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.
ONLY RARELY WILL A PROBLEM BE RESOLVED IN ONE SITTING, WITH ONE CONVERSATION
A request for help
A different situation occurs when someone you haven’t been observing asks for your help. You may have no clue about what the problem is.
Often the person shows some form of emotional anxiety. The first thing you can do is put him at ease. A cup of coffee or going for a walk together can relieve some of the surface anxiety and make it easier to communicate.
Don’t expect the person to get to the point immediately. What he wants to talk about may be painful or embarrassing, so he has a natural tendency to beat around the bush. He may also be testing you to see if you really are interested, if you will understand, if you can be trusted with his secret. So when he raises an apparently insignificant subject, deal with it as normally and naturally as possible, and then ask, “Is there anything else you wanted to talk about?”
I recall when a student spent nearly an entire afternoon in our home, chatting about all sorts of things. I sensed something was bothering him. As he prepared to leave he paused at the door and said, “I need to talk to you sometime about a problem.” I agreed to meet him the next day.
The following afternoon we spent about I two hours talking about several minor issues. Then I asked, “Was there anything I else?” A long silence of several minutes followed. Finally he lifted his head, and in a near whisper said, A think my fiancee is pregnant.” We finally had arrived at the issue, and could begin to work on resolving his problem.
In a situation like this, the person knows all too well what sin he has committed. There usually is little need to spend time discussing how such a thing happened. Knowing what the Bible teaches us about the nature of man, we already realize this. To ask questions or to allow a person to relate such details may be merely to satisfy sinful curiosity.
Give your attention to what needs to be done now. This usually consists of two fundamental steps—confession to God, and making things right with other people. These may sound simple, but they can be painful and complex, and require much further conversation between the two of you if they are to be properly carried out. Only rarely will a problem be resolved in one sitting, with one conversation.
In some cases the person may come with a feeling of guilt, knowing something is wrong but being unable to identify a specific problem. He may begin talking about how he feels. There is no point in trying to correct feelings, so try to determine what is causing them.
To illustrate, if you unknowingly have a splinter in your finger you will feel pain. You can take an aspirin or even apply some local anesthetic to your finger, but it will be of little value unless you also go through the painful process of finding and digging out the splinter.
Sometimes the person may be unwilling to face the truth, or be honestly blind to his wrong behavior. He or she may say, “I’m upset with Mary,” or, “She made me lose my cool.” Then, instead of allowing him to continue using euphemisms to describe or camouflage wrong behavior, use biblical words to help him identify sinful attitudes that must be confessed: “You are angry with Mary, is that right?” Or, “When she did that to you, you lost control of yourself, is that right?” Confession means calling sin by its proper name.
Using indirect questions at first, and then more direct ones, you can begin to sort out what the person is telling you, and to find a root cause—a basic problem that involves sinful behavior, habits, or attitudes. You can help him openly identify what he may have already known when he came to you. Help him label it and speak of it as sinful behavior, and thus guide him to a biblical solution.
Proceeding in this direction often brings resistance. The person will attempt to justify the behavior in question. Tears can sometimes be a form of self-defense rather than remorse, and a tear-stained face can be an attempt to communicate, “Don’t be so hard on me. Can’t you see what you’re doing to me? You don’t understand me.”
Verbal defense is also common: “But you don’t understand my past”; “That’s the way I am—my father was like that”; “What would you do if he said that to you?”; “Yeah, but you’re not married to her—I am”; “Where does she think she got the right to treat me like this?”; “Don’t I have any rights?”
Arguing over such issues is of little value. In most cases you can instead give a brief summary of what the person has told you, using, if possible, their key words and phrases to identify the behavior that needs changing. Then say, “You came to me for help. I think we have discovered at least one thing that needs to be taken care of. Let’s get together again in a few days, and in the meantime we’ll both continue praying that God through his Holy Spirit will guide you in what needs to be done.”
If he is unwilling to confess his sins and to make things right, you probably should not continue talking with him indefinitely. Talking can be a stalling tactic, or an attempt to justify what is wrong. You then do a disservice to the person by continuing to talk. Kindness at this point is the firm insistence on obedience to God’s word, and nothing less.
I was talking with a medical student, and we uncovered a problem going back several years in his life, and that required making restitution and some confessions. He then unleashed a long and logical argument as to how this might jeopardize his budding career and professional image. I heard him out, and then replied, “Friend, after you diagnose a patient’s illness and prescribe drugs and treatment, what are your chances for a cure if the patient will not take the medicine or submit to the treatment?” He was quiet for a moment, and then responded, “I got the message.”
Finally, remember that people usually seek out an individual’s help because they want the security and confidence of someone they can trust and feel at ease with. To tell others something that was shared with you in confidence can destroy your relationships with others, and leave only bitterness. The degree to which you can be trusted with what people tell you will be the degree to which they continue opening themselves to you.