“I Can Help You in . . . Six Words”

Published: September 23, 2010

Christians have said and written plenty of words. We hear long sermons about one word in Scripture. The rite of passage for a preacher is to linger in the book of Romans for at least a year. The longer the better. Every week I walk through a seminary library that is running out of shelf space. When I set out to write a book I inevitably write too much and have to delete thousands of words.

Scripture is crammed with meaning. We have been given access to the mysteries of the universe, and we have a lot to say. And this is one of the problems in biblical counseling. Biblical counselors talk too much. Students of biblical counseling can err in a number of ways. This is in the top five.

There are a few ways to expose this problem. One is simply to estimate the number of words we speak and the number of words the other person speaks. If the tallies are roughly even, that is good for normal conversation, but it is bad when the other person is stuck and needs help.

Another way to expose that we speak too much is to ask what the other person remembers from our conversation. If his or her answers are similar to those of a child who is on the spot – “good,” “the Bible,” “Jesus” “God” – then I probably spoke too much.

Here is a basic rule of thumb. The more people are hurting – the more intense their emotions whatever the emotion might be (fear, shame, anger, despair) – the less they will be able to hear. I might think that I am offering words of life, and the words might actually be good and true words, but by the time I get to the seventh word, most people are hearing “blah, blah, blah.” Yes, there are some outstanding teachers of Scripture who can bring truth to hurting and stuck people in such a way that hearers are on the edge of their seats for . . . minutes at a time. Rapt. But none of us should assume that we are one of those people. This is why I have to say, at least once a week, “ugh, I’m sorry, I have been talking too much. Now I am going to try to just be quiet and listen.” Or, even better, to limit the word count – “I’m talking too much; your turn.” Six words.

Let me give a brief defense. I am not trying to demean the use of words. God speaks to us with words. I am certainly not opting for a near-wordless ministry. And I am not suggesting that we have very little to say. No, all the words of Scripture are good words, and there are lots of them. What I am arguing for are words designed for the person who is struggling and packaged in a way that makes them easy to hear and—this is important—easy to remember.

An effective communicator can take a complex subject, such as a person, and simplify that subject in such a way that there is no loss of meaning. Preachers are exhorted to be able to summarize their sermons in a sentence, and not a run-on sentence. Writers submit their manuscripts to publishers with a synopsis of their book in a sentence. If they can’t do it, they won’t be published.

So—aim to be succinct.

“You have declared war on your wife.”

“You have decided that God doesn’t love you.”

“Your story doesn’t include Jesus.”

“One more makes you want one more.”

Poetry works this way too. Poets labor to find that one image, or one word, that carries a poem and makes it memorable and evocative. For example, I still remember the word “crammed” from Elizabeth Browning’s phrase, “Earth’s crammed with heaven” and I slip in a version of this word whenever I can, which I already did.

My interest is not that six-word summaries become a law. But, as a trainer of counselors, I want students to be able to summarize themselves in an image or in six-words, and I want them to be able to do the same thing with a person they are helping in such a way that the person says, “That’s me!” If counselors can’t do that, they don’t really know the person.

People who need help often feel overwhelmed with their emotions, and part of being overwhelmed is that life feels like thousands of fragments. They have lost any coherence and don’t even know where to begin. A succinct summary can provide clarity and set a clear course. It can identify those things that are most important. As such, six-words, when they both fit the person and link clearly to Scripture, are filled with hope.

Jesus said, “Do you love me?” No doubt it echoed in Peter’s mind, and our own, for years.

The apostle Paul offered four words, “Christ and him crucified.”

The apostle John? “Love, as you have first been loved.” (Yes, I know that’s seven words but you get the point –it’s succinct and full of meaning.)

A friend was grieved that her pastor was leaving for another position. As she spoke about how the pastor had blessed her, she recounted stories of her going to his office, pouring her heart out for a half-hour, and him offering a handful or two of words that demonstrated he heard well, that he loved her in Christ, and that there was clear hope in the good news that Jesus had given.

Consider your own story. When has the Spirit used the words of other people? Granted, the Spirit can use all kinds of words in ways we don’t perceive, but there are times when we can identify those words, and there usually aren’t many of them.

Here are some that I have received.

“What do you think it means that God is in this?”

“I am so sorry.”

“What you said hurt me.”

“I love you.”

Here are some that have impacted others.

“I remember that your spouse died two years ago today. You are on my heart.”

“Did you know that you hate _____?”

“Join us for lunch.”

“I know this: Jesus loves you, right now.”

“I love you.”

Help in six words. By the way, this doesn’t include the words we use praying with the other person. If you can’t offer this kind of help to someone, make it a joint project. Let him or her come up with the six words. Then hear six-words from Jesus that go right to the heart.


Ed Welch is a counselor and faculty member at CCEF.