I must have been in the third or fourth grade when I first heard about the gifts of the Holy Spirit. In our rural parish the bishop came every three years and children in third, fourth and fifth grade received the sacrament of confirmation.
So I was about nine when I heard words like counsel and fortitude for the first time. Other gifts like wisdom and knowledge at least had names that I recognized. But I confess that counsel was new to my vocabulary. I suspect that for many it is still a strange word that begs for better comprehension.
Over the years I have studied, taught and preached on these gifts. Counsel, in this context, remains challenging to explain, but even at that, its significance continues to grow.
Counsel is both an attribute that people are able to grow into and a gift of the Holy Spirit that supersedes human growth. It is about making good judgments and ultimately discerning and appropriating the plan of God.
Some parents of teenagers told me that their favorite reminder to their kids as they go out with friends is to make good decisions. That is the parents’ way of saying that there are many options at their kids’ disposal. Choose wisely. If pressed, these parents add that they want their children to make decisions that they can be proud of.
Part of the maturing process is for people to see the consequences of their actions. Healthy judgments require maturity, just as making such judgments helps bring about mature Christian living.
Counsel, as a gift of God, takes that sense of judgment to a new level. It adds insight and conviction that humans cannot really attain on their own. The old adage that grace builds on nature aptly reflects the relationship of this gift of the Spirit as it builds on human development.
The most common examples of counsel come from confirmation students. Whether at school or among peers, these young people see behavior that they already know is not good. There may be bullying going on. They themselves may be pressured to experiment with drugs, pornography or destructive behavior.
As young people talk about these issues, it is often as if they are fighting against overwhelming forces. Hopefully, they have enough self-esteem to stand up against pressure. Equally, the adults in their lives may have coached them how to deal with such adversity.
Nonetheless, the divine gift of counsel can go beyond what they can do on their own. This means that they have to really believe that the Holy Spirit is an active part of their life and not just some image of God discussed in confirmation preparation.
Counsel continues to be important throughout someone’s life, often helping deal with challenges in both work and family life.
A young woman whom I knew in university campus ministry told me how excited she was to land her first real job after college. It was in her degree area and promised all that she was looking for in her new career.
Six months later, however, she stopped in to tell me how disillusioned she was with the job. As much as she tried to do the right thing, she finally decided that the position was requiring her to behave in unethical and likely illegal ways.
After prayer and consultation, she decided that she had to quit the job to find some peace of mind. Her comment to me was that she was unwilling to give up her integrity.
Not all jobs have to end that way, but there are many times when the gift of counsel can help determine that some action must be taken. As an aside, the subsequent gift of fortitude or courage has to be called upon as well to help follow through with that right decision-making.
Family members at all levels need to call on the Spirit to activate the gift of counsel. Parents, unfortunately, do not always have the clarity of vision that they desire.
Whether looking into care for aging parents or trying to help guide their children through treacherous challenges, right judgment is necessary. Personal research and open conversations have to be matched with trust in the Holy Spirit as an active part of their lives.
Perhaps that is precisely where it gets difficult. On the one hand people are asked to use all the skills at their disposal while, on the other hand, they are called upon to rely on the Holy Spirit.
All the gifts of the Spirit (Is 11:1-2) are the divine counterpoint to human efforts. There has to be teamwork between humans and God. Relying on human efforts alone is not sufficient; nor does it work when humans simply look to God and fail to do their own work.
Moreover, the various gifts of the Holy Spirit work together. As already noted, counsel needs the support of fortitude, and both need the insight of wisdom and knowledge. Ultimately, these gifts work together and express the ongoing presence of Holy Spirit in one’s life.
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(Father Herb Weber is founding pastor of St. John XXIII Catholic Church, Perrysburg, Ohio. His weekly podcast can be found at 23.church.)