Friendship Counseling, Part 3

Oct 03, 2008 |David Powlison

The psalmist shows us how to move from questions to answers.

PART 2: Friendship Counseling »

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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Scripture shows what happens when people listen and take it to heart. They remember and they act on it. Some people believe what is true. They choose what is good. They live in a way that is simply beautiful. Time and again, you witness a man or woman "after God's own heart" at some fork-in-the-road choice point. At the intersection between God and what's going on, they connected with God. Joseph rescued his brothers. David openly confessed his sins. Esther risked her life. Jesus submitted to the cross. Paul dedicated his life to the church. They needed God, sought God, turned to God, followed God. Goodness and mercy followed them all the way to eternal life in Christ Jesus.

And, of course, Scripture also shows people who hardened their hearts, stumbled into darkness, and paid the price. Adam and Eve took a bite. Solomon loved many foreign women. Rehoboam blew off sensible advice. Herod thought he was a big shot. They did not listen at the choice point.

Our two questions always invite a response. In fact, they insist on a response. At the intersection, each of us must respond. In each moment of choice, we will either connect or disconnect. We either turn towards God in Christ, or we turn away. The turning towards, the connect, is the goal of our discipleship. To connect is what it means to grow up.

An Example from the Psalms

Where does this line of questioning take us? How do we move from questions to answers? How do we move from identifying the intersection to making the connection? What's the action step? We ask good questions in order to set up the living connect between God and people.

We'll look at Psalm 57 as an example of how God met a man in his troubles and struggles. What David did teaches us how to connect with God in our situation. Psalm 57 is not one of the most well-known psalms, but it's typical. You'll notice how it's made up of three things. First, David tells you something about God. Second, he tells you what he's facing. And, third, by bringing those two things together, he makes the connect. A "triangulation" takes place, and the man is changed.

First read the entire psalm.

1 Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
for in you my soul takes refuge.
In the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
till the storms of destruction pass by.
2 I cry out to God Most High,
to God who fulfills his purpose for me.
3 He will send from heaven and save me;
he will put to shame him who tramples on me.
God will send out his steadfast love and his faithfulness!
4 My soul is in the midst of lions.
I lie down amid fiery beasts —
the children of man, whose teeth are spears and arrows,
whose tongues are sharp swords.
5 Be exalted, O God, above the heavens!
Let your glory be over all the earth!
6 They set a net for my steps;
my soul was bowed down.
They dug a pit in my way,
but they have fallen into it themselves.
7 My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast!
I will sing and make melody!
8 Awake, my glory!
Awake, O harp and lyre!
I will awake the dawn!
9 I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples;
I will sing praises to you among the nations.
10 For your steadfast love is great to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds.
11 Be exalted, O God, above the heavens!
Let your glory be over all the earth!

I can't imagine anyone facing a threat situation more honestly and wonderfully. This is what we want to see in our own lives and in the lives of those we love. We witness the triangulation:

my God
+
what I'm facing
+
I connect my God
and my struggle
=
what it means
to grow up
into Jesus Christ

Let's consider each part of that triangulation.

First, notice all that David says about God (verses 1, 2, 3, 10). Notice how active God is, and how directly relevant. David mentions the God he exactly needs, who will precisely map onto his struggle. He asks for what he knows God to be, for what God has revealed of Himself and promised.

  • God is merciful to me.
  • God is my refuge.
  • God hears my cry.
  • God has a purpose for me, and will fulfill that purpose.
  • God will personally send help to save me.
  • God will shame those who hurt me.
  • God will send his steadfast and faithful love directly into what's going on.
  • God's steadfast love and faithfulness overarch and fill everything.

David didn't just make this up. It's not wish-fulfillment. This is exactly who God said He is and shows Himself to be. Notice how it's first-person personal. David is already connecting.

Second, notice the personal struggle (verses 1, 3, 4, 6). The psalm captures what David is facing. He vividly expresses his experience of danger. He intends to evoke something of that experience in us, helping us draw a link from what he faced to what we are facing.

  • He faces a storm of destruction, of people out to hurt him.
  • He feels like people are walking all over him.
  • He feels like he's caught and helpless in the midst of lions.
  • He feels like he's lying on the ground, powerless amid fire-breathing predators.
  • He feels assaulted by violent killers — not literally, but it's what people are saying to him and saying about him.
  • He feels like any step he takes, he might fall into a trap, because these people are out to get him.
  • He feels so heavy-hearted, weighed down and preoccupied by all these troubles.

Why does David speak so dramatically? He's trying to evoke within us an emotional resonance. Imagine: Al Qaida is operating right in your neighborhood. You aren't safe. You never know when something might explode in your face. You're tense, always on guard, always in danger. David is evoking exactly what it feels like when somebody is not doing you good, but wishes you harm. He intends that your hair stand up on the back of your neck. You're meant to feel a palpable sense of threat.

The bloodthirsty lions aren't literal — but that's what it feels like when someone is out to get you. David's poetry invokes an extreme version of everyday life in the human jungle, in order to sensitize us to what are very ordinary experiences. What's it like when factions spring up in your workplace or church? What's it like when a group of family members talks behind your back, tells lies, schemes, and manipulates to get their way? When bullies pick on you in school? When a passing driver makes gestures and mouths obscenities that indicate he'd just as soon you were raped, left for dead, and would go to hell? When your spouse relentlessly plays prosecuting attorney and accuser? When your kids go off on you after a simple request? When your parents play KGB looking for anything you might do wrong? When a coworker is out to find or to make up any dirt she can smear you with?

So what are you facing today? Anything that threatens you? (Question 1 again.) The psalm makes the experience of danger chillingly specific, but it leaves all David's specific circumstances undefined. This invites you and others to insert your own personalizing details. Psalm 57 intentionally gives you a pattern for how intersection leads to connection.

Third, notice the connect, the triangulation that brings life. David brings his situation (Question 1) to his God (Question 2). We've got a transcription of the live broadcast. He asks for mercy. He takes refuge. He cries out for help.

Amid his disturbing and difficult experience, we hear the astonishing centerpiece of the psalm: "Be exalted above the heavens, O God. Let your glory be above all the earth" (57:5). What an unusual way to ask for help. Where did that plea come from? It is a wonder, and wonderful — even while people full of hate are out to get him, he genuinely remembers the God who is God. The cry for personal help is a cry for God to be high and glorious.

Those who set out to hurt him only hurt themselves in the long run. They fall into their own trap. What goes around comes around. That's how God's universe works. And the emotions of David's faith change. We're meant to feel his joy just like we felt his angst. He's been so open about his struggles. He's been so clear-eyed about his God. Now he openly expresses his happiness, his gratitude, his worship.

Notice the last five verses. Has anyone ever expressed the essence of joy more wonderfully and honestly than this?

My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast!
I will sing and make melody!
Awake, my glory!
Awake, O harp and lyre!
I will awake the dawn!
I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples;
I will sing praises to you among the nations.
For your steadfast love is great to the heavens,
    your faithfulness to the clouds.
Be exalted, O God, above the heavens!
Let your glory be over all the earth!

He rocks the world with joy. In the last two lines he repeats the exact same words he'd said earlier: "Be exalted, O God, above the heavens! Let your glory be over all the earth!" The first time it was a cry for help. This time it is a shout of joy.

In this psalm we've witnessed in live operation the two chief ways of connecting with God. First, deep need amid struggle. Second, utter gladness at God's goodness. We've heard a disciple, an image bearer of Jesus, a man after God's heart. We've listened in on his thinking and felt what he feels. We've heard what he says, where he struggles, what he does.

And we want to be like that. We want to connect our struggles to our God.

What a whole different way of seeing things and responding! God has intersected what's going on. I suspect that your friends and the people you disciple don't operate this way very often (if ever). Honest cry for help? Honest shout of joy? You and I don't operate this way very often (if ever?). People who feel threatened react with obsessive fears, hostile retaliation, or feel-good escapism.

We forget who God is exactly when we need Him most. But this psalm doesn't forget. God doesn't want you to forget. Friendship, mentoring, teaching, and counseling should aim to help forgetful people remember. This is change by the power of God right on the mean streets of life.

Such real time faith is the essence of our discipleship. It's the kind of faith from which all good things spring. People who know God this way learn to speak truth in love. We're no longer fools. We want to obey God in practical ways.

This is the kind of faith that "works through love," and actually learns to care about other people. This kind of faith shows courage; we see it all through Psalm 57.

How is it possible to feel both neediness and joy, both fear and courage so close together? The joy and courage would be false if we whitewashed the difficulty of what was going on. The neediness and fear would be all-consuming if our troubles got last say. At the intersection, we feel both in appropriate measure.

Is such a dramatic connect ever complete? No. Tomorrow's troubles will be different from today's (Matthew 6:34). We'll need God again. Sometimes our trouble will come because we again failed and fell short (many other psalms of David show painful awareness of his sins). We'll need to walk out other psalms: "For your name's sake, pardon my iniquity, for it is very great" (Psalm 25:11). We'll fail, we'll find new mercy, we'll step up and offer holy resistance to evil.

Faith drinks in God's real time mercies daily. Like manna, today's mercies don't keep until tomorrow. Receive new mercies today, and you'll have mercy to give away to other people.

Our discipleship aims for these beautiful and practical actions on the ever-shifting stage of daily life. Psalm 57 gave us a video clip of the vertical dimension in operation amid life's troubles. Such a connect with God in the midst of trouble is exactly what sets up the horizontal dimension of Ephesians 4, 1 Corinthians 13, Romans 12, 1 Peter, Luke 6:21-49, and the rest of the Lord's ethic of practical love operating amid all hardships. Speaking truth in love, we grow up.

This is the payoff: the life-changing triangulation when "who God is gets" into "what's going on." The details of small, constructive and otherwise inexplicable obedience are the proof that it's for real. Faith works through love. We tell the truth, or transact forgiveness, or make a constructive choice, or communicate better, or use money more wisely, and all the rest. This is "the image of Christ" working into a disciple's heart and walking out into a life worth living.

Remember how we got here. Two simple questions:

  1. What are you facing?
  2. How does the Lord relate?

And at the intersection, a connection gets made. Two simple questions — which will take a lifetime to learn — help us keep in view the core agenda of our discipleship.

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Focus on the Family has counselors and care specialists who are available weekdays to talk with you, provide information and encouragement, suggest resources, give referrals and pray with you. If you are struggling, and would like to talk with one of them, you can find more information here.

Copyright 2008 David Powlison. All rights reserved.

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