Like everybody else this side of the Garden of Eden, I have a serious sin problem. One of my particularly well-traveled sinful paths is an arrogant pride that can far too often be harsh and unfairly critical of others.
God has been working on this character flaw in me for a long time now, and teaching me (though I’m a slow learner) humility and grace. It’s slow going. I’m better than I used to be, but I’ve got 1,000 miles to go. (As an aside, if you relate, check out yet another amazing Caedmon’s Call song, “Thousand Miles” from the album Back Home.)
What about you? What’s your particular bent? Where do you find yourself repeatedly, even consistently, dishonoring God with your thoughts, word, or deeds? In this broken world, full of broken people, it doesn’t take long for an honest, introspective person to come up with quite a list of selfish, disgustingly dark, highly-personalized-yet-common-to-everyone tendencies in his own heart.
By definition, any person who has given his heart and life to Jesus Christ has been born again (John 3:1-17). This is more than a get out of jail free card or a quick fix for a few bad decisions or habits. It’s total regeneration … a completely new life. The old has gone; behold, the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17). In a mystical, nobody-really-understands-it sort of way, this means that the Spirit of God now lives within the heart and life of that new person (Romans 8:9-11). And one of the amazing promises of God in the indwelling of His Spirit is the power to change. We really can make better decisions. We really are no longer slaves to sin (Romans 6:6). Of course we continue to fall and fail in many ways, but God does not condemn us (Romans 8:1) and day-to-day failure is by no means inevitable. And in the end … we will ultimately see total victory over all sin (Revelation 21:1-8).
Anyone who loves God burns a ton of calories cooperating with God with regard to the changes He’s affecting in our hearts — working out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). And those who aren’t (burning those calories), probably should be. Whether we want to admit it or not, we are certainly broken and twisted enough — even if others would readily say “she’s a great gal!” — that we could spend our lives consistently investing in our own growth and still be far from perfect. But since that’s true of everyone, it’s only a matter of time before you find yourself face to face with others’ sinful choices, immaturity and character flaws, in addition to your own. And if you care about those other people at all, you’ll want to fight through some of their muck with them as well. Sometimes people will overtly ask you for help, and others will simply make choices before your eyes that you consider to be really bad ones. And because you care, you’ll want to share their burdens, advise them, rebuke them, help them make better choices, rescue them from stepping on land mines to which you’ve already lost limbs in your own life, etc.
I Want to Help!
And in my opinion, that’s where things get difficult. Most people (myself included) routinely try to “help” others in ways that are spectacularly unhelpful. Many of us mean well and really want to serve others, but execute somewhat poorly. I’m convinced that there is a kind of “help” that is in fact a thinly-veiled cloak of arrogant pride. And sometimes “help” is little more than bullying one’s way to the front of the crowd on the playground … of running others down and gossiping about them behind their back in order to feel better about ourselves. Sadly, I’ve been guilty of that myself. And at a bare minimum, even the most godly people have mixed, many-layered motivations, because (in general) the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17:9). We tend to worry more than we trust God and nag people more than we pray for them. We feel superior to others (pride) instead of feeling unworthy to be used by God to serve them in the first place (humility). And we offer untimely, unthinking, unsolicited advice, when we’d be better off asking God to change US into better examples so that others can follow us as we follow Christ. If we feared God at all, we’d be a lot more careful about the stuff we think and say, especially about His kids.
Please understand… None of this is intended to be some kind of condemnation of others from my own position of righteous indignation. Rather, I am the chief of sinners on this topic. There’s nobody that has needed this post more than I have. Over the years, I’ve found it tremendously difficult to discern the line between selfishly wanting someone to be more like me, and genuinely, lovingly seeking to help them maneuver around dangerous blind spots that I fear will really hurt them. And sometimes, I’ve been downright arrogant or cowardly. But over the last week or so, I have felt convicted to share some of what God’s been teaching me on this subject, and my hope is that these lessons will be for you as helpful as they have been for me in shaping my thinking (and increasingly, my actions) on this topic.
Seven Necessary Ingredients of God-honoring Counsel
1) Trust in the Lord
Like almost everything else, godly counsel depends heavily on trusting the Lord. Do you trust God’s wisdom above your own? Have you given to God your time and energy and desire to help, knowing that He will return on your investment in a way nothing else can? Have you stopped to pray, because you trust His strength more than your own? Do you actually believe that God loves you (John 3:16) –no, I mean it; believing in such a way that it radically changes your behavior, not just some quasi-comforting “religious” word? Do you believe God is working all things together for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28), that He’s creating something beautiful in both you and your friend (Ezekiel 36:26), that He’s given you power even to the point of representing Him before a watching world (Acts 1:8)?
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight. (Proverbs 3:5-6)
2) Humble Yourself
Try this out… The next time you’re in a discussion whose temperature starts to rise — even if only internally, in your heart –, make the intentional decision to assume you might be wrong and the other person might be right. Assume you can learn as much or more from them as they can learn from you. Assume God is got at least as much work to do on you as He’ll ever have to do on them. Back down. Stop talking. Consult Scripture for wisdom. Pray. Listen more than you talk. Ask questions. Seek to really understand before you respond. Pray some more. And see what God does. Maybe God’s word is at work more powerfully in their hearts than your word would be. Maybe God will bring someone wiser than you to the table to give counsel that benefits both of you. (And if your honest, knee-jerk reaction is to find that scenario hard to imagine, then this point is definitely for you!)
Pray FIRST. Pray continually. Pray before. Pray after. You are not the Changer of men’s (or women’s) hearts. You are either a) an instrument in God’s hand, or b) in the way. Submit to the Lord. Ask Him what He wants. You may be surprised to learn that He doesn’t need your help making your friend who He wants them to be. Not putting prayer first in advising others is tantamount to the fundamental assertion that you know what’s best, so you’re going charge ahead … and with your mighty hand and outstretched arm, you plan to fix all the broken stuff God wasn’t able to get right. I’m certain that isn’t going to work out the way you think it will.
4) Genuinely Love Them
Do you love the person you’re trying to help? Not the world’s “love” (like “I love pizza!”), but God’s kind of love (“you before me, even if it hurts”). If you want to know what love is, literally take an hour to meditate on and pray through Romans 5:1-11. Then ask yourself…
Have I built a real relationship with the person I’m trying to help? Do I know the small but important details about their lives that serve as the backdrop to any counsel they might seek or I might give? Do I know any of the reasons why they make the decisions they do?
Many people want to “help” other people they don’t really know all that well, rather than reserving counsel for those with whom they have a deep and abiding history. Still others would say they have a close relationship, when in truth the relationship has more selfishness or distance wired into it than we’d be comfortable admitting.
Take a second to prayerfully consider if you can really, truly “help” someone without the context of a loving relationship. Unless you’re a pastor or in the occasional pastoral role with a stranger who needs principle-driven, effectively-anonymous advice on the spot, I would strongly advocate relationship before rebuke. Your relationship is the foundation on which your counsel will rest. And no building stands well on a neglected foundation.
5) Tell them the Truth
Two parts to this one in my mind…
First, is what you’re telling them actually true? If you aren’t getting your “help” from Scripture, you might as well keep it to yourself. A person making bad choices almost never needs your wisdom or mine, they need the Lord’s. If you’re going to give someone advice, best make sure it’s good, sound, meaningful, godly advice. And remember, God’s truth isn’t “facts”, it’s a person (Jesus Christ) whose word is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)
Second, when the time is right and you feel led, makes sure you actually tell them! Often times, especially if we’re being careful to do some of the things on this list, we actually share our thoughts only a small percentage of the times when we have an opportunity to or are tempted to do so (because we’re really trying to honor God). So when the time comes, don’t be afraid to speak up when you feel God is prodding to do so. Faithful are the wounds of a friend (Proverbs 27:6). Even if they get angry, love does not cower away from hard conversation. And make sure you tell them the last 10%. It’s likely not helping them to make 3 peripheral points only to leave out the main, most important point in the final stretch of the discussion.
6) Take Your Time
It takes time to love someone and to be wired into their deeply life enough to offer them god-honoring counsel. A drive-by admonishment is typically not helpful. Soaking in truth together typically is. Like everything else meaningful, you won’t be able to help bear your brother’s burdens by squeezing a conversation into your commute time or sending him a Facebook message. I’m sorry, my self-reliant, gadget-powered, hyper-busy American friend, but you in fact do NOT have time to do everything you’d like to do in life. Something somewhere will likely have to be sacrificed (maybe many somethings) to have real relationships with people in which God can use you to make a meaningful difference in their lives, and maybe in their eternities.
Also remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day. God is at work in your friend’s life, whether you see it or not. Not only are you not the one solving her problems or fixing her life, but whatever is going on in her heart is happening on God’s timetable, not yours.
7) Engage Them Appropriately
Once you’ve invested heavily in these other areas, it comes down to the practical question of how best to approach them. In my opinion, this is one of the hardest variables in the equation, because it boils down to maintaining balance over time. On the one hand, while trying to help someone steer around a land mine in her life, it’s critical to be a position from which they are willing to hear your counsel and at least consider acting on it. But on the other hand, sometimes people really need you to jump in front of them or even grab the wheel and jerk it to the right in order to avoid the land mine. Sometimes highly-appropriate, prayerful, tough love angers its object in the immediate term. Sometimes even in the long term. And figuring out how to navigate all that takes love and respect for your friend, a lot of prayer, and a serious dose of reverent fear (of God). I can’t give some kind of formula for striking that kind of balance, but I can give some principles…
First, nagging is worse than useless. If you’ve told them 217 times, and you’re wondering if you should make it 218, don’t. Stop talking, and start praying. Nagging is a totally and completely impotent activity. It is worse than doing nothing, because it runs the risk of hardening the person against hearing your counsel and maybe even the counsel of others. If you feel you must go for round 218 on the same topic, I would ask you two questions:
- Are you sure you trust that the Lord is sovereign over your friend’s life … to do what HE wants to do with it?
- Have you really examined your motives before the Lord in pushing the issue? Is it possible that there some selfish motivations — maybe your image is at stake, or you’re offended for some reason that they aren’t more like you, or you’re projecting onto them, etc — that are really the dominant force behind your persistence?
Second, ask the Lord for wisdom. Like I said, there are no formulas for stuff like this. Every person and situation are unique. The way we gain wisdom is by asking the Lord for it (James 1:5-8). The best approach ever to making difficult decisions — like when to speak and when to remain silent when you sense your friend is steering the ship into dangerous waters — is to make them together with the Lord, in the context of a vibrant, quick-to-listen-and-obey relationship. It’s amazing how often God has responded to me in these situations by focusing on how I need to grow, not my friend.
Third, remember that people are not projects. Sometimes when I’ve experienced the most … let’s call it “unfavorable responses” … to advice, it’s been because I was coming at them in a posture that screamed to them that I knew I was superior and was reaching down from my lofty amazingness to rescue them from an obvious second rate future. I exaggerate to make a point, but not as much as I wish I was. If you’re finding it hard to get someone to listen to you or to be open to important counsel, and you’ve taken the time and effort to do the other things on this list, then maybe it’s time to examine your own heart before the Lord. Perhaps the problem is that the other person is exceedingly stubborn, and needs your persistent prayer and friendship. But perhaps, you might be a little stubborn too, and are thinking of yourself as pretty right and pretty amazing, while your friend is a project for you to complete or a mission for you to accomplish. That’s going to make it exceedingly hard to have the kind of healthy mutually-beneficial, growth-centric relationship that you want to have and which honors the Lord.
Fourth, find the right setting for the conversation. Don’t admonish people when other people are around. Not on the train, not at the party, not in front of the kids or another friend, not somewhere that it’s hard to hear, not when you have to be somewhere in 20 minutes. Don’t send a text. If you really have something to say to someone, set aside plenty of time, get them alone, feed them comfort foods, look them in the eye, and really talk.
Lastly, concentrate on the most important thing, or at most a couple of things. Nobody can hear you if you come to them with the 14 things they really need to get straightened up in their lives. By item 3 or 4, you’ve probably transformed (in their minds) into a mean-spirited version of Charlie Brown’s teacher. And who can blame them!?
Okay, so that got far longer and took far more time to write than I had planned. I hope it’s helpful to you. These principles have certainly meant a lot to me as God has been teaching me how to honor Him and honor others more deeply in my relationships with them.
Remember that the person God is primarily working on is YOU. If we were all half as good at loving others as we are at judging them, the gospel would be ON FIRE in every one of our neighborhoods. No, love doesn’t mean ignoring someone’s blindspots, but it almost certainly does mean overlooking their faults, forgiving them early and often, and being way more worried about the log in your own eye than you are about the speck in theirs.
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
(1 John 4:7-11)