In biblical counseling, the heart is known as the “control center” of the human being. It is where our thoughts, beliefs, desires, feelings, emotions, intentions, and choices originate from.
According to Proverbs 4:23, the heart controls what we think, feel, say, and do: “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.”
If we truly want to understand why a person (including ourselves) says, feels, or does the things that they do, then we have to understand the heart.
Because we are not God, we cannot perfectly understand or know the heart of man; because we are corrupted by sin, we see things imperfectly – “as a man sees” (Job 10:4), based “on the outward appearance” (1 Samuel 16:7), and “according to the flesh” (John 8:15).
Scripture tells us that God alone is the One who knows “the hearts of the sons of men” (2 Chronicles 6:30), and “understands every intent of the thoughts” (1 Chronicles 28:9). Because God alone is the One who made our hearts, he perfectly understands everything that we think, say, and do (Psalm 33:15).
Heart probing is probably the most challenging aspect of biblical counseling, in my opinion. Jeremy Pierre expresses it well when he says, “I have often wished for a Holy Spirit o’Meter to plug into [the counselee’s] heart so I can have a direct reading of what’s going on inside there. But, alas, counselors have no such instrument” (from The Dynamic Heart in Daily Life).
Yet, the Apostle Paul assures us, in Romans 15:14 that all believers are “full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another.”
We also know, from James 1:5, that “If any of [us] lacks wisdom, [we] should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to [us]”.
Likewise, in the book of John, believers are promised that the Holy Spirit will “teach [us] all things” (John 14:26), and “guide [us] into all truth” (John 16:13).
So, when we seek to counsel others, we are never alone nor without help – God’s Spirit and His Word are always present and available to help us draw out – from the deep waters – just what is going on inside of a person’s heart.
To counsel well, we have to understand the heart before attempting to speak into it. This means that we can’t just listen to and focus on the outer story (the situation) that is going on in a person’s life. We have to draw out the inner thoughts, beliefs, feelings, motives, and desires that are going on inside of their control center (the heart). We want to “discern the interplay between what is inside a person and what is outside a person” (Pierre).
We will know that we’ve properly understood someone’s heart when we more fully understand the situation through their own eyes. When we can correctly put into words another person’s own unique thoughts, beliefs, feelings, motives, desires and other inner responses to their outer circumstances, then we can say that we’ve properly understood their heart. Dr. Robert W. Kellemen, in his book Gospel Conversations, calls this “rich soul empathy” This type of empathy, he says, is “much more than a hug. It also is more than trying to sense how someone feels. It is a comprehensive sensing of what the whole person longs for in their situation, what they think about their situation, what their goals are in their situation, and then how they feel about their situation.”
If we haven’t done the hard work of understanding the heart, then we will be handicapped when we attempt to bring instruction and counsel, and we will be frustrated in our attempts to help bring change into the situation.
Whenever I counsel, or teach biblical counseling training classes at my church, I put a huge emphasis on understanding the heart. I always try to stress that it should be the starting point of all counseling and should always remain in view, no matter what stage of the counseling process a person is in because true and lasting change will not happen unless the heart has been addressed and there has been genuine heart change. Even if the outer situation and circumstances of the person I am counseling never changes, when God brings about heart change, then they are able to experience victory in the midst of whatever circumstances they are going through – 2 Corinthians 4:16-17 says it well: “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”
It takes time and practice to understand the heart.
We have to be dedicated to “listening well and wisely”, as Dr. Kellemen says. That means that are ears are open and ready to latch onto words and phrases that people use to communicate what is going on inside of their heart. Questions like, “Why is God doing this to me?”, “What must other people think about me?”, “Why can’t I get my act together?”, and statements like, “I don’t deserve this!”, “God doesn’t care”, “I’m a loser!”, and “This is a hopeless situation” give us insight into the core of a person’s being.
We also have to become adept at following up on these statements by asking more, good, heart-probing theological questions, like, “Why do you think that God is the source behind your circumstances?”, “Why is it so important to you what other people think about you?” “Where did you get the idea that you shouldn’t have to be going through this?”, “Can you explain to me what it would look like for God to “care” for you in this situation?”, “How do you think God views you?”,”Can you point me to any stories from Scripture that prove that God can overcome the impossible?”
Both of the books that I mentioned, above, provide numerous examples of questions, like these, to help guide you in the process of drawing out the heart. I highly recommend reading through both of them, and then compiling a list of heart-probing questions that you can begin incorporating into your conversations with others to draw out what’s in their heart.
Start putting into practice what you’ve learned:
- The next time you have a conversation with someone, listen for clues in what they are saying that will help lead you to a better understanding of their heart. Also, make attempts to ask questions to draw out more from their heart.Take mental notes as you go along. Especially try to remember, word for word if you can, questions or statements that reveal what/how they are thinking, feeling, believing, and desiring.
- Later, try to write out a summary statement of what they said. It should include details about both the outer circumstances, issues, or situation that they are facing, and the inner, heart issues, that you have discovered. The goal is to be able to put into words what the other person is communicating about the outer and inner situation.
- At a later date, ask if you can share what you’ve recorded with them. Have them read it and give you feedback as to how well they think you have understood what they are experiencing, thinking, feeling, etc. in regard to the situation.
The more you do this exercise, the better you will become at “listening well and wisely”, asking good questions, identifying heart issues, summarizing the outer and inner stories, and developing “rich soul empathy” – key components that lead to good counseling.
The better you understand the heart, the better counselor you will be!