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Friendship Counseling, Part 2

The heart of ministry — cooperating with God's transformational agenda — lies at the intersection of our lives and God's Word.

PART 1: 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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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.

Let’s explore two implications. First, how do we make sense of people (ourselves included), so that God’s transformational agenda emerges more clearly into view? Second, how do we make sense of the Bible, so that we become familiar with how God’s transformational agenda works out?

Understanding People

Each of the following questions helps us really understand where another person is coming from. We want to know the answers to Question #1 — “What are you facing?” It’s a key part of friendship, because candor is the soul of friendship:

  • What are you facing?
  • What are your burdens?
  • What are your joys?
  • Where are the struggles of faith and the failures to love?
  • Where are the places you need God’s help — where I might be able to help, too?
  • Where has He helped you, and I can share in your joy?

This first question helps both parties identify the circumstances (providentially arranged by the Vinedresser) in which growth (or hardening) takes place daily. It makes discipleship relevant. It makes growth more intentional. It sharpens the sense of need — and the sense of gratitude.

Occasionally there is a big issue, some major U-turn, a choice about fundamental life direction. But usually the watershed moments occur in tiny choices of everyday life: The words we say or don’t say, the attitudes we adopt or resist, the tasks we pick up or neglect, the ways we either love or ignore someone else, our reaction to some typical trouble. If love is the Spirit’s fruit, we need Him right then and right there.

We want to know the answer to Question #2. “What about God is relevant to you and your situation?” We can ask this in several ways. Ultimately we must ask it of God, of Scripture, of wise writers, of wise people we know, of what we’ve learned first hand through our own experience. Asked this way, we are seeking something solid on which to stand.

But you can also ask this question directly of another person (or of yourself), “What about God do you think is relevant?” Asked this way, the question is exploratory, and revelatory of the person. It brings out on the table the resources (or lack of resources) a person already has to draw on. It explores current perceptions of God — whether right or wrong. It can reveal blind spots, where something important from and about God is not yet coming into play.

Perhaps your friend has no clue. She has completely disconnected God from her immediate struggles. This question helps bring to light distortions and misperceptions, where a person is misreading and misunderstanding God. People often have false expectations and false views of God — no wonder life can’t make sense. Or maybe she clearly sees where right and wrong lie, but has no sense for God’s mercies and aid. Maybe she mentions wise and relevant truth, but is really struggling to take it to heart.

Asking the question this way enables current growth to build, if possible, on what someone already knows, or what God has taught in the past. (But how easily we forget, get distracted, or turn willfully away!) There’s no need to tell someone what she already knows — work with what she knows, if possible.

We don’t assume someone knows. That’s why ultimately we’re asking this question of God, of God’s intersecting Word, of godly people in whom the Word dwells richly. We need input from outside us. So encouragement or teaching or warning bring to light the honest truth that can make a life-rearranging difference. In helping each other grow up into Jesus’ image, asking the right questions helps in the hard work of kneading what is true into how we actually live.

We will ask both “What’s going on?” and “How does God intersect?” in a hundred different ways. And remember, they are as much ways of thinking as they are questions to ask out loud. They are questions we ask quietly of whatever we face, wherever we struggle, and whatever we come to know about others.

Whether you are a friend, a mentor, a counselor, a parent or a pastor, you must continually be asking the right questions of everything you see and hear, whether or not you pose a question aloud. We are looking for the significant real-time turning points — today, this week, during this season of this person’s life. We are looking for the places where you can say to another, “Here is where you need this grace and truth from Jesus.”

I find it helpful to remember this about change: The Vinedresser uses pruning shears, not a chain saw. Snip…. Snip…. One particular thing at a time. Life is lived in the details. God works patiently and intentionally, always addressing us afresh in the details as they unfold.

God never works on everything all at once. He works over a lifetime. He’s not going to make us face every kind of suffering all at once. We’ll never have a one-and-done showdown with all our sins (until we see Jesus face-to-face and He completes what He’s begun). He’s not going to change everything about us, or teach us everything about Himself. But something about who He is and what He says to us can make a decisive difference in some challenge we are facing right now.

Even small changes are not irrelevant. In fact, most changes are small. Tiny choices reverberate with huge implications, because they head us in a different direction. One brilliant aspect of C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters is how well he captures the way the battleground continually morphs and moves. Every day presents a different opportunity to either connect or disconnect.

At one point the senior devil comments ruefully how “the Enemy” (God!) even uses our shortcomings to grow us up and make us know him better: “Anything, even a sin, that has the total effect of moving him close up to the Enemy [works] against us in the long run” (Letter XXVII). It’s our direction that counts, whether the immediate choice is some big public matter or some tiny thing no one will ever know about.

Remember, in befriending, mentoring or counseling someone else, I’m doing nothing more than pursuing the same line of questioning and reasoning that I need myself. God meets you — and me — exactly where we are. That’s all this line of questioning is about.

I suspect that most of our mentoring/discipleship efforts do best at teaching people basic theology, Bible knowledge, Christian ethics, God’s promises, ministry techniques and the disciplines of grace. They don’t do well at teaching us to ask the questions that make all those other good things sparkle with relevance.

Perhaps that’s why I’ve found these questions to be so fruitful. They help me to better understand myself. They help me to better understand the people God has called me to love. They help me to better know how my Savior and my Father meet me. They help others to better know how God meets them, too, in real life.

Understanding the Bible

This next point is perhaps surprising. It’s easy to miss, but as you catch on, new vistas will open up to you. These same two questions help us understand Scripture. How does this work? What is going on with people right now is the same sort of thing that was going on all through the Bible. Something specific about the true God intersected something specific back then. Every book of the Bible engages people who faced specific daily challenges, just as we do. Some difficult situation beset them, or they were threatened from within by some sin, or (most often) both outer difficulties and internal struggles were all tangled together. And God intervened in words or actions. So the Bible is continually answering these same two questions, because redemption occurs at the intersection.

It’s eye-opening to realize this about the Bible. Ask the same questions of Scripture that you ask of people. Why not? The Bible is about people, and troubles, and mercies, and choices, and struggles, and hope. What were those people facing back then? Notice the particulars. What did God choose to reveal about Himself, right then and there? Notice the particulars.

For example, you’ll notice that God was never random in what He told people. What He revealed about Himself matched the exact need of that moment. And He never said everything all at once. He was content to say one thing at a time. As a corollary, when people caught hold of even one thing, it made a huge difference. Also, what God had to say never came out quite the same way twice. What He chose to say and do had fresh relevance in every new here-and-now, yet He was always building on something He’d said and done earlier. Always familiar, always strikingly fresh; always consistent with what people already knew, always pushing the envelope.

In the same way, your specific situations and choices today are never exactly the same as those people whose situations and choices are recorded in Bible. In fact, your struggle today is not exactly the same as what you faced yesterday! But there’s also a continuity — between your life and the Bible, between your past and your present.

These things were written down for our instruction…. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation He will also provide the way of escape. (1 Corinthians 10:11, 13)

Our saving God never works in exactly the same way with any two people or in any two moments of time, yet He is the same yesterday, today and forever.

As you read the Bible, look for the choice point, the fork in the road, the trouble. What was going on? And look for what exactly the Lord God chose to say and do. How did He intersect what was happening? Our questions help us to get a feel for how Scripture operates. It will enrich how we think about the kind of thing Scripture is. It will alert us to what’s going on in Scripture. It will change how we approach our Bibles, and even correct some common assumptions people bring to the Bible. Here are four examples.

First, the Bible contains many stated truths or “propositions.” For example, “God is faithful” and “The wages of sin is death but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Pay close attention. Take it to heart. But notice that God’s Word is actually not a mere textbook of propositional truths. It doesn’t operate like a systematic theology text. It’s not a collection of abstracted truth-bits logically arranged and summarized. Each stated truths was selected for its strategic timeliness. It intersected a the particular need, some fear, some confusion, some falsity, some temptation to sin.

Second, the Bible contains innumerable timely verses. For example, “I will never leave you or forsake you” and “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding.” Memorize such bits of Scripture. Take them to heart. Live them. But notice that the Bible is not really a treasury of verse-sized proof-texts. A topical study using a concordance is often not the best way to understand something biblically. Each “verse” was a piece of how God was intersecting what was going on then. We miss how the Bible actually works, how redemption proceeds, when we confine ourselves to concordance results.

Third, the Bible contains quantities of supremely practical advice and supremely delightful promises. For example, “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” and “With you is the fountain of life, and in your light we see light.” Follow the instructions and savor the promise. But the Bible itself is not simply a how-to manual, a self-help book or a collection of inspiring religious sayings. Every piece of advice and every promise intersects some human struggle.

Fourth, the Bible contains hundreds of stories and scenes, and they add up to one master Story. For example,

A windstorm came down on the lake…. “Master, Master, we are perishing!” And He awoke and rebuked the wind and the raging waves, and they ceased, and there was a calm. He said to them, “Where is your faith?” And they were afraid, and they marveled, saying to one another, “Who then is this, that He commands even winds and water, and they obey Him?” (Luke 8:22-25)

It’s one telling incident; it’s also a microcosm of the Greatest Story Ever Told. Read the stories attentively and enter in. Live your life within God’s Story. But the Bible itself is neither a storybook nor the grand story of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration. The Bible is some other kind of thing.

The Bible is a book communicating a multitude of ways that God intersects life. If I had to pick one descriptive term, I’d say that the Bible as a whole is practical theology happening in real time. We see and hear God revealing Himself into particular struggles and tensions of actual human lives.

Our two questions attune us to this. Where was the struggle? How did God engage that particular need? Each of the different elements — those propositions and promises, that advice and inspiration, those stories and the Story, and all the different genres, from history to prayer to proverb to gospel to letter to apocalyptic — each is a different aspect of how what God is doing intersects what’s going on with people.

I trust you’ve caught the drift of our two questions. But we aren’t asking these questions just for curiosity’s sake. What’s the payoff? Where do they lead? What happens at the intersection? What’s the action step? In each situation, we either connect with God or disconnect from God. The point of it all is that we would connect: “The goal of our instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5).

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.

PART 3: Friendship Counseling »

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Focus on the Family has a staff of Christian counselors available to talk with you. If you would like to talk with one of them, please call (719) 531-3400 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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About the Author

David Powlison

David Powlison has worked at CCEF since 1980. He edits the Journal of Biblical Counseling and teaches counseling at Westminster Seminary. His writings include Seeing with New Eyes, Speaking Truth in Love, and numerous booklets and articles on dealing with life problems. He and Nan have been married for 30 years, and they enjoy three adult children, a son-in-law, a daughter-in-law and a granddaughter.

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