To Us a Child is Born: Wonderful Counselor

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This advent we will take a closer look at the four names given to Christ by the prophet Isaiah in Isaiah Chapter 9. For Christ is not only Immanuel, or God with us, but he is also Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. His rule is not what the Israelites of Isaiah's day, the Jews throughout Jesus' life, nor even we today, expect. He comes to us as a servant and as a child and yet more wonderful, mighty, everlasting, and princely than we could imagine.

Wonderful Counselor. Those certainly aren’t two words I expect to see next to one another. I’ve been through plenty of counseling, both good and bad. I readily praise the mental and emotional benefits of therapy, and I will be the first to encourage anyone in psychological or mental need to see a therapist.

So is counseling often necessary? Yes. Sometimes helpful? Yes. But wonderful? No.

I’m really good at presenting my best self in therapy: I start by showing that I am aware of my flaws, then move on to exhibiting my capacity to reason through how and why I’ve acted irrationally. Then, for good measure, I always throw in my willingness to change. And yet, despite my best attempts, most of the time, I leave a counseling session feeling, in some way, (maybe even minutely) wrongly judged. Perhaps this is from the time constraint or the current impediment of a computer screen between parties. Maybe it’s even because the act of judgment, no matter how accurate, simply doesn’t feel good. Regardless, even when counseling is helpful (and it often is), I frequently find myself thinking, “if only they really knew me.”

And yet judgment is the job of a counselor or a therapist. Even taken in the strictly legal sense, the role of legal counsel is to prejudge their client so that they might advocate for them in a winning way in the court of law. A good lawyer will have defined their client’s flaws, perhaps even before identifying those of their adversary.

This judgment can be helpful, it can be necessary, it can be completely accurate, and it can come with a good dose of gracious deliverance. A good counselor should offer to help you work through your problems, and they should empathize and support their clients in ways that lessen burdens.

But one thing they can’t do is take those burdens away completely. In this sense, they are, at most, good and kind guides to the rules and regulations that can lessen our suffering but never wholly heal our pain.

Why then does Isaiah name Christ not just a counselor but a wonderful counselor? Is he simply the best at doling out words of advice, moral support, and the necessary judgments meant to lead us down a path of self-discovery? I have to admit that I’ve often considered him in this role. I’ve spent many years praying to therapy Jesus, who knowingly stares out above his wired-rim glasses with pen and paper in hand. Therapy Jesus is always gracious enough to listen to my complaints and concerns, carefully noting each on his pad as he nods along. And yet, I can never shake the feeling that I’m paying him for his time, and he would much rather be somewhere else - perhaps playing tennis.

Thankfully this year has, in a very unwanted way, rid me of this manicured vision of Jesus. In early March, as our country and world faced the threat of a pandemic, I also found myself a few weeks into being a new mom. I was beyond anxious, entirely exhausted, and isolated - along with my husband and baby boy - from the typical help and support we would otherwise have found during this time. Like so many, the threat of an unknown virus was debilitating to me. For one of the first times in my life, I didn’t have any sense of control, and I didn’t have the will or energy to present my best self to therapy Jesus.

We don’t expect that as our counselor, Jesus not only listens and cares, but that he takes our place.

Prayers like, “Jesus I don’t know what to do. Jesus heal this person or that person. Jesus thank you for our health. Jesus give me rest,” became automatic not because I was really diligent in practicing them, but because I finally realized I needed the gift of speaking them. And as I prayed, often quietly, while I nursed my baby in the dark and silent hours of the night, I was reminded that I was speaking to a counselor who did more than just listen.

When we go to Christ as our counselor, we expect him to respond with the tired out wisdom of the world - a wisdom bound to what we do, how we do it, and the judgment that comes when we fail. We expect him to listen because, well, that’s his job.

We don’t expect that as our counselor, Jesus not only listens and cares, but that he takes our place. He steps into our shoes. We aren’t paying him for his time. He isn’t sitting across the room, daydreaming about his next tennis match or his lunch break. And he doesn’t condemn us - no matter how accurately - on account of either our most polished prayers or our desperate pleas. As counselor, he fully knows us and loves us all the same. He understands our anxieties and our despair as his own. And in turn, he doesn’t give us the right words of advice; he gives us something far better: his righteousness.

He is our advocate before the Father, which means that he both gives us his righteousness and takes on our sins (1 John 2:1). And all the while, he draws near to us. “An advocate doesn’t simply stand in between the two parties but steps over and joins the one party as he approaches the other,” Dane Ortland says in his book, Gentle and Lowly. His wonderful counsel doesn’t merely tell us what to do but does what we can’t. It’s through the wisdom of his word that he gives us his glory, righteousness, and peace.

You may be entering this advent season tired and weary from what continues to feel like the never-ceasing events of this year. Perhaps you are unsure of where you stand with counselor Jesus. What’s more important is where he stands with you. He stands beside you, upholding you, comforting you, and saving you. He’s not here just to give you sage advice. He wonderfully, most wonderfully, gives you himself.