How do you help people in the “too hard” box? I mean, the whole reason they’re there is that their problem is too hard. One approach is to get degrees in theology, psychology, sociology, anthropology, counseling, psychiatry, and a few other assorted fields and come up with solutions to all the problems. But for most of us, we need something more realistic.
We could fall back on the sufficiency of Scripture, and this would be appropriate within certain boundaries. The gospel is indeed the solution to every problem at the ultimate level. Our hearts, souls, minds, and bodies will be redeemed on the last day (Romans 8) and on this we wait with hope even as we see the progression of the redemptive gospel-influence now. Still, a simple application of this truth to the problem of cancer will demonstrate the limitations—indeed the abuses—that we can easily fall into.
Is Scripture sufficient for addressing a cancer patient? Yes, ultimately. The gospel is our hope in suffering and God’s gracious kindness is where we run for help. But does that mean we tell people they don’t need doctors? Of course not! That would be an egregious misuse of the sufficiency of Scripture. We, instead, address everything from Scripture while simultaneously relying on the gifts and training of skilled medical practitioners. We do this recognising that rather than opposing biblical counselling and help, the field of medicine is actually a tool in the hand of God for the accomplishment of his will and his glory.
So there are, it seems to me, two extremes: We can send people off to the professionals and wash our hands of it. Or we can smugly dismiss the professionals and offer all we have left: avoidance or condemnation. But is there a middle option? I believe there is.
A biblical model of ministry is not primarily hierarchical. It is not someone up top looking down at someone beneath; the person who has it all together helping the person who doesn’t. Rather, a biblical model of ministry involves two broken sinners helping each other toward the cross. That is why Paul expects elders to come alongside people rather than lording it over them.
Being the self-deceiving sinners that we are, we like to think our ministry is about coming alongside people. “People in need of change helping people in need of change” (Tripp). But it is in the “too hard” cases that we learn whether this is true.
How to help
So how can we come alongside the struggling and help, even when we don’t know how to help? Here are some thoughts.
1) Be humble.
When you know the answers, it’s easy to fire away. But when you have no clue, humility is essential. If you combine the confidence of knowledge with ignorance, you will do damage. You will draw conclusions you aren’t equipped to draw and nine times out of ten, our hearts being what they are, they will be either dismissive (“Just stop stressing,” “How hard is it to just…,” “You’re making a big deal out of nothing”) or condemning (“You’re choosing this,” “If you would just…,” “You have a spiritual problem”).
It takes enormous humility to try to understand deeply, empathically, even while your inner judge is pounding the gavel with gusto.
2) Realise someone in the body is gifted and equipped to deal with this.
Not everyone is gifted and equipped to deal with everything. What you find frustrating, someone else finds challenging. What you find daunting, someone else can do with skill. Know the gifts of God to your church and to the broader church and be willing to enlist the help of others in difficult cases.
3) Realise that person you enlist probably doesn’t think like you do on some things. Which is why he can help.
If you saw the world like he does, you wouldn’t need him. Maybe he doesn’t quite take your approach to the issue. That’s ok. Relinquish control. Allow the body to be the body. God is at work in that.
4) Realise that all gifts are God’s gifts.
What I mean by this is that you should not hesitate to bring in non-believing professionals where they can help. Again, the medical doctor is a helpful example. If a friend had cancer, would you refer him to a mediocre doctor who is a Christian or an excellent doctor who is a non-believer? I’ll take the excellent doctor every time. Why? Because not everyone who has been granted abilities by God admits that it is God who granted the abilities. But if the non-believing doctor has diligently developed and honed her skills and the believing doctor has not, the unbeliever is, in that particular respect, reflecting God’s glory more truly than the believing doctor.
Of course psychiatric and psychological work is more closely related to spiritual issues than the work of a general practitioner or a surgeon, but the principle remains. While I will not abdicate my spiritual role to a non-believing psychiatrist, I must just as carefully avoid usurping a role for which I am not qualified.
5) Keep your integrity.
If his life/situation destroys your paradigm, recognise your obligation to change or adjust your paradigm (i.e. grow). Be humble enough to admit that much of what you “know” is systematic in nature, and therefore subject to adjustment.
For example, Scripture doesn’t directly address anxiety disorders, so whatever you know about anxiety disorders is not directly from Scripture, but is lots of pieces of Scripture (concepts, statements, principles, interpretations, etc.) along with some things you’ve picked up from other sources (medical, psychological, popular culture, common sense, etc.) brought together into a coherent whole (a system) which represents what you believe about anxiety disorders. While we can be sure that God didn’t get anything wrong in his revelation, we can be sure that we got something wrong somewhere along the line. It is important therefore to remain teachable and open to the possibility of adjusting our understanding on any given topic—especially when it is a difficult topic.
6) Explore. Read. Wrestle. Be a student.
Since you don’t feel that you have a firm grasp on how to help the person, let them help you help them. No one knows the dynamics of a problem like the person who has it. If you’ll take the time to listen and learn from them, you will be able to help others with the same problem with a degree of understanding and empathy that will open ministry doors.
Read books together. Talk through the issues. If you have difficultly with something, be open about that and go with them to Scripture to wrestle through the theology of that and work through how that applies to this difficult situation.
7) Pursue formal education opportunities where feasible.
I can’t imagine a pastor who would not benefit immensely by taking a course in, say, mental health. It is a field so closely related to the work of a minister as to require at least a degree of familiarity with it. But think carefully before pursuing mental health education through a Christian organisation. I say this because we need to honestly face the fact that we Christians—especially we conservative Christians—are anything but specialists in this field. This is an area in which we have tended to be woefully backward. It may take humility to sit under secular mental health training, but it will be helpful, I feel, in drawing us away from the damaging extremes we have tended to endorse in some circles at some times.
It’s ok not to know. There are times when you’ll need to say “Ben, I’m glad you came to me with this problem and I want to help you. I know the gospel is the ultimate solution here and since I’m a specialist in the gospel, I’m excited about the chance to come alongside you so we can grow in grace together. But there are some aspects of this problem that I’m not quite sure how to help you with. Would you mind if I talked with some people—in confidence of course—who have expertise in some of these areas to see if they can recommend a course of action in this?”
Such an approach is humble, honest, and direct. It will give the person you’re dealing with a sense of hope and will boost your credibility with him.
9) Be slow to condemn; quick to love.
Finally, whatever else you do, do this: be slow to condemn; quick to love. We want to be known—not for our knowledge, our expertise, our perfection, our skill—we want to be known for our love. Even where sin is great, we approach the sinner, not as a judge looking down from his bench, but as another sinner kneeling at the foot of the cross, stunned by grace.
I have been blessed to see this approach to difficult counselling situations modeled in the ministries of so many others over the years. I pray that our churches would be safe-zones. Places where people with difficult problems can find hope, comfort, and grace.
May God grant us courage and wisdom in ministering to those in the “too hard” box.
Grace to you.