At first glance, counseling the doubtful may seem rather similar to instructing the ignorant. However, teaching has learning as its goal while counseling aims to assist with decisions. Certainly giving counsel often includes some aspects of teaching, such as providing information and perspective, but its primary purpose is to assist a person in coming to a decision. This distinction is contained in the root meanings of the words “counsel” and “doubtful.”
The English word “counsel” comes from the Latin consilium (con (with) + silium (a decision)). So to counsel means to assist someone in the act of deciding, not just to give vague or generic advice.
As such, counsel is connected to the virtue of prudence. Prudence is that virtue which directs particular human acts toward a good end. In modern usage, prudence (and by extension, counsel) has often been equated with caution. But prudence is not caution per se; it is a virtue that sees the best way forward given the goals in mind. It is true that both prudence and counsel would avoid rash decisions until things have been properly considered. But of itself, the “prudent” response to a situation is not always the cautious one. Sometimes the prudent thing to do involves a bold or zealous response. Aristotle and classical philosophy defined prudence as recta ratio agibilium (right reason applied to practice). Prudence and counsel seek the best way forward toward a goal based on the situation and the available options.
However, since we are speaking here of counseling the doubtful as a spiritual work of mercy, the goal in this case refers to that which is moral and rooted in our final end of holiness and salvation. Thus while “counsel” in the general sense could include helping a person decide the best way to repair a car, when speaking of the spiritual work of mercy, such worldly issues are not our focus. Rather, the spiritual work of mercy to “Counsel the doubtful” is concerned with holiness and our goal of dwelling with God in Heaven forever. Finding a “good” way (recta ratio) forward is not mere expedience; it is what is moral, upright, and holy.
The work of giving counsel here is directed to the “doubtful.” Here, too, we need to rescue the word a bit from modern notions, which often associate doubt with skepticism. While a doubtful person may be skeptical of certain truths, “doubt” here is understood in a way that emphasizes the need to make a decision.
The word “doubt” comes from the Latin word dubius meaning “uncertain.” However, even more deeply, the word has roots in the Latin word duo (two). The Latin word dubium is a choice between two things. Even in English there is that strange (silent) “b” in the word “doubt.” This points to another related English word, “double,” which comes from the same Latin root (dubius). And thus the doubtful are the undecided, those of two minds on a certain matter, or, more pejoratively, the “double-minded.”
So we have come to a more precise description of the spiritual work of mercy we call “Giving counsel to the doubtful.” It is that work which helps the undecided (or those of two minds on something) to come to a good and upright decision rooted in the call to holiness and the goal of attaining Heaven by God’s grace.
Counsel of this sort is an integral part of prudence. According to St. Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica II-IIae 47-48), an act of prudence involves three things: taking counsel (looking about for the means suited in the particular case to reach the goal of moral virtue), judging soundly the fitness of the means suggested, and commanding its employment.
What a beautiful work of mercy it is to help better orient others toward their heavenly goal by assisting them in choosing the most virtuous and holiest way forward in a difficult or puzzling situation! Clearly, though, if we are to be equipped to provide this beautiful work of mercy, we must first be docile to the will and mind of God. We must be well instructed in heavenly wisdom, which is often paradoxical to the worldly-minded. The capacity to give spiritual counsel grows out of a deep prayer life, the study of Scripture, and the experience (and suffering) of living as a faithful Christian in the world.
Though in rare cases the gift to give counsel can be infused (i.e., poured into the soul by God), in most cases the gift deepens over time, assuming one is prayerful and attentive and docile to divine teaching. And thus our prayer, study, and life experiences are not only for our own sake, but for that of others as well.
St. Paul gives some wise counsel to those of us who would strive to accomplish this spiritual work of mercy:
You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness ... (2 Tim 3:14-16)
Similarly, St. Paul exhorts Titus to show forth the fruit of such devoted learning:
And as for you, speak the things which are fitting for sound doctrine. … In all things show yourself to be an example of good deeds, with purity in doctrine, dignified, sound in speech which is beyond reproach (Titus 2:1, 7-8).
And thus we are equipped to counsel the doubtful, to assist them (and ourselves) to become more deeply rooted in the decision to follow Jesus, to choose the Lord and the things awaiting in Heaven, to leave behind double-minded ways and duplicity, to decide for what is right, good, noble, and holy.
This is a great and wonderful work of mercy.