The counselor’s relationship with his or her counselee is a central element for the spiritual work done in biblical counseling. The counselor, because of love for Christ and His people, is motivated from genuine concern and care that develops vulnerable relationships while dealing with other people’s problems. However, there lurks the subtle hazard of becoming problem-oriented rather than people-oriented. Many discover that sharp distinction between knowledge of how to minister the Word of God versus actually having a ministry from the Word of God.
Practically, that distinction is between the manifestation and absence of Christian love, love which Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13, is the basis for any genuine ministry work, whether large or small. As we can see from the testimony of Paul’s life, biblical love is not dependent on the other person, but upon the source from which one draws that love, namely Christ. Such unhindered love is intimate, affectionate, sacrificial, God focused, and—the real stumbling block for many—it makes one vulnerable.
Vulnerability is not the act of “baring your soul.” Far more than revealing information about yourself, it is mourning with those who mourn and rejoicing with those who rejoice, even when you are not wanted or invited! A mother’s love is most real and most painful when her rebellious child turns from her. Similarly in the case of Paul, he and the Corinthian church had a tumultuous relationship and, believing lies, the church had dismissed both Paul and much of his ministry. In 2 Corinthians 6:11-13, Paul makes a passionate plea for this flock, revealing his heartfelt intention and fervor for their love, and from this passage, we learn three important lessons to cultivate true affection and vulnerability for those we care for in our ministry and life.
Genuinely Love the Flock
“We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide open” (2 Corinthians 6:11).
The Corinthian church had dismissed Paul from their lives; however, Paul continued to pursue them out of love. He clearly stated his intention with the church in 2 Corinthians 12:14, “For I do not seek what is yours, but you.” He wasn’t looking for their financial or prayer support, but rather, he desired them and to re-establish genuine fellowship. As such, Paul’s love for the church was real, self-sacrificing, and not at all dependent on the Corinthians’ response.
Paul assures the Corinthians he truly loves them with a heart that is “wide open,” that he has bared all from the deepest part of himself. Paul’s zeal to minister to them was fueled by his love for God (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20). Likewise, in pursuing a relationship with a counselee, the counselor needs to look to the Source of their love for the counselee in Christ and find satisfaction in serving Christ through the relationship with the counselee.
“You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections” (2 Corinthians 6:12).
Paul rejects the Corinthian’s assertion that he was to blame for the rift and instead turns the finger on them, accusing them of restricting their own affections towards him. This is not so much a reference to physical affection but rather to the heartfelt affection or desire to commune with the other person. While Paul’s desire to serve the Corinthians was pure and his heart was wide open, the Corinthians lacked in their love towards him by withholding their love, just as it happens when you place your thumb over the end of a garden hose. For fear of losing “their affections,” they prevented themselves from being open and free with Paul.
Likewise, in dealing with the sins of another, at times counselors will find themselves in places where the counselee has withdrawn from the relationship, sometimes even aggressively. Take heart, you are following Paul’s example as a caring shepherd who lovingly goes after the lost and gently exhorts them to take a sober look at the cause of the disunity. And in return, as counselor, ensure that your own affection for your counselee is not restricted by their words or actions. In Christ, we have the best of examples when it comes to long-suffering and constant love, even in the face of painful rejection.
“In return (I speak as to children) widen your hearts also” (2 Corinthians 6:13).
Despite their hostility toward him, Paul, like a mother with her rebellious child, begs the Corinthians to reconsider their position with him. The Corinthians had bought into the lies the false teachers used to discredit Paul, straining the relationship. However, Paul appealed through the pain of unrequited love, motivated for their good, but not for what he would receive from them. Paul genuinely loved them and was deeply grieved about their alienation from him but refused “to narrow” his affection to them. He loved them and humbly asked for a restored fellowship.
The Corinthian church had shunned Paul, yet Paul responded in love, desiring sweet fellowship with those who remained. This is Christian vulnerability, where the personal and deep pain caused by the sinful behaviors of the flock is endured, rather than retaliated. Such vulnerability requires us to sacrifice our time, energy, and resources even in the midst of great disappointment. There are seasons in which a counselee may refuse counsel or even actively seek the counselor’s harm, which makes it all the more important to remember to serve vulnerably, relying on the hand of the Lord to preserve and protect.
Paul’s affectionate response to the Corinthian church would have been humiliating had he not died to self and put on God’s perspective of ministry. Paul genuinely loved the people in this church and sacrificially gave of himself for their benefit. As such, he showed an unrestrained love for the Corinthians and a willingness to serve to the point of being hurt by the church. This is difficult, as it requires humility and gentleness—qualities the world belittles and sees these characteristics as self-defeating.
The biblical counselor, however, understands and is motivated by our debt to God, the love Christ showed us, and therefore we show that love to those God appoints for us to serve and counsel. Christian vulnerability is the willingness to die to self for the sake of others, while desiring a reciprocated love but with no guarantee of the same. But as we live it through a relational ministry, it may more easily be reduced to the idea of just being a spiritually minded friend in the Lord.
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What is the role of vulnerability in your approach to people as a biblical counselor?