Bewildered, I hung up the phone. My best intention to help a sister in conflict had only served to drive her further away. Now she hurt more, and I was to blame. In my desire to help, I thoroughly failed. Three questions filled my head: Why would God call me to enter into conflict and care for another if I couldn’t do it well? If God is my counselor, where was he now? And if the greatest commandment (Matt. 22:36–40) includes loving my neighbor, why do I have such a hard time doing it?
While learning how to counsel others, I realized I needed counsel.
God’s care is greater
I decided to talk to a friend who is a qualified biblical counselor. At a city café with coffee in hand, I anticipated I’d get a pat on the back for my direct confrontation of sin. At the least, I expected an eager agreement with my assessment of the situation. He patiently listened to the long explanation and defense. After a thoughtful pause, he gently replied, “It sounds like she is struggling; Perhaps those words you said might have added to her already heavy burden.” Added to her already heavy burden. His assessment hit me like a bolt out of the blue.
God used this moment to show me how my method of helping people mirrored the Pharisees’ more than Jesus. I was convicted. The Pharisees, known for looking like God’s people and sounding like God’s people, did not love God or his people. My counselor friend evaluated the situation through different, perspective-changing glasses. He spoke of struggles and burdens and voiced concern about heart issues, while I only noticed behavior. Moreover, he believed Jesus was near and working God’s good will. I, on the other hand, only saw the bad, and thought God was distant. In this gentle conversation, my counselor friend mercifully cared for my soul, redirected my gaze towards Jesus, and modeled the “one-anothering” I longed to be able to do.
Getting care for my soul
I started reading biblical counseling resources through CCEF, the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation. I understood for the first time that I had a faulty view of sanctification1, rooted more in legalism than in the gospel. I began to realize that, though maybe not always wrong in themselves, my own desires often crowded God out and hijacked loving others. I also learned that the love in my horizontal relationships with others connected to the love in my vertical relationship with God. Books like How People Change, Relationships, A Mess Worth Making, and When People are Big and God is Small challenged me and began to change my thinking. The good news of the gospel reignited in my heart as I understood God’s mercy and his salvation through Christ.
While learning how to counsel others, I realized I needed counsel. I had been a Christian for many years, participated in church life, and regularly read the Bible, but I needed to learn how to live it out. What do I do when I struggle? Where do I find my joy? How do I react when life doesn’t go my way? What do I do when I sin? I realized I was weak in applying the Bible in my own life.
In my struggles, I learned to turn to the God who is a “refuge, a very present help in times of trouble” (Ps. 46:1). In my sorrow, I learned that I was not alone, but that God is “near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Ps. 34:18). When I sinned, I learned to turn to the one who is ready to forgive (1 John 1:9). I learned that choosing to turn to God requires effort, but that he has promised to make a way when my disordered desires tempt me to go my own way (1 Cor. 10:13).
As Christians, we are all counselors in the sense that we give care to others. The question is, are we giving good care?
Bringing it home
Now I can answer the three questions that filled my thoughts so many years ago. Yes, God calls us into conflicts with others, even if we don’t do it well. But we can humbly grow and learn to do conflict better. Yes, God is a counselor, and he is near. He is always working, even when we find ourselves suffering in difficult circumstances. Finally, though we sometimes struggle and fail in loving others, God has given us his sufficient Word to help (2 Tim. 3:16–17).
As Christians, we are all counselors in the sense that we give care to others. The question is, are we giving good care? Looking back at that dreadful phone call many years ago, I see a proud struggler trying to help another. I gave advice, not help. I judged a situation without listening to the person. By the grace of God, I am growing into a better counselor.
How about you? Do you recognize yourself in this story? Are you the one who has been hurt by a friend, or are you more like me—well-meaning but blind to our own need for daily mercies? Whether we find ourselves guilty of offending others or wounded by the pain of conflict and difficulty, God desires to transform us, forming each one of us into a vessel of his mercy and a beacon of his hope.