Imagine . . . an interconnected group of people who entrust themselves to each other. You can speak of your pain, and someone responds with compassion and prayer. You can speak of your joys, and someone rejoices with you. You can ask for help with sinful struggles, and someone prays with you.
The goal of this book is that these meaningful relationships will become a natural part of daily life in your church. With short chapters and discussion questions meant to be read in a group setting, Ed Welch guides small groups through eight lessons that show what it looks like when ordinary, needy people care for other ordinary, needy people in everyday life.
Addictions continue their upward swing. Given that we live during a time when self-control is not yet prized, our cultural strategy with hardships is to medicate them away rather than stand in the midst of them. And the possibilities for medicating hardships are always increasing. To sexual obsessions, add illegal drugs, then prescription narcotics, then computer games, and there are more to come. With this in mind, the church has a perennial project: to draw out fresh insights from Scripture on modern addictions, and move toward those who are enslaved by them.
Many of these insights exist within biblical teaching on idolatry, which has both voluntary and involuntary aspects to it. Human beings both purposefully indulge their desires—we sin because we like it—and we are dominated by those desires. We are both in-control and out-of-control. Within these two poles are dozens of important biblical themes. Here are just two.
All addicts lie. As idolaters they forge an alliance with the anti-god and his crumbling empire, and lying is one expression of this alliance. It is a case of like father, like son. “When he [Satan] lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). For addicts, this deception is not only what they speak, it is also what they believe. They also have been lied to and believe those lies—lies from family, friends and Satan himself.
If you want to help addicts, you will create a culture that delights in openness and honesty. Be someone with whom they can speak without fear of self-righteous judgment. Invite them to speak this new language of truthfulness, in which they speak honestly and aim to know the Truth—who is the antidote to all idolatry.
Addicts are complicated. Though they have an idolatrous commitment to their desires, there is usually more happening. Many addicts have been rejected and treated as nothing by those who claimed to love them, and live with a deep sense of shame. Without any way to escape it, they use addiction to avoid it.
If they were not dominated by shame before they began their addiction, they certainly will be after. When you live for something that is ultimately worthless, you feel worthless. When you live for neither God nor people, you will hurt others and degrade yourself. Then the cycle continues—addiction leads to shameful consequences, which leads to more devoted addiction.
So, if we are to help, we watch the life of Jesus. He was born into shame and his people are outcasts. Watch him eat with the shamed and touch the shamed. Watch him identify with them so they can identify by faith with him. At every point, we expect Jesus to turn away and not be sullied by the shamed. Instead, he always invites, always surprises, and offers a connection to himself in which we are given cleansing, covering and belonging. As we follow the story, our roles begin to change. No longer is there an addict and a helper. Now we are two people who are seeing beautiful realities that will take the rest of our lives to understand.
These, of course, are only two of many hopeful things that can attract someone caught in addiction to Jesus. Scripture is crammed with much more.
Scripture is clear. We just have to read it. Ezra read the book of the law to the Hebrew exiles and the people wept (Neh. 8). So we, too, should listen and respond to the reading of Scripture. But—it is a little more complicated than that. The reading by Ezra was for those “who could understand what they heard” (Neh. 8:2) and Levites were offering interpretive help. Understanding Scripture is not always easy.
For us, factor in that Scripture was originally written mostly in Hebrew and Greek, and reflects an ancient culture. The work of understanding Scripture should compel us to modesty. We can be confident in God and his promises, but we should be less confident in how well we understand some of the details.
People, too, can be easy to understand. What you see is what you get. Watch and listen and you can know someone accurately—maybe not fully, but accurately. But (here, too)—it is a little more complicated than that. There have been a few times when I wanted to ask my wife for her social security number because, though I recognized the physical person, she was acting in ways I never expected. There is always more to learn about someone, and sometimes what we learn changes our entire system of understanding.
A seventy-year-old woman who seemed unaffected by life was actually afraid to say a word because she grew up in foster homes and tried to disappear as a way to not be moved from one home to another.
A pastoral intern was on the cusp of being fired because of gross self-centeredness. But interpretations changed when he was identified as mildly autistic.
Parents can sometimes be too confident in their understanding of a child. They assume they know their child and discipline him or her according to that perspective, until they are given an insight from a friend or teacher that helps them see the child more accurately.
One embezzler is not the same as another. One porn user can have completely different reasons than another.
Skillful counselors are aware of these complexities—both of Scripture and people. If you could listen in you would overhear counselors say “Tell me more” as they incorporate converging themes that make up a person’s story. You would notice that allusions to specific biblical texts include allusions to the larger flow of a biblical author’s thought. We want to go through complexity rather than around it. We want people to feel truly known and we want to understand Scripture’s authorial intent and its mission to reveal Jesus. Both tasks require humility.
“Men don’t talk honestly with each other.”
“Women don’t talk constructively with each other.”
Do those comments ring bells for you? Of course, neither generalization is always true. Moral issues apply across gender lines. But both comments are true enough often enough to make you think.
Men don’t talk honestly? It’s the easiest thing in the world for a conversation to remain superficial and self-concealing, never getting to anything that actually matters. Empty words. And, of course, many women do the same, and just keep it light. Are your conversations pointless?
Women don’t talk constructively? It’s the easiest thing in the world for a conversation to be revealingly honest, but never get anywhere helpful. Unfruitful words. And, of course, many men do this too, saying what they really think and feel, but not going anywhere good. Do your conversations rehearse what’s wrong but never pursue making it right?
How do we begin to change how we talk with each other? Here are five truths to orient you.
First, Jesus says that God is actively listening to every word, even the most casual, unthinking things we say (Matt 12:36). He takes note of what we are saying and weighs our words. Are your conversations empty, misleading, inappropriate, or judgmental? Or is the way you talk nourishing, constructive, timely, and grace-giving? (Eph 4:29) The Lord gives the rating “Empty” to any conversation that skims over the surface of life and never gets real. The Lord gives the rating “Harmful” to any conversation that digs up dirt and tosses it around. But he sizes up a life-giving conversations with a hearty “Yes and amen! Keep it up!”
Second, Jesus never said a pointless word to other people. He was never just marking time or keeping things that matter at arm’s length. He always engages the important matters. He never just describes, analyzes, and complains about what’s wrong. His conversations always go somewhere helpful. Jesus speaks life-giving words: candid, constructive, relevant, and redemptive. And one of the constructive things Jesus talks about is helping us to assess the quality of what we talk about. “The mouth speaks out of the abundance of the heart”—either good or evil (Matt 12:34).
Third, our God teaches us to have meaningful conversations with him. The Psalms and the other prayers in Scripture are candid, constructive, relevant and grace-filled. They teach us to remember who he is. As we listen, we learn to talk honestly about what is good or bad about us. We learn to speak of hard things as well as happy things in our circumstances. We learn to cry out where we need help, and sing about how we are grateful. Our prayers can express care and concern for others—“I thank God every time I remember you, and I pray that your love will abound more and more with knowledge and all discernment” (Phil 1:3, 9). Prayer gets to what most matters and to what’s true.
Fourth, our God then teaches us to have meaningful conversations with each other. The way we talk with him directly relates to how we talk with each other. Ephesians 4:15 says that we grow up in Christ by lovingly speaking truth with each other. For a few people that includes preaching and teaching. For everybody that means our daily conversations. How do we encourage each other daily in the face of sin’s deadly deceitfulness? How do we comfort each other in whatever afflictions and difficulties each one of us faces today? How do we talk about what matters in a way that makes a difference?
Fifth, the Holy Spirit generates wise conversations. So you don’t skim over the surface. So you don’t stay stuck in the mud. Scripture demonstrates how every conversation can go somewhere good. It even captures how, in some important moments, what must next be said is to be silent. Sometimes there are no more words to say. Perhaps you are grieving. Perhaps you are thinking. Perhaps you are praying. Perhaps your quietness communicates how much you care. Perhaps silence is saying that there is no point to saying anything more right now. When Jesus was silent before his accusers, his silence was the most eloquent thing that could be said. A meaningful silence expresses what is true, constructive, most appropriate, and grace-giving. And then you will find the right words at the right time. In Gethsemane, Jesus had things to say to his Father, to his friends, and to his betrayer. On the cross, Jesus had things to say to his Father, to his tormentors, to the repentant thief, to his mother… to all of us.
Of course, nothing we’ll ever say is that momentous. But everything we say does matter. So what do you talk about, and how do you talk? Where can you listen in and get a feel for what wise words sound like? Let me suggest an unusual starting point:
Our Father teaches us to traffic in reality—addressing the best and the hardest things in life. You can’t live in reality without seeing both, and remembering your Lord in the midst of it. Facing the hard things, you can be honest about your need. Receiving the good things, you can express joy and thanks. As you learn to pray about what matters, you are also learning to talk with other people about what matters. It’s a curious thing, but entirely reasonable once you grasp the principle. Jesus’ conversations and prayers are about the same things.
He’s committed to you and working in you. You, and I, and all of us together can become much more honest and much more constructive!
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Last summer I served as a chaplain at a local hospital in a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program. As a counselor-turned-chaplain, I faced a host of new challenges, navigating questions like these: How do you assess needs and set goals for brief, one-time conversations? How do you cultivate meaningful conversations that address the deepest heart issues with people who don’t know you or even know that you are coming to see them? Here is some of what I observed and learned.
The Hospital Experience
Understandably, hospital patients face a host of spiritual and emotional challenges. Patients and visitors alike are in alien and disorienting terrain. Anxiety abounds, ranging from the immediate concerns of how the kids will get home from school, to more serious questions—How long will I be here? How will this affect my marriage or job? Or even—Am I going to die?
Anxiety is often complicated by pain, isolation, loneliness, frustration, anger, loss and grief. And, of course, this often raises larger questions about the reasons for suffering, the nature of God’s love, and what our lives are all about—How could God let this happen? Why is this happening to me?
Pastoral care in these situations requires caregivers to help patients navigate both the emotional turmoil of the moment as well as the larger existential questions of meaning and purpose. Utilizing the biblical metaphor of wilderness, here is a framework that can aid caregivers in doing both.
Life in the Wilderness
Time spent in alien terrain filled with challenges to survival, purpose, and meaning should remind us of Israel’s journey through the wilderness. Just like the hospital patient, everyday life for Israel was dramatically interrupted by a seismic change and a journey into the unknown.
Of course, God orchestrated the exodus for Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. Nonetheless, it was an ordeal that left many questioning God’s identity as well as their own. It was a place where they were unable, through human effort, to preserve themselves.
This served the necessary purpose of coming to know who God was—and coming to know who they were. They needed to see themselves not as slaves, but as children who needed to rely on a loving father who gave them exactly what they needed.
Using the wilderness as a metaphor, let’s explore specific ways of being a companion in a hospital setting.
A Companion in the Wilderness
What follows are four ways to help. You may only get to use the ideas in point #1 during a visit, but in another situation you may be able to engage more deeply. Being a shepherd in the wilderness will take on many forms—you will respond in the moment to the needs at hand.
1. Invite emotional sharing. An important way to join patients and their loved ones in the wilderness is to invite them to share their hearts using emotional language. Hospital visitors often do not realize how often patients ignore or suppress negative emotions. Patients may wear a stoic or even cheerful mask because they fear that expressing their emotions would only amplify them or burden loved ones.
Complicating matters further, they may believe that a lack of faith is at the heart of their distress. For example, “I’m upset because I’m too focused on myself instead of God.” A sense of spiritual failure adds shame to their distress. However, keeping their distress to themselves isolates them and keeps them from receiving the care and support that they might receive if they shared their struggles.
A few simple questions were often enough to prompt distressed patients to share more deeply. For instance, after introductions I would sometimes say, “I know that being in the hospital can be very stressful. How are you doing emotionally?”
As patients begin to share, use their own words to highlight and affirm them. These are examples of how you might express your genuine understanding and care about what they share:
“I can understand why you’re scared.”
“I can really see how much you miss your children.”
“You sound frustrated with the doctors.”
Simple and brief responses are often enough to show that you are listening, understand, and are signaling for them to continue sharing. Your authentic interest and concern are the critical ingredients at this point.
If there simply isn’t time to do any more than this sharing, or if the patient is in such a state that it doesn’t seem wise to say anything more, then your visit may end here or perhaps with a prayer if he or she desires it. Many helpers find ending the conversation without having had a more explicitly spiritual conversation difficult. However, we must remember that pressured, forced, or shallow applications of gospel truth can do more harm than good, actually robbing the suffering person of comfort rather than providing it.
The simple practice of listening to and being present with patients has great value. It is sometimes referred to in chaplaincy as “pastoral presence.” A caring person’s presence has its own worth even if patients aren’t receptive to more overt spiritual dialogue. You might not be able to speak about God, but your presence still represents him. Through you, he shows his concern with what is happening in their lives.
Inviting emotional sharing and simply being present are foundational ways to minister. But you will often have more time with people and can engage more deeply.
2. Listen for their theology of suffering. Understanding how people interpret suffering is another key way to offer help. Here are some statements you might hear from a patient or a family member.
“I don’t understand.”
“I’m angry. I don’t deserve this.”
“I deserve this.”
When you hear statements like these, don’t assume you know the person well enough to fully understand him or her. For example, a cardiac patient says, “I deserve a heart attack because I’ve been a terrible husband.” If you superficially respond—“I’m sure you haven’t been as bad as you think”—you are communicating that you aren’t willing to hear about the affair that he had ten years ago. Your comment suggests that you don’t really understand him—and he’s right.
Try to avoid speaking too quickly and offering unhelpful feedback.
Validate the experience and invite the person to explore. “It sounds like you’ve been thinking a lot about your marriage. Would you like to talk more about that?”
Help the person make room for mystery. In most cases, we don’t know why we are suffering unless our actions led directly to our illness or injury. Gently suggest that the person let go of the need to know and avoid jumping to conclusions. “Could it be that there are reasons for this that you may not ever fully understand?”
Offer grace. If someone’s suffering is a natural consequence of their own behavior (e.g., a drug overdose), they usually don’t need help understanding why they are suffering, instead they need to be pointed to God’s grace. “God is merciful and forgiving. If you ask, he will forgive you and cleanse you of guilt. Would you like me to pray with you?”
The suffering that comes from being hospitalized will reveal people’s theology of suffering. Most will experience some fear, and wonder about where God is in the matter. Simple questions and reflections based on their concerns may help them to see God more clearly in this struggle. They need to know that God is for them, that he is a loving father in the wilderness, not a vindictive Pharaoh. For example, we might ask the cardiac patient to consider God’s work, “So you’re saying that there is more than one way that your heart needs to be healed? Maybe God is offering to heal both.”
Once a patient has been helped to voice the experience of suffering, you may then have an opportunity to help locate God’s help in the midst of the person’s need.
3. Locate the manna. If given the opportunity, help the people you are speaking to locate manna—evidences of God’s presence and care. Ask how God has already been speaking and supporting them. Identify ways they have been finding motivation and strength. Think, pray, and look for simple ways to direct them to God’s love and grace.
4. Address relational dynamics. Hospitalization often amplifies family dynamics. This can be an opportunity for caregivers to provide wisdom and support at key moments. Here are ways you can do that.
Facilitate fruitful interactions. Look for opportunities to help patients and family speak the truth in love with each other and medical staff. With medical staff this may mean timing your visit to coincide with morning rounds so you can help family to ask questions of doctors, express concerns, and help them to digest what they’re hearing. With family, it may mean encouraging them to be honest with each other about fears, resolve conflict, and alleviate guilt.
Find out who has been left at home. Patients worry about loved ones who are dealing with everyday life without them. Asking people about concerns they have for loved ones allows you to not only listen and care but also helps them identify resources. You may be able to help locate other family or friends that can step in and help while they are in the hospital. You may offer to contact their church or even a social worker at the hospital for help.
Address loneliness. Hospital rooms can be boring and lonely places. Is a patient hoping or expecting someone to come to visit who hasn’t? The person may be afraid to ask for a visit for fear of being a bother. As patients talk about who they wish to see, you can suggest that they contact them or offer to contact them yourself.
Offering Christ’s Presence
There are many ways to be present and offer hope. Help patients to put their experience into words. Speak to their understanding of suffering. Point them to comfort and hope. Tend to their relationships. These four general themes are foundational. But above all, remember that your genuine interest and care proclaims the presence of Christ.
This condensed article originally appeared in the CCEF NOW 16 Magazine.Download Issue
Purchase your copy of the Journal of Biblical Counseling 29:3 for the full article.Purchase JBC 29:3
Recently, I have been pondering Ephesians 4:29 with my children and what it means for our conversations. It states, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” In this verse, two ways of speaking are contrasted: negative and destructive versus positive and beneficial. In personal interactions with others, we are called to imitate Christ and to use our words to strengthen and edify, giving grace to one another, speaking truth for the purpose of building up, not tearing down.
It’s obvious then (even to children) that insults and curses and other derogatory words are ungodly, but are they the only words that can be unwholesome? If the intent of Ephesians 4:29 is to call us to speak in a way that is constructive and edible versus that which is indigestible or rotten, are other conversations also in view? If the goal is for our words to give grace and life to our listeners, how else might this verse instruct us?
Have you ever seen the movie Super Size Me? If you have, you’ll know it is enough to keep you away from fast food for quite a while. It is great imagery for youth because it shows the cumulative effect of a pattern of behavior. In this documentary, one man takes a look at the effects of fast food on the human body, using himself as the test subject. For one month, he eats nothing but McDonald’s, ordering everything on the menu and “super-sizing” his order whenever asked. The result is a sobering examination of how people feed themselves and the role the food industry plays in it.
In less than 30 days, he goes from being a healthy, energetic New Yorker with normal blood counts and good cholesterol, to an unhealthy man who finds himself regularly nauseous, weak and lethargic. He is being physically weakened by the food he is consuming and the doctors involved in monitoring him urge him to stop the experiment. What he finds is that sustenance does not equate to nourishment. Simply putting food into your body does not mean it is good for you or holds any redeeming nutritional value.
This imagery is also true of our conversations with each other. How many families coexist for long periods of time living on “fast food” interactions? These conversations are quick, easy, and immediate. We talk about what is necessary to keep the family going. We say enough to make decisions, get through the day’s busy routine, or to provide correction to a child’s behavior. But we rarely stop and offer something constructive or something that edifies or gives grace. And though our speech may not be antagonistic or derisive, a steady diet of fast food interaction offers no nutritional value to your family, and over time, can become the very thing that erodes its relationships.
Instead, our conversations should reflect how Christ relates to us. We imitate him by cultivating deep, rich, nourishing conversations with our children that build relational bridges. We walk alongside them, mentoring them, helping them make sense of their day, school experiences and relationships. True nourishment comes from caring for their spiritual state. It helps develop a holy richness and vitality in our children’s lives by pointing them to Christ as the one whose wisdom and love will sustain and guide them.
This study of Ephesians reminds me that our words are not neutral. They provide value and nourishment or, like fast food, they lead to decay. We all need to find our conversations transformed by a desire to build up and give nourishment to each other for the purpose of drawing one another to Christ.
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.
Giving advice goes poorly so often, it is worth more careful thought about how we give it. We all need advice. We seek it every day. That is a wise and natural part of being a creature rather than the Creator. But we also know that advice can run from helpful to horrible, and it can bless a relationship or hurt it.
What is advice?
Advice is our opinion or our version of how Scripture should be applied in a given situation. It includes most anything that begins with an implied, “I think…” or “If I were you…” It is not offered with Scripture’s authority, so it is best followed with “and what do you think?”
The Apostle Paul makes a distinction in 1 Corinthians between what God says and Paul’s specific application of godly wisdom. We could say that one is truth and the other opinion or advice. “To the married I give this command [from the Lord]” (v.10) in contrast with “Now about virgins: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy” (v. 25). Of course, when Paul gives his opinion, we listen. But he knows he is speaking in a different way—he is giving advice. Some followed it, some did not, as he would expect.
Giving advice well
Good advice, at its best, comes only after someone has asked for it. It shows respect by listening carefully to the person’s question and asking what other advice the person has already received. It aims for give-and-take as it blends Scripture, the person’s strengths and weaknesses, the various circumstances of the moment, and humility. It prefers a consensus rather than a speech. And it follows up to see what path the person chose—love takes an interest.
Let’s say that a woman has been hurt by someone in the church and she asks what you think she should do. The relevant biblical category is love; that is clear. What she is hoping for is specific application of love in this situation. So we enter the category of advice. Does she go to the person? What might she say? Does she overlook the offense? The task is to exchange ideas on these and other questions—that is advice.
Giving advice poorly
Bad advice is a Christian art form. Here are a few examples. Notice that bad advice is dispensed quickly and casually.
My point is not that it is wrong to give advice. It is that in our haste and casual handling of Scripture, we confuse our advice with “God has said…” This can be disrespectful because we’ve offered a blanket statement without much thought to the particulars involved. Or maybe the person was not even seeking advice but only someone to listen. We need to be sure we know what the person is asking for before we start talking.
Advice and biblical counseling
I have seen, at times, that biblical counselors can become a Christian version of Dear Abby and aim for advice without being aware that there is that implicit “I think” to what is being offered. Instead, we can do better. We aim to engage a person in such a way that the person actually feels known, and then, in a joint enterprise, we consider (1) what God says (truth), recognizing that there is an interplay of many truths in Scripture, and (2) creative and suitable applications of what God says (opinion). Without love and humility, it can quickly veer off into advice given poorly.
What do we do when we want to connect Scripture to the struggles of daily life but our problem does not show up in a concordance? How do we get guidance from Scripture for struggles that are not obviously identified there? This is a critical matter for biblical counselors.
There are a few different ways to answer this question. I will just mention one.
Ask a few more questions
When you don’t have a clue about how to bring Scripture to someone, get to know that person a little better. Ask a few more questions.
For example, cutting is a common problem but it is not given much treatment in Scripture. The prophets of Baal cut themselves as a way to move their god into action (1 Kings 18:28), which may give us some leads, but not enough. If that is all Scripture says, then we do not have enough direction to be helpful. So we ask a few more questions.
“When do you cut yourself?”
“Cutting usually has its reasons. What are you really trying to do when you cut?”
“What is the benefit?”
Look for the normal in the abnormal
Done well, these questions draw out struggles that are common to us all. In other words, we first notice cutting, which can seem foreign and bizarre to someone who has never dealt with it. But, the better we know the person, the more we discover that the real struggles are common to us all and commonplace in Scripture.
Find the ordinary in the unusual—the normal in the abnormal—this is one of the more useful methods within biblical counseling.
The woman who cuts herself likely feels guilty. Why else would shed blood seem so important?
Shame will come into view. Cutting is done in secret, and it is often an attempt to release old shameful secrets.
Cutting is a strategy for dealing with pain. We all have our strategies for pain. The question is this: Will we turn to Jesus in our pain, or will we try to manage our pain apart from him?
Guilt, shame and pain are problems we are all familiar with.
The benefits of seeing the normal
A wise method should have good fruit, and this one does.
Scripture Comes Alive. As we see the normal human contours within unusual behaviors, those behaviors are quickly assimilated into well-known biblical themes, and Scripture comes alive. For the example above, we have many passages in the New Testament which clearly target guilt and legalistic attempts to be okay before God. We also have many on shame, because it is arguably the human experience that is central to God’s redemptive story. Humanity’s cry is, “How can my shame be covered?” And we have an entire book of psalms that teaches us to turn to the Lord in our pain rather than exclude him.
By asking more questions, we now have many ways Scripture can help this woman who is cutting.
Patience. Here is a second benefit. The better you know someone, the more patient you are. As a general rule, we are impatient with people we do not understand, and patient with those we do. A person who has never been tempted by a second drink or illegal drugs might want to scream, “stop it” to an addict. But when we take time to get to know someone, and we become familiar with the challenges the person faces, we can be very patient, sympathetic and understanding.
Scripture is about more than sin
Scripture is crammed with the words of God that know and guide us. The dilemma is this. If we poll Bible readers about the great themes in Scripture, the first answer most would give is that we are sinners who find forgiveness of sins in Jesus. This, certainly, is the grand theme, but if this is our only way to access Scripture, our care of others will consist of waiting to politely identify sin. Instead, we want to handle Scripture in such a way that it reaches farther and deeper than any mere human form of help.
When we help each other, we listen. That is natural in close relationships and it is easy. Could anything be more basic? But, like all other aspects of godly wisdom, listening takes a lifetime to master. We can all do it, but we all want to do it better. Ed responds to the question “How do I listen well as a friend?” in this short video.