BCC Note: You’re reading Part 2 of a two-part post by Dr. Mark Shaw on Tough Love. In Part 1, Dr. Shaw contrasted the world’s definition of “tough love” with the Word’s definition. Today in Part 2, Dr. Shaw explores the role of “tough love” in biblical counseling. You can also read Mark’s post at the Faith Church website here.
Where Is the Place of “Tough Love” in Biblical Counseling?
Helping someone become more like Christ, thereby glorifying God, is never easy. In biblical counseling sessions we are tasked with the assignment of ministering the Word of God in the love of the Holy Spirit to reveal the truth and the correction needed to become Christ-like. Then, it is up to the counselee to respond in a way that would please God. Some who have patterned their responses to life’s circumstances in a fleshly-driven way may not recognize our counsel from God’s Word as love, but some will, and will praise God and rejoice in the process.
The counselor’s ministry of the Word to the counselee may bring conviction if needed, encouragement if needed, strength if needed, wisdom if needed, discernment if needed, comfort if needed, and discipline if needed. Notice the “if needed” wording because it is the work of the Holy Spirit and not the counselor’s own skill set that provides what is needed though a counselor must pray to be skillfully led by the Spirit of God to counsel in a wise and gentle manner. God truly knows what the counselee needs. The counselor’s duty is to faithfully minister the Word of God and deliver His message of truth accurately.
The counselee’s response does not hinge solely upon the counselor’s ways. All of us are flawed, sinful men and women, so we cannot take the praise for the counselee’s progress, nor can we take the blame for the lack thereof. For example, when I counsel, even if I do not speak in the most winsome manner possible (though I would hope to), the counselee is ultimately responsible to respond to the biblical counsel given in a way that honors God and overcomes evil with good (Romans 12:21). It is the responsibility of the counselee to see God in the situation and to listen to the Word of God whether or not the messenger has offended the counselee. Obviously, I want to reiterate that I hope nothing in how I offer counsel would be sinful, angry, or hurtful, but the reality is that I am not nearly as loving and genuine as Jesus who counseled by speaking the truth in love to others.
The Response to “Tough Love” in Jesus’ Ministry
Look at the historical account recorded in Mark 10:21-22 when Jesus gave wise, loving counsel to the rich young ruler:
“And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, ‘You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”
The man’s response to what he might have mistakenly viewed as tough love from Jesus was not one of immediate repentance, thankfulness or joy. Instead, his response was to give up, which is what “disheartened” means. He lost heart. Not only that, but he was full of sorrow and sadness.
In today’s terminology, he became clinically depressed, gave up his pursuit of knowing God, and walked away from Jesus after this message of truth—it was an unrighteous response. This rich young ruler wanted to quit after hearing the hard truth about the one thing he lacked and what he could do to inherit eternal life—which was his original question to Jesus in Mark 10:17. He asked the question, but he was unwilling to receive the true answer, and less willing to respond to it righteously.
Jesus was being very gracious to him by telling him the truth and His counsel revealed the ruler’s heart to serve self rather than God and the poor. The rich young ruler failed to love his neighbor in failing to love the Messiah.
As a fallible biblical counselor, why would I ever think that I could be more loving and kind than Jesus? I cannot be. I can’t convince every heart to turn to Him by my own ideas. Why would I think that anyone would ever receive what I have to say more readily than they would receive what Jesus had to say?
Do I sometimes wrongly decide how much truth a person can hear and can bear so I withhold truth so as not to offend my counselee? But in those moments, I now see that instead of being loving, I am actually being unloving and even borderline hateful to fail to speak the whole truth in love to someone regardless of how I think they might respond! How arrogant to think I know the outcome and how selfish to think I want to avoid rejection! In those moments, I am not thinking about my relationship with God and His calling upon my life to deliver His message no matter what the circumstances.
I become an editor of God’s message of the Gospel rather than a messenger of it.
How sad for me to think I know better than the Lord. How sinfully prideful, also. My duty is to be faithful to God and to view myself as a biblical counselor who delivers His message to a counselee regardless of whether they are viewing it as tough love or not. It is love, plain and simple, because it is the message from God. The response of the counselee must never motivate my ministry of God’s Word.
Tough love is tough on the giver and the receiver, humanly speaking. No question about it. As a human, it’s tough to give tough love because it’s speaking the truth of God’s Word in the love of the Holy Spirit while recognizing how sinful I am. I must approach every counseling session with great humility in my personal need for a Savior and forgiveness of my sins. I need the Holy Spirit to speak through me as a counselor and minister of His Word.
And as a counselor, I must remember that I do not decide what truth is or how much I think a counselee can handle though I do want to exercise caution not to push my own agenda when counseling. One skill of counseling is knowing how and when to say the hard things that the counselee needs to hear so I am not excusing poor methods. I am simply to be a faithful steward of the Gospel which is offensive and often viewed as foolish (1 Corinthians 1:18-19).
As a human, it’s tough to receive tough love because it means I must need a correction; I must see that I am doing something wrong. My pride makes tough love tough to receive.
But from God’s perspective, it’s not tough to give tough love. In fact, there is no such thing as tough love from His perspective because everything He is and everything He does is perfectly loving as 1 John 4:8-9 reminds us:
“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.
God’s love—manifested most powerfully in sending His own Son into the world to die a cruel and bloody death—models how sacrificially He loves and how we are to love others, too. While I might struggle with the reality of tough love in this life as a human being, I am glad that tough love from God’s perspective is simply the love that He knows I need!
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What is the place of “tough love” in biblical counseling?