There has been a proliferation of counsellors in our society in recent times, with a corresponding proliferation of people going for counselling. Depending on their concerns, troubled souls can seek help from marriage counsellors, grief counsellors, trauma counsellors, depression counsellors, self-esteem counsellors, anger-management counsellors, life-goals counsellors—and more besides.
Christians, too, have become keen on counsellors and counselling, with some denominations and churches offering both counselling services and counselling courses. Yet, ironically, at a time of unprecedented interest in counselling, Christians seem to have largely forgotten the greatest counsellor in human history: Jesus Christ our Lord.
Scripture says of Jesus, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor …” (Isaiah 9:6). Jesus is the Wonderful Counsellor, and his people should call upon him as such.
A counsellor is someone who gives advice and guidance. Jesus willingly counsels all who call on him, and his counsel is always wonderful. And the reason that he is such a wonderful counsellor is because he has in abundance all the qualities that a person needs for counselling.
There are four qualities that combine to make a good counsellor. I deduce this not from studying textbooks on counselling and psychology, but from thinking the matter through from a biblical perspective. On reflection, a good counsellor requires sympathy, virtue, knowledge and wisdom.
These qualities are our Lord’s qualifications. He is a wonderful counsellor because he possesses these wonderful characteristics to a wonderful degree. He is deeply sympathetic, perfectly virtuous, fully knowledgeable and infinitely wise. Consider:
Sympathy is the first characteristic of a good counsellor. People in need of counsel are also usually in need of kindness and warmth. A gruff, uncaring person will not make a good counsellor.
Jesus is a sympathetic man. Indeed, his sympathy for us is apparent from both his identification with us and his compassion on us.
The extent of his identification with us is evident from Isaiah’s statement that “to us a child is born, to us a son is given”. In order to associate and share with us fully, Jesus came to us, and became one of us. The Son of God came to earth as a human being, adopting our nature and sharing our circumstances. Consequently, he knows all about suffering and temptation, and so he is able to sympathise with us in our weaknesses (Hebrews 2:18 & 4:15). The incarnation is the measure of Jesus’ identification with us.
Jesus’ sympathy is seen in the care and compassion he has for us. Isaiah prophesied of him: “He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms, he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young” (40:11). Again, Isaiah declared, “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench” (42:3). Speaking prophetically on Jesus’ behalf, Isaiah said, “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound” (61:1).
The Son whom God has given to us is tender-hearted and compassionate towards us. The prophets foresaw this, and his life confirmed it. Remember how he “had compassion on” the widow of Nain and raised her dead son (Luke 7:13). Recall how he was “moved with pity” to heal the leper in Galilee (Mark 1:41). Bring to mind how “he had compassion for” the crowds wherever he went, “because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). And above all remember his sacrifice at Calvary. For it was love that led him to the cross to bear our grief, our sin, our guilt, and our punishment. He poured out his soul to death to save us. If the incarnation is the measure of Jesus’ identification with us, then the crucifixion is the measure of his compassion for us. Little wonder scripture exhorts and explains, “Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you” (1 Peter 5:7).
The Lord Jesus Christ is a wonderful counsellor because he fully sympathises with all who approach him for counsel.
And yet, sympathy is not enough. A sympathetic person does not necessarily make a good counsellor.
Think, for example, of a teenage boy and teenage girl who disregard Jesus’ wonderful counsel that sexual intimacy is meant only for marriage. They sleep together and she becomes pregnant. In her distress she goes to a Family Planning centre for help. A counsellor listens to her troubles with obvious compassion, and even gives her a comforting hug. Then the counsellor advises the young woman that the best thing to do is to have an abortion. “Don’t worry, you won’t have to face this alone,” the counsellor says kindly. “I’ll book you in for the procedure myself, and on the day I’ll come along for support.” Now, there can be little doubt that this counsellor is a sympathetic counsellor, but she is hardly a wonderful counsellor. Indeed, for all its sympathy, her counsel is not wonderful, but diabolical!
So, sympathy is not enough. To be of value, it must be balanced with virtue.
Virtue is the second characteristic of a good counsellor. People in need of counsel are also in need of moral integrity. A corrupt person will not make a good counsellor.
Again, Jesus meets the highest standard. He is not only a sympathetic man: He is also a virtuous man.
From the manger to the cross, Jesus was perfect and upright, and all that he did was righteous and just. Isaiah acknowledges Jesus’ moral perfection when he states that Jesus will establish and uphold his eternal kingdom “with justice and with righteousness” (9:7).
Throughout his earthly life, the Lord Jesus went about doing and being good (Acts 10:38). He was the supreme model of moral excellence, a literal paragon of virtue. He committed no sin and merited no guilt (1 Peter 2:22). He lived a blameless life, without spot or blemish (Hebrews 9:14). Although “in every respect” he was “tempted as we are”, he nonetheless remained “without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). And it is his moral purity that gives integrity to his counsel and makes it wonderful.
The integrity of a person’s character will affect the integrity of his (or her) counsel. The counsel he gives will reflect the life he lives.
I recall dealing as a pastor with a Christian man who had set his heart to marry a non-Christian woman. He was determined to do it, even though he knew that God’s word warns against a Christian marrying a non-Christian. This man also wanted to be a school chaplain—a role that would involve giving counsel to many young people, including ones from our church. And he needed my approval to take up that chaplaincy. But I refused to give it. I called the church elders together and we held a meeting with him. And one of the questions we put to him was this: “If a teenage Christian girl comes to you and asks for guidance about whether or not to marry her non-Christian boyfriend, what advice would you give her?” He replied that, provided they truly loved each other, he would advise her to go ahead.
When a man deliberately does some-thing wrong, he feels a pressure to counsel others to do likewise. This may be because he genuinely believes that his own behaviour is right. Or it may be because he would feel himself a hypocrite to be doing one thing and yet counselling another. Or again, it may be because he longs to justify himself—and getting others to keep him company in the same sin is a way to quieten his own conscience and to strengthen his own resolve.
The moral tenor of a person’s character and conduct will affect the moral tenor of his or her counsel. While this may be a disturbing truth in connection with certain counsellors today, it is a wonderful truth in connection with Jesus. For he has no sin to hide, no wrong to justify, no conflict to reconcile, no selfishness to serve—and so he has no motive to give false counsel. Indeed, it would never enter his heart to misuse or mislead those who confide in him. Because he is morally perfect and pure, all his counsel is morally perfect and pure, too. It is wonderful.
By virtue of his virtue, the Lord Jesus is a wonderful counsellor!
And yet virtue is not enough. A person may be virtuous, and even sympathetic, and yet lack adequate knowledge to be a good counsellor.
Knowledge, then, is the third characteristic of a good counsellor. An ignorant person can hardly give good advice.
To be effective, a counsellor must have some general knowledge about both human nature and God’s purposes; and he must also have some specific knowledge about both the character and the predicament of the person whom he is counselling. It is impossible to give sound counsel without a measure of knowledge.
And Jesus, being God as well as man, has knowledge beyond measure. He knows, quite literally, everything about everything. He certainly knows the ins and outs of human nature and of the divine will. And just as wonderfully, he knows everything about you and me.
Do you recall Jesus’ encounter with Nathanael? As Nathanael approached him for the first time, Jesus said, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” When Nathanael asked in surprise, “How do you know me?”, Jesus replied, “[W]hen you were [sitting] under the fig tree, I saw you” (John 1:43-51).
Before we ever knew Jesus, he knew us. And he knows us now. He knows each of us individually through and through. He knows our past and our future. He knows our needs and our wants. He knows our joys and our hurts. He knows our thoughts and our acts. He knows our guilt and our innocence.
When Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well, he laid bare the dark secrets of her life. And she hastened back to Samaria and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did” (John 4:29). As with the Samaritan woman, so with us—Jesus knows all that we ever did, whether good or bad. And this comprehensive knowledge enables him to give wonderful counsel.
And yet, even knowledge is not enough to make a good counsellor. A person may have immense knowledge and yet lack the ability to assess and apply that knowledge in an intelligent and insightful way. This is where wisdom is necessary.
Wisdom is the fourth characteristic of a good counsellor. A person who lacks discernment and understanding will not make a good counsellor.
Thankfully, Jesus is wonderfully wise, as indicated by his name and his office. He would not deserve the title of “Wonderful Counsellor” if he were not exceedingly wise. Nor could he shoulder the government of his people without exceptional wisdom.
Isaiah says of Jesus, “the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” (11:2). Wisdom, understanding, counsel and knowledge rest with Jesus—and they rest with him infallibly and to an infinite degree. He understands all reality and comprehends every insight, for he is the one “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3).
Jesus’ wisdom is evident from the reaction of those who encountered him. As a child he “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom” (Luke 2:40). As a twelve-year-old boy he sat and conversed with the religious leaders in the temple “and all who heard him were amazed at his under-standing” (Luke 2:47). Throughout his childhood and adolescence, “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favour with God and man” (Luke 2:52). In the early days of his ministry, the people of his hometown “were astonished” as he taught them in the synagogue, and they puzzled, “Where did this man get this wisdom?” (Matthew 13:54), and they were offended that this wisdom was his own,
and had not been imparted to him by doctors of theology and professors of psychology at reputable academic institutions. And it goes on.
When Jesus taught in the synagogue at Nazareth, all the people “wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth” (Luke 4:22). When he skilfully answered the religious leaders concerning the payment of taxes to Caesar, “they marvelled” (Matthew 22:22). When he taught in the temple, “The Jews marvelled at it, saying, ‘How is it that this man has learning, when he has never studied?’” (John 7:15). And when the officers whom the Pharisees sent to arrest Jesus returned empty-handed, they explained their failure to carry out their orders by saying, “No man ever spoke like this man!” (John 7:46).
Furthermore, the wisdom of Jesus is apparent from the effect of his life and teaching on his disciples. When Peter and John defended the gospel before the Sanhedrin shortly after the Day of Pentecost, the religious leaders were impressed by their bold and persuasive arguments; and perceiving them to be uneducated, common men, “they wondered; and they recognised that [Peter and John] had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). That was the explanation for their wisdom—they had been with Jesus!
And to this day, being with Jesus makes a person wise. For example, bring even a child to Jesus and soon he will have more wisdom than a university professor. For that child will quickly learn the answers to the fundamental questions of life.
Where do we come from? God made us!
Why are we here? To love and serve God and each other!
Where are we going? To be with Jesus—or to be apart from him—forever!
A child who keeps company with Jesus knows the answer to these and other deep questions, while a university professor who keeps company with everyone but Jesus has no answers at all.
Jesus makes people wise. It is an astonishing thing. And there is no explanation for it except to acknowledge that Jesus himself is exceedingly wise and gives wonderful counsel to those who walk with him.
So then, the Lord Jesus Christ is a wonderful counsellor because he deals wisely with, and gives wisdom to, all who approach him for counsel.
In summary, Jesus is deeply sympathetic, perfectly virtuous, fully knowledgeable and infinitely wise, and this combination of qualities enables him to be a wonderful counsellor.
But how, exactly, can we access his counsel? How can we approach him? How can we hear him? After all, he is not physically present with us as he was with the original twelve disciples. So how does he counsel us now? What is the means of his counsel to us today?
There are four main ways that our Wonderful Counsellor gives his counsel, his guidance.
Means: The Scriptures
The Bible is the first means by which Jesus guides us.
The psalmist declares, “I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statutes” (Psalm 119:99). The scriptures counsel the receptive reader on every matter of creed, conscience and conduct; and their counsel gives him delight and insight, and safeguards him from foolish decisions and sinful actions. As King David says, “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul. The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple” (Psalm 19:7).
According to Psalm 119, it is through his written word that the Wonderful Counsellor offers: guidance in times of indecision and uncertainty—“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (105); renewal in times of discouragement and despair—“My soul clings to the dust; give me life according to your word!” (25); support in times of anguish and grief—“My soul melts away for sorrow; strengthen me according to your word!” (28); assurance in times of threat and persecution—“Even though princes sit plotting against me, your servant will meditate on your statutes” (23); and fortitude in times of illness and hardship—“If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction” (92).
The Bible is the primary means by which Jesus counsels us. Those who want his wonderful counsel must meditate on his written word and be advised by it. They must be able to say with the psalmist, “Your testimonies are my delight, they are my counsellors” (24).
Means: The Spirit
The Holy Spirit is the second means by which Jesus counsels us.
We are not alone as we walk this life. Jesus did not leave us as orphans when he returned to heaven. He gave us a perfect replacement for himself—the Holy Spirit, “the Spirit of Christ” (Romans 8:9 & 1 Peter 1:11).
Just before his crucifixion, Jesus identified the Spirit as a “Counsellor”, a counsellor exactly like himself, and he comforted his disciples with the promise that “the Father … will give you another Counsellor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16-17). He explained that “the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit … will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26). And again, he said, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13).
Given that the Holy Spirit is the senior, superintending author of the Bible, it is hardly surprising that he uses the Bible as his chief means of counsel. Indeed, a crucial task of the Holy Spirit is to help us understand the scriptures. The Spirit who inspired the prophets and apostles to write also illuminates what they wrote. He enlightens us to the meanings of the scriptures. If we call upon him and lean upon him, the Holy Spirit will make the Book he authored in history a living letter in our lives today, a letter of intimate insight and comforting counsel.
While his written Word is the primary means by which the Holy Spirit speaks to us, it is not the only means. He can speak to us through our conscience and through our fellow believers (to which I will return shortly). He can speak to us through our circumstances, governing them in such a way that we are guided towards certain understandings and convictions. He may also sometimes “move” us emotionally and mentally, giving us a “sense” of what course to take or an “impression” of what to say and do. And he is always eager to hear us and to intercede for us—revealing our mind to God and God’s mind to us (cf Romans 8:26-27 & 1 Corinthians 2:6-16).
Means: Our Conscience
Our conscience is the third way Jesus guides us.
Paul declares, “I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward God and toward men” (Acts 24:16). Elsewhere, he states that “By rejecting conscience, certain persons have made shipwreck of their faith” (1 Timothy 1:19). These two statements by the apostle alert us to the fact that we should take care to listen to our conscience and to follow it.
Our conscience is the moral faculty that God has given us to help us determine good from evil and to help us choose good over evil. Indeed, it is God’s witness within us to the moral law that God has written in our hearts; and if we would “by nature do what the law requires,” we must obey it (Romans 2:14-15).
The Bible never encourages us to disregard our conscience. Quite the reverse. We are always to heed it. But we are also to educate it. Because we are fallen our conscience is fallen also, and it can sometimes be in error. It can excuse us when it ought to condemn us, and condemn us when it ought to excuse us. Consequently, we need to educate it from God’s word. Nonetheless, we are always to be mindful of it and to obey it. It is the moral light God gives to enlighten every person and it is a means by which our Wonderful Counsellor counsels us.
Means: Other Christians
Pastors and teachers are the fourth source of Jesus’ counsel.
Paul states that one of the gifts Christ gives to the church is pastors and teachers, through whom every member of the congregation is to be built up and brought to maturity (Ephesians 4:11). So, the Wonderful Counsellor gives wonderful counsel through pastors and teachers.
Some churches have learnt to their great sorrow that pastors can go horribly wrong and do great harm. But most pastors are Christlike. And the Lord Jesus uses the preaching and teaching of these godly pastors to give good counsel to his people.
Indeed, a pastor counsels his whole congregation on Jesus’ behalf every time he preaches. This is one reason why biblical preaching is so important. It is a collective counselling that helps individuals firstly to avoid and secondly to overcome heartache and trouble.
It is no coincidence, then, that the growth in so-called Christian counselling services has paralleled the decline in Christian preaching. As Christians have grown less inclined to listen to faithful, biblical preaching, so they have become more inclined to seek personal counselling.
While pastors rightly counsel people in many private and individual ways, public preaching is the first and foremost way by which they counsel believers on Jesus’ behalf. It is through preaching that the Wonderful Counsellor convinces, rebukes and exhorts his people. This being the case, it follows that pastors should make every effort to heed God’s command to “preach the word” urgently, diligently and constantly (2 Timothy 4:2). It also follows that Christian people should make every effort to attend church regularly in order to listen attentively to the preaching of God’s word, and thereby receive Jesus’ wonderful counsel through their pastors.
But, of course, it is not just pastors and gifted teachers through whom the Lord Jesus speaks. He gives counsel to his people through his people—all his people, provided only that they are living in harmony with him. Any mature Christian person who loves the Lord Jesus and knows his word is a person who is able, in some measure, to give wise counsel to others.
We should beware of the modern notion that the best (if not the only) people to counsel us are people who have degrees in psychology or diplomas in counselling. (And we should be especially wary of professional counsellors who claim to be Christians but who put secular theories above scriptural truths.) The best counsellors are those who are the best Christians. It is people who receive counsel from Jesus who are best suited to give counsel for Jesus. He will give us wonderful counsel through them.
Having said this, I hasten to add that there is a place for professional counsellors, including secular ones. Academically trained psychologists, psychiatrists, doctors, therapists and counsellors may be precisely what are needed in certain circumstances. Someone who is severely depressed, for example, may well need medical help, and he or she should take the anti-depressant medications that a psychiatrist or a doctor prescribes. The same could apply to someone who is suicidal. Someone who is struggling with alcoholism would do well to seek the assistance of a counsellor, a sponsor and a support group at Alcoholics Anonymous. And so on.
Furthermore, if it is true that Jesus can give good counsel through all his faithful people, then inevitably it is also true that he can give good counsel through professional counsellors who are faithful to him. Professional counsellors who are practising Christians can sometimes be a means by which Jesus advises and helps his people in their distress.
My argument is not primarily against the professional counsellor: it is principally for the Wonderful Counsellor.
We Christians have ongoing, open access to a counsellor who is deeply sympathetic, perfectly virtuous, infinitely knowledgeable, and profoundly wise. He is the Son whom God has given to us and his name is Wonderful Counsellor. But are we availing ourselves of his counsel?
In a world awash with counsellors, we should at least remember that Jesus is a counsellor, too. Indeed, he is the chief counsellor, and his counsel is always wonderful. Consequently, he should be the first one we turn to in times of trouble or sorrow or temptation or uncertainty. Those who make him their first counsellor generally find that he becomes their last counsellor. They need no other. For there is no other who understands us so intimately, loves us so dearly, and guides us so truly. As the hymn writer (Johnson Oatman, Jr.) says,
Jesus knows all about our struggles,
He will guide ’till the day is done;
There’s not a friend like the lowly Jesus,
No, not one! no, not one!