When Our Theology Stifles Our Compassion

October 23, 2014

When our Theology Stifles Our Compassion
Marie Notcheva

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Marie Notcheva

When our Theology Stifles Our Compassion

Yesterday, I received a disturbing phone call. A young woman I had been counseling attempted suicide over the weekend. In God’s mercy, He intervened before the overdose could do its lethal damage. But in the aftermath, “Mary’s” soul remains raw and bleeding. She doesn’t have the strength to fill in a “Discovering Problem Patterns” worksheet or memorize verses right now. Mary needs to grasp the biblical reality that she is precious to the Savior Who will not let her go. The promises of Scripture—which are just words to her right now—need to be real in her life.

And I realized anew that I am utterly powerless.  

The training in systematic theology and hermeneutics we have is valuable, in terms of ministering the Scriptures to people who seek answers. Yet, there are times, if we are not careful, when our “sound doctrine” may sound like a clanging cymbal, and push hurting believers away. This can happen both in the counseling room, and in our friendships.

Does this sound like a false dichotomy? It isn’t. One of the things God is teaching me lately is that while our words may be true, and biblical, and spoken in love, there is a depth of understanding and compassion that cannot always be expressed verbally…yet is crucially important.

Sometimes, when faced with another’s pain, one simply doesn’t know what to say. I have the opposite problem—I always know exactly what to say (and usually which verses to cite).

It’s knowing when to shut up that poses the problem for me.

Being Grace-Oriented before Solutions-Oriented

The plumb line for all counsel is, of course, the Bible. Scripture dictates what we do; not culture. Sound doctrine matters. I want those words engraved on my tombstone! However, a sticky truth is that people are not formulaic, like computers: we cannot simply re-program them with a “string code” of certain verses, and expect that their hearts will be automatically transformed. Unwittingly, the homework we give to help counselees think biblically may even add “performance pressure,” leading to additional condemnation.

As biblical counselors, trained to identify the problem and then apply the biblical solution, this can be frustrating. “Faith is not determined by feelings,” we want to protest. We think, “Empathizing with someone is not going to help them—the Word of God is what will fix their problems!” However, Christ-like compassion never pits Truth against Love.

We want to help. We love our friends, our family, our counselees. In our desire to help, we need to understand that it is perfectly “theological” to minister to someone who is hurting just by moving towards them in their pain, without preaching. A phone call or e-mail can simply communicate that we care, are praying, and above all, that we are there for them.

There is a time to give a theology lecture; and there is a time to give silent hugs.

Different situations call for different approaches, as Jesus demonstrated in His ministry. Of course, He is the only Counselor with perfect insight into a hurting heart, yet we can and must still learn from His example. In John 11, after the death of Lazarus, Jesus comforts Martha with the promises of God and bolsters her faith. Mary, however, threw herself at His feet weeping. The Lord, far from remaining emotionally detached, cried with her (John 11:32-35).

Mary needed compassionate empathy in the midst of her pain. Likewise, my suicidal counselee will not hear a theology lecture right now. She needs the Jesus Who will pick her up off the floor, dry her tears, and remind her that her life still has value—to Him, even if to no one else.

Encountering severely depressed believers requires a special patience and sensitivity that we need to seek from the heart of God. Yes, biblical encouragement includes using Scripture wisely. But when one is immobilized in their Christian walk, it is not the best time to unpack all of Ephesians 4. “Putting off” the sin nature and “putting on” the new man seems impossible when just getting out of bed is difficult. While it may be difficult, in these seasons showing Christ-like love may mean just sitting next to our friend (or counselee) in the pit. Once they are strong enough to take the first tentative steps of faith, then we can come back to applicable doctrine.

What Does a Supportive, Christian Friend Look Like?

Most of the people we love are not counselees, and are not usually looking for cut-and-dried spiritual advice. Nevertheless, Scripture portrays the Christian life as one of mutual encouragement, correction, and exhortation—both within our families and churches (where authority comes into play), and within friendship.

In these precious, rare Christian friendships reminiscent of David and Jonathan, “building up of one another” flows naturally. When a “log jam” in a friend’s life occurs, our first instinct is to get proactive and fix it. What better way than to point them to Scripture? Especially when we believe they may be—gasp—backsliding believers.

A popular catch-phrase among Evangelicals a few years ago was “What Would Jesus Do?” This is a valid question, but there is just one problem when attempting to discern another’s heart: we are not Jesus. We do not have the benefit of His omniscience, nor His insight into all angles of a particular situation. Obviously, in cases of blatant sin (e.g. adultery; theft; habitual drunkenness; pre-marital sex), the loving response would be scriptural confrontation. Supporting someone is sin is neither loving, nor Christ-like. But in real life, situations are rarely so clear-cut. What we may consider disobedience may simply be questionable judgment. In our minds, we may be discerning; in our friend’s, judgmental. If we are sensitive to the Holy Spirit, God shows us what it means to be “A friend [who] loves at all times” and a “brother in times of adversity” (Proverbs 17:17).

Recently, a dear friend said to me, “If you know anything about me, you know I can line up all those Bible verses and teaching and the doctrine and all…so there is no point in telling me this, as if you’re saying something new. I just need to talk to God right now and listen to Him, because right now that preaching doesn’t help me.”

Love constrained me from retorting: “If you want to ‘listen to God,’ open the Bible!” I understood the heart behind my friend’s words. Where people’s lives, situations, emotions, and biblical principles converge, a simple verse (or worse, a sense that they are being lectured in a self-righteous way) is not going to encourage them.

And the ultimate irony? I don’t want to “be right.” I don’t want to win an argument; prove a point; or beat my friend at a game of Bible Trivia. What I really want is to have a coffee together; put an arm around her shoulder; and most of all, see the joy of Christ flowing in her life. Likewise, when I am confused or feel alone, knowing that a trusted friend is praying for me brings far more comfort than being hammered and peppered with confrontation.

Once God has “poured out His love in our hearts” (Romans 5:5), loving people comes more naturally. While it is often not easy or automatic, we long to share the liberating Truth of the Gospel with others—and help those close to us apply it to their lives. Even when our motives are pure, godly counsel may not be received that way if we wield it without tenderness. It is far more difficult to patiently support, silently love, and unceasingly pray than to exegete a passage of Scripture. We need to seek the Holy Spirit regularly for discernment in our approach, in order to be truly competent counselors and compassionate friends.

Join the Conversation

What do you think of this summary statement?

It is far more difficult to patiently support, silently love, and unceasingly pray than to exegete a passage of Scripture.

22 thoughts on “When Our Theology Stifles Our Compassion

  1. Very good points,1 Corinthians 13 says if I have not love I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol. People in pain need to know they are loved by our Lord and us. Our Father will prepare their hearts to hear we just need to be patient sometimes and just LOVE.

  2. So well said. In medicine there was the notionof the “Art of Medicnie”. This is the “Art of Biblical Counseling”.

  3. Amen…I have lost a counselee to suicide. It was difficult for me as I had those times of looking back to see if I could have done something differently. Thinking about the love in the interactions between my counselee and I has really helped me. I loved her with truth and she loved the truth. It is so hard to understand the hopelessness that can creep into someone’s life. But the truth is any of us can be distracted from truth and then believe the lies. Thanks so much for the reminder and challenge to love well in our counseling.

  4. Thank you for this post! I need to daily remember to love those around me as God, through Christ, is loving me.

  5. Thank you for the simple and powerful reminder. The term ‘ performance pressure’ is so valuable and necessary. God is not impressed by our performance. He is impressed by the performance of His Son.

  6. Thank you for this article. I am still in the process of be certified as a ACBC and this area of truth and grace seems to me to be an area that really needs to be discerned. I am struggling to know when to push the truth and when to come along side and put an arm around her and listen and care. Lord willing He will give me the discernment as I grow as a counselor.

  7. What an excellent article. As a pastoral counselor, I need to preach this message to myself. I have found out recently while going through a very tough personal struggle, that while I know the right passages of Scripture to apply. there are times when they can ring hollow if a person’s need has not first been met with genuine empathy and compassion. All too often, the words of Scripture, if not “administered” at the correct time under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, can have an almost toxic effect on the hurting person. Prayer dependence, Spirit led discernment, and a word (the Word) delivered at the proper time can make all the difference to a person’s being able to receive godly counsel.

  8. Thank you all very much for your comments. I wrote this while battling depression (feeling that I am failing God and everyone He’s put in my life), and questioning my usefulness both as a counselor and friend. I was not certain my “brain-droppings” were even worth publishing on the BCC. Evidently it struck a chord with others who have had similar experiences, and through what God is teaching me in this area, I hope to continue growing.

    I am glad that others can relate and apply something wrote to their own ministries and relationships.

  9. a few thoughts:
    from personal experience, it would have been helpful to have known/been told these things, that is, this ‘sound doctrine’ in the worst time and anytime:
    1) no circumstance is meaningless; 2) the Lord Himself is the One always
    there to provide me perfect, 24-7 comfort and love

    always a push back on opposing saying “what would Jesus do”. It always seems appropriate to ask this, because it is essentially stopping and yielding to the Spirit of the Living God within; and without Him we can do nothing; and only surrender to the work of His Spirit bears any good fruit at all. There doesn’t seem to be any other option to saying “What would Jesus do” unless you think the flesh is sufficient?

    so I guess I’ll add another ‘would have be helpful to know’ in any trial–
    TOTAL reliance on the Lord, the Spirit, which I think is what you are getting at here.

  10. This nicely done article is really theology in practice. Traditional Systematic Theological texts don’t have themes or topics like empathy or compassion. When Paul announced to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20) that they would not see his face again they wept. It might be said that tears represent what good theological training is to do…to make us human again! Theology is really a servant to a greater process of restoring us so that we can fulfill the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves. Thank you for this article.

  11. Job knew of this “cold counseling” from his friends and yet Job knew the proper responses for his ordeals. Job needed a counselor that came alongside of him that realized that GOD was gaining so much GLORY from behind scenes of Job’s perplexing afflictions. Counselors need to be cognizant of those circumstances that are beyond human capabilities and lovingly counsel within the unknown. GOD could be who you are fighting in your advice and the counselee is actually being used by HIM, though indiscernible as it was in Job’s case. Thank you for this article that has spurred my thinking and relevant biblical examples.

  12. There is knowledge and there is wisdom. Both are different, knowledge without wisdom and love is just knowledge.

  13. Sometimes grace gets buried under the rightness by which we feel people should live their lives. We end up not unlike the Pharisees who ungraciously criticized Jesus for healing on the Sabbath rather than rejoicing that a blind man now could see. We throw bible verses at people and give well-meaning advice to ‘turn to God’ or read their bible or to think differently, when all they want and need is us to show grace, love, and compassion. They don’t even need understanding because there are time we simply can’t understand what they’re going through.
    I have struggled with depression as well as what is commonly known as low self-esteem. When God brought me to the root of my pain–namely, that I believed no one could love me the way I am and that even He couldn’t love me–I shared what I was going through with a close friend. She in no way could identify with what I shared with her, yet she wept tears of compassion for me–not that she understood, but that she loved me and cared.
    Theology is important. It is the foundation upon which our faith is built and understood. But theology has to be tempered with grace to be effective in reaching others in Jesus’ name.

  14. Excellent Marie, thank you!!! There are times when we do just need to be a shoulder to cry on and show them the love of Jesus. Sometimes our actions CAN preach the Gospel to people louder than our words!

  15. So clear and well said. As an “older sister” to women with many varying needs/issues this was a helpful and much needed read. Very thankful for the “droppings” 🙂

  16. I was visiting an old theology professor while on vacation and he asked me to sit in on his Sunday School class that weekend. The lesson was on one of the Psalms of grief. We were talking about the difficulty of grief and despair and the whole problem of pain when a middle-aged woman in the class started to sob. She had just lost her mother and was asking that all to human question, “Why, God?” My old prof had a seminary intern in his class who teared up and said. “I don’t have a lot of answers for you right now. They will come in time, but right now I can weep WITH you,” which he did as he moved next to her and comforted her. Best apologetic I’ve ever witnessed and just what this grieving woman needed, someone to be the compassion of Christ for her right then and there. I’ve never forgotten that.

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