by Patti Withers
The path to Christ-likeness can be messy. As believers, we often long for our sanctification to look like a rocket shooting up, progressing ever higher and higher. But more often than not, it feels like three painful steps forward and two shockingly easy steps back. This is certainly true in my life, and I’ve found that it’s also true for the women who meet with me for counseling. I’ve served on our church staff for 11 years, dividing my time between women’s ministry and biblical counseling, and it’s an honor to walk with struggling sisters, to see the changes and growth in their lives, and to be used by God as a part of that process.
Sometimes, however, the slowness of the process can tempt us to discouragement and fear, both for me and for the sister receiving counseling. The reality of the “two steps back” can hinder our ability to see the “three steps forward.” It’s because of this that I rely heavily on the truth of God’s sovereignty in counseling, particularly on those aspects of his sovereignty that intersect with the doctrine of sanctification. While the Bible is brimming with references to God’s sovereignty in sanctification, I’ve found the following passages of Scripture particularly helpful as I counsel and disciple others.
Those we counsel are created for good works (Ephesians 2:10)
The truth about my struggling sister is that she’s a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17) who has been created by God for the purpose of doing good works. It’s also true that God has pre-prepared those good works for her.
There’s such a wealth of help and encouragement here! As a counselor, I’m completely incapable of accomplishing any change for the good in my counselee, and I can’t make her do any of the good that she ought. Thankfully, the burden of her change doesn’t land on me. We can both rest knowing that she will change because she has been created by God for the very purpose of walking in his pre-prepared good works. It’s his sovereignty at work in her life from beginning to end.
Those we counsel are predestined to look like Jesus (Romans 8:29)
All the doubts we’re tempted to believe when we see slowness to change, all the discouragements that arise amid persistent sin-struggles, all the fear and worry and fretting and hopelessness—all of it is swallowed up in this simple truth: the sister I am counseling is predestined to be conformed to the image of Jesus.
Before time began, God, in love, predestined her to be adopted as his daughter (Eph. 1:4), and to be conformed to the image of her Elder Brother, Jesus. Who is able to thwart God’s plan for his children? If he has purposed that she should look like Jesus, then she must.
Those we counsel need the truth spoken in love (Ephesians 4:15)
While it’s true that God will cause the believing counselee to look like Jesus, it’s also true that God uses means to accomplish this end. Biblical counseling is one of those means, so as a counselor I must be ready to speak the truth to my counselee in a loving way.
Trusting in God’s sovereignty frees me from both frustration that may drive me to loveless truth-speaking and fear that may tempt me to shrink back from speaking truth altogether.
We must aim for a delicate balance when doing this. If love isn’t driving my spoken truths, then I’m in danger of being nothing more than a “noisy gong” (1 Cor. 13:1). But if I never speak hard truths into the counselee’s life, then my counsel is reduced to mere sentimentality and is therefore not loving. Trusting in God’s sovereignty frees me from both frustration that may drive me to loveless truth-speaking and fear that may tempt me to shrink back from speaking truth altogether.
The Lord will complete the good work he began (Philippians 1:6)
What a sweet promise to know that the Lord—who sovereignly began the good work in the counselee’s life—is the one who will bring it to completion. Knowing this frees me from the temptation to coerce my sister into obedience, or to fret because she isn’t currently obeying as she ought. It frees me from any temptation to fear that she will never grow or change.
This truth is also a wonderful balm to the counselee who is typically discouraged and keenly aware of her need for change. Is God not able? Is he not faithful? Where did Paul’s surety about the completion of the Philippians’ sanctification come from? Precisely from knowing that the sovereign God of the universe is the one who began the work in the Philippians’ lives and would also be the one to complete it.
The Lord will accomplish growth in those we counsel (Philippians 2:12–13)
I regularly bring counselees to these verses because they help us understand both our responsibility and God’s sovereignty in the process of becoming more Christ-like. First, these verses remind us that we are to be working out our “own salvation with fear and trembling.” Not that we are in any way working for our salvation, since Jesus has already accomplished that on the cross. Rather, we are to be working to put to death what is still earthly in us (Col. 3:5) and by doing so we demonstrate that we have been saved.
These verses then explain to us that the power we possess to change is rooted in God powerfully and sovereignly working in us. And what is he working? His own will and good pleasure! C. H. Spurgeon explained it this way, “It gives God pleasure to see you holy, it is his delight to see you self-denying. . . . Depend upon it then, since he is pleased with the result, and has put forth his own strong hand to bring it about, you, as you work, will not work at a peradventure, but in absolute certainty of success.” Because of God’s sovereign work, our progress toward holiness is inevitable.
The Lord will wipe away every tear from every eye (Revelation 21:1–4)
Not every problem will be resolved this side of heaven. Not every marriage will be restored, not every depression will be lifted, not every fear will be permanently thrown off. And while there must be an evident, ever-increasing Christlikeness in every believer’s life, the struggle with sin and discouragement will mark us until our mortality is swallowed up by immortality.
That’s why it’s so important to point the counselee to the reality that awaits her in glory. The Lord will sovereignly keep all of his children all the way home; therefore, we can endure in this life and even have hope. Our difficulties lose some of their sting as we meditate on the truth that we will spend eternity free from sorrow and sin.
Our path to Christ-likeness is indeed slow, and at times even imperceptible. But because of God’s sovereignty, we can have great hope that we, and those we are counseling, will become increasingly Christlike. This is a steadfast hope, not simply wishful thinking. This hope is grounded in the faithfulness of God himself (1 Thess. 5:23–24), and it will never disappoint.
This article originally appeared at 9Marks.org