Not all counseling problems are of the same order. If a counselor doesn’t recognize this fact he may bypass truly important material while dealing with other matters. In addition, though making an effort to do so, he may fail to reach that material because he fails to handle matters in the correct order. Moreover, when solving one problem, if not careful to avoid doing so, he may create new and (perhaps) more serious ones. Still other grave consequences may arise from ignoring the fact of differences in problems.

What are the differences?

Viewed from one perspective, we may speak of Principal Problems, Ancillary Problems, and Complicating Problems. And it is about these three sorts of problems that I wish to call your attention in this post.

Principal Problems

As the name indicates, a Principal problem is the major problem that a counselee has. Ordinarily, he will be able to identify it as such. But that isn’t always true. Sometimes a counselee may think that a problem belongs to this class when, actually, it is but an Ancillary or Complicating problem. Let’s look at an example.

On his P.D.I. , in answer to question #1 (“What is your problem?”) Bob writes, “I can’t seem to keep a job.” You may recognize that this is the principal reason why he has come for counseling, but you doubt whether it is his principal problem. It seems, rather, to be an ancillary problem. Through questioning and data-gathering eventually you are able to identify his principal problem as “inability to submit to authority at work.” To recognize how it differs from the ancillary problem—which was occasioned by the principal one—is crucial. If the counselor also focuses his counseling upon the problem that Bob thinks is the principal problem both will go astray. In the end, no problem will be solved, or at best, a lot of time will be wasted before finally discovering the flaw.

A different sort of difficulty some counselors have in identifying the principal problem lies in their failure to canvass all aspects of the counselee’s life. They fail to do extensive questioning. Forgetting that counselees are whole persons, they so zero in on one item that they neglect other aspects of his life, in which alone the principal problem may actually be found. A person may be having difficulties at work, but those difficulties are only ancillary to the major eruptions that are going on in his home life. To focus on work, therefore, will perhaps bring some relief, but it is likely to be temporary as family troubles soon flow back into lack of efficiency in the workplace. Temporary fixes come from treating ancillary problems as though they were principal ones.

Ancillary Problems

I have shown how ancillary problems can be disguised as principal ones—or how they may be mistaken for principal problems. This often occurs when counselees place too much emphasis on them, and counselors accept this at face value and fail to gather adequate data It is impossible to deal with all ancillary problems. Surely, as a counselor, you recognize that there are any number of difficulties in your own life that you are slowly working out biblically, but that it will probably take some time to solve. Moreover, you know that you will never solve all of them in this life. The same is true of your counselee. Should you take on every ancillary problem that presents itself in the course of counseling, counseling would never end—unless you (or he) gave up. What you do with these problems is to mention them, perhaps point to where a counselee may obtain further help (a book or pamphlet), or suggest a course for them to follow on their own. But what about ancillary problems? Are they of importance in counseling? Yes and no.

By that equivocal answer I mean this:

1. It may be of importance for you to suggest courses of action for him to follow but, that you will not spend time counseling him about, and which you will not monitor.

2. But some ancillary problems must be dealt with. How can we distinguish these from those just mentioned? These problems are so tied into the principal problems that—while not principal problems themselves—contribute to the latter. They are entangled so tightly that the solution to the one demands a solution to the other. Let’s take an example.

The principal problem that we saw Bob had was his inability to work properly under authority. Because of this, he recently lost a job. Two ancillary problems tied to this are a) finding a new job; b) seeking forgiveness from a boss to whom he spoke a few choice words before he was fired.

While we wouldn’t want to concentrate on either of these items, both must be dealt with biblically. Otherwise, Bob will continue to displease God by failing to seek forgiveness both from Him and his former boss, and he will not be able to look for another job in the right, prayerful attitude (James 5: 16 ). And, in addition, he cannot head toward solving his principal problem until he has come to grips with both ancillary problems. Dealing fully with the underlying problem—his difficulty in submitting to authority—cannot occur until he commits to pursuing a course leading toward biblical submission, but also until there is a new job at which he and the counselor may work at replacing old anti-authority ways with new submissive ones.

Complicating Problems

Complicating problems can make it nearly impossible to reach principal problems until the complications are cleared away. That is to say, they are of such a nature that, having grown out of principal problems, they have so complicated the original principal problem that it is not longer reachable except through them. Often, complicating problems will become apparent through the answers given to question #2 on the P.D.I. (“What have you done about it?”). Answers to this question may provide insight into complicating factors either directly or indirectly.

Let’s take an example. If on her P.D.I. Sally writes, “I went to a psychiatrist for two years,” you can be reasonably sure that if she followed even a little of the advice given to her by him, there will be problems that arose from doing so. Indirectly, the answer points to the need for further questioning. Upon inquiry, you discover that because of the psychiatric endoctrinization she had she “told her mother off.” This led to multiple fights and an eventual parting of their ways. Family chaos arose that makes it impossible to solve the principal problem between herself and her sister who, because of the family quarrels, no longer talks to Sally. The Complicating problem, therefore, must be deal with before taking up the principal one.

Take a different sort of complicating problem. Everette tried to solve his principal problem on his own—and did all of the wrong things. He mucked up things so badly that by the time he came for counseling he was ready to cut the line.

“To do what?”

Cut the line. Let me explain. You are fishing and get a tangle in the line (this is called a “bird’s nest” by fishermen). Knowing that this will make casting impossible, Everette tries to get the knot out. In doing so, he adds two more knots. Attempting to untie those he puts a half dozen more in the line. At this point, he is ready to cut the line!

Because they do so many wrong things in attempting to solve their problems, the Everettes that you counsel will be ready to give up. But, instead, you must help them sort out which knots must be untied before you can help them with the principal problem (usually, unlike in the fishing illustration) some can be omitted. But there will be others that, until untied, will not allow you to get to the principal problem. You must begin to help Everette, therefore, by working on knots—complicating problems that he created.

Everette committed adultery. But, first, he covered it up. Then, conscience stricken he told a friend about it and asked for advice. His friend ended up telling his own wife—who told Everette’s wife! This led not only to an uproar at home but to estranged conditions between the two church families, and gossip and turmoil in the congregation. What Everette had intended to do was get advice about how to confess to Jane (his wife) but because he unwisely told his problem to a friend who had very little sense (and whose wife had less), when Everette came for counseling he was ready to cut the line.

Probably at least 3 or 4 complicating problems involving the main parties involved, possibly the pastor of the church, and others who had entered the loop, must be handled before confession, forgiveness and reconciliation can be achieved among all included.

So, you can see, I hope, how important it is to understand and identify the difference between problems before you begin to offer solutions to any of them.


Check out our online course, Counseling Problems taught by Donn Arms!

Books related to dealing with problems:

  1. Competent to Counsel by Jay Adams
  2. The Christian Counselor’s Manual by Jay Adams
  3. Christ and Your Problems by Jay Adams

The Christian Counselor’s New Testament and Proverbs, translated by Jay Adams

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