Six Strategies for Promoting Counselee Humility: More Wisdom From the Heavenly Dr. Sibbes

Humility is the heart’s deepening awareness of the presence of God. And since humans can only flourish in the truest sense when they are in communion with God, all Christian counseling, despite the approach, should promote the development of humility in the souls of its clientele.

In chapter two of Josiah’s Reformation, Richard Sibbes discussed the cultivation of this humility. In typical Puritan fashion, Sibbes exhaustively examined humility from almost every conceivable angle. In this post, I will synthesize one of these angles and delineate some ideas that contemporary counselors might find useful in working with their counselees. A careful analysis of this chapter reveals six strategies for promoting humility in the hearts of your counselees.

1. Encourage God-relational Self Talk

Long before the invention of cognitive therapy, Sibbes understood the value of people examining their thoughts. In his search for seeds of humility, Sibbes advocated the following:

That we may humble ourselves, let us work upon our own souls by reasoning, discoursing, and speaking to our own hearts (p. 58).

The major distinction between cognitive therapy and Sibbes is that cognitive therapists identify distorted thinking so counselees can relate better to themselves and others. For Sibbes, this exercise primarily focused on helping parishioners relate better to God. He wanted those under his care to sense God’s presence (p. 53) and “speaking to the heart” was a primary means for accomplishing this task.

2. Account for Blind Spots

One of the challenges in helping people engage in God-relational self talk is convincing them of its necessity. Because of the deceitfulness of sin (Heb 3:13), Christian counselees often remain unaware of certain things that simmer in the depths of their hearts. Sibbes intimated this characteristic unawareness with the following admission about his own struggles with pride:

But yet how often hath the Holy Ghost knocked at the door of my heart, and suggested many holy motions into me of mortification, repentance, and newness of life, yet notwithstanding I have given him the repulse, opposed the outward means of grace, and have thought myself unworthy of it; what a shame is this (p. 59)!

Before you can help your counselees develop humility, you have to help them see some of the things that they cannot yet see. Like Paul’s prayerful counsel to the church at Ephesus, Christian counselors must pray that God “may give [their counselees] the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of [their] hearts opened” (Eph 17-18a).

3. Compare Professed Beliefs with Actual Behaviors

How are you to help people see what they cannot see? Sibbes contended that you must help your people examine what they say they believe with how they actually behave. As you identify the discrepancies between their confessional theology (i.e., their profession) and their functional theology (i.e., their performance), the Spirit will convict them and help them see where they need to change. Using the example of David and Nathan, Sibbes put it this way:

Thus if we compare our carriage in earthly things with our carriage in heavenly, this will be a means to work upon our hearts, inwardly to humble ourselves. Thus was David abased; for when Nathan came and told him of a rich man, who having many sheep, spared his own and took away a poor man’s, which was all he had; when David considered that he had so dealt with Uriah, he was dejected and ashamed of his own courses. Let us labour to work our hearts to humility, into true sorrow, shame, true fear, that so we may have God to pity and respect us, who only doth regard a humble soul (p. 59).

By employing the rudiments of cognitive dissonance theory centuries before secular therapy, Sibbes gave Christian counselors an effective way of identifying target areas for humility. The next step helps the counselee cultivate this humility.

4. Promote Cross-centered Self-examination

Now that the counselee knows where change is needed, the counselor should provide steps that will provide an avenue to that change. Sibbes saw this procedure as a set of steps that brought counselees into the presence of the cross whereby they could put to death the prideful obstacles blocking the way to humility. Here were Sibbes’ instructions:

Further, there is an order, method, and agreement in these reflected actions, when we turn the edge of our own souls upon ourselves and examine ourselves; for the way that leads to rest is by the examination of ourselves. We must examine ourselves strictly, and then bring ourselves to God, judge and condemn ourselves; for humiliation is a kind of execution (p. 60).

In Sibbes’ thinking, humility began with the identification and execution of the pride that separated sinners from experiencing the presence of God. In the same way, just as Calvary remains incomplete apart from the empty tomb; so too does pride’s death remain unfinished apart from humility’s resurrection. This being so, counselees must not only mortify their pride but they must vivify their humility.

5. Encourage the Reception of Resurrection Grace

After helping counselees “put off” their pride through the repentance effected by the cross, counselors must help the penitent receive the benefits of “putting on” the forgiveness found in the doorway of the empty tomb. Sibbes, quoting Isaiah 57:15, showed how God showers the humble hearted with his glorious grace:

‘For thus saith he that is holy and excellent, he that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is the Holy One; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of an humble and contrite spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to give life to them that are of a contrite heart.’ So there is a promise that God will give grace to the humble (pp. 60-61).

A humble heart is a revived heart; and as counselors, you must encourage your counselees to grasp this truth and experience God’s permeating and loving presence in every aspect of their lives.

6. Prepare for Spirit-empowered Service

After counselees begin experiencing humility, counselors must design activities in which God’s impression will be stamped more permanently into their clients’ souls. This means that counselors should design homework that will provide counselees with opportunities for service (John 13) that model the humility of Christ (Phil 2:4-11). Sibbes argued that humility was the most important of all God’s graces because it was the container that carried all God’s other blessings. As counselees progressively become more spacious vessels of grace, they can more easily pour out God’s love and mercy onto others. Here is how Sibbes explained the usefulness of the humble heart:

An humble heart is a vessel of all graces. It is a grace itself, and a vessel of grace. It doth better the soul and make it holy, for the soul is never fitter for God than when it is humbled…Humility emptieth the heart for God to fill it (p. 61).

As God fills their hearts with “all graces,” counselees can then begin to live their lives in a God-glorifying way that models the two great commandments of loving God and neighbor (Matt 22:36-40).

Join the Conversation

What are some of the steps that you have identified that have helped you in promoting humility in those to whom you minister?