How to Choose a Wise Counselor

  1. Share
1 1

All your own efforts and gumption, your prayers and advice-seeking, your reading and research—you've tried it all, and still your struggle persists. You've reached it: the point at which you know you need help. You need a counselor.

Maybe a loved one has died suddenly. Or maybe you and your spouse can't communicate without hurtful words. Or perhaps memories and pain from the past seem to be seeping into your everyday life. Maybe your teenager won't listen to a word you say. Or maybe you can't stop binge eating.

You've tried many avenues of help—books, advice from friends, asking for prayer—but you're still stuck. You're so stuck that you realize it's time to take the plunge into counseling. But where do you go from here? How do you find the right person to help you? After all, this is your life we're talking about! You need more guidance than just a quick Google search.

Here is the truth about counseling: the only tool that really matters is the counselor himself or herself. All the counseling training and experience in the world actually mean nothing if the counselor is someone who lacks wisdom and maturity. The fact that a social worker or psychologist is on the list of your insurance company as an "approved provider" also means next to nothing. And, unfortunately, the label "Christian counseling" may not mean much either.

Choosing a counselor is a very important decision. The wrong advice, even from a well-meaning professional, can result in tremendous harm and damaged relationships. So where do you start? What should you really look for in a counselor?

7 Traits of a Wise Counselor

Proverbs is essentially a book about how to live wisely, and it's a great place to begin your journey of selecting a counselor you can trust. Let's take a look at some of Solomon's advice for finding wise counsel.

1. A wise counselor fears the Lord

People often ask, "Is it okay to see a counselor who is not a Christian?" It may seem impossible to find a Christian who is covered by your insurance or who lives within a 60-mile radius. This also may be an issue if you are seeking a very specific type of counselor. (For example, your son has Asperger's syndrome and you want to find him a counselor with that specialty.)

You may use an accountant or a cardiologist who is not a Christian and it doesn't make a huge difference in the advice given. However, counseling usually involves moral and spiritual decisions. A person's worldview concerning right and wrong, the meaning of life, and so on, will inevitably find its way to the counseling room.

Proverbs tells us, "Fear of the Lord is the foundation of wisdom" (9:10). Fearing God means acknowledging that he is the One who defines right and wrong—that we ultimately will bow before a God who is greater than we are. Whether or not a counselor is a Christian, it is imperative that he or she respects your desire to honor the Lord. If you are seeking counseling on an issue that clearly involves moral or spiritual elements (such as sexual abuse recovery, marital struggles, suicidal thoughts, sexual identity issues, and so on), your counselor should be a mature Christian, equipped to give you wisdom that represents the truth and love of Christ. It is worth driving the extra 30 minutes and paying the "out of network" fee!

2. A wise counselor has a good name

Proverbs reminds us that "A good name is more desirable than great riches" (22:1, NIV). If someone asks me how to find a good counselor, my advice is typically to ask around. Ask your pastor, ask your friends, and ask your doctor, gathering recommendations from people you trust. Counselors develop a reputation based both within their professional field and the Christian community. If you hear the same name recommended two or three times by people you trust, that's a big plus.

3. A wise counselor is willing to "wound" you

While they provide affirmation and encouragement, at some point, wise counselors will speak hard truths. "Wounds from a sincere friend are better than kisses from an enemy," Proverbs 27:6 tells us. A counselor is more than a glorified buddy; he or she ought to be someone who actually counsels. After several visits with a counselor, there should be some uncomfortable conversations, such as questions that make you squirm, perspectives that challenge you to see your contribution to a problem, or "homework assignments" that ask you to step out of your comfort zone.

There are some bobblehead counselors who are happy to give you a weekly dose of affirmation for the rest of your life. If you want someone to always agree with you, save your money and just get a dog!

4. A wise counselor encourages a team

Proverbs 15:22 says that "Plans go wrong for lack of advice; many advisers bring success." Does this mean that you should be seeing two or three psychologists at a time? Of course not. However, you should always have a team of counselors and advisers. Your family physician can help with hives, but probably knows little about a brain tumor. Your pastor can help you with spiritual questions, but probably isn't equipped to help with an eating disorder.

Wise counselors know their limits. They will encourage you to depend upon a multitude of advisers. They won't try to be your mentor, friend, spiritual director, financial guru, parenting expert, and nutritionist. A counselor who nurtures dependence or gives the air of a know-it-all is a big red flag!

5. A wise counselor's words are life-giving

"The tongue has the power of life and death," Proverbs reminds us (18:21, NIV). Further, "the words of the wise bring healing" (12:18) and "encourage many" (10:21). Can you discern life-giving words? They aren't necessarily fluffy, happy statements. In fact, sometimes the truth hurts. Whether the occasion calls for encouragement or a rebuke, a wise counselor promotes life. Ask yourself the question, "Is this counsel building life and vitality into my marriage, my friendships, and my relationship with God?"

6. A wise counselor does his or her homework

"Take a lesson from the ant, you lazybones," Proverbs 6:6 urges us. "Learn from their ways and be wise!" You may be wondering what studying ants has to do with getting good advice. Solomon was encouraging all of us to study creation and to learn principles for wise living. Similarly, a counselor or psychologist has chosen the profession of studying how we live and interact in order to pass on wise advice.

Being a spiritual person and a good listener is no excuse for ignorance. The person you trust for advice should always be a student, dedicated to learning about how to more effectively minister to those seeking counsel.

7. A wise counselor knows the limits of human wisdom

"My daughter died of cancer a few months ago. She was only 8 years old." How ought a wise counselor respond to such a devastating statement? There are no explanations or rationalizations about why God would allow such tragedies to happen. Sometimes the wisest counselor will just be silent and cry with a person in such deep pain.

Many things in this life that are beyond our understanding. Proverbs 20:24 (NIV) observes, "A person's steps are directed by the LORD. How can anyone understand their own way?" While we grapple with the whys, true wisdom always knows its limits. God can comfort the broken-hearted without always explaining himself. As a clinical psychologist, I cannot heal the wounded. I cannot restore a broken marriage. I cannot make sense of tragedy. But I can compassionately lead someone to the true Counselor who can do all of this and more.

What About You?

So, what about once you've gleaned Solomon's advice and have picked a wise counselor? Does that guarantee that you will come out better on the other end? Not necessarily. While I have listed seven criteria for wise counselors, I will only give one for a wise student (or client): A wise student is open to reproof.

Proverbs 15:31–32 reminds us, "If you listen to constructive criticism, you will be at home among the wise. If you reject discipline, you only harm yourself; but if you listen to correction, you grow in understanding." The number one reason why counseling can be a waste of time and money is that the person seeking counsel doesn't want to do the hard work. He or she is hoping that someone with a bunch of fancy degrees on the wall will waive a magic wand and make the pain go away. The person is hoping for the inspired advice that will undo years of fighting and foolish decisions.

Yet, as with much of life, you will get out of counseling as much as you are willing to put into it. Great counseling will require something more than your checkbook. It will require you to be courageous in facing pain, steadfast in choosing wisely, and humble in seeing your need for God's truth and grace.


To leave a comment, login or sign up.
  • Anna Seid

    Anna Seid

    I appreciate the posted criteria for seeking a wise counselor and will use it as a resource for others. How true that rings - your concluding words given to the reader/prospective clients - in sadly recounting those who parted company with me because of a failure to take responsibility and do their work, wanting to remain stubbornly naive in an unhealthy reliance upon someone else to make it better for them.

Related Content

The Importance of Sexual Discipleship™
For the past few years, I’ve been using this term “sexual discipleship™” to describe the passion behind the ministry Authentic Intimacy. I’ve noticed that when people hear me put those two words together, they are intrigued. Although you may have been discipled in your walk with Christ at some point, chances are, that discipleship never permeated questions about your sexuality. (Presione aquí para leer en español). I grew up in the church with loving, caring parents. They did their job having “the talk” with me and sporadically offered dating advice. My youth group and Christian school had days and even weeks with a focus on purity, dating, and sexuality, but they addressed these topics tenuously. The teachers seemed nervous, measuring their words, and the kids just felt awkward. As I've grown into adulthood, the same strategy seems to have been implemented regarding sexuality—a class or book occasionally offered to teach about sex in marriage; the church’s general approach toward sexuality is to offer pockets of sex education. Let’s compare that approach to how culture tackles the topic of sexuality. It is everywhere! In every media outlet imaginable, we are confronted with an aggressive message of how to think about marriage, sexual activity, dating, and sexual identity. Even godly, committed Christians are far more likely to think like the world on sexual issues because they have been trained to do so. The church has offered sex education while the culture is sexually discipling us, forming our opinions and worldview on everything sexual. What Is Discipleship? We often throw words like discipleship around without taking the time to consider what they actually mean. A discipleship approach is very different from an educational model. The essence of discipleship is expressed through Moses’ charge to the Israelites as they prepared to enter the decadent culture of the Promised Land: Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4–9, NIV) There are three critical elements in Moses’ teaching to parents that still apply thousands of years later: A clear understanding of what is right, what is wrong, and the lordship of God in our lives A daily integrating of that teaching into everyday life A modeling of what it looks like to walk according to God’s commands If we want to know what sexual discipleship™ looks like, we can just take a look at the world. Honestly, they are modeling it masterfully! The world's system has its own great commission. They are doing a fantastic job of converting us into disciples of their worldview and sexual agenda. Much of the media, news outlets, and educational leaders are aggressive about passing on their sexual values to children and adults. You are shunned and ridiculed if you express an opinion that differs from these values. Looking at the outlets representing the world’s system, do you see a clear doctrine or vision of what they believe about sexuality? From what you observe through entertainment media, news outlets, the government, and educational system, is the messaging about sexuality from the world consistent? You bet it is! From preschoolers to senior citizens, the world’s sexual mantra is loud and clear. Turn on the news. Browse through random magazines. Flip through satellite television channels, surf the Internet, walk around on a college campus, and you will see very consistent messaging. In fact, our children are barraged by the world’s sexual doctrine everywhere they turn. Tweet: Our culture doesn’t just preach sexual immorality, it readily and effectively models it. @DrJuliSlattery It is conceivable that your children may never see what it looks like to live with sexual virtue and purity. However, they will inevitably be exposed to hundreds—perhaps thousands—of examples of what sexual immorality looks like. Sexual discipleship™ is a lot more than a “talk” or retreat teaching about sexual purity. It means walking with people through the journey of sexuality through all the stages of life and addressing questions that arise from life experience and cultural pressures. Sexual discipleship™ goes beyond sex education. Biblical sexual discipleship paints a complete picture of sexuality as not simply something to avoid but a great gift to be treasured, celebrated, and reclaimed. What Must Change Parents often ask me how and when to talk to their children about sex. Before we ever talk to our kids about sex, we need to be sure that our own sexual worldview is grounded in truth. The vast majority of Christians have very little idea of how to integrate their sexuality with who they are as children of God. Those who are single don’t understand why God would give them sexual desires without an outlet of sexual expression. Those who are married don’t know how to tackle problems like no sexual desire or a spouse who looks at porn. We don’t know what to do with traumatic experiences of sexual abuse or how to get out from under the shame of past sexual sin. Why do sexually related topics cause us to feel nervous and awkward? The expression of sex is sacred and private. It should be held in honor and handled with wisdom. However, this does not mean that purity equates to silence. After all, the Bible does not shy away from addressing sexual themes throughout the Old and New Testaments. Some biblical teaching is so specific (particularly the Song of Solomon) that modern translators have “toned down” the interpretation to make it more acceptable for today’s readers. At Authentic Intimacy, we want to invite men and women into a conversation that promotes sexual discipleship™. What would happen if Christian parents and the Christian community were committed to defining, teaching, and modeling a godly sexual worldview? What if several times a day, we were given positive messages and examples of God’s beautiful design? Through our blog posts, podcasts, speaking events, social media, books, and website, we hope to be part of a movement to see these changes happen.
Why Josh Butler's Book Beautiful Union Matters
If you pay attention to Christian Twitter, you are probably familiar with the online backlash a few weeks ago to the excerpt of Josh Butler’s forthcoming book called Beautiful Union. This short excerpt of a 288 -page book created a firestorm of criticism and dialogue about Christian sexuality. Finally, Christians were talking about God and sex, but not exactly in the way I had hoped they would.  One popular Christian podcast host described it this way: “Somebody wrote an article that took the metaphor of Christ and the Church and compared it to a husband having sex with his wife... and the entire world collectively went ‘EWW.’ And it was universal… The whole world of Christianity rose up with one voice and said, ‘That is icky, and we don’t like it!” That is a response I’m quite sure I would have had a decade ago. Comparing sex in any way  to the holiness of God would have sounded offensive and even sacrilegious. We have a Christian history of being squeamish and silent on the topic of sexuality. The only ways the subject has historically been handled is in hushed tones, judgmental pronouncements, and lewd joking. The truth is that we don’t know how to talk about sex, so we have just ignored it or considered it a base part of our humanity that God wants nothing to do with.  While many can legitimately argue that Josh took the metaphor of sexuality representing Christ and the Church too far, we are blind to the danger of not taking this metaphor seriously enough. Without understanding the significance of this metaphor, we lack a Christian understanding of why sex and gender matter. The culture has a far more compelling narrative of our sexuality than what the purity culture offered us. So, what is the biblical alternative to seeing our sexuality as an amoral category or as a shameful part of our humanity that God tolerates?   Sermons and books are very comfortable noting that Ephesians 5 presents marriage as a metaphor of Christ and the Church, but they have avoided including the one-flesh union of sexuality within that metaphor, even though it is embedded within the text.  What Ephesians 5 points to shows up repeatedly throughout the Old and New Testament. God created sex and male and female as a form of revelation. Like so many other aspects of the physical and relational world, God reveals through our gender and sexuality.  Consider that in the Old Testament the metaphor of marriage, sexual faithfulness, and intimate knowing shows up again and again describing God’s relationship with the nation of Israel. In passages like Ezekiel 16, Jeremiah 2-3, Isaiah 54, and the entire book of Hosea, this metaphor of a physical marriage, including the sexual aspects of it, are used as a physical picture to help us understand what was happening spiritually between God and Israel. This is not just a passing metaphor, but one of the most common and significant metaphors used throughout the Scriptures.  The Bible itself points to the covenant ceremony in the Sinai desert as a form of a wedding. Then Jesus repeats this metaphor in parables about a wedding ceremony and virgins preparing for the Bridegroom. The metaphor is marriage, but it also undeniably includes sexuality.  I believe this is absolutely critical ground to defend because it helps us understand why sex, marriage, and gender have spiritual significance. Without this deeper grasp of what God was doing when He created sex and gender, the biblical ethic of sexuality seems archaic and arbitrary. However, if we understand that they were created to reveal the nature of God’s covenant love, we begin to see why there is such a spiritual battle around them. We also begin to see the heart of a God who created to reveal Himself through our lived experiences of sexual longing, sexual union, the interplay of male and female, and even through the tragedies of sexual betrayal and harm. Sexual and marital brokenness are so devastating because sexuality and covenant are so sacred.  There is understandably a reaction to the language Butler used from women who have experienced Christian teaching on sex, gender, and marriage as harmful, dismissive, and even abusive. We have learned a lot and must continue to wrestle with how to nuance these discussions in ways that highlight the value and importance of women. Much of our effort at Authentic Intimacy involves this objective. However, we must also be careful to not react so strongly to how this message has been harmful in the past that we eliminate the significance of what God has created and revealed through the Scripture.  The harm of traditional patriarchal teaching on sex and marriage is damaging, not because it differentiates between men and women, but because it has been taught in a way that is completely contrary to the revelation of Scripture. The picture of a husband being Jesus in Ephesians 5 is not one of a husband lording it over his wife and demanding his rights, but one of a servant who denied Himself so that His Bride might flourish.  I have seen Christian men both in the home and church use passages like Ephesians 5, I Corinthians 7, and similar passages to be insensitive bullies, flexing their power and silencing the voices of women. This is an affront not only to women but to Christ Himself. But I have also seen men take seriously the call to take on the humility of Christ, denying themselves for the sake of their bride. It is truly one of the most beautiful and redemptive illustrations of God’s love when this happens.  While the whole world seems to be running away from the argument that our sexuality has something to say about God’s love for us, I will continue to  lean into it. Let me assure you, I am not one to run into controversy. However, I have spent the past dozen years exclusively working in the trenches of Christian sexuality. While I have much to learn, I see the battle lines of truth and lies, humility and love. Much of it hinges upon a deeper understanding and a richer biblical narrative of why God created sexuality as part of our humanity.  Instead of reading a blog or book through the lens of seeking what is offensive, we must also read with the curiosity of what we can learn from our brothers and sisters in Christ. Let’s not be so quick to judge and criticize that we pass over the larger message of what is so desperately needed in this era of sexual consciousness. God’s written word speaks to us in this era of great confusion, but so do the echoes of His beauty in the creation of sexuality, male, and female.