A First Aid Course For Emotions
On-line counseling manual
We need a reverent awareness of how vulnerable we are to becoming a tool of the devil whenever someone close to us is hurting.
Satan’s first act after he first gained influence over a human was to use her to adversely influence Adam, the person closest to her. That has been the devil’s top strategy ever since. He did it with Job, first using Job’s wife, and then Job’s friends for his evil purposes. He did it with Jesus, using Peter so effectively that Jesus had to tell Peter, “Get behind me Satan.” Still later, the devil got at Jesus through Judas, another close friend of Jesus.
Any person who is hurting is obviously under spiritual attack. That’s not so unusual. We all have certain times when we are particularly under attack. But note the implications: evil powers are already targeting the hurting person and the mere fact that you are nearby, puts you high on their list of potential accomplices as they seek to intensify their attack on that person. In such circumstances you must therefore be alert to the possibility of unwittingly being used by evil powers, as Peter was. Of course, there is no place for superstitious fear. To end up hurting people by avoiding them would also be falling into Satan’s trap. When someone is hurting it is a time to keep looking to God for direction, like Jesus; not a time to blurt out the first thing that comes into our head, like Peter.
Most of us have a natural tendency to lapse into a preaching or lecturing mode when trying to help a hurting friend. By so doing, however, we give the impression of elevating ourselves from the position of warm-hearted friend to that of cold superior. People crave love and understanding, not sermons.
Fellow Christians rarely need to be treated like novices or backsliders. They often simply need to be released from the oppression of discouragement and accusations that squash the work of God in their lives. Once this overburden is removed you will find underneath a beautiful work of God already there and ready to flourish. That’s why encouragement is of such great value. It lifts people. In contrast, one-on-one preaching tends to weigh people down, adding to their feelings of inadequacy and aloneness.
Preaching, of course, is perfectly acceptable when addressing a body of people. It’s when talking with an individual that it becomes an inappropriate mode of address.
What greatly magnifies the offense of advice giving or preaching at a person is that our priceless gems rarely end up being anything the person does not already know. Offering pat answers is particularly objectionable. It assumes people are silly enough not to have thought of the obvious. People have quite enough problems without having to cope with us implying they have the intelligence of a green tomato. Moreover, our superficial solution is probably something they have already tried and they are still hurting under the bitter disappointment of that hoped-for quick fix not working. To rake it up again in an unsympathetic way would be doubly hurtful.
To be Christlike we should get off our soapbox, open it, take out the soap and wash our brother’s feet.
We engage in conversation so frequently that we rarely consider that personal conversation is more delicate than delivering a sermon. Letting Big-mouth Harry address an entire congregation is safer than letting him speak in private with Suzie Tenderheart. Addressing a crowd allows considerable scope for error. What is said might not apply to Suzie’s situation or it might be something so obvious to her that implying she is ignorant of it would insult her. No problem. Chances are Suzie will simply assume the remark was meant for someone else. This margin for error, however, vanishes when the audience shrinks to one.
With people brimming with joy and confidence, who feel loved and accepted by nearly everyone, we could safely say almost anything without devastating them. It is very different, however, with a person on the other end of the scale. With someone reeling under life’s blows, the safety margin evaporates. It becomes essential to avoid saying anything that could possibly be interpreted as critical, or a put down. Avoid like a ticking bomb giving the slightest hint that the person might be guilty of sin, or have a deficiency is his/her spiritual walk.
Whenever a vulnerable person feels that you are aiming a piece of advice specifically at him/her, the situation is as perilous as an amateur knife thrower trying to land knives as close as he can to the bodies of nervous volunteers, while hoping not to wound them. If we must give advice, we need to work hard at increasing the safety margin by reducing the person’s perception that our advice is targeted at them.
I am most definitely not talking about being devious. It is essential that we be genuine. I’m referring to being humble enough to doubt our ability either to perfectly size up a person’s situation or to infallibly hear from God.
When I am providing E-mail support I often paste into the E-mail a fairly long slab from my writings. It is filled with encouragement (an important way of increasing the safety margin). To further reduce the possibility of inadvertently inflicting pain, I explain that although the quote doesn’t specifically address their situation, they might possibly find something helpful in it. I use a fairly long quote covering several different things. That makes it less pointed. Because there is so much encouragement in it, almost certainly some of it will bless them and I leave it to the Holy Spirit and to them to determine which other parts are applicable to them. You might use a similar approach by introducing to someone a book or a tape, saying (if that is true) that it blessed you and you wondered if they might enjoy it, too. If it deals only with one subject, however, that would make it more targeted and so the safety margin narrows.
If you must give advice, don’t tell someone. That approach is so dangerous that the tiniest error in delivery or content could wound the person. At most, ask or suggest or encourage the person in a particular direction. Say something like “I guess you’ve already considered . . . ?” or, “I don’t know if it’s applicable to you but . . .” Remember, however, that the important thing is not to gain a good delivery technique but a good attitude. You phrase things that way because you genuinely believe they are intelligent and/or spiritual enough to have already considered that option and you genuinely believe you don’t have infallible insight into a person’s situation.
A factor seriously affecting the safety margin is the extent of a person’s emotional attachment to you. If someone sees you as an insignificant stranger and couldn’t care less what you think about him/her, you could safely say things that a treasured friend could never get away with. With a person whose emotional well-being hinges on your opinion of him/her, the slightest slip could be disastrous. The bigger the place someone has given you in his/her heart, the less you can safely say about sensitive issues, and the more critical it is that you carefully listen and be supportive. This in no way implies a diminished role in helping people you are emotionally involved with, it simply means you need to lean more heavily than ever upon means other than giving advice.
So you have some wise advise? How do you know whether sharing it will help or harm? What makes this a particularly tough question is that giving advice is an ego boost, and pride clouds our thinking. The time when a friend is in need, is the time when one wrong word can wound like a bullet and when evil powers are on the prowl for Christian accomplices. We need our spiritual discernment to be at its peak. It is not a good time to risk being blinded by the pride that advice giving tends to produce.
The mere fact that what we share is truth, is no excuse for sharing it. Job’s friends ended up desperately needing God’s forgiveness (Job 42:7-8) despite there being truth in much of what they said. (For example, 1 Corinthians 3:19 quotes from one of them – Job 5:13 – as authoritative Scriptural truth). The main problem was that the truth they recited did not apply to Job. Satan even used scriptural truth in his evil ploy to spiritually harm the Son of God (Matthew 4:5-6).
It is not even sufficient to have good motives. Tragically, Job’s friends thought they were helping Job and exalting God. Convinced they were serving God, they were actually the devil’s pawns. They were sure they were honoring God and instead they were defaming God’s friend.
A distinguishing mark of wisdom that is truly of God is that it is not argumentative. It does not steamroller those who disagree, insisting on being heard or getting its own way. It is not forceful or harsh, it is “peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy . . .” (James 3:17).
“Make every effort to live in peace with all men . . .,” (Hebrews 12:14, Romans 12:18 is similar). In practical terms, I suggest this means agree as much as possible with people, and where you disagree, let it show as little as possible. (And of course by “possible” I mean to the extent that it has divine approval.)
A Christian approached me for advice about his emotional involvement with a non-Christian woman. As he detailed the situation a gentle anger began pulsing through my veins over the disrespectful way I perceived he was treating God and his wife.
Scripture reveals that the mere fact that I am human means there is a good chance I am self-deceived about my true motives. Could something ugly be lurking beneath my consciousness, goading me to be unjustifiably harsh towards this man? I desperately needed God in his mercy to show me. No matter how pure my feelings seemed, they could be ungodly. Counseling while blinded by self-righteousness is as foolhardy as attempting surgery while blindfolded. The scary thing is that people afflicted by self-righteousness are rarely aware of it. I immediately sought time out for prayer and asked for others to pray as well. Before attending to a possible speck in my brother’s eye, I must humbly seek Jesus for major surgery on my own eyes.
For my second line of defense I seized Scripture’s recommendation about having several advisors or counselors (Proverbs 11:14; 15:22; 24:6). If this man were somehow touching a raw nerve deep inside of me, making my reaction less godly than I imagined, there must be other Christians free from my particular weaknesses. While keeping his identity secret, I sought input from mature Christians with totally different backgrounds from me. One was a divorced woman. If I had a gender bias, her view should counter it. Could the fact that I’ve never married make me too idealistic? Or could I be jealous of this man’s relationships? Who would have the courage to recognize such humiliating weaknesses? To counter these seemingly remote but frightening possibilities I sought a man who has enjoyed a long and happy marriage.
It turned out that the three of us were as one in our interpretation of this man’s needs. Nevertheless, being right gives no one license to slacken in love, kindness, gentleness or wisdom. I spent still more hours cooling my emotions and prayerfully working on how to convey my concerns to this man in the most uplifting manner possible.
Showing people what to do is usually far superior to telling them what do. Consider this example:
There is nothing as potent as faith and praise in empowering a person to burst through oppression. And yet finding someone weighed down by a trial and merely telling them to have faith and to praise God can make us as guilty as those to whom Jesus said, “. . . woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them (Luke 11:46).” Our words can be technically correct and yet end up being oppressive burdens.
Rather than tell people, stoop down, get below them and lift them. If you feel someone needs to exercise more faith and praise, try things like the following.
We have seen that feeling obligated to give advice causes some of us to flee because we are unsure of what to say. If we don’t run but still feel pressured to advise, we usually end up like Job’s friends saying things that sound godly but not what God would say to the person. We imagine we are being a great help but our good intentions fail to bring comfort and enlightenment.
Sadly, there are other Christians, who neither flee, nor try to help, but feel the need to attack people with problems. A common reason for losing patience with Christians who have problems is that any suffering or battle threatens to expose the deficiencies in our grasp of Christianity. It’s much easier to conclude that anyone having a hard time is obviously an inferior Christian, than to face the fact that we, too, might one day have to face such a trial.
Poor Job suffered horrifically to bring to us the truth that the most godly of people can suffer trials so awful that they wish they had never been born. His friends relentlessly expounded their theory that godly people don’t have such trials. With their tongues, Job’s friends inflicted pain as skillfully as the soldiers lashing Jesus’ back, while imagining themselves as holy as the Pharisees thought themselves when they sentenced their Savior to death. Once Job’s ordeal was carefully preserved in Scripture, along with God’s judgment of his friends’ advice (Job 42:7-8), one would have expected the death of the theory among Bible believers that godliness is the ticket to earthly bliss. And yet, amazingly, we still find Christians queuing up for the shame of falling down the same holes as Job’s friends who tormented the righteous. I can only assume from this that many Christians must relegate to the trash heap the riches in the book of Job. And yet almost everywhere you look in Scripture, the same truth is taught.
Plunge into the Psalms. The book that most expresses joy and praise devotes enormous space to tears and pain, disappointment, fear, frustration and anger.
Even Christ was no stranger to tears and suffering. Or are we more spiritual than our Lord? “Since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude . . . (1 Peter 4:1).” Or do we dump this Scripture as well?
The book of proverbs warns that unless we match a hurting person’s mood, stooping to his/her emotional level, a well-meaning attempt to cheer can end up as cruel as stealing someone’s coat in the middle of winter (Proverbs 25:20). Instead of heeding Paul’s instruction to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15, KJV), in modern Christianity we sometimes almost feel the need to chastise those who weep, lecturing them for being so “unchristian” as to feel pain. Amazingly, the man inspired of God to urge us to weep was the very man whose words we have so distorted as to imagine we are letting the side down if we shed tears or suffer. If we were so foolish as to jettison the Old Testament, and even Christ himself, as being too emotional to reflect true godliness, surely we cannot ignore Paul, the one who gave us such Scriptures as “Be joyful always . . . give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:16,18). “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4). See A time to weep.
A valued friend, John Jollie, made a profound comment about the early church, as divinely portrayed in Scripture. Adversity authenticated their witness, he observed, as much as their miracles did. It also did much to temper and shape their lives.
If, instead of treasuring only a few remnants of Scripture, we can bring into focus the full panorama of God’s view of emotions and trials, we would be much better equipped to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2, NKJV).
When her husband unexpectedly dropped dead in front of her, nearly forty years of marriage instantly terminated. At church the next Sunday, friends gathered around to comfort her. She remembers nothing of what was said except for one remark: “I know how you feel.”
“I knew she meant well,” says the widow, “but what a ridiculous, incongruous thing to say. Her husband was standing there beside her, happy and healthy!”
That remark hurt so much that it is still vividly recalled fifteen years later. To this day, however, the woman who had uttered those well-intentioned words remains completely unaware that they had stabbed her friend’s heart like a sword.
It’s hard to resist saying “I understand” to anyone in distress. We, too, have suffered and we’ve been blessed with imagination. And on the surface it would seem that those words should be a great source of comfort. And yet those words end up annoying, even hurting, because it is obvious to grieving people that we have not had an identical experience. It increases their feeling of aloneness when we fail to see what to them are unique aspects of their ordeal.
Shortly after writing the above, I gained new insight into its importance. I am a 46 year old virgin. Since my early teens I have longed for marriage more than any earthly thing. Although over the years my ability to cope has greatly improved, I was recently under such torment over being single that I was beginning to wonder whether it could affect my sanity. I asked for a friend’s prayers. He understood, he said, because although he has had a long and satisfying marriage, over recent times he has had to forgo sexual relations due to his wife’s illness. That hurt. I felt insulted that he should think that my only burden was sexual deprivation. Apparently I was mistaken about the value of companionship. He understood? He obviously knew nothing about coping with feelings of shame and satanic accusations that never having married proves one is a freak and unloved and unwanted. He knew nothing about the bleak prospect of dying alone and childless. He knew nothing about aching year, in and year out, for a mere hug. And then there was my dependence upon my aging mother to feed and take care of me that was so humiliating and complex that I regularly worried about how I could successfully resist the temptation to kill myself when she died. My friend clearly had no conception of how eagerly I would have swapped trials with him. I had assumed he could guess. Those chilling words “I understand” shattered my illusion that most people can understand what I suffer. His kindly attempt at comfort proved I am less understood and more alone in my agony than I dared imagine. The wiser approach would have been for him to briefly mention being celibate and move on, leaving it to me to draw my own conclusion as to whether that implies he has any insight into my anguish.
Of course, it is not enough merely to avoid saying that we understand. What is critical is avoiding the presumption that we understand, especially after making only a token effort to do so.
Hastily claiming to understand has yet another unintended down side. It sends the message, “I’m not interested in hearing about your situation and feelings. I already know it all.” What makes this such a loss is that for hurting people, verbalizing their feelings is usually a vital part of the healing process.
On the other extreme, we shouldn’t be too free in broadcasting our lack of understanding, because that, too, adds to a person’s feeling of isolation. Rather than jumping to conclusions or resorting to hallow words, show your eagerness to work towards genuine understanding by careful listening, your lack of condemnation and by the genuine pain in your voice and facial expression.
It is most powerful for people to know that you have tasted their pain because of the depth and breadth of your own sufferings. If you have been blessed with such trials, however, don’t spend too long describing them. Make it obvious that it is their experience, not yours, that presently most moves you. And, of course, leave it to them to decide how similar your trial is to theirs.
A lack of personal suffering does much to disqualify us from ministry. Even though by divine knowledge the Son of God could intellectually know everything in infinite detail, he had to personally experience suffering like ours before he qualified to minister to us. See suffering helps qualify you for ministry.
We should always be humbled by the fact that although we might imagine we have suffered as much or more than another person, it remains a mere guess. In variety and intensity, each of us has a unique set of fears. Dreams, expectations, perceptions, needs, backgrounds, all differ. Only Jesus has unlimited knowledge, and we need to keep pointing people to him.
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Not to be sold. © Copyright, Grantley Morris, 1999.
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