Friendship Counseling, Part 1

Oct 01, 2008 |David Powlison

We can change when the God of loving truth intersects some actual human need.

We've invited Dr. David Powlison to begin a discussion on counseling from a biblical perspective by writing a series of articles for Boundless. This is a conversation starter: We believe that thoughtful discussion of significant issues is crucial to the flourishing of the body of Christ.

Focus on the Family does not promote one particular model of Christian counseling, but earnestly seeks that we all grow in wisdom together. As with any article on Boundless, publication is not meant to be taken as an endorsement of its content. It is our hope that you are challenged to consider the relevance of Scripture, the importance of balance in the counseling process, and to better understand the Lord's concern and power when it comes to understanding the real life problems that we all struggle with.

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How can we help our friends mature? How can they help us? According to Scripture we grow up by "speaking truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15). That phrase, which over the centuries sadly has become cliché, is quite a challenge to really put into practice.

The truth, spoken in love, changes us. The truth, spoken in love, helps others change. Whoever listens and responds to such words grows in maturity.

"Speaking truth" or "telling the truth" doesn't just mean a formal, prepared talk; It's not limited to teaching, preaching, leading a Bible study and the like. It's meant to characterize every conversation we ever have. Whenever we speak truth in love, we'll do some good. But when we speak truth without love, or when we speak untruths with love, or when we speak untruths without love, we do harm.

Let's chew over these words again:

  • Tell the truth in a caring and constructive way.
  • Tell the truth ... in a caring and constructive way.
  • Tell the truth ... in a caring and constructive way.

"The Truth" — what does the Bible mean by that? It speaks of God's Truth: a realism and honesty about what's going on right now. God's words always connect to what's happening. God is true to Himself and honest about what's going on with us. God's sort of truth gets up off the page, puts on the clothes of real people and sheds light on whatever is happening. When our words walk in the light of God's Truth:

  • Because Jesus deals with reality, we deal with what is actually going on in ourselves, in others, in the situation we're facing.
  • Because "truth is in Jesus" (Ephesians 4:21), we deal with what is true from God and about God.

We grow up as we learn how God deals in reality, as the Truth and the truth come together. In the Bible itself, God is recorded as having spoken honestly and truly to something that was going on, that had happened, that would happen, that might happen (e.g., "if you listen to me, then _____; if you don't listen, then _____").

Scripture speaks of those who were struggling, or straying, or feeling overwhelmed, or rebelling, or doing right but needing encouragement. The Bible reveals a God who speaks into and acts into what's going on with people.

God's kind of truth-telling can only be loving. If it isn't loving, it isn't telling the truth.

"In love" — what does the Bible mean by that? The phrase speaks of both divine mercy and human kindness. Human kindness in that we communicate care for others and consciously intend their good. Our words should consider the welfare of each person we talk with and every person we talk about. What we say should always be constructive, always be appropriate to the need of the moment, always give grace to whomever we're speaking with (Ephesians 4:29). Always — whatever we say, whenever we open our mouths, wherever we are, whoever is listening. May God have mercy on us for our careless words.

Such wise love for others emerges only as we experience God's divine mercy and wise love for us. The right kind of honesty always communicates the love of God in Christ. It has to. We love as we have been loved, as we are currently being loved (Ephesians 4:32-5:2).

No one gets this right on their own. Real love walks in Jesus' shoes, because the Father takes us into His family, and because the Son includes us in his sacrifice, and because the Spirit pours God's love for us into our hearts. The Triune God takes up residence inside us and takes us by the hand. Ephesians mentions love 22 times: Half the time it's what God does, half the time it's what we do. What He does comes first, and colors what we do.

We need both kinds of truth — divine and human — and both kinds of love — divine and human. There are a thousand ways to run off the rails. We can be honest, but honestly wrong. We can be honest and accurate (up to a point) about what's going on, but clueless about God. We can be perfectly honest about what we think, and a complete jerk at the same time, mean and nasty human beings. We can be brutally honest and completely destructive. We can care intensely for other people, and still give terrible advice. With all the good will in the world, with every good intention, what we say can be completely wrong. The nicest guy or sweetest girl can be of no use to anyone.

Our honesty needs God's truth; our care needs God's mercy. In Jesus, in Scripture, in the Holy Spirit, in wise people, we experience how God speaks truth in love. Jesus must master us. As He does, we become wiser. As we grow wise, we grow up. As we grow up, we learn to speak truth in love. As we do that, together we grow up into Christ (Ephesians 4:15-16).

It's worth spending our lives getting this right.

We've looked at the big picture. But what specifically does it look like? In this article we will look at only one facet. It's a starting point. Getting this right will get us heading in the right direction. I'm going to focus on what happens before we even say what we think. What questions do we need to be asking so that we can have some idea we're telling the truth when we try to tell the truth?

What questions do we ask?

When we think about our own life and struggles, what do you ask ourselves? What are you looking for?

What do we ask others — whether out loud or simply in the background of our thinking? What are we listening for? What do we care to know?

And here's a surprising corollary that we'll also look at: What questions do we ask the Bible? What are we looking for as we read or listen?

What we ask reveals what we consider important. What we consider important determines what we find out. What we find out informs what we choose to say or do. If we aren't asking the right questions, we can't even imagine what we ought to say. If we are asking the right questions, it gives body to whatever we're thinking of saying next.

So how do we know what questions are important to ask? I actually hinted at it in the opening paragraphs. If telling the truth has a double reference, then we need to know two kinds of things. People change when the God of loving truth intersects some actual human need. That points to two questions that must always be on the table. One question explores "actual human need." The other question explores the "God of loving truth."

How can the right truth meet the right problem? Change happens at the intersection of these two lines of questioning.

So Question #1 is "What are we facing?" To put it more pointedly, what is our struggle right here, right now? Where do we need help?

We'll ponder and pose this question in a hundred different ways. For example, where do we face today's crucial choices? In that moment, in this situation, what will we do? Why? How will we treat that person? When _____ happens, what do we tend to believe? What is weighing on us? In experiencing that weight, what do we want, expect, fear? What do we choose to do? How do we react? How will we respond? Where do we place our trust? How are we tempted to misplace our trust? How will we react in that circumstance? Where are we tempted?

This family of questions looks for the significant, decisive choices in a person's everyday life. When we face situation _____, which way will we turn? From God's point of view, we humankind are always either turning towards Him or turning away from Him. We always turn one way or the other. We never sit on the fence.

This first question recognizes that human life is lived on a stage of troubles and temptations. It's guaranteed, whenever I go onto auto-pilot I veer off the road into a ditch. Question #1 awakens us to what's happening around us, what's going on inside of us, and where our choices lie. It alerts us to where we need real time help from God.

Question #2 asks, "What does the Lord say that speaks directly into what we are facing?"

This is also a family of questions. Who is God, that makes a difference in this situation? What does He say and do that meets my need for help? What does He promise — that I need him to make good on? What does He call me to do? What does faith look like — now? What does love look like, with this person, in this situation however complex and confusing? What does wisdom look like, even when the easiest thing in the world for me to do right now is to go blank on God, to act selfishly and foolishly? How does God in Christ intersect this struggle? What does He call me to believe, to need, to trust, to hope in, to obey? These questions look for the God who is present and pertinent. How is what God says and does immediately relevant to what's going on?

We need to ask both questions — of ourselves, of others. We will be tested many times today. Everyone is tested every day. We will make many choices today — every time we open our mouths, our attitude, our basic stance and m.o. towards people, every reaction to every circumstance. Every choice is significant. And every moment contains choices. Most of our choices we're not even aware of making. Good questions make us more aware.

Every moment tests us. God says three profound things about that testing.

First, every fork in the road reveals who we really are and what we live for. That's sobering. Most often what comes out reveals self-centeredness. Second, Jesus was tested in the same ways that we are, and He chose right in every moment. This Jesus is always willing to show us mercy and able to offer us help (see Hebrews 2:18, 4:15-16). This is inconceivably wonderful. Third, whatever we face can become an occasion for joy and the firming up of our faith. The very awareness of our shortcomings, our sufferings, and our need draws us to God and to an experience of His generosity. He freely gives wisdom when we discover that we lack what's called for (see James 1:2-5). God meets us exactly where we struggle. That's not just a nice theory.

Our two questions help us to understand more and more clearly how it all works. Power is made perfect in weakness. Grace shines bright where sin is dark. Hope becomes vivid where pain and loss are wrenching. He who is forgiven much loves much. The one who sows in tears reaps in joy. Our need catches God's ear, is on God's heart, draws His mercy, reveals His power.

The Bible is written at the intersection of these two questions. The love and work of Jesus happen at the intersection. The hand of God on our lives occurs at the intersection.

Both questions help us engage the things that really matter. We spend an awful lot of time, attention and energy on trivialities and monstrosities. We walk right past what's important. Our biggest problem is this disconnect between what's really happening and who God really is. These two questions help identify the disconnect. They help us aim at reconnecting.

God intends that we help each other make connections we haven't been making. That's "ministry" — speaking truth in love. God's truth and love are always reinterpreting what's going on. In His steps, we can help each other identify previously unseen redemptive opportunities. We can help each other recognize previously unseen choices in what seem like the same old ruts or hopeless abysses. We can help each other to trace out previously unseen practical implications of life in Christ.

When we talk honestly with our friends, or when we meet for intentional mentoring or discipleship, or for prayer, or to seek or give counsel, the key elements of that more profound meeting ought to get out on the table.

When we listen to what the Lord says and does, we can overhear the questions He's answering. All vital ministry of Word and Spirit arises at the intersection: Truth meets truth. Divine Redeemer meets honest human need.

These two questions — "What are you facing?" and "How does the Lord relate?" — help us to help each other. Learning to ask these two questions will help us learn to say the timely, significant and appropriate words that encourage others to grow up into Christ.

Something is at stake today between God and every one of His creatures. We can become more intentional in seeking Him. We can become more conscious in helping others. We can grow up together.

PART 2: Friendship Counseling »

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Focus on the Family has a staff of licensed Christian counselors available to talk with you. If you would like to talk with one of them, please call (855) 771-4357 Monday through Friday between 6:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. Mountain time. One of the counselors' assistants will arrange for a counselor to call you back at no charge to you.

Copyright 2008 David Powlison. All rights reserved.

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