Should We Counsel an Unbeliever?

Jacob Elwart

two men talking

One of the challenging questions that churches and biblical counselors face is, “Should we counsel an unbeliever?” Jay Adams used to call counseling an unbeliever “pre-counseling.” The reason for his clarification was that he defined biblical counseling (or nouthetic counseling as he called it) as loving confrontation out a deep concern for a person in order to help them change [to be more like Christ]. In other words, Adams’s audience was believers. An unbeliever is not able to be transformed into the image of Christ. Paul says in Romans 8:6–8 that the unbelieving mind is hostile to God, and does not and cannot subject itself to the law of God. David Powlison rightly argues that the goal of biblical counseling is spiritual transformation.

Rearranging Deck Chairs on the Titanic

Many suggest that we cannot help unbelievers until they are converted. Unbelievers are like a sinking ship, and it makes no sense to try to help them with lesser problems while ignoring the reality of the greater problem. They are destined for eternal condemnation (a sinking ship) because of their sin and enmity with God. Surface-level changes just for the sake of having a better life (rearranging deck chairs) do not ultimately help a person. It would be like merely offering a glass of water to a person who was stuck in a burning building.

Can We Offer Hope to the Hopeless?

So what do we do when an unbeliever comes to our church asking for counsel? Do we say, “Be warmed and be filled. We cannot help you, because you are not a Christian”? Or do we say, “Get saved first, and then we will be able to talk about your problems?”

Do the Scriptures give us any help as to how we might counsel a person who is living in opposition to God?

Suppose a person comes to your church asking for grief counseling. Can you not talk to them about the hope of the resurrection because of Christ’s resurrection?

Or suppose a person comes to your church seeking help in overcoming an addiction. Can you not help them see that their ruling desires are like looking for water in broken cisterns that do not hold water? Can you not lead them to the Fountain of living waters (Jer 2:13)? Or can you not point them to the Savior who promises to give a light yoke and an easy burden (Matt 11:30)?

Knowing Your Limitations

One of the first things I do when I meet with someone is assess their spiritual condition. I want to know if they are a professing believer in Jesus Christ. If they are, it will shape the way I help them. When I am working with a believer, I can call them to humility and repentance. I can point them to the Scriptures as their authority. I can remind them of their highest goal—to please God by means of sanctification, even if their circumstances do not go away (2 Cor 5:9). When I work with believers who are willing to humble themselves, I often see spiritual change in them (Jas 4:6).

But sometimes I work with someone who initially professed faith in Christ, but later on, I discover that they showed no interest in pleasing God in the midst of their trouble. They were looking for a quick fix, and had no interest in humility and repentance. If I discover that they, in fact, do not have a relationship with Christ, my message shifts slightly, but not 180 degrees. My main message remains: “You need to put your trust in God, because God will not disappoint those who put their trust in Him (Rom 9:33). You need to repent of your sin. If you choose to continue down the path you are going, there will be consequences for turning away from God (Prov 13:15).”

We do not always know whether we are dealing with a believer or an unbeliever, because we cannot know a person’s heart. But we should still hold up for them the high standard of the Word, and call them to obey it, similar to what John the Baptist did with Herod regarding divorcing his wife. They are still people made in the image of God under His authority, even if they fail to acknowledge that reality (Ps 14:1).

An Approach to Counseling Unbelievers

In his introduction to Biblical Counseling, The Gospel for Disordered Lives, Robert Jones suggests that counsel for unbelievers is possible and necessary. He writes,

We enter the non-Christian’s world, understand their struggles, and bring them Jesus and his gospel-soaked answers; the main difference [between counseling an unbeliever in contrast to counseling a believer] is that we adapt our goals, strategies, and methods to their spiritual condition. We might call this problem-occasioned evangelism (234).

I think Dr. Jones has it exactly right. Jesus didn’t turn people away until they accepted his message. He knew that faith came by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God (Rom 10:17). What the person lacked was faith. And so he continued to share the message of truth to them, while using their present problem as the occasion to point them to God (Luke 19:1–9; see also Paul’s approach in Acts 17).

Consider how we might talk to our own unbelieving children. Do we wait to talk to them about wisdom issues until they repent and believe? Of course not! We give them wisdom instructions from the Scriptures and call on them to obey. Another way to describe this pre-conversion impartation of wisdom is teaching them the fear of the Lord. That is, we want them to know that God expects all of his creatures to live under his authority and for us humans to obey him. Life is orderly when we submit ourselves to him.

This is just as true for unbelievers. In teaching wisdom in this way, we orient our children for gospel conversations. I am suggesting that we should take a similar approach when working with unbelievers who seek our counsel. We should teach them the fear of the Lord. Our message is similar to what we would communicate to a believer, “This is my Father’s world. God is the sovereign Ruler. We are made to worship and obey him. Your life needs to come into conformity to what he desires.” The prophets in the OT proclaimed a similar message as they spoke to a mixed audience of believers and unbelievers.

Dangers to Avoid

Because we are working with people who are enslaved to sin and opposed to God, we should proceed with caution as we counsel them. Here are four dangers to avoid:

False Hope

One way we can give them false hope is by telling them that they can do something that the Scriptures say they cannot do. In other words, we are giving them false hope in themselves. We should hold a high standard that God calls them to meet. We should show them in the Scripture what God demands of them. But we should not tell them they can meet that standard. The fact is that they cannot meet it apart from Christ (John 15:5; Rom 8:6–8). If the Lord wills, in time, the unbeliever will see that he cannot meet the standard and begin searching for answers.

Another way we can give them false hope is by promising them that if they turn to Christ, all of their problems will go away. The reality is that their problems might get worse if they come to Christ (Luke 21:16–17).

Bait and Switch

If you agree to meet with an unbeliever to help them with the problem they are facing, then you should use the Scriptures to give practical counsel about the problem. In other words, don’t do a bait and switch, “I know I said I would help you with your marriage conflict, but first you have to get saved, so let me share the gospel with you.” You should share the gospel with them, because you are concerned about their greatest need. But you should not neglect to help them with what they came to you for. Is there wisdom in Proverbs to help them with their conflict at work? Do the gospels have anything to say about their anxiety? Help them with their presenting problem, while pointing them to our Redeemer.

Surprise Scriptures

Don’t surprise them with the Scriptures. I would suggest that at the very beginning of your counseling, you tell the person your approach to counseling. That is, that you believe that the Scriptures have the answers for us as we face life’s problems. And as a counselor, you will be using the Bible to help them answer their problems. This makes it clear up front that you are coming from a biblical worldview and that your biblical worldview will shape how you respond to their situation. There will be no surprises. You speak with authority as you speak on behalf of God. God is the Creator, and therefore, He has rightful rule over our lives. Life works well when we order ourselves properly under His authority.

Covert Attack

Don’t do a sneak attack of the gospel, where you sprinkle truth into your conversation here and there. Don’t be ashamed to share the Scriptures with an unbeliever. Don’t be afraid to tell the person that you are quoting from the Scriptures. Pull the sword of the Word from its sheath (Heb 4:12). It is the means that God uses to reveal what is in their heart. The unbeliever’s conscience is on your side (Rom 2:14–15). It knows that God exists and that there is right and wrong (Rom 1:20). So speak with confidence and authority as you share the Scriptures with that person. Shine the light of the glory of gospel on their situation. Pray that God will do a work in their heart that only He can do. And rest, knowing that He is the One who changes hearts.

Conclusion

There are hurting people in our communities who are looking for help. They ultimately need a resolution to their greatest problem. Our response to their pain requires great wisdom and great compassion. When they come for help, don’t waste your crisis counseling opportunity. Give them the Scriptures, and leave the rest to God. Crisis counseling can be a great means to pray with a person who is hurting, show genuine care, and offer hope in the gospel. The fact that the person is turning to you gives you an opportunity to give a defense of the hope that is in you (1 Pet 3:15). Perhaps God will use your help to draw them to himself.

This article was original posted here and is republished by permission.

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