When unsure of what to say, when perplexed and tongue-tied — we can still simply recite God’s own words, knowing that every syllable, rightly handled, holds spiritual power. Yes, caring for each other can be complex, but not so complex that ordinary believers cannot deeply minister to one another through humble Scripture-quoting and earnest prayer. The Bible’s words, not ours, are God-breathed, and sometimes the best counsel is a simple breathing of his breath.
A man in your small group asks you for counsel. For the last few weeks, he has suffered from debilitating back pain. He knows a broken body is an inescapable part of this fallen world, but he also wonders whether God is disciplining him for something. What does he need — a careful probing of the heart for sin, or an assurance that his suffering, though mysterious, is not in vain?
In your accountability group, a brother confesses to looking at pornography again. He says he’s struggling and fighting. He also seems ashamed. But he has seemed ashamed before, with little change. What does he need — a loving but firm warning, or another reminder that there is no condemnation in Christ?
A young woman you know has felt a gathering darkness over heart and mind. In her depression, she has begun to drift from Christian fellowship and other means of grace. She wonders aloud to you if she’s really a Christian. What does she need — an encouragement that God is with her, an exhortation to return to the church, a referral to a medical doctor, or all three?
“Admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak,” the apostle Paul tells us (1 Thessalonians 5:14). But sometimes the fainthearted seem idle and the idle seem fainthearted; sometimes the weak look willful and the willful look weak. If only people came with a sign on the forehead: “Admonishment needed”; “Encouragement, please”; “A little help will do.”
But they don’t. Instead, people come to us just as we come to others: compound and complex, confused and confusing. People are seas, with hearts hidden deep. And God calls us to be divers.
Water from the Deepest Sea
God really does call us, all of us, to discern the deep-down hearts of our brothers and sisters. No, we are not all pastors or professional counselors. But heart work and soul care do not belong to pastors and counselors alone. Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians 5:14 to the whole church, not just its leaders. Which means God calls all of us to admonish, to encourage, to help — and to discern when to do which. He calls all of us to counsel.
And if he calls us to counsel, he calls us to grow in counseling, which often begins with noticing our tendencies to counsel not so well. Perhaps you can relate to a few common faults I fall prey to, at least when left to myself.
Left to myself, I counsel quickly. I may give a show of good listening as you talk, but often I have already finished your sentences and am crafting my response. “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak,” James writes (James 1:19). But why should I slow my speech when I already know what to say? So I nod with polite impatience, forgo follow-up questions, and give the answer already waiting on my lips.
Left to myself, I also counsel superficially. “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water,” the wise man tells us (Proverbs 20:5), but my natural plumb line is short. Too often, I counsel in the shallows — addressing this behavior, developing a plan for that habit, while the heart still hides in the deeps.
And left to myself, I counsel lopsidedly. Comfort comes easily to my tongue; not so with correction. No doubt, our churches know some who correct others all too easily. Like Eliphaz the Temanite, they struggle to let words for the wind blow away (Job 6:26), but seize them, fix upon them, and fashion their rebuke. They speak confidently. They speak courageously. But like Eliphaz, they do not always speak “what is right” (Job 42:7).
But I usually fall off on the other side. The Puritan John Owen warned of counselors like me at my worst — counselors who “have good words in readiness for all comers,” no matter who the comer may be. We affirm; we encourage; we assure and console and uplift. We reflect a Jesus ever tender, rarely (or never) tough. Owen’s assessment of such counsel was not hopeful: “seldom useful, ofttimes pernicious” (Works of John Owen, 6:568).
So, we seek to grow. We seek to replace our common follies with the slow, deep, well-rounded wisdom of the Spirit. But how?