Counseling the Deceptive Counselee
by Scott Stephens, Pastor of Biblical Counseling
I received a phone call the other day from Sue, a former counselee. Sue was devastated as she tearfully said, “Bob just admitted to me that he is not a believer… He told me that he said whatever I wanted to hear so I would marry him. Now he’s trying to get me to stop going to church, and he criticizes and demeans me whenever I mention Jesus.”
Just a year ago I spent eight weeks with this couple in pre-marital counseling. How could I have missed that Bob was not saved?
In pre-marital counseling we specifically talked about each of their conversions, their compatibility, their roles as husband and wife, and the purpose of marriage. Throughout the sessions we discussed their future together, their desires, children, and their responsibilities to each other as a married couple. In addition, we had detailed and ongoing conversations about faith, about their commitment to Christ, and about their role in the church.
Yet, this man seemed to have deceived us. He was so convincing that he fooled both his wife and me. He knew the Scriptures, he knew how to manipulate our conversations that hid his true motives, and he claimed to be a follower of Christ. Just a year later, almost immediately after the marriage ceremony, he admitted that he had been lying about his faith.
As biblical counselors, there are times we will encounter counselees who hide facts, mislead us in order to avoid confrontation, or sometimes just outright lie. Usually through the counseling process it’s possible to uncover secrets and sinful motivations. But what about those in our counseling room who come with an agenda to deceive us? How can we identify those who will blatantly lie to us for an ulterior motive? Bob’s ulterior motive was to marry Sue, and he determined to do and say whatever was necessary to accomplish his goal.
The fact that Bob fooled me troubled me so much that I sought advice from an older and wiser biblical counselor. This counselor reminded me that one of the reasons we fail in counseling is because we jump to conclusions too quickly. The only way to see through deception is to ask more intensive questions throughout the counseling process. Spending focused time in data-gathering, as well as providing homework that will ensure the counselee spends time in God’s Word, can be effective tools in attempting to uncover the motives of those who hope to deceive us.
Here are a few tips that will help uncover deception:
- Be very specific in your questions. Don’t accept generalities or vague answers regarding faith and Christian life. It is very easy to accept the classic “Sunday school” answers as validation of a walk with Christ. There is a huge difference in a heart-felt devotion to Jesus and a head-knowledge of facts from the Bible.
- Ask questions that require the counselee to evaluate life-circumstances from a biblical or God-oriented point of view. Consider the counselee’s level of spiritual maturity as he provides answers. This will also be a good opportunity to determine if the counselee is displaying the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-26). Matthew 7:20-23 explains that we will know those who do not belong to Christ by their fruit.
- Provide homework assignments that address the issues the counselee is seeking guidance for, but also take care that all homework specifically addresses a correct relationship with Jesus Christ. The Word of God is powerful and will accomplish the purpose God intends (Isaiah 55:11; Hebrews 4:12-13). Make sure the homework in grounded in the study of God’s Word.
- One of the primary goals we have as biblical counselors is to glorify God and exalt Christ in our counseling. The work of counseling is the work of the Holy Spirit. All of counseling, including the homework assignments, should be pointing back to Christ. Therefore, teaching, as well as evangelism, should be a key component in every session of counseling.
Jesus spoke a parable, explained in Matthew 13:24-30, which tells us that there will be false Christians in our churches. This being true, it should come as no surprise when we encounter them in our counseling room as well. When we encounter someone entrenched in falsehood, we must keep in mind that it is the Holy Spirit who changes the hearts of those we are counseling. As we counsel Scripture, we should be wise and discerning during all phases of the process. Be very careful not to take shortcuts or make assumptions that could result in being deceived by a false Christian seeking counseling for an ulterior motive, while understanding that ultimately, it is God alone who can clearly see into and discern the hearts of all people.
One other bit of advice: I highly encourage you to find an older, wiser biblical counselor who you can call to talk about your successes and failures in counseling. Work to develop a network with other biblical counselors in your area where you can provide and seek advice, encouragement, and training.