You may have heard a counselee or friend say, “I just need to get this off my chest!” or “I need to talk to someone or I am going to explode!” These sentiments are common as people struggle and find some relief in expressing their pain. Without a doubt, a compassionate Christian should be ready to listen to another struggling believer. No one can provide help without having a loving, listening attitude. However, we should consider moving from offering mere emotional relief through passive listening to providing actual help through loving instruction. There are some biblical reasons why merely venting is not enough and is even harmful. Consider three important truths to teach your counselee who believes that getting help is equivalent to finding someone to listen to their venting:
1. Venting Won’t Solve Your Problems
Counselees need to understand that merely talking is not the way to solve problems in a Christlike manner. Solving problems in a godly way is not a natural human ability. Applying the Word of God to your situation is an evidence of spiritual maturity that comes from knowing Jesus (2 Pet. 1:3ff; Heb. 5:14).
I am not saying that “solving problems” is the same as “fixing your counselee,” but I am saying that counselees suffer from a variety of problems. Therefore, solving problems is an adequate response according to the gospel. A solution might involve relief, but it certainly involves the person, the work, and the teachings of Jesus in shaping the counselee in Christ’s image (Rom. 8:28-29; Col. 1:28).
Reading through the gospels, we can track Jesus as a loving listener to hurting and struggling people. However, the gospels also describe Jesus as a precise communicator of transforming truth (John 15:3) and a diligent worker towards a sacrificial solution (Matt. 11:28-30; John 17:4, 19:28-30). Jesus has done it all- listening, working, and sacrificing for us. Jesus saved us from our sins, including poor communication. He left us a path of godliness that includes wise listening and loving talking.
2. Giving Vent Is Not Wise
Getting something off their chest is one way that a “fool flaunts his folly” (Prov. 12:23; 13:16). The Bible describes such communication as unwise or simply put, foolishness. Venting has no interest in understanding and changing, only in emotional relief. Therefore, merely talking about problems will not help. Counselees that are eager to talk about their problems without any intention to change might need a loving rebuke and/or firm encouragement towards a different path.
A loving rebuke will point to the right path. It might sound harsh at first, but open rebuke is one manifestation of mature love towards your counselee (Prov. 27:5). This is specifically true when the purpose of talking is sinful (for example, gossip).
A firm encouragement will affirm proper communication in love. Good questions can guide the process in love and making your listening productive, helping your counselee move from emotional relief through worldly talking to spiritual wisdom through godly listening.
3. Venting Does Not Edify
For Christians, freedom of speech does not mean “I say whatever I want to say.” What governs our speech is a set of values grounded in the gospel, not cultural tradition. Many counselees believe that “freedom of speech” or being “sincere” justifies saying whatever they want. Venting is self-centered and seeks relief from emotional pain. It is a form of communication that does not seek solutions, is unwise, and is not edifying (Eph. 4:29). Therefore, venting is a “corrupting talk.” Biblical instruction on communication will help the counselee to understand the connection between the gospel and the need for repentance from “corrupting talk.” Christ died for us so that we might live for Him, no longer for ourselves (2 Cor. 5:15). Living for Christ includes talking in such a way that honors Him, even when the subject is our problems that need biblical guidance.
Encouraging Godly Communication
Venting or “getting something off the chest” is a characteristic of spiritual immaturity. However, avoiding talking about the problem will not help either. We should consider a simple instruction on how to talk about problems in a godly and productive way. We should never assume that the counselee is living out the basic principles for Christian living. Notice that the path towards maturity starts with a vertical relationship with God and informs the horizontal relationship with people.
- During affliction, pray to God asking for wisdom (James 1:5). In days of instant communication through technology, venting has become an immediate response to problems. Teach and encourage your counselee to pray about his problems before talking to anyone else or even posting it anywhere else (Phil. 4:6).
- Listen to the Lord. God speaks through His Word. During problems and distractions, we are tempted to take our eyes off Jesus. But it is from Him that we need to hear in the first place (Heb. 1:3, 4:12). Help your counselee to establish a devotional routine in God’s Word, getting nurtured in the eternal truths of the gospel. It might sound “unrelated” to an immediate problem, but the gospel secures the maturity that every Christian needs during trials.
- Look for people that are involved in the situation and in the potential solutions. Your counselee will be tempted to seek out people who will tell him what he wants to hear. Encourage him to look for truth and people who are committed to speaking the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). Warn him that venting could be the first stage of gossip.
- Speak honestly. We are interpreters of our reality and we act based on our desires. Therefore, encourage your counselee to speak openly about the situation as he prepares himself to listen to you.
- Open your heart and listen to instruction. Speaking about problems is not the goal, but provides an opportunity for the counselor to speak truth from God’s Word in response. A clear sign that someone desires to vent is an unwillingness to hear real solutions.
- Act and obey. You have listened to your counselee and have spoken what God has said. Now, it is time to act upon what has been said. Encourage your counselee to obey God’s Word (James 1:22).
Good communication is one of the results of gospel transformation. We are called to godly communication that edifies and shapes the body of Christ. This is a vivid testimony of the gospel. Godly communication is important because we are members one of another (Eph. 4:25b). The gospel is also the reason why godly communication is possible. As a response to what Christ has done, we grow in wise, selfless, and godly communication.
Questions for Reflection
What are some signs that your counselee is only looking to “get something off of their chest?” How is venting harmful for your counselee? What are some good and wise ways to help a counselee who struggles with talking too much? Consider Bob Jones’ helpful post on this topic.
Alexandre “Sacha” Mendes is a pastor at Maranatha Baptist Church in Sao Jose dos Campos, Brazil. He also serves as the director for vision and expansion for the Brazilian Association of Biblical Counselors (ABCB) and on the board of directors for the Biblical Counseling Coalition (BCC).