Suffering or Sinning?
One of the many encouraging trends in the biblical counseling movement is an increased emphasis on the place of suffering in our model and practice. Much more is being written and said about the sadness and brokenness of life than ever before. I believe our sympathetic Savior is pleased by this development and it has certainly given me direction as I contemplate what wise pastoral ministry sounds, looks, and feels like with people in my office who are under severe trial.
However, as with all corrections, there is the possibility of driving into the ditch on the other side of the road. Rarely are these two categories mutually exclusive. Suffering and sinning are less like marbles and more like molasses. Wisdom calls us to carefully and skillfully discern the truth about each person’s past so we can guide them in the next steps in the sanctification process.
Distinguishing Things that Truly Differ
Consider two different characters from Scripture who suffered deeply—Naomi in the book of Ruth and Paul in 2 Corinthians 12. Naomi’s husband and sons died during a time of famine in a foreign land. Paul had a persistent, unnamed thorn in the flesh that tormented him. There is no doubt about the significance of their agony, but should a biblical counselor treat both persons in an identical fashion?
Naomi responded to her pain with unbelief and bitterness. She instructed her daughters-in-law to go back to their people and to their gods (Ruth 1:15). She twisted the narrative of her past (Ruth 1:21) with the suggestion that they had left Bethlehem full (when truthfully it was a time of famine) and brought her back empty (when actually the instrument of God’s salvation was standing right next to her).
Paul authentically and repeatedly called out to God in his anguish (2 Corinthians 12:8). He balanced his pain with the blessings and responsibilities of his apostleship (2 Corinthians 12:7). And he praised God even when he did not receive the deliverance he sought (2 Corinthians 12:10).
Both Paul and Naomi had great suffering in the past. But treating them in the same fashion would involve ignoring key aspects of their respective stories that require an approach to trials that is much more nuanced.
The Challenge in the Counseling Room
During a time of trial, many of us find it easier to focus on the abuse and failures of others than our own shortcomings and sins. In short, we often think we are like Paul when we are more like Naomi.
Helping our counselees make this important transition in their thinking requires the wisdom of Solomon. Often we need to spend hours listening carefully to the way others mistreated our spiritual friend. We have to genuinely care about the pain of that experience and gently take them to our Savior’s throne of grace.
But in order to truly serve the hurting people the Lord brings into our lives, at some point we have to help them consider ways they may have displeased God in their response. Naomi was not responsible for the famine or the deaths of those closest to her. But leaving her in self-proclaimed bitterness (Ruth 1:20) falls far short of the robust way Scripture calls upon us to help. Wisdom says; “He who covers his sin shall not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them shall have mercy” (Proverbs 28:13). May God grant us the necessary balance as we help others handle their pasts.
A Word from Your BCC Team: For additional biblical insight into dealing with you past, we encourage you to consider Pastor Viars’ excellent book, Putting Your Past in Its Place: Moving Forward in Freedom and Forgiveness.
Join the Conversation
How do you seek to discern whether a person’s response to their suffering is more like Paul’s or more like Naomi’s?