By: Scott O'Malley
December 3rd, 2021
Helping people entangled in their sin and suffering is challenging work. It takes time for people to grow and change: we face layers of challenges and many obstacles. Rarely do people respond to counsel quickly, smoothly, and without setbacks. There have been many times I have come home from a day of counseling and told my wife “I feel like I have been wrestling an alligator all day.” I say all of this not to complain, but to remind all of us who provide counsel to others that our disposition towards someone struggling is very important. We should all seek to be like Christ, full of grace and truth (John 1:14). “Personal ministry weaves the threads of grace and truth through every part of a person’s life. In that it is truly incarnational, because grace and truth will always lead people to Christ” (Paul Tripp, Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands pg. 101).
Foundation #4 – Our counsel should be full of grace and truth
As we consider being full of grace and truth, we must acknowledge the two extremes that must be avoided. The first extreme is to counsel people with overflowing grace and no truth in such a way that does not call out sin. Instead, it provides cover for those who want to choose a sinful lifestyle while they feel comfortable calling themselves Christians. The other ditch to avoid is to emphasize truth to the exclusion of grace. One example that hit close to home years ago was when someone I knew well went to a biblical counselor after it had been discovered he had been involved in an adulterous relationship. After some initial greetings, the counselor launched into a harsh, loud, and judgmental rebuke of this adulterous man. There was no grace, no kindness, and a clear attitude of superiority displayed by this counselor. The man who was verbally attacked never showed up for another session. The treatment of this man involved in sexual sin could not be more different than Jesus’ interaction with those involved in sexual sin in John 4, John 8, and Luke 7. In this article I want to use one of those passages and remind us of an example of Jesus modeling personal ministry that is full of grace and truth. Then, we will discuss a few things that hinder us from counseling with grace and truth.
Jesus models grace and truth
Jesus was and is the embodiment of grace and truth so we could pick so many encounters Christ had with people, but I’ll highlight one of my favorites that I use frequently in counseling. The passage is Luke 7:36-50. I especially like to use this story when I am working with someone who is discouraged by her sin. In this powerful story Jesus is at the home of a Pharisee after being invited there for a meal. We further find out in verse 37 about “a woman of the city,” who was likely a prostitute. “This woman took advantage of the social customs that permitted needy people to visit such a banquet to receive some of the leftovers, but she came specifically to see Jesus, bringing a jar or little bottle of perfume” (Expositors Bible Commentary New Testament – Abridged Edition pg. 237). When this woman began to wet Jesus’ feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair as well as kissed his feet and anointed them with ointment, this was just too much for the Pharisee. He began to think that if Jesus were really a prophet he would know that this woman was a sinner. Jesus answered his thoughts and said “Simon, I have something to say to you” (Luke 7:40). Jesus proceeded to contrast two debtors, one owing 50 days of wages and the other owing 500 days of wages. Jesus then asked the Pharisee if the moneylender forgave them both the debt they owed, which one would love the moneylender more? The Pharisee answered the one who had the bigger debt. Jesus then said to the Pharisee you are correct. “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven – for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little” (Luke 7:47). Notice, Jesus did not minimize her sin. He actually acknowledged that she sinned a lot! But, because of her repentance demonstrated by her treatment of Jesus, He extended her grace and said, “Your sins are forgiven” (Luke 7:48).
If we are to be like Christ when we counsel others, we must acknowledge the truth when there is sin, but at the same time offer the overflowing grace of Christ. We see this same concept taught in Romans 5:20, “Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.”
If we are to be like Christ when we counsel others, we must acknowledge the truth when there is sin, but at the same time offer the overflowing grace of Christ.
In counseling or any discipleship relationship, we want to help people feel the weight of their sin (conviction), but rejoice in the grace of Christ because grace motivates people to repentance and change (Romans 2:4; Titus 2:11-12). While this concept of ministering to people with grace and truth is widely agreed upon in Christian circles, I think it is helpful for us to examine what are some things that can hinder us from being like Christ.
Perhaps the first and most obvious disposition that will keep us from being full of grace and truth is arrogance. When we are prideful and full of ourselves we can look down on people who struggle and have a disposition that we are better than him or her. You see this disposition with the Pharisee in the story we just looked at in Luke 7. This man was so focused on the woman’s sin that he didn’t even contemplate his own need for a Savior. As counselors, we can be so focused on the sin of those we counsel, we can forget we need grace just as the person we are counseling does.
When we are prideful and full of ourselves we can look down on people who struggle and have a disposition that we are better than him or her.
When we lose sight of our own need for grace, we can become harsh or angry when the people we are counseling have not progressed as we think they should. We can treat those we counsel as a bother or a burden and become irritated with their struggles, rather than pointing them to the God of grace who delights to forgive.
A second disposition that will keep us from ministering to others with grace and truth is impatience. Many times we can think that the people we are working with should be doing better by now. As my co-worker Craig Mercer likes to say, many counselors are arrival junkies. We must be patient in the growth process and continue to point people back to the truth because love is patient (1 Corinthians 13:4). We must not put a timetable on people and insist they respond to truth at the pace we demand.
We see James and John being impatient with a whole village in Luke 9:51-56. Jesus had sent messengers ahead of Him into a village of the Samaritans but the people did not receive Him. “And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’” Jesus’ rebuke of James and John clearly shows Jesus was not condoning their disposition towards this village. We as counselors must be careful not to make the same mistake and write off people because they didn’t immediately respond to the truth we shared with them. We must see counseling and discipleship as a journey of patient love, graciously continuing to point people to the truth of God’s Word.
We as counselors must be careful not to make the same mistake and write off people because they didn’t immediately respond to the truth we shared with them.
Fear of man
A third disposition that will keep us from ministering to others with grace and truth is being afraid of what others think of us. Proverbs 29:25 says, “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.” When we are afraid of what people think, we will quickly wander from the truth. Peter’s three denials of even knowing Jesus is a well-known example (Matthew 26:69-75). It is vitally important that as counselors we are anchored in the truth of
who we are in Christ, meditating frequently on such realities as we are children of God (John 1:12); friends of God (John 15:15); chosen by God (Ephesians 1:4); and loved by God (Romans 8:38-39). When we recognize our identity in Christ is secure and unchanging we will be able to resist the temptation to tell the people we serve the things we think they want to hear. Instead, we can boldly proclaim the truth they need to hear with grace because we don’t need to be liked or appreciated.
When we recognize our identity in Christ is secure and unchanging we will be able to resist the temptation to tell the people we serve the things we think they want to hear.
Not delighting in the truth
A final disposition that will keep us from ministering to others with grace and truth is we do not delight in the Word of God for ourselves. Psalm 1:1-6 provides us with a challenge to delight in God’s Word day and night so we are not led astray by the wicked, sinners, and scoffers. While we do need to be aware of the current sinful tendencies of our culture so we are prepared to speak truth into those situations, we must saturate our minds with the truth of the Scriptures.
It is not uncommon in counseling to be in front of a person who tells you why it is okay for them to do what God forbids. Another example that still happens occasionally is that someone I am counseling tells me “God told me” something the Bible clearly contradicts. In situations like that we must be prepared to point people to what Scripture actually says. Therefore, it is vital that we are consistently and faithfully reading, studying, meditating on, and memorizing Scripture so we can point people back to truth. Furthermore, as we are delighting in the truth of God’s Word and feeding our own soul, we will inevitably be growing in humility, patience, and overcoming the fear of man.
It is vital that we are consistently and faithfully reading, studying, meditating on, and memorizing Scripture so we can point people back to truth.
Next week we will turn our attention to the importance of timing and when to speak. For now, let me conclude with a few questions for your contemplation.
Questions for Reflection
Spend some time prayerfully considering this question: how well do I do in providing counsel or advice that is full of grace and truth? Am I able to gently confront people with the truth? Do I continue to offer grace if progress is slow?
There are four things mentioned above that can hinder a person’s ability to be full of grace and truth, which one do I need to work on the most? How will I seek to grow in this area of weakness?