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The Dirty Words of Counseling

The Dirty Words of Counseling

MARCH 14, 2024

/ Articles / The Dirty Words of Counseling

We are all counselors.

Whether you dispense financial advice at the water cooler, or talk a friend through a crisis, we are all counseling, all the time. The problem is, we’re often not good counselors. Usually our counsel is more like advice, and advice isn’t always helpful.


Good counseling requires simultaneously juggling patience, attentiveness, and care. Of course, with a little practice, anyone with basic motor skills can learn to juggle, but helping hurting, confused, or wayward people often feels less like juggling, and more like a greased pig rodeo. The reason for this is the human heart is tricky. It’s apt to change gears from genuine brokenness, to self-justification, to outright deception on a moment’s notice. (Be gracious, your heart does it too, you just can’t see it).

Good counsel requires much more than doling out advice, but we have a sort of reflexive tendency to speak before we listen. So keep this one simple thing in mind: listen well.

Below are some thoughts on two dirty words in counseling to keep an ear out for and how those words are just one of many opportunities to faithful, gospel counseling.


Stuck people already know what they should just be doing. They should just stop drinking to excess, they should just be more attentive to their spouse, they should just work harder, they should just stop masturbating. These two dirty words not only yield fruitlessness, they’re fertilizer for despair. The insidious, looming should / just is familiar and it sounds a little like this:

I should just be in the word more

I know I should just have more faith

I should just trust God more

Hiding behind each of those familiar statements is a vortex of disappointment and failure waiting to happen. We’ve all tried to try harder. Depressed, stuck people need more admonishment about as much as they need a whack to the head with a tube sock full of rolled pennies. The problem is, Should / Just is packed to the brim with the conditional implications of law, not gospel. Remember—God’s law is perfect, holy and just but the law does not give, it only commands, accuses and judges. See, the gospel alone empowers obedience. So once someone has been crushed under the demand of the law, the gut punch of Should / Just isn’t helpful. This holds true whether the admonishment is the counselee’s self-talk or whether it’s coming from you.

The gospel alone empowers obedience.


Those buckling under the demand of the law need yet another reminder of God’s grace and the empowering of the Spirit. They need the “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8) along with “wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death” (Romans 7:24-25). If any admonishment is to be given, it’s encouragement that grace and the imputed righteousness of Jesus always, always, ALWAYS wins out over sin and failure.


The gospel, however is a sturdy, immovable house. The gospel says because / therefore. As I’ve written elsewhere:

God’s law is good, holy, and perfect. But a law-driven life devoid of the Good News is miserable. The naked demand, “if you obey, then you will be rewarded,” will not work in-and-of-itself to empower obedience. Instead, what we really need is a “because / therefore” paradigm. Because you are in Christ, because you are reconciled to the Father, because your sins are forgiven, therefore, go and [insert biblical command here].

Broken people need less Should / Just impossibility and more Because / Therefore security. As you counsel, listen. Do you hear conditional statements and words incongruous with the gospel? If so, graciously point it out. Encouraging, back-to-basics counsel goes a long way.

Matt Johnson

Matt Johnson

Matt is a husband, father to two little girls, and is an armchair student of theology. He is a freelance writer and editor with a penchant for redemptive snark. Until […]

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