I occasionally enter swimming competitions in which swimmers are placed in age-groups (20-25, 25-30, 30-35 and so on). The advantage is that the older I get, the less the competition. The problem is that I don’t practice. Instead, I watch a few YouTube videos about start and stroke technique, and I hope to bring that knowledge into my events, as if observing the technique of an Olympian will transform me into one.

The first time I tried this training strategy, a.k.a laziness, I had about five things in mind per event—for example, dive through an imaginary keyhole, go deeper to take advantage of the increased water density, hold a tight streamline, keep elbows high and use the elbow as a kind of fulcrum. But, once I dove into the water, the new techniques devolved into chaos. Having not practiced them, they were not instinctive, and I simply could not keep them all in mind. As a result, I simplified my strategy to this: swim fast and try not to die.

Similarly, when we want to help others, we can have too many counseling principles in mind. Listen (though we should also have personal, back-and-forth interaction), don’t interrupt (though sometimes we might), ask good questions (though sometimes too many questions makes someone feel as though they are on the witness stand), bring in Scripture (though there is so much Scripture and we know so little Scripture), and remember to talk about Jesus. When these are swirling around in our minds, the result will be that nothing is in our minds. Just confusion.

So we are always looking for a simple way to organize the way we help each other.

One that often comes to my mind is that I want to be able to retell the story of the person I am talking to. Neither life nor Scripture is an assortment of pieces, but both are coherent stories with innumerable variations and sub-themes. I want to capture the most important features. When this is my hope, the competing principles of listening, asking good questions, etc. fade away and are replaced with more natural back and forth interactions.

Here is an attempt to tell someone’s story.

You have never felt at home. You were rejected by your parents because you didn’t look like the rest of the family, you were brought to a different country with a different language and have never quite understood the ways of this country, and you were rejected by your spouse. Isolation, shame—these are your companions. Yet that isn’t the entire story. It turns out that you have been known by name from before the foundations of the earth were established—a royal child, beloved and belonging. Now that you know your lineage, you look for ways to make Jesus known, and you look for ways to love as you have been loved.

This is the larger story of a woman who was alone and ashamed and was beginning to act the part. But notice how her story is gradually taken over by God’s retelling of her story in such a way that the two stories become one.

So when I meet with someone, I try to remember one thing: What is the person’s story and how is God reshaping it? Knowing the story gives me one goal, and if the story is not coming into view I can ask the person for help—“Where have we been in our conversations? What has been especially important? What is God doing in all this?” We aim for a succinct summary, perhaps even a picture that lands us into Scripture in such a way that God’s retelling comes alive.