Compassion is one of my favorite words. The etymology of the word points to the basic meaning of “suffering together.” In Ephesians 4:32 the word that is sometimes translated “compassionate” can also be translated “tender-hearted.” We are called to have soft, tender hearts towards those we counsel. We are to enter into the suffering of the people we are seeking to minister to. We are to weep with those who are weeping (Rom. 12:15). But how do we do this with someone whose situation or struggle is completely foreign to us? My encouragement today: use your imagination.
At last year’s Biblical Counseling Coalition Annual Leadership Retreat, Dr. Jeremy Pierre challenged us to consider the gift of imagination and how to wisely use it in counseling. As I have mulled over his charge many implications have come to mind, but there are two in particular I’d like to share today. The first is how imagination can help us develop compassion and the second is how we can use our imagination to formulate biblical counsel.
Using Imagination to Grow Compassion
“I can’t imagine what you have been through.” These are words of comfort that often pass across the lips of biblical counselors. There is value in these words as they express humility as well as an acknowledgement of the difficulty someone has faced. But that phrase falls short of an even better one, “I can only imagine what you have been through.” This phrase still expresses humility and recognition of deep suffering, but it also binds the counselor to an attempt at compassion. “I can’t imagine what you have been through” stops there but “I can only imagine what you have been through” invites the counselor to explore what it must have been like to suffer the difficulty his counselee is facing. It also encourages the counselor to ask deep questions to unearth the experience of the counselee.
You may not be a parent, and maybe you are not even married, but that doesn’t mean you can’t offer comfort and counsel to someone who has just lost a child through miscarriage. Your imagination cannot bring you to a complete awareness of all the counselee is experiencing, but it can open the door of your soul for compassion. Imagine the joy and excitement you would feel upon learning the Lord blessed you with a new family member. The expectation of life together, the curiosity of what they will look like and be like. You can imagine anticipation, planning, and preparation to invite someone into your life and home.
Then imagine if all that was ripped away. How would you feel? What questions would course through your mind? What doubts, frustration, or anger would you feel towards God or the family down the road who is about to bring home a bouncing healthy baby boy? What about the chasm of loss and sorrow that is left as all the planning, preparation, joy, and anticipation is ripped away? To be sure, you need to ask your counselee about her thoughts and feelings. Don’t assume your imagination is exactly her experience, but don’t neglect the compassion-building experience of imagining a walk in her shoes.
What Would Help You Will Probably Help Them
One of the reasons you are a biblical counselor is because you know the Bible fairly well. Not everyone does. That means you are equipped, by God, to help others. When you imagine yourself in your counselee’s shoes ask yourself this question, “If I were where she is what would help me?” We know that shared experience is a powerful tool in counseling. 1 Corinthians 10:13 tells us that there is no temptation/trial/test that we face which is not common to man. The fact that we are not alone in our suffering is comforting. Paul also writes about the comfort of shared experience in a different way in 2 Corinthians 1:3-5. God comforts us in affliction so that we can offer that comfort to others who are facing “any affliction.” If you try to put yourself in the place of your counselee and your mind begins to be drawn to particular passages of Scripture that would comfort, encourage, or instruct you, share those with your counselee.
You may not have lost a child, but thinking of the sorrow that would fill your heart might bring to mind the fact that there are times in this life where weeping and mourning are what is called for (Eccles. 3:4). This could encourage you to assure a couple that their grief is real and right; that they have reason to mourn and that you don’t expect them to just get over it.
Perhaps your reflections would remind you of Jesus’ identification as the “resurrection and life” (John 11:25). This might encourage you to share the hope that there is life after this one and that their child awaits them in glory if they are believers in Jesus. This might remind you that all believers can grieve as those who have hope (1 Thess. 4:13). Again, it is important to be wise and listen to your counselee, to understand her struggle and the particulars of it. But your Holy Spirit-enabled, Bible-saturated imagination can be an avenue that will help guide you to wise, soothing counsel.
Questions for Reflection
Try to imagine yourself in the place of each person you are counseling at this moment. How does that impact, change, influence the way you see their situations? How do you think you would feel if you were in their shoes? What are some other ways your imagination can be a tool to help your counseling?
Curtis Solomon is the Director of the Biblical Counseling Coalition. He and his family recently relocated to Louisville, KY from California to lead this ministry. He is completing a Ph.D. in Biblical Counseling.