whatever reward would emerge from His ministry would come from the kind hand of His Father. Jesus trusted the outcome. It was here that the Father’s heart of love was beautifully revealed. He encouraged His Son that the fruit of His work would ultimately exceed all expectation: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa. 49:6 ESV).
Not only would Jesus’ ministry raise up Israel, also His work would bring hope and life to the ends of the earth. His efforts would be far from futile. They would accomplish the unthinkable. Prior to His ascension, Jesus reiterated this promise to His own followers:
Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:45–49 ESV)
And this promise has been realized. The Spirit first began applying the works of Jesus to all the nations as He empowered Gentiles, for the first time, to believe.
So Peter opened his mouth and said: ‘Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34 ESV)
While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. (Acts 10:44–45 ESV)
What the Father planned, Jesus accomplished, and the Spirit applied. This cadence of transformation is also true in your work as a pastoral counselor. The path and means of the change process reside in the hand of the Trinity exclusively. Yet, though you know this, from time to time you probably will struggle. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him” (John 13:16 ESV).
If people resisted Jesus’ ministry, His infinite love, and His awe-inspiring glory, then surely as His servant you will experience the same. If He experienced futility in ministry, then surely we will, at times, experience the same. Yet, as He didn’t, so you cannot allow the responses of your counselees to serve as your bottom line. Rather, you must remember that God has planned the process of healing and change for your counselees long before they entered your office. When change is slow to come, and at times it will be, you must humble your heart as did your Redeemer and echo His proclamation, “yet surely my right is with the LORD, and my recompense with my God” (Isa. 49:4 ESV).
- Allow resistance from counselees to serve as a reminder to press into the trustworthy arms of God. The change process of those you counsel is unfolding according to the precise and divine timetable of the Lord—your strategies will not alter it.
- When troubled by any lack of progress in counselees, consider your own motives and beliefs. Why are you troubled? Is it for the good of the ones being served, or is it because insecurity is mounting? Do you place more faith in your skills than is warranted? How does your unsettledness possibly expose your beliefs about who is truly able to change hearts? What is your motive for counseling? Is it God’s glory or something else?
- Consider Galatians 6:7–9 (ESV):
Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.
Is your counseling an outflow of fleshly intentions? Are you sowing to the Spirit by trusting His work in the process? Remember that sowing to the Spirit will reap life! However, the produce is determined by the wisdom and power of the Spirit. Your role is to plant. His role is to produce the harvest. Should you choose to give up, it may well reveal a profound lack of trust in the way and means by which the Spirit chooses to operate in the lives of those you serve.
- Remember, it is Jesus alone who possesses the power to open minds so that they comprehend and savor His truths: “Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45 ESV). Never assume you wield such power.
- Ask God to help you daily grow in both your trust of Him and your giftedness as a counselor. When you see a lack of progress, this is a time to press not only into God’s power to change others, but also into His power to equip you to do your job well. When your counseling seems futile, such perceived futility may be God’s way of pointing out weaknesses of your own that need humble and focused attention.
- Although the identity of “Israel” in Isaiah 49:3 has been debated among Old Testament scholars, it seems most likely that “Israel” refers to the Messiah, the Suffering Servant, who comes from the nation of Israel and who fulfills the role the nation could not. See John N. Oswalt, The NIV Application Commentary: Isaiah (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 546–48.
This article, When Our Counseling Becomes Futile, first appeared on ChristianCounseling.com, January 4, 2016, and is used with permission. The article has also been adapted for CareLeader.org with permission from the author.