The worst way to counsel a friend

  • by Lillian Cain
Photo via jayde aleman/flickr

The first time I walked into a counseling office, I started crying the second I stepped in the door. I didn’t stop until I got back home.

I had a lifetime of painful emotions and no idea how to deal with them. It was like everything I had been holding onto for 20 years just burst out of me.

The counselor empathetically listened as I shared my story and my grief – she truly wanted to help.

But one of the first things she told me actually thwarted my journey toward healing.

She told me I was a sinner.

Am I just a sinner?

There used to be a commonly held belief in the Christian world that if you were suffering emotionally, it was because there was a gap in your faith. You weren’t trusting God, you didn’t have enough faith, you weren’t believing who He was. In essence, if you were hurting, you were sinning.

Today, many Christians acknowledge that numerous factors contribute to emotional pain, and summing the problem up to spiritual deficiency is both inaccurate and extremely hurtful.

It’s true that we control our own response to any situation, good or bad. We are all sinful by nature, prone to wander, none is righteous except Him who died to give us His righteousness (Romans 3:23). And yes, it is true God desires us to be free from hurtful and inappropriate emotions such as anger, bitterness, and persistent sadness.

But you can’t take a part of truth and make it the whole.

When I walked into that counselor’s office, I was in immense pain. I had a constant stream of cruel self-talk that made my pre-existing wounds even more piercing. I would experience intense emotions over difficult situations in my life. Then I would beat myself up for “throwing a pity-party,” or a myriad of other accusations.

Though my counselor meant well, when the first response was to point out my personal sin, what I heard was: “See, you are selfish and ungrateful, the Bible even says so.” I already felt like a terrible person and had constant accusations of guilt running through my mind, now it just seemed like God agreed.

I was stuck in a constant cycle of guilt and pain.

Pain needs process

If a runner has a serious knee injury, a good physical therapist doesn’t have them run a mile at their first appointment. They rest, receive surgery if needed, and then slowly work on building up the muscles to strengthen their knee. Eventually they begin running short distances, and slowly, gradually they return to their normal routine. The more intense the injury, the slower the process.

How does a physical therapist know how to help someone with a knee injury heal? Their treatment is informed by understanding of the human body. They have the wisdom to know that healing is a process.

This same is true for emotional pain.

When we jump to the desired result, we actually cause more damage than when we started.

One day I expressed deep feelings of hopelessness to a friend who responded that I just needed to “learn to enjoy the little things.” Or perhaps you’ve heard, “you just need to let go and forgive” when forgiveness seems impossible. Responses like this are like expecting a gaping wound to instantaneously heal.

God wants to use us to help people, but we are hurting more than helping when we don’t take the time to gain wisdom. This comes from a right understanding of Jesus’ heart.

Jesus’ example

When a prostitute came to Jesus weeping in Luke 7, he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven… go in peace.” Yet, this same tender Jesus also said to the Pharisees, “Woe to you, you hypocrites! You are like white-washed tombs!” (Mark 23).

Why did Jesus console with gentle compassion to one, and the other rebuke with strong words?

In the wisdom of Jesus, He knew the state of the woman’s heart was defeated and fragile, and a word of compassion would lift up her soul. His first word to her was not “You are sinful” but “You are forgiven.” And in His infinite, perfect wisdom, He knew the state of the Pharisee’s hearts were blinded by arrogance and a firm word could break them free of their own shackles.

Jesus engages in the way that will bring about the change to set them free, and this is different for each person.

To speak gently to an obstinate, arrogant mind would bring about no change; to speak harshly to a distraught heart would be damning. This is why we can’t reduce caring for others to a theological equation. It is so much more complicated than that, and it’s not what Jesus did either.

My own experience

Eventually, I saw another counselor who had the wisdom to see the cycle I was stuck in. She realized that I didn’t need to be reminded of my sin. I was severely aware of my sin to an unhealthy degree, and my constant stream of guilt-laden thoughts was actually preventing me from being able to deal with my hurt and emotions.

I needed to know that it was ok for me to hurt. I needed freedom to grieve, where before, my guilty conscience had never allowed me, so I could move toward having grace and forgiveness. But she knew that to get on the path towards releasing my hurt and trusting God, I first needed my pain to be validated and the freedom to grieve. Guilt never leads towards healing.

It was wisdom that allowed my counselor to guide me in a direction that would finally begin to set me free from the tyranny of depression and anxiety. So how can we do more to help our hurting friends instead of hurting them?

How can we help people heal?

You may not be a trained counselor, but you’ll probably have someone come to you for counsel. Throughout your life, you’ll meet people who are hurting and need help. So what should you do first?

  1. Ask people about their story and listen. Set down your theological formula and simply enter into people’s pain. When we begin listening to people with an agenda in mind – showing them their sin, giving them advice, etc. – we are off on two fronts. One, we are prevented from fully engaging and better understanding what their struggle is actually like. And two, we are skipping out on the biblical command to obtain wisdom before giving counsel.

    If we set down our ideas of how a person is “supposed to” be counseled and just listen to where they’re at, it will better position us to care for them in the way that they actually need.

  2. Validate and enter into their pain. Making people feel like their emotions are wrong is never helpful. When someone shares their hurt with you, resist the temptation to respond with fix-it statements like “Well, God is still in control” or “Maybe the person who hurt you was having a bad day.”

    It’s not that those things aren’t true, but what people need first when they’re in pain is to feel validated.

    Instead, respond with statements that acknowledge the hurt they’ve expressed and imagine what it would be like to feel what they’re expressing. Say things like “That is really hard, I’m sorry you’re going through that,” or “It really does hurt when someone says something like that, I’m sorry it made you feel invaluable. That’s really painful.”

  3. Read through the life of Jesus and observe. Too many times I have read through the Scriptures looking for an interpretation I already believe rather than observing. If we go back and look at Jesus’ life through the lense of observation instead of interpretation it will help us better see what He really wants to teach us instead of looking for what we want to hear.

  4. Pray for wisdom and guidance of the Holy Spirit when counseling others. Engaging people always requires sensitivity because no one struggles in the same way, nor are all people in need of the same type of counsel. Yes, it is more difficult this way; it takes patience and an attentiveness to the Holy Spirit that is not natural.

    But it is worth it. Not only because Jesus shows us this is the best way to care for people, but because we are called to build people up, not tear them down (1 Thess. 5:11). Jesus does possess the perfect wisdom we lack, and His Holy Spirit is able and willing to empower and guide us.

As simple as it would be for us to have a black-and-white textbook of “Christian guidelines,” we humans are wonderfully and frustratingly complex.

Sometimes we are called to be more like carpenters; chiseling, nailing and sawing. Sometimes what someone needs is for us to be like a surgeon; cutting to get to a deeper wound, then gently suturing things back together.

But sometimes, too, a heart can be so beat down that what it needs most is for you to put down all your tools and enter into their heartache with them.

To take a chisel to a hardened heart is wisdom and kindness; to take a chisel to a bleeding heart is ignorant and destructive. Before we open our mouths, we must seek to be informed by the holy wisdom that is to guide our hands. May we increase our sensitivity toward each other and learn to wield the tools of counsel with the love, grace and truth Jesus has shown us.

A good place to start:

Read through the book of John to observe how Jesus interacted with people. Ask these questions to help you observe: Where? When? Who? What? Why? How?

Would you like to know God personally?