Friday, April 5, 2013

Know the person, not just the problem

Folks who come from my ilk of theology love teaching. We love to be taught, we love to teach, we love when people get our teaching, and importantly, we love it when people live out biblical teaching. That's great, of course, and exactly what the Bible tells us to do! We make disciples, baptize them, and teach them to observe (Mt 28.19-20). So far so good.

I am however concerned that sometimes we can over accent didactic teaching and not provide all the help we could with people. When someone has an issue in their life, it’s not simply that they need more data. If I have a problem with my car, usually the owners manual isn’t all that helpful. I need someone who understands the manual to help me diagnose and solve the issue. Helping people is similar, only more complicated. A machine predictably responds (at least in theory). People aren’t so easy. You can tell a worrier, “Don’t worry because Ps 42 and Mt 6 say you should trust just God.” Ok, agreed, but emotions and misinformed thoughts patters do not simply correct in a moment. Sometimes people need to know someone is tempted like they are and cares about their struggle with sin.

One verse that has caught my attention for a while is 1 Thess 5.14. The Thessalonican letters are generally positive in their tone. They were a church that often got it right (by God’s grace). Paul takes a moment as he’s starting to land the plane of the first epistle and gives some instruction about dealing with people who are struggling. I love the wisdom of this verse because sometimes we tend to give counsel before we understand the person. (NOTE: I did not say we don't understand the problem.) I’ve heard and jokingly repeated the 3 steps to Biblical counseling: “1. What’s your problem? 2. What does the Bible say? 3. Why are we still having this conversation?” While there’s a grain of truth to this, Paul’s encouragement in this verse is compassionate and understanding — not just an information dump. The counsel has to fit the person, not simply the problem.

First Thessalonians 5.14 says, “And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle (unruly), encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.” There are categories of people and our approach to them should vary based on their posture and state of heart.

The unruly do not need to be coddled in their sin. They need a firm word of rebuke. When blatant disregard and disobedience is present, it calls for the big stick. Paul certainly wasn't hesitant to rebuke (see Galatians or Corinthians).

But not everyone needs to be rebuked. If one is faint hearted, the last thing they need is a loud rebuke. They probably do not need heavy didactic teaching either, they need to be reminded of the truth they know. This is the double souled one who doubts, they cower, they don't live with the resurrection power that Paul talks about in Ephesians 1. They need someone to come alongside and remind them about the gospel. They need to be reassured of their forgiveness in Christ. With these people, we have a ministry of reminding, similar to what Peter did (2 Pet 1.11).

The last category that Paul mentions is the weak. There is obvious overlap with the "faint hearted" but enough distinction to helpfully distinguish. These folks may be weak because of some trauma. These people are sometimes similar to one who has broken a bone and has a cast. The event may (or may not) be over, regardless, healing is in process and can be really slow. Sometimes believers just need someone to hold on to them while they heal. We can assign them homework and worksheets and in some cases maybe that's the splint needed, but often times, they just need to know someone cares and is there with a consistent gospel word.

Paul concludes this section telling the Thessalonians to be patient with everyone. Wonder why he encourages patience? Obviously because people work can try our patience! People continue to be unruly and lazy. Others just can’t seem to “get” the gospel impact on their situation. Some Christians seem anemic for long stretches of time. Be patient. Let the Word work. God produces growth. God has been growing believers for a long time through the Word, prayer, and fellowship. Do what the Word says, admonish, encourage, help, and be patient.

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