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Edward F. Markquart

The Counselor 

John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

A word that has been increasingly familiar in our American vocabulary is the word, counselor.  We are all acquainted with counselors and counseling. The position of counselor is a very familiar occupation in our society.  In the yellow page of a telephone book, you can find marriage counselors, wedding counselors, guidance counselors, drug counselors, sex counselors, vocational counselors, rehabilitation counselors,  and school counselors.  In the newspaper the other day, I saw an ad for a car counselor.

Here in this part of the world, counseling has become very much a part of our lives.  That is, one in ten people are said to be currently seeing a counselor.  Pastors, preparing to enter the ministry, are required to take courses in counseling and therapy.  Counseling is lost the social stigma that it had merely two decades ago.  Back in the late sixties, when I graduated from the seminary, a pastor tried to hide the fact that he was going in for counseling; nowadays, a pastor telephones the bishop and gets referrals for a good counselor and the bishop has a professional counselor at his fingertips, available for the pastor who needs one.  Counseling is becoming a normal, acceptable part of American life.  In fact, in many circles, it is becoming downright fashionable to be seeing a counselor.  Posted prominently in a local psychology unit of a hospital is a bulletin board with all the famous people who at one time were declared unstable or having mental problems, and there are pictures of Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and even Martin Luther himself.

In addition to professional counseling, all of us receive counsel from family, friends and work associates.  Any intelligent person realizes the value of other peoples’ insights.  No person is an island of information; we need information from others, and so we ask our friends and associates about engineering problems, accounting challenges, cars, boats, campers, and everything else.  We are constantly looking for better information to make intelligent decisions, and so we always consult others for help.

We also listen to radio talk shows that feature a famous counselor giving out free advice.  You can listene to the lawyer, Bruce Williams, to counsel you about law, or you can listen to Dr. Laura for all kinds of personal advice.  Radio talk show counselors are enormously popular in America.

Many people come to us your pastors for counseling.  Both Pastor O’Neal and I have been trained as counselors.  Years ago, I received four quarters of CPE, clinical pastoral education, and was given a CPE certificate.  Normally, we pastors often handle crisis conversations that are exploding in peoples’ lives and we then refer such individuals or families to an appropriate professional counselor for more extensive conversation.

Here at Grace Lutheran, we often refer people to Dr. and Mrs. Joan Anderson, members of our parish, professional counselors, who counsel out of our pastoral offices every Monday.  The Andersons are part of our staff here at Grace;  if you need personal or family counseling, we have you talk with one of them.  The fees are modest, and whatever you can’t afford to pay, our congregation picks up the bill. In other words, counseling is part of our congregational life, with no embarrassment but pride that we have such great resources available.

In preparation for the sermon for today, I talked with Dr. Douglas Anderson.  As you may know, Dr. Anderson is the chief administrator of Presbyterian Counseling Services, the largest counseling organization here in the Northwest; and he supervises some thirty to forty professional counselors; therefore Dr. Anderson knows as much as anyone about what makes for a good counselor.  So I asked him, “Doug, what are the characteristics of a good counselor?”

Doug said:  A good counselor?  First, a good counselor has a personal concern for others; the counselor is personally concerned and compassionate for the needs of others.  He or she is not a detached individual who listens for fifty minutes and then asks you to pay the fee. Rather, the mark of a good counselor is that they are truly concerned about your welfare. Second, a mark of a good counselor is empathy; he or she has an intuitive understanding and feeling of the person before them. Just as an electrician has an intuitive grasp of the problem before him; as does someone in electronics, mechanics or accounting, so a good counselor has an intuitive understanding of the dynamics of the person he/she is dealing with.  Third, a good counselor is congruent; that is, basically, he/she is a healthy person, a wholesome person.  This does not mean that a counselor is problem free, but has their head and heart pretty well put together.  A fourth and final quality of a good counselor is that they are a non-judgmental person.  When we go into a counselor, we unload all kinds of personal information and feelings about stuff we would share with no other; and it is important that the counselor does not condemn us for our feelings or actions.  Condemnation and judgment inhibit communication of further feelings.

So I asked Doug, “What is the purpose of a good counselor?”  He answered:  A counselor tries to facilitate growth.  He/she tries to enable a person to grow.  We all have blocks in our paths to maturity.  We all have blocks to growth such as painful, early childhood trauma with parents or persistent personality problems or addictions or embarrassing personal habits that prevent us from growing into God’s fullness for us. A counselor helps remove those blocks.  Like when a person has a blood clot in the leg, medication may be given to dissolve that block.  So a counselor works with the client to help dissolved those blocks that prevent them from growing.    A counselor does not solve problems for people, but helps them grow stronger so they can solve their own problems.  A counselor does not make hard decisions for people but helps them become strong so they can make their own choices.

So I asked a final question of Doug, “Does a counselor have an ideal image, a goal that he/she is working towards?”  Yes, a counselor has a vision of maturity, wholeness and congruence that he/she is working towards.

As I listened to Dr. Anderson speak, I was delighted with his words because many of the same words he used to describe a good counselor are the same words used in the Bible, John 14-16 to describe the work of the Holy Spirit.  Doug used words like counselor, guide, strengthen, enable, make stronger, teacher, truth, and these are all the same words that are used in John 14-16 to describe the work of the Holy Spirit.

John, chapters 14-16, is the high water mark in the Bible about the Holy Spirit. If you want to find out about the Holy Spirit, you can read the book of Acts, but an even better place to read about the Spirit is John 14-16.  Within these three chapters, the Spirit is name “counselor.”  The Spirit is called counselor five times in these chapters.  The Counselor is to guide us into truth about ourselves, God and life.

These same chapters are the high water mark in the Bible in teaching about the Trinity. If you want to find out about the Trinity, you read these chapters.  In the Gospel lesson for today, we hear that the Spirit is going to come to us in the future; and then a few verses later, the “I” am going to come to us; and then a few verses later, the Father is going to coming to us.  Now, why doesn’t the Bible make up its mind?  Who is coming to us? The Spirit? Jesus? The Father?  Which person is coming to us?  Here in these chapters, we discover that God, the Father, the Son, the Spirit are used interchangeably.

But what stands out most clearly today is the Spirit is called the Counselor.  God will not leave us desolate or orphans.  The Greek word is, orphani;  we will not be left as orphans in the universe but God’s Spirit will come to be with us and in us.

Today, I ask you the question:  What does it mean that God is your counselor?  What does it mean for you?  Later in the sermon, I will give you the chance to respond and answer that question, so be thinking about it.  What does it mean for you that God is your counselor? We will do the unLutheran thing and talk during the sermon.

The Greek word for counselor is “paraclete,” which means “called to the side of.” You call someone to be by your side and give you strength.  For example, when there is a sudden tragedy in your life, the natural instinct is not to be left alone, but to have someone there with you, someone by your side, to give you strength.  Or when you face a momentous decision, you often don’t want to think it through alone. You want input from other people as you intelligently go about making this decision.  So you will call someone to be by your side, to talk through the options.  That is what the word, counselor, means: to call someone to be at your side, to give you strength and help as you sort out your decisions.

Following the outline of Dr. Anderson; when we think of the Spirit of God as counselor, this means that the Holy Spirit is personally concerned about us.  God, our counselor, is not a detached listener who listens politely to us for fifty minutes, asks for payment and then wants us to leave, so the next customer can get in.  If the mark of a good counselor is that he/she is personally concerned about our welfare and well being, then God is truly a good counselor.  God is truly concerned about what is good for us.

God, the Spirit, is an empathetic counselor.  God intuitively understands the complexity of our inner being. Every morning I recite my mantra of Psalm 139 that tells of God’s intuitive love for us:  “O God, you have examined me and know you.  You know all about me.  From far away, you understand all my thoughts.  You see me whether I am working or resting.  Your knowledge of me is too wonderful and I cannot comprehend it.”  Instantly, instinctively, intuitively, God understand every corner of our being.

The Spirit is a non-judgmental counselor.  God, the Spirit, does not judge us for what we say, think or feel.  Can you imagine God hearing every word we ever said; listening in on our every thought; seeing our every action? It is embarrassing to think that someone knows that much about us, seeing and hearing our every thought.  And God still does not condemn us.  Nor does God condone our thoughts and feelings and actions.  But God does not condemn us in our humanness, and therefore we are free to tell God more.

The purpose of this Spirit/Counselor is to help us grow towards maturity and wholeness. The counselor is a facilitator of growth and maturity within us. We all have these blocks that prevent growth.  Blocks of sin and imperfection. These qualities block us from becoming what God wants us to be. We have blocks due to the inner scars of childhood conflicts.  Blocks due to our birth order.  Blocks due to deeply ingrained personality habits. Blocks due to addictions. Blocks due to bad decisions and choices we have made. We all have these blocks within us. … What are those blocks in your inner life? What are those qualities which are preventing you from growing into maturity and wholeness? … God, the Holy Spirit, helps us see the truth about ourselves, and our blocks that inhibits growth.  God guides us into new directions and ways of dealing with our inner blocks. 

Some people have the illusion that God, the Spirit, the Counselor, will solve all our problems.  That is not true.  Like any good counselor, the Spirit enables us to become stronger.  Nor does the Spirit/Counselor make decisions for you.  Sometimes, that is just what we want; we want God to make the decisions for us, especially difficult decisions.  Rather, God is the “paraclete,” who comes to our side and gives us the strength and new resources and new insights, so we can make difficult and painful decisions. But the Spirit/Counselor does not solve our problems or make decisions for us.  Nor does any good counselor. I like that passage from Philippians where God says that the love in us is to grow and grow and grow so that we will make the best choices.  I like that; the focus is on love growing inside, whereby we can make the best choices.

So where do you find this counselor?  I know where to find Dr. Anderson.  I look in the phone book for Presbyterian Counseling Services and call him there.  But where do I find this Spirit/Counselor?  There are many places to find this Counselor but John 14-16 indicates that a good reliable place to find the Spirit is in the Spirit filled community, the church in whom the Spirit lives.  You see, the church is a counseling community.  The church is filled with people who are willing and able to give good counsel.  Let me explain.  My wife and I have been parenting for more than twenty-two years now and we still have another ten years of parenting in front of us, before our youngest son becomes a responsible young adult.  That means, for twenty two years now, we have been telephoning our friends in church, asking them for advice as to how to handle situations.  We call for advice, guidance, therapy, direction, support, a shoulder to lean on and the other shoulder to cry on. We could telephone the parents of the friends of our children; these are good people, but they don’t belong to the church.  Somehow, we have come to trust the values of our Christian church friends who are parents.  We consult with them all the time.  We consult with them many times about discipline, hours, allowances, jobs, marriage, independence, and the list goes on and on.  The point is, the church itself is a counseling community, and God the Spirit counsels through the church.

What are the Spirit’s office hours?  I know when to telephone the counseling offices at Presbyterian Counseling Services.  Between 8:30 and 4:30.  But why is it that my personal needs and emergencies are persistently after hours?  Often, these needs and emergencies are between ten at night and three in the morning, and no professional offices are open.  God, the Spirit/Counselor’s office hours are not from nine to five. Nor does God have any answering machine, saying he will get back to me later. Nor do I find a busy signal. God, the Spirit/Counselor lives inside of me and is available to listen anytime of day or night.  Anytime.

But I come back to an earlier question.  What does it mean for you that is the Spirit, your counselor?  What does that mean for you personally, in your real life?  I will give you five seconds more to think about that question. I have shared with you some of my thinking about God, the Spirit/Counselor, and now we would like to hear from you, the church, the counseling community.  I will come down between the front pews and we will do a very unLutheran thing; that is, we will have you talk in church as part of the sermon. Would you please stand, talk loudly so all can hear? I will repeat the essence of your thought through the microphone.  (Five to ten people will get up, one at a time, and briefly say what it means that God is a counselor to them.  I will offer a brief, positive commentary, an expansion of what the person in the pew just said.)

“Always there.”  Yes, I agree with that and more importantly, the Bible agrees with that. God is always there to hear us, immediately, instantly.  God is present.  There are no busy signals, no answering machines.

“God is there for me in the big things, the tough moments, and tough decisions.” Yes, there is no problem too big for God, or too complicated for God.  God helps us deal with tough decisions and complicated problems.

“There is no problem too small for God.”  How true.  It is not only the big issues of life but the million little issues that are important to us. In fact, you would never telephone Dr. Anderson or some other PHD in counseling to talk over such little things that we talk over with God. Nothing is too insignificant for God.

“God often sends me to the right people and to the right counselors who seem to give me good advice.”  I like that.  God knows your need and knows with whom you need to talk. So God sends you to the right people, or the right people happen to show up at the right time, and you didn’t even call them.  God often speaks through them.

“It is important that I not only talk during the counseling session but listen.”  How true.  We can talk, talk, talk, talk our hearts out, but somewhere in the conversation, we need to be quiet and listen.  Patiently listening for God’s direction and guidance is very important.

“God can handle it when I get off on a rage towards God or someone else, when I blow my stack, blow off my steam of anger at God  and tell him he is doing a rotten job or managing the world and my life.”  Absolutely, God understands our need to honestly ventilate our feelings, to get it off our chest, to release the venom and black poison that we feel in our guts.  God can handle that. In the Bible, these confessions are called laments. Jeremiah especially really lets God have it.

“I can hear God’s still small voice inside of me.  Maybe it is my conscience, telling me right and wrong, but I do hear that one small voice inside of me, although the voice is not audible.”  So true.  The text for today is clear:  God, the Spirit/Counselor is going to come and live inside of us.  God’s Spirit actually lives inside of us, and we hear the voice of the Spirit, counseling and guiding us in the way of truth.

Thank your for your sharing.  The church is the counseling community, counseling us in the ways of God and the way of love.

It was the evening of Holy Thursday  and the disciples were gathered together for the last supper.  This was Jesus’ last meal with his disciples  and he soon was to be leaving them to die.  And he said, “When I go, I will not leave you deserted. I will not leave you orphans.  But I will send my Spirit, the Counselor, who will live in you and guide you. I and my Father will come to live in you and we will guide you in the truth.  We will be your Counselor. Amen.

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