to Basic Counseling
A First Aid Course For Emotions
People often find to their horror that the most agonizing aspect of a
painful trial is the well-meaning remarks and advice of fellow Christians.
But you can avoid the traps and be the Christlike comfort
to hurting people that you long to be.
People often find to their horror that the most agonizing aspect of a
I enrolled in psychology at university, imagining it would help me in Christian ministry. I quickly discovered, however, that there is power in Jesus that behavioral science could never approach. I believe if ever I have been able to help anyone, it is because I put to one side my academic training and relied upon the Lord Jesus.
I am not opposed to psychology. I majored in the subject. I am disappointed, however, whenever I or any Christian fails to bring the power of God into a situation because we trust our training, or intuition, or experience or even our unaided ability to apply scriptural truth, instead of throwing ourselves upon the infinitely superior resources of Jesus Christ.
Soul surgery can be as critical and delicate as brain surgery. With a little common sense, however, there is much we can safely do. It’s like the way most people could walk into a hospital and assist patients. Without any training they could spread cheer in the wards and find many valuable ways of bringing comfort. Few would be so silly as to spoil their good work by attempting surgery or prescribing medication. It’s having the sense to know their limits that would make them an asset and not a danger. So in this overview, in addition to discovering valuable ways in which we can offer comfort and support, we will identify the boundaries within which we can safely labor.
This webpage not only explores what I believe is the best approach to counseling but, most importantly, it explains the scriptural reasons for this approach. If, however, you are looking for something briefer, go to the List of Practical Suggestions.
If you were treating the open wounds of accident victims you would realize that the most gentle, well-meaning touch could send patients reeling. You would not be offended if someone you were seeking to help lashed out in pain with almost involuntary action. You would half expect it. But imagine the confusion if the wounds were invisible and the person looked uninjured. Consider the further complication if in that person’s experience everyone who had tried to help (and how does he know you will be any different?) had in their ignorance done little but inflict pain.
That’s the norm for someone who is hurting inside.
Emotionally wounded people cannot help but be highly sensitive. Words hit them like whips. It is vital that they be treated verbally with the careful tenderness you would use if you were dressing gaping physical wounds. Once we understand the seriousness of emotional wounds, it’s surprisingly easy to employ the Christlike graces of turning the other cheek and using the soft answer that turns away wrath. When we realize an outburst is just the pain talking, we no longer take it to heart. Only a fool takes personally the actions of someone drunk with pain.
In his greener, younger days, Dr Neil T. Anderson was summoned to a hospital waiting room where a couple from his church sat in shock as their son teetered between life and death. They sat and sat, until finally the news broke. The boy was dead. At that crucial moment words treacherously abandoned Neil, fleeing like guilt-stricken cowards from a decisive battle. The parents sobbed. Neil could do nothing but cry helplessly with them. Finally he dragged himself home in utter defeat. Years later he met the couple again and one of their first acts was to profusely thank Neil for the way he had so powerfully ministered to them on the night they lost their son. Neil was stunned. He had been sure he had failed them. Instead, he had done one of the greatest things one human can do for another.
We often achieve most when we think we are achieving nothing, and achieve nothing when we imagine we could teach Solomon a thing or two.
Much heartache could be averted in the body of Christ if, like Neil, we could learn to “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15) – not necessarily shed tears, but unashamedly embrace the pain of others, and let it be obvious that “if one part [of Christ’s body] suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26).
To be in physical or emotional pain is one of the loneliest experiences on earth. And yet at that time when we need them most, many people flee from us. Some desert us because we have outlived our usefulness when we can no longer give them a fun time. Thankfully, there aren’t too many “friends” like that, but we imagine their numbers are more inflated because we confuse them with the next category. Many shun us because they feel awkward. They would love to help but they are afraid they will say the wrong thing and add to our pain.
A huge contributor both to Christians saying the wrong thing and fearing that they will do so is that we usually feel duty-bound to concoct words of wisdom or quote Scriptures. Rarely is that what a hurting person is hoping for.
We don’t see Jesus asking his disciples for advice, but we often see him asking them for his company. For a glimpse of how much this meant to him, consider his disappointment that they could not stay awake while he prayed in the garden.
Advice is cheap. Love is precious.
For most of us, the slightest hint of anyone having a need or problem, ignites within us an explosive yearning to give advice. Yet of all options, giving advice is usually the least effective and most dangerous. When we are on the giving end, we usually consider advice-giving to be a virtue. The world would be saved much pain, however, if Christians considered advice-giving a vice.
Giving advice is taking upon ourselves the role of a superior. Often, it is selfishly inflicting our opinion on a vulnerable person. And it is usually being judgmental. It is considering people to be ignorant – and so we think they need our hallowed wisdom to enlighten them. And it is usually judging them of sin, prayerlessness, lack of faith, not praising God enough, or some other failure such that we imagine they need us to instruct them to change.
I’m a writer. I spend most of my life at my desk shut away from people, having no personal contact with those that I long to help. Usually they live on the other side of the planet. In my situation I have nothing to offer but words, and yet even I know that we often overvalue words and undervalue what might seem simpler things.
I have a dear friend who suffers horrifically with bi-polar disorder (manic-depressive). She writes of two life-changing moments:
I had gone into the metro station, planning to jump in front of the train. I felt useless to my family, useless to God and damned. I was in utter despair and longed for death. As I stood, watching for the train, I turned and there was a woman standing beside me. She smiled at me. It seemed her eyes were full of the love of Christ. After seeing that smile I could no longer think of death, and I went home to my family with renewed hope, although still fighting terrible despair.
About a decade after that life-saving smile I suffered an extended period of spiritual torture. I mistakenly, but strongly, felt that I had lost my Lord. One day I was sitting in my doctor’s waiting room, in utter despair. In my misery, I could not take my eyes off the floor. A woman bent down so that I could see her and she smiled the same kind of smile at me.
We almost inevitably overvalue our advice and undervalue our companionship. And the biggest part of good companionship is being a warm listener. And a significant part is simply being there. The perfect friend, however, remains sensitive to the person's need for space, which is likely to change with the person's mood.
“Take note of this:” emphasizes James 1:19, “everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” This describes the most vital of all counseling skills and we should give top priority to honing it. It is significant that this verse indicates God expects this skill not of a favored few, but of everyone. Quick to listen gives the impression of having acted this way so often that listening, rather than reacting or butting in, has become our instinctive reaction, just as anger once was for most of us. Scripture is pleading that we co-operate with the Holy Spirit in a radical reprogramming of our natural responses. We need to think constantly in terms of offering compassion and encouragement until these become an automatic response, with judgment and advice-giving being totally displaced from our thinking.
Listen intently. Hang on to people’s every word. Every Christian is highly significant, and yet we are each plagued by an insidious enemy who doesn’t want us to know it. By valuing what a Christian says, you counter the devil’s attempts to undermine the person.
Years ago I discovered that whenever I’m speaking with someone, there are two important parties – the Lord and the person I’m talking with – and I need to listen carefully to both. That’s right. When I’m conversing I don’t even rate as one of the the two most important parties.
How much you listen shows how much you value the other person. Often, how much you talk shows how full of yourself you are. And it is not just how much you listen but how you listen that shows how important someone is to you. True listening is not sterile silence. It is savoring and feeling a person’s every word.
The most difficult task of all is distinguishing between what, for the other person, is comfortable silence and what is uncomfortable silence. Often we should endure silences that are to us uncomfortable but are comfortable to the other person. When, in the other person’s perception, silences begin to become uncomfortable, then chatting can become valuable, provided we stay alert for the affect our words our having. Such chatting can give people get a tiny vacation by helping to get their minds off the things that are causing them grief.
As suggested by Neil Anderson’s experience, we would usually do so very much better if we made our presence do the talking, rather than our flapping gums. We see this vividly portrayed by Job’s friends.
They wept. They mourned. They sat with Job in the dirt, in shocked grief, speechless, for seven long days. Then, like so very many of us, they became impatient. Beginning to doubt the effectiveness of their invaluable support, they felt pressured to take over God’s job. Tragically, this ruined their perfect start.
Reeling in dazed bewilderment, Job had not a clue why he had been hit by disaster after disaster. His visitors had the unique opportunity of offering comfort to God’s friend, as people who fully understood his humanity and shared in his frustration and knew the emptiness of staggering through life with unanswered questions. Instead of filling their divinely appointed role of comforting Job as fellow mortals, they chose the satanically preferred alternative of claiming Godlike knowledge. Each wanted to become their friend’s spiritual superior, trying to help from above, rather than helping from his side. Not only was their quest to fill God’s role doomed to fail, they lost their opportunity to support Job as his equal.
Like Job’s friends, we soon tire of being in the dirt with a complaining brother. We want to dust ourselves off and show that we’re above that sort of thing.
Look at Jesus for inspiration. Forsaking his divine privileges, from the time he became a fetus until he was a plaything for Roman thugs, Jesus knew constant humiliation. In contrast to what was his by right, he became physically vulnerable, weak, tempted, subject to pain, and as the final disgrace, rejected even by God (Matthew 27:46). We often see him tired, thirsty, in tears, impoverished, ridiculed. Scripture stresses that Christ had to become like those he was called to help (Scriptures). What equipped the Son of God for his exalted ministry was his lowering himself, stripping himself of divine rights and status. We, however, are satanically tempted by the delusion that acting the exact opposite to Christ – exalting ourselves and assuming Godlike status – empowers us to minister. Nothing could be further off track.
Consider our Savior from the time of his arrest until his resurrection. He had never been so humiliated; his apparent inadequacy never more exposed. He said little. And did even less. He was simply there. And yet his mere presence achieved so much more than every word that has ever been spoken. Nothing we could do could ever compare. Nevertheless, our Savior told us to take up our cross and follow him. Next time we are tempted to play God, let’s do it Christ’s way. “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers” (1 John 3:16). Talk is cheap. Love costs.
As amazing as it seems, not even the Son of God could claim for himself his High Priestly ministry. Although it was essential that Christ lower himself to the level of those he longed to help, neither that, nor anything else he did, could give him a ministry. He had to be ordained by Father God for the task (Scriptures).
Job’s friends didn’t understand this holy principle. Their mistake was like that of King Saul. He became impatient with the seeming lack of progress and decided to take things into his own hands by assuming a role he was not ordained of God to take. Saul was already a high achiever who was doing much for the people of God as their king. Not content with this, however, he took upon himself the role of priest, and offered a sacrifice. He succeeded only in displeasing the Lord and by being replaced by “a man after God’s own heart.” I guess most of us have wondered what special quality this expression refers to. The context suggests “a man after God’s own heart” simply means someone who would not make Saul’s mistake of venturing beyond his divinely ordained role ( 1 Samuel 13:6-14).
We, too, can make the mistake of undervaluing our role as someone’s friend, confidant, sympathizer, and equal. That’s a lofty role that not even angels or God himself can fully fill. Our Lord has entrusted so much to us. Only we, for instance, can give a hug. Yet we could let the Accuser convince us we are not doing enough and that things are moving too slowly. We could conclude that we need to exalt ourselves above our friend by trying to become his/her teacher.
“Not many of you should presume to be teachers . . . because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. . . . . the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire . . . . It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. . . . . no man can tame the tongue. . . . (James 3:1-8).”
If, without parental permission, you corrected someone else’s child, you would be in grave danger of incurring the wrath of the parents. Never forget that every Christian has a very protective Father. (For more about this principle, see Scriptures.) How careful we must be not to encroach on to God’s territory without his express permission!
A woman who has suffered much at the receiving end of Christian do-gooders, confided, “None of the people I’ve talked with thought they were being judgmental; they were simply trying to help.” She believes far too many Christians try to do the Holy Spirit’s work. “Our job, she concluded, is to bear each other’s burdens, not solve them.”
It’s not that giving advice is never a godly option, but at the very least we need to purge our motives and check thoroughly with God to ensure we have his approval to speak.
Don’t miss the rest of this vital webpage series
Continued . . .
Not to be sold. © Copyright, Grantley Morris, 1999.
For much more by the same author, see www.net-burst.net
No part of these writings may be sold, and no part copied in whole without citing this entire paragraph.
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