By: Dennis Gruening
March 25th, 2022
“It’s like every month I fear again that there will not be enough money in the bank.” said a man who was sharing his story with me. “Again and again, I have wondered, what are we going to do? But then we open the mailbox and find an unmarked envelope with $300 in it. Or I stand in front of the fridge unsure how we’ll fill it with food and the doorbell rings. After opening the door, we find a bunch of bags full of food items. But that is what God does.” I responded with, “Yeah, it’s humiliating to our pride, but it builds real humility, doesn’t it?” As tears welled up in his eyes, he nodded, “Sure does!”
The experience this man has described is very common to believers. We all, in varied ways have experienced the rusty trust that continues to surprise us. When God shows up, we are excited, filled with faith, and energized for what is ahead. But when God moves slower than we like or we don’t seem to understand what he is up to, we quickly fail to trust him. What was a well-oiled faith machine suddenly is like a rusty bike that sat out in the rain one too many seasons – it can still be used but it needs some cleaning and grease.
SIN or SUFFERING
The longer I am involved in counseling, the more I realize how easily we miss the problems that besiege us and our brothers and sisters in Christ. In recent years many biblical counselors have begun to emphasize and reemphasize the importance of looking past the sin and toward the suffering. In his book Consider Your Counsel Bob Kellemen talks about this very issue. With uncounted hours of teaching, writing about, supervising in, and practicing biblical counseling, Kellemen writes, “I continue to detect a pattern of viewing fellow Christians predominantly through the grid of depravity and thinking of counseling primarily as “spotting idols of the heart.” Of course, Kellmen then talks about how to change these tendencies in our counseling.
Questions that may follow here are, “What then is the problem the counselees faces?” or “Is sin not the problem?” Of course, theologically we will always arrive at some version of “it’s idolatry,” “it’s sin,” “it’s a worship problem.” There is no doubt that this is indeed true, and we must address these problems, yet there may be other things to be addressed first. In addition, we must consider our way of relating to people as we deal with the problems at hand.
TIMING and MANNER
In my view, this is not an either-or proposition, however. It is a matter of both timing and manner. When we address an issue certainly is going to influence how a person responds to our both encouragement and admonishment. How we deliver the message is further going to impact if a person responds positively or negatively to what they are being told.
Let’s think about an example related to timing, the when, of addressing an issue. In a previous post I talked about the story of David and Bathsheba from 2 Samuel 11. In that post, I described, how David went on and on along the road of that story, missing exit ramp after exit ramp towards confession, repentance, and restoration. From the first sin (which likely was David lusting after Bathsheba (though the Bible does not explicitly say so)) to even involving other people in the murder of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah to cover up his sin, a lot of time had passed – the most significant being the time from the sexual act to Bathsheba telling David that she was pregnant. Where was God in all of that? Surely, he knew all that was transpiring. Why did he wait? He could have saved Uriah’s life.
Of course, God could have but that is exactly the point – he did not engage David’s sin right away. Why, we do not know. Yet, when I read that story, I’m reminded of how incredible long-suffering God is. Certainly, many thousands of examples of God’s patience could be called to witness here. But what is the reason this is important for our consideration of timing in counseling? I’ll get to that…
One important note must be made here. We are human, we are not God. We neither know nor can do what God does. We should not let people wander and wallow in their sin as David seemed to do, nor should we assume that we should act like God who struck dead Ananias and Sapphira for lying to him (Acts 8). We have to find a balance for our timing.
Humility, Prayer, and Yielding to the Spirit
When is the right timing? When we humbly and prayerfully considered if now is the right time to speak on God’s behalf. I’ve been in situations where, my heart pounding, I wanted to speak, yet I knew God did not want me to. I had to pull back. I’ve also been in situations, where I didn’t want to speak. My heart was pounding then too, and I was sensing a shivering of fear because what needed to be said was difficult, but I spoke up. God used both situations.
In conversations with other believers, they too have shared that they know when the Spirit is prodding to either do or stop doing something. Will we answer him? That is really the important question. We must not grieve the Spirit (Eph 4:30) by doing what he doesn’t want us to. We also must not quench the Spirit (1 Thess 5:19) by not doing what he wants us to do. God can use us best when we yield to him humbly and with prayer. No counseling situation will then be impossible.
Thinking about the how, consider for a moment the scene in John 8 most of us are familiar with. A woman is caught in adultery, and she’s being dragged in front of Jesus. The Scribes and Pharisees want to see how Jesus deals with her. In the end, the crowd disburses after Jesus exhorted the people to consider their own sin before judging someone else. Here is what happens next:
Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”
While we must be cautious about the inferences we make when reading Scripture – we want to be wise and careful scholars – we must not forget that Jesus was human and the people he interacted with were human. These are not fable-like tales. With that in mind, we can simply as the question, “How did Jesus speak to her?” “Was he harsh?” “Did he yell?” “What was the intonation of his words?” Of course, exegetically the answer is, we don’t know. But relationally, you can imagine it. While there are many options to choose from, which one is going to be more likely, that he was harsh, yelling at her to leave sin behind or that he was soft-spoken, tender, and filled with compassion?
We do not really need the answer to these questions to consider how this example impacts our current discussion. The point is simply this, the manner in which we speak and whether or not, or to what extent, our words are filled either with cold, harsh, admonishing words or warm, tender, encouraging words will make a difference in our counseling.
Coming back to the scenario at the beginning, rusty trust or stuck faith, we want to consider what else we can do to care well for people. Knowing when and how to address both sin and suffering is really important and most of us probably lean in one direction having to work to move closer to the other direction – others will work in the opposite direction. We are all growing over time, so it is all good.
Caring well means gracious engagement of the person in front of you. Counseling is not about cases or numbers or giving direction or citing the Bible – counseling is first and foremost helping others to love and live for God amidst their present circumstances. The best way to do that is to make sure that the person is being received and engaged in a loving, Christ-like manner. Of course, there is a lot that we could say about the specifics of what exactly that could look like but that’s not the goal of this post. What we should address to finish out this post is how to help the person in the first steps of dealing with rusty trust.
Counseling is not about cases or numbers or giving direction or citing the Bible – counseling is first and foremost helping others to love and live for God amidst their present circumstances.
What transpires in times where our faith is not what we want or even need it to be? Most people are woefully unaware of exactly what happens in those moment. Counseling means taking time to listen and then ask questions to unearth the reasons for our choices (Prov 20:5). The first step then is to help a person consider what a person is actually thinking, feeling, and doing in those present moments. The doing is often easy to tell. The feeling can be discerned with relative ease also as most people can talk about how they were sad or angry or happy in whatever moments. Yet, what they were in fact thinking about isn’t always so clear.
As varied as the situations life brings are, as varied are the questions we could ask about them. Instead of some general questions, let’s think about the example at the beginning of this post.
- What were your plans for the day? What did you think was going to happen?
- How would you describe your emotional state before you looked at your bank account and felt your heart drop?
- What were your initial thoughts when you saw how little money was left?
- Who was the object of your greatest concern?
- How much time did you spend on ruminating on the money (or lack thereof) in your account?
- What was your emotional response to this?
- Had you ever had a moment like that before? 🡪 If yes: How often does that happen to you?
- How has this situation impacted the way you think about yourself, about life, about God?
Many other questions could be asked, but with these we should begin to get a sufficient view into the life of this man and the struggle he is engaged in.
When the money is tight and the pressures high, any of us will struggle. When your child’s birthday is around the corner and you know how much they would love to have a certain toy, it’s a tough pill to swallow when you see the low account balance. When your car needs repairing but you have neither time nor cash to take care of it, your heart may drop a few inches because you feel like you’re not being a good steward of what God has given you.
Whatever the particular scenario, most of us can relate well to many of the struggles people encounter. Unless, however, the situation is a crisis, I see little empathy in counseling. Post-traumatic stress, sexual or domestic abuse, a sudden death, or a child lost to the streets can draw a ton of emotional engagement even from more stoic counselors.
It isn’t the weight of the problem that is most important in counseling, it’s a person’s engagement of the problem that counts.
Dear counselor – please consider how you can show more empathy and communicate that with words and actions, even when the situation does not seem to be all too grave. We must not make the mistake to think that because we think we could have handled the situation better, that we in fact would have. Plus, to deny the sorrow, discouragement, defeat, and pain of a person, just because it seems less impactful to us, is to deny both their trial and even the need for deep care. We might as well stop counseling. We must not continue out of obligation or out of a sense that there is some graver, deeper sin.
We must see the person in their struggle. We must empathize with them. We must shepherd them to the cross.
After we have talked more to the person, having put our hands on their shoulders, cried tears with them, and told them that we too have felt the weight of such situations, we have not only shown them God’s tender and patient loving-kindness, we also have won their heart and gained passport to continue speaking.
Students dreadfully fearful of final exams deserve our empathy just as much as person who just found out they have cancer. Sure, the magnitude of the ultimate impact is quite different but the perception of the person facing the trial doesn’t therefor automatically adjust to a “normal” level. And “normal” isn’t really an objective ever-fitting standard anyway. The more important issue is whether a person will ultimately take their suffering to the Lord and seek to honor God, even if the circumstances do not change.
When the guy I spoke to shared about his fearful struggle, it struck a chord inside me. I’ve been in that place many times. Even recently I talked to God about how I continue to be surprised about the recurrence of various struggles in my life. I continue to learn new lessons, yes, but I also continue to work on old lessons. That is the same for all of us. But we need empathy in our trials as well as encouragement in our discouragement. Then, once we have a clearer perspective on what’s really going on and we know we are not alone in it, we can move on to dealing with the deeper issues like false believe, unbelief, or even rebellion.