The good guy, wearing a white hat, rides into town and makes his way to the local saloon. With his guns strapped down, he dismounts and pushes through the swinging doors. Inside, sitting at a corner table, waits the bad guy wearing a black hat and four days’ growth of beard.
They look at each other. Suddenly, with a lightning-swift move the good guy beats the bad guy to the draw, and thus rids the town of evil.
Like the western hero, perhaps you too would like to be able to quickly and decisively help other people solve their problems. After a Bible study meeting, during a weekend retreat, or after a church service, someone comes to you with a question—”What should I do about this?” With a lightning move you answer wisely, citing a truly appropriate passage (with chapter and verse number) from the Scriptures, and thus delivering the person from the clutches of some horrendous situation.
Or, you observe Norman New-Christian being a bit careless in some area of his life. Without hesitation, you strap on your biblical six-shooter, call him out for the showdown, and with blinding speed let him have it between the eyes with a well-chosen verse—zap! He would quickly recover from this, thanking you profusely, and then go on to live a victorious Christian life.
While some of us may be endowed with such abilities, we must admit that things are different for the average Christian, But with certain personal preparation, we can become people who discern and meet the needs of others.
But is this kind of help for others really necessary? If someone is involved in regular Bible reading and study, prayer, worship, and evangelism, shouldn’t he be free from personal problems?
This may be our ideal goal, but it represents neither scriptural teaching nor the reality of life. Every person has certain needs that can be met only as someone else helps him individually. Especially in our technological society, there is a growing demand for people who are sensitive to the needs of others.
In the Old Testament we find that God dealt with the people of Israel not only as a collective group, but also as distinct individuals. Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Gideon, Saul, and David all experienced this. In the New Testament, Zacchaeus, Nicodemus, Simon Peter, and Mary and Martha are just a few of the people with whom Jesus demonstrated an interest in the needs of an individual.
This does not diminish the importance of groups. Many problems and personal needs can be met in a gathering such as a small Bible study group. Good Bible teaching even to large groups can be an effective measure to reduce or eliminate many of the problems that plague Christians. A Christian psychologist once told me that for this very reason he left his clinical practice to launch a public teaching ministry. “A great many of the problems that I spent hours untangling in private consultation could have been avoided,” he said, “if these individuals had been exposed to good Bible teaching on the subject.” Nevertheless, people often have needs which, for one reason or another, they cannot reveal in a group. Public teaching has not provided the necessary help, so there must be a personal encounter.
Thus, someone comes to seek your help. Or, as one who is involved in a discipling ministry, you sense the necessity to approach an individual about a problem that cannot be met in a group setting.
In both situations, the kind of person you are is of prime importance. In James 3:17 is a description of the kind of wisdom God gives, and the qualities listed there must characterize your life before people will accept you, trust you, and value your advice and counsel.
The wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.
Besides the kind of person you are, another area of preparation is your grasp of God’s word. Hebrews 4:12 brings this out. As a scalpel in the hand of skilled surgeons can separate a malignant tumor from healthy tissue, so the word of God can discern, separate, and distinguish the thoughts and motives of the human mind.
Your experience and knowledge of the Scriptures will thus determine your ability to identify the exact nature of an individual’s need, and then help you point him to a passage that speaks directly to that need.
A third aspect of your preparation is given in the guidelines established in 1 Corinthians 2:12-13. We find two basic statements in this passage.
1. It is through God’s Spirit, and not the spirit of the world, that we become aware of what God wants to say to us. To rely solely on counseling skills and techniques is therefore to ignore the Holy Spirit.
2. When you speak to others about spiritual things, you must do so in words and thoughts taught by the Holy Spirit. To speak, teach, or exhort using only your own wisdom and observations is again to ignore the Holy Spirit.
The implications are clear. You must be filled, controlled, and led sensitively by the Holy Spirit if you are to help others.
The final aspect of personal preparation is prayer. This ties in directly to what we observed regarding the role of the Holy Spirit. Prayer will remind you constantly that you must be the instrument of the Holy Spirit, and not vice versa.
Through prayer you can develop the love and insight you need to help someone else. Prayer will also be a check-and-balance system to prevent you from being too harsh or too quick. Make this your rule: “I will never approach a person about a problem until I have first approached God about the person.”
Hearing and seeing
Remember that we are talking about meeting needs within the context of spiritual follow-up, and that this is different from the counseling ministry carried on by a pastor or by a Christian psychologist. It is different both in the range of problems being dealt with, and in the relationships between the people involved.
This doesn’t mean a pastor or psychologist does not engage in spiritual follow-up, or that you cannot develop in your own experience and skills as a counselor to share some of the load carried by your pastor. But in follow-up we are speaking primarily of your involvement with people in your Bible study group or Sunday school class, or with friends whom you have helped bring to faith in Christ. You have a more or less intimate relationship with these people, and they are open and responsive to spiritual things, desiring to grow in their own relationship with Christ.
Friendships such as these provide you with unique opportunities to know and understand these people—that is, if you learn to be an intelligent listener and an astute observer. This involves more than counseling techniques. It means developing the skillful habit of paying close attention to what people talk about, how they say what they say, which words they use, how often they speak of the same things, the emotions they display when speaking, and even what things they seem unable to talk about.
You must become a full-time listener. Listen to others during Bible study discussions, during prayer times together, during conversations at meals, while you walk together, while you travel together, while you work together. Always listen, because Jesus said, “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34).
Here’s a simple illustration: Fred, a young Christian, went with me to study the gospel of John together with Walter, a non-Christian. During our first session together, Walter thumbed through the copy of the New Testament I had, and asked several questions about it. Later, in our second session, Walter asked how much a New Testament cost. During our third session, he told us he had stopped at a book store but could not find the same translation of the New Testament I had. So I asked him if he would like to take my copy with him. “Yes,” he quickly responded. “In fact, I would like to buy it from you if I could.”
When Fred and I were alone, we talked about how Walter had been communicating a simple need that we could meet. That’s why we needed to listen intelligently to him.
Along with being a full time listener, you should become a full-time observer. How a person acts often reveals what is going on inside. His face, eyes, hands, and his body as a whole can communicate a great deal, often involuntarily.
Habits and attitudes are also revealing. Is the person usually irritable or patient? Does he spend money wisely or impulsively? Is he friendly and enthusiastic, or frequently depressed? How does he relate to other people? How does he respond to authority? Observing all this is important in really getting to know others. The more opportunities you have to be with them in a variety of situations, the better you will know them.
You’ll find it helpful to write down what you hear and see. This allows you to recall details later, and to avoid distorting things with the passing of time. The very act of writing out what you observe helps bring your thoughts from out of the shadows of your mind and into the bright light of visible expression. Add your written observations to your prayer list and make them a part of your time in prayer for that person.
Be sure to keep your written observations between yourself and God, avoiding the subtle trap of sharing them with others so they can “pray” about them, though your real intention is gossip.
Becoming an intelligent listener and a careful observer will be useful to you in all your relationships, including marriage, parenthood, and relationships at work. These skills must be developed, however, in the context of total acceptance of others. To do otherwise turns you into some kind of psychological detective. Your relationships will become cold and professional, and you will have lost the opportunity to be a helping friend.
After listening and observing, you will eventually come to the point where a step of action is needed.
As you pray over the written observations you have made about someone, you may want to discard some of your conclusions as being invalid. You might have been angry tired, or rushed when you wrote them, or you may recognize that what you observed was only some aspect of the person’s personality that irritates you, and in reality there is no reason to ask God to change the person in that area.
Prayer is important at this stage to put yourself in harmony with what God is doing in the other person’s life, and to keep you sensitive to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. To impulsively move ahead without prayer in dealing with something you observe in someone’s life could destroy your relationship with him and disrupt what God is doing in his life. As you pray, ask for wisdom in knowing what to do, and how and when to do it. Ask God to prepare the way for you to help the other person, either by having him seek out your help openly, or by having the subject come up in a natural way.
There will be some exceptions to the rule of not speaking up until after careful prayer about it. An unkind remark or thoughtless discourtesy can be dealt with right away, as well as rash decisions that have immediate consequences. But even in these situations, the wisest action will come as a result of the prayer and concern for the person which you have demonstrated in the past.
Prayer and being sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s direction will then often lead to an opportunity to talk with the person about the need you have observed. Colossians 3:16—”Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom”—seems to indicate that this discussion about needs should be a natural part of your fellowship together in the Scriptures. In these situations there is no need for harsh rebuke. Your instruction should instead be kind and gentle, as Paul taught Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:24-25.
But what if a natural opportunity for discussing the need does not arise, though you feel you must talk with the person about it? Here are suggested guidelines to help you in this situation:
1. Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill. Plan to bring up the subject in the context of your normal time together. Don’t say, “There is something very important I’ve been wanting to talk with you about. Can I see you for a couple of hours tomorrow?” Such an approach can be an undue cause of discouragement or anxiety, and can leave the person open to a counterattack by Satan.
2. Don’t assume the combined role of prosecuting attorney, judge, and jury. Convicting someone of sin is the Holy Spirit’s task, not ours. When you discuss the problem rather than sitting face to face across a desk or table, sit side by side. You can talk together about the problem, examine what the Scriptures say about it, and come up with a solution. Instead of being his judge, you are his lawyer.
3. Self-exposure can be an excellent opener. In many cases you can identify personally with the person’s need. As you relate your own experience with the problem, the person will often respond, “Yes, I’m struggling with the same thing.” You can then say, “Would you want advice from someone else who’s had to deal with it?”
I was with a friend one day when we received poor service from a business firm. We both commented about the situation, but I continued to complain for some time about what should be done to correct such things. Finally my friend spoke up: “You know, I find that I’m a vindictive person. People around me may suffer some major injustice and I don’t pay any attention. But when something minor happens to me, I want revenge.”
I pondered that for several minutes, and then replied, “You know, I guess I’m the same way.” My best friend, in a natural way, helped me identify a problem in my life through his own self-exposure.
4. Check your attitude against the command in Galatians 6:1.
Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.
If you are harsh with the person because of what he did or said, then you should first deal with your own problem, which is your sinful reaction. If your attitude is judgmental, then you are disobeying Galatians 6:1.
5. Don’t make conclusions based on your observations before you talk with the person. It is easy to misinterpret words or behavior, and put together an erroneous conclusion. But in Acts 5:8 we see the correct pattern. The apostle Peter first asked Sapphira a strategic question to determine if she had full knowledge of her husband’s plan to deceive God regarding the sale of their land. Once her reply confirmed her guilt, Peter pointed out her sinful behavior.
In observing one young Christian I once determined that he had been unfaithful in certain responsibilities. Armed with several verses, I was ready to reprimand him. But in talking with him, it became evident that they were symptoms of a far more serious problem. What he urgently needed at that point was help and encouragement in his struggle, and not a harsh reprimand.
6. Deal first with matters related closely to spiritual growth. In Ephesians 4:29, Paul wrote that our speech should be “helpful for building others up according to their needs that it may benefit those who listen.” This brings up the question of deciding which needs should be met first.
We can apply here the same approach doctor would use in treating an accident victim with multiple injuries. He determine which injuries are affecting the vital life sustaining functions, and treats these first Likewise, matters that have a direct bearing on someone’s spiritual growth should be given attention first.
For example, if you observe a new Christian who is boastful, and who also needs to be more regular in Bible study, your best response is to encourage and help him become more consistent in Bible study.
7. Don’t be too demanding or too critical of a new Christian. It is easy to overplay the role of spiritual leader. There is a subtle temptation to push for the new Christian’s rapid spiritual growth to meet your own expectations or to feed your selfish interests. But remember that God’s merciful patience with the new Christian far exceeds your own.