Faithful counselors are conscientious; they exercise great care in guiding others with the Word of God. Additionally, they seek to listen well, speak truth graciously, and rely upon the power of the Holy Spirit to accomplish His transforming work in the hearts and minds of those whom they help. However, as admirable as all of this is, the neglect of our own obedience is a real danger. It is possible to go through the motions, teaching what we know is good counsel while at the same time failing to consider the relationship that our own personal Bible study and daily walk with the Lord have upon the effectiveness of our ministry. For this reason, I’d like us to ponder one simple verse hidden away in one of the books of the Minor Prophets. Ezra 7:10 reads, “For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.”
This verse is remarkable both in its simplicity and its profundity. Yet I am convinced that if we would master the disciplines mentioned in this verse we would find ourselves making steady progress in our own sanctification and increasingly satisfied with being used by God as ministers of His grace and truth. Pondering the personal habits of Ezra reminds us to be attentive to three areas of our lives.
Set Our Heart on God’s Word
First, we must set our own hearts upon the Word of the Lord. When we get busy in ministry it can become easy to skip our daily time of Scripture meditation and prayer. Too often we fail to set our hearts upon Scripture, and justify it by reminding ourselves of the numerous ways we are serving the Lord. However, if the absence of self-feeding becomes a habit then it will not be long before we are counseling out of a vacuum, trying to feed others when our soul’s pantry is bare, or give others a drink when our soul’s reservoir is bone dry. This may work for a time, but eventually it will catch up with us. This may be the most common reason the warm, personal ministry of the Word that we call “counseling” can become nothing more than dry and lifeless dispensing of spiritual prescriptions for others to fill. Let us, therefore, remember what Jesus said, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). May the Lord cultivate within us a heart that joyfully hungers for the Word so that it becomes our heart’s delight (Jeremiah 15:16)!
Personal Application of Scripture
Second, we must determine to apply Scripture to ourselves, not merely those we counsel. When we prepare for our meetings with others it can become easy to search the Scriptures on their behalf alone, trying to find the “perfect verses” to deal with their problem. As a result, we end up missing the necessary step of consciously allowing the truth to first intersect with our own hearts. It appears Ezra was aware of this spiritual danger and, consequently, disciplined himself to let the searching light of Scripture fall upon his own heart as he studied. By doing so, he guarded his heart from the self-deception that is always lurking at our door, that which James warns us against, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing” (James 1:23-25). Let us, therefore, remember that authentic biblical counseling grows out of a life that does not pretend it has already arrived, but is progressively growing in its own relationship with Christ and its own struggle against sin. May the Lord cultivate within us a heart that longs for its own conformity to Christ so that we may become more compassionate counselors of the Word!
Study, Obey, Teach
Third, we must practice the most effective form of teaching, that which grows out of our own study and obedience. As has already been said, we must guard against practicing the form of teaching which is disconnected from our own heart and life. Ezra gave his heart to study the Word. Then he applied it to his own obedience. Finally, he was ready to teach that same truth to others. One of the greatest dangers we face as counselors is to make a habit of skipping the second step, and moving straight from study to teaching. What a devastating shortcut this is! Not only do we bypass personal progress in our own sanctification, but we make our instruction not much more than empty words—words that dispassionately fall off our lips, rather than graciously flow from a wellspring of experiential grace. Jesus taught a truism which is humbling for us to consider: “The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher” (Luke 6:40). Those we counsel with the Word will be most helped when the example of our love intersects with the truth we teach. Let us, therefore, remember the high priority the Lord places upon our own response to His Word, so that the truth we teach with our lips will be made even more powerful as it is made visible by our example. May the Lord cultivate within us a heart that guards against hypocrisy, and sincerely strives to keep life and teaching closely aligned!
The calling of a biblical teacher (at any level) is high, holy, and challenging. However, we find in Ezra a faithful example worthy of emulation. Let us guard ourselves from becoming mere dispensers of biblical data who neglect to intersect it with our own life. Instead, let us set our heart to study the Law of the Lord, to do it, and to teach God’s statutes to those He brings into our lives.
Questions for Reflection
Are you studying and applying the Word of God to your own life consistently or just going through the motions? How is your counseling impacted during seasons when you are not regularly applying Scripture to your own life and practicing obedience?