Counseling for Normal Christians

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?

1. Learn from the Wonderful Counselor.

Isaiah 50:4 gives us a long-term aim and a daily practice. Isaiah speaks most immediately of the Lord’s servant, the Lord’s Christ, but his pattern gives shape to our own.

The Lord God has given me
     the tongue of those who are taught,
that I may know how to sustain with a word
     him who is weary.
Morning by morning he awakens;
     he awakens my ear
     to hear as those who are taught.

The wisest counselors speak with “the tongue of those who are taught.” They can fill weary spirits with courage; they can correct and restore straying hearts. And all by simply opening their mouth. In dim reflection of God’s own speech, they bring light and life “with a word.” To have such a tongue is our long-term aim.

We won’t attain that aim, however, without daily listening — and listening not first to others, but to God. He himself is the “Wonderful Counselor” (Isaiah 9:6), and “morning by morning,” he awakens our ear to learn more of his wonderful ways — his wonderful, surprising ways.

Consider the counseling of our Lord Jesus himself, the one with the perfectly God-taught tongue. Who among us would have told the rich young ruler to go sell all he had (Mark 10:21)? Or who would have known when to gently chide Peter, when to ignore him, and when to address him as Satan (Matthew 14:31; 16:23; 17:4–5)? Or who would have warned the healed paralytic to “sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you” (John 5:14)? Or who would have restored a fallen disciple without reproof (John 21:15–19)?

To be sure, we do not have the depth of insight that Jesus did. But as we listen to him — and to the words of God throughout the rest of Scripture — we start to gain fresh instincts. We see new sides to old problems. We find new keys to old locks. We realize that our spiritual medicine cabinet has only one or two shelves, while God’s is a walk-in. And so, slowly, we become more like the Balm of Gilead himself, who holds ten thousand balms.

To those who want to be taught, Bible reading and meditation offers a daily tutelage under our Wonderful Counselor, giving us words as deep as human hearts.

2. Listen — really listen — to others.

Then, in time, counseling opportunities arise. We sit across the table from a small-group member, or drive alongside an accountability partner, or talk on the phone with a friend in need. And before we venture to speak, we find ourselves faced with a task that can often feel harder than opening our mouths: keeping them closed. So, we listen. We really listen.

True listening can easily elude us, even after we have lingered silently in God’s presence. James counsels quick hearing and slow speech because we often reverse the speeds (James 1:19). So, we may feel an inner itch to offer counsel now, before we’ve really heard. We may want to interrupt impulsively. We may focus so intently on our coming response that another’s words become muffled, lost somewhere between their mouth and our ears. And hearing, we don’t hear.

Two resolves may help to open our ears. First, we can resolve to not finish another’s sentences — either in mind or in mouth. Sentence-finishing can take many shapes. Rehearsing an answer while another still speaks; assuming we know where a story is headed; allowing thoughts to wander because we think we’ve got the gist — all these can be subtle ways of finishing sentences we haven’t yet heard. And they take us dangerously close to the unwisdom of Proverbs 18:13: “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.”

Second, we can resolve to ask questions. Questions are speed bumps for quick tongues. They slow us down, forcing us to clarify rather than assume, allowing others the dignity of both finishing and explaining their own sentences. Asked wisely, questions also guide us toward the hidden deep-sea heart, as we learn to plumb below the surface of behavior and ponder darker depths. And slowly, as we swim in this sea of words, we begin to grasp a pearl. Hearing, we hear.

Whatever other strategies we may use to listen well, wise counselors enter a conversation ready to be surprised, confronted, and drawn in by another’s complex humanity.

3. Pray, discern, respond.

The process so far may look somewhat passive, but the true listener is anything but. Beneath the questions and calm demeanor is a spirit of prayer. He tries fitting pieces together. He “ponders how to answer” in the conversation’s pauses (Proverbs 15:28). And he discerns. He begins to trace an idler’s sluggishness coming to light; he sees a faintness of the heart appearing; he touches upon some profound weakness.

We will not always discern rightly, of course. Our listening and our questions may reveal the heart, but they cannot read the heart. And if even the apostles could misjudge the hearts of men (Acts 8:13, 20–23; 2 Timothy 4:10), surely we will do the same.

But we can grow. And we will know we are growing, in part, when we find ourselves surprised by what we say. In addressing a certain struggle, we had always spoken comfort; now we hear ourselves exhorting. In addressing a certain person, we usually corrected; now we find ourselves offering practical help. Increasingly, our words, like the people in front of us, gain depth. We respond to complexity with wisdom and creativity. We reflect, in some small measure, what David Powlison calls “our Redeemer’s skillful love” (The Pastor as Counselor, 15).

And when in doubt — 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.

But whether we speak God-shaped words or God’s own words, the more we grow in wisdom, the more often we will see the proverb come to pass: “To make an apt answer is a joy to a man, and a word in season, how good it is!” (Proverbs 15:23). How good indeed to feel the heart lovingly plumbed, kindly searched, and then skillfully addressed with our Counselor’s wonderful wisdom.

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