Leaving community mental health after 8 years as a counselor lends itself to a certain amount of reflection. You see a lot in that amount of time. Physical and sexual abuse, family chaos, depression, deep seated hatred and unforgiveness, even the truly bizarre find their way into your office (“So you mean to say that you’re a werewolf?”). As a Christian I would filter these experiences through the lens of my Christian faith (yes, even the “werewolf”). This practice has continued in my current work as a counselor, teacher, trainer and supervisor in a Christian counseling agency overseas in India.
My time here has involved instructing pastors and lay people interested in counseling on a variety of topics, everything from secular counseling theories to mood disorders to the connection between counseling and healing. As part of my teaching times, I open with a short devotional focused on a particular passage from the Bible. This is done in an effort to both introduce the topic being discussed and also explore ways to think biblically and theologically about counseling. One such passage is the story of the woman caught in adultery in John chapter 8. This story offers three different aspects relevant to counseling, those of silence, nonverbal communication, and validation.
1. Jesus used silence.
For the counselor, the beauty of this story is in part the way Jesus uses silence to bring about reflection and the opportunity for insight. Speaking to the Scribes and Pharisees in verse 7, Jesus says, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (NASB). Jesus doesn’t follow this with a question or a parable, as he does in other passages. Instead this brief but powerful statement (8 words in the Greek) is followed by an equally powerful time of silence. This allows for self-reflection and ultimately conviction on the part of the religious leaders.
Students new to counseling can find a wonderful example about the benefits of silence in this aspect of the story. Silence in counseling can be used to great effect. It brings fruit in a way nothing else can. Jesus illustrates this point beautifully. It gave the religious leaders time to think about their actions as well as Christ’s words. And in counseling, it teaches us that sometimes it’s not what you say, but what you don’t say that can make a difference.
2. Jesus used nonverbal communication.
The second part of the story that is equally powerful is the nonverbal communication Jesus utilizes, again in speaking to the Scribes and Pharisees. This is most clearly presented in how Jesus uses body positioning to defuse the situation and allow for silence to have its full effect. As an example to beginning counselors, whenever someone studies crisis counseling they learn the power of nonverbal communication to defuse situations. Here Jesus kneels during the majority of his encounter with the Scribes and the Pharisees thereby making use of this principle. His kneeling helps to de-escalate a situation that could have quickly spiraled out of control.
Nonverbal communication, which researchers say make up around 53% of our total communication, is a vital part of helping address any crisis. While especially true in crisis counseling, the principle of nonverbal communication has clear implications for all types of counseling relationships. An open or closed posture, a smile or a frown, even where people sit when entering the counselor’s office communicates something both on the part of the counselor and the client. Jesus’ nonverbal communication, done in the midst of a group of angry men carrying stones and looking for trouble, allows for the story to end as it does. He brings calm to the situation and hope to the woman caught in adultery. What it also does is move the Scribes and Pharisees from a place of condemnation to that of conviction.
3. Jesus used validation.
There is one more aspect of the story that is significant in terms of counseling. This is the importance of validation. Validation in its simplest form is the ability of one person to affirm another. There is always something that we can validate about someone. For counselors it means finding strengths that client’s possess and recognizing them in a way that encourages and builds trust. Validation in this story has an added dimension. The woman has been publicly shamed. The author writes in verse 2 that the religious leaders placed the woman not in front of Jesus, but in front of “the crowd”.
The religious leaders wanted to embarrass Jesus publicly. A consequence of this for the woman was that she was publicly shamed. This meant she would be marginalized in her own community, forever condemned to wear the proverbial “Scarlet A”. Jesus’ words not only make it clear that he will not condemn her, but he says this in front of her community, the same community that came to hear him teach. Jesus’ command to “Go and sin no more” is preceded by the statement “Neither will I condemn you.” These words are spoken directly to her but in earshot of others.
Jesus validates her, recognizing her as a person of worth. He does not neglect her sin. In exhibiting grace he does not neglect the truth. At the same time he doesn’t seek to shame her as the religious leaders did. What Jesus does has the potential to help restore her standing in the community. He does this not by joining in with her accusers, but by standing against the powerful on behalf of the powerless. This extends to his comments to her in front of the crowd. Jesus, the “wonderful Counselor”, provides a beautiful example of what validation can do in working with clients. It can offer encouragement to those who often experience none.
This, in combination with his use of silence and nonverbal communication, make the story a wonderful object lesson for counselors who want to better serve their clients by utilizing these three invaluable skills.