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We Can Relate, Part 1

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This post begins a rabbit trail of posts, but I think it’s an important one. We need to dive deep in this topic, I cannot do it in one post, and I want to continue to be sensitive to the time you have available. So this will be split into four posts. These posts continues to encourage you that you really are able, by God’s power, to counsel (and be counseled by) others with power and great effect. But, I want to attack head on the question: “Can I relate to anyone?” Let’s take this in four parts: (1) I am in the same boat as my neighbor, (2) I can relate to my neighbor’s need, (3) I can relate to my neighbor’s rescue, and (4) I can powerfully leverage the gospel and my testimony for my neighbor. My hope is that these posts will apply the gospel to our sinful reactions of (1) pride and distance, (2) intimidation and hesitance, (3) fear and hopelessness, and (4) inaction and shame. These are reactions we all, if we’re honest, struggle with to some extent when someone comes to us with a heavy life situation. I want us to proclaim boldly with the Apostle Paul, “I am not ashamed of the gospel!”, as we enter our neighbors’ gray and difficult lives (not unlike our own). Nearly all of these posts will come from Romans 1-3, so it would be best if you went ahead and read that, really asking Paul what he’s wanting to tell you in the text. Also, taking cues from Paul, the driving issue here will be homosexuality.

Many of us, as we read Romans 1, we leave with a sense that homosexuality is really bad. But I fear that for many of us, our eyes glaze over. We don’t ask Paul why he highlighted it, nor do we let the passage flow and speak for itself as to the grand message it wants to communicate. For sure, Paul dwells on homosexuality, and we’ll get to why later, but for now, I want to set our eyes on the trap laid for us at the end of Romans 1. Here, we see a plethora of “they” language: “those out there, how could they?” Not unlike Jesus did on a number of occasions, though, Paul is pulling the prideful reader into a false sense of security. Paul lures the prideful reader to jump on board, thinking the likes of, “Yes, they do deserve it!” The traffic crashes to a halt at Romans 2:1, though, where we read, “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself.” Paul moved instantly from a safe, judge them from the sidelines, “those people over there” to an isolating and confrontational “you, O man, yes you!” I, the reader, am singled out. Not my spouse. Not my boss. Not my coworkers. Not my children. Not the person who snapped at me. Me, and me alone before the God I have defamed in my fleshly desires, desperately needing rescue, and joyfully treasuring the rescue that saves me from the flesh.

This is a hard word, I know, and I really don’t want to soften it because it bears good fruit, even joy because of the cross. We need to understand the reality that nothing separates us from the most flagrant sinners and tyrants in history except the gracious hand of God. In fact, this reality serves to further lift up His mercy and power in His rescue of us! Our rescue by Christ came counter to what we previously wanted, knew, or deserved. Our sin nature does not get any better, in fact. It only gets dead. In Christ, sin is conquered and embarrassed by new desires for God Himself above all things. This is what Paul is doing in Romans 2:1, when he brings us to realize that those we judge are, in fact, no different at all than ourselves in the flesh. This is wild implications for our counsel, but in this post, I want to fight our reactions of pride and distance. We’re moving from “What they do is stupid, hideous, beneath me, and foolish” to “God, apart from You, it is me who is foolish, blind, disgusting, and trivial. Thank you for such incredible grace!”

When you read in Romans 1 that homosexuals received in themselves the penalty due their error, that they acted unnaturally, or that they were given over, is your first reaction to distance yourself from them, as if it only applied to them and not to you and me? For sure, very few of us are so flagrant in our flesh as to hold up “God hates fags” signs, but we so often harbor thoughts like, “Whew, God sure had an easier time saving me!” Perhaps it’s not homosexuality, but do you do this to Mormons? Do you joke and say things that amount to: “How could they fall for that nonsense?” Do you do this to people who whine incessantly? To gossips? To dishonest brokers? To false teachers? Does your heart bash Rob Bell and Joel Olsteen without first remembering your own equal propensity to defame God apart from Christ’s rescue? Do you do this to unjust officers? To lazy people? To the excuse maker? To the homeless one who’s lost their mind? To the child abuser? To the woman who had an abortion? We are all the culprits here. I don’t think any of us really escape this. It’s tough to catch. Sin looks down, it judges, and this will not change. It will only be put to death by a heart enamored with God Himself.

There is no depravity outside our reach when we walk in sinful desires. The person we judge, that person is us apart from Christ, and we owe our rescue by Christ solely to His unfathomable wisdom, compassion, and power. Now, this is not at all to lighten the weightiness of sin since we all share it in common. Rather, this is to deepen our grieving over sin’s destruction and to further lift up God’s incredible grace that came counter to our sinful natures. It shows His grace all the more brightly!

I write this because as we counsel, I guarantee there will be times we want to give up on someone. There will be times we want to say, “Get your act together and stop being stupid.” There will be times we want to say, “What’s wrong with you? Why is this taking so long with you?” There will be times we will say like the Pharisee, “God, thank you that I am not like this tax collector.” When the truth is that I am the tax collector and worse. When we distance ourselves from the weakest among us, we lie. When we pretend our flesh smells better than another person’s, we forget. We will dive more into how deeply we relate to our neighbors, but part of this relating certainly means we are no better in and of ourselves. It leads us to see God’s grace afresh and to thank Him with renewed awe for His rescue of us. It leads us to be like Him in His faithfulness, His steadfastness, and His dirt-under-the-fingernails invasiveness. It keeps us from associating with the lofty. It reminds us that Christ came low and helped the lowly. It helps our counsel because we will not lift up ourselves to our neighbor since we are just like them in and of ourselves. Instead, we long all the more to lift up to them the God who rescues us and them. It leads to deeper God-centeredness.

Over the next couple of weeks, ask God what your specific issues are where you feel you are different and distant from “them.” Who do you look down on? What are the thoughts that come with that? This is not a condemnation for you because there is none left for believers (Christ became condemnation on our behalf), but it is actually a springboard to see far better the depths to which God went to save you, just how deeply He loves you in Christ. How does this affect your approach to them, your steadfastness with them, and your willingness to be uncomfortable and awkward with them? Take real, specific cues to what Christ did with you, and consider what that looks like toward the neighbor, brother, or sister you typically judge. Most of all, my prayer is that this helps you see God more clearly, especially His rescue in light of your desperation. Let’s place our own confidence for a changed heart in the One who has already rescued us, and let’s fix our eyes on His nature all the more securely.

Posted by Matt Norman with

We Are Able To Counsel In The Church, Part 1

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A friend comes up to you and says, “We need to sit down and talk sometime.” So you schedule a meal to sit down together. Going into it, you know that it’s probably something difficult in their life, and you press your mind to think of how you can listen to them, serve them, mourn with them, and exhort them about who God is and what that means for them. But when you sit down, after talking about the weather for a bit, what they tell you absolutely blindsides you. It’s uglier, messier, and more vulnerable than you had imagined. While your heart is not to judge them, you’re terribly grieved, and you fear that they indeedmight not trust the Lord but might live out fleshly desires. You fear for them, their family, and your own friendship with them. And you wonder things like: Who am I to speak into this situation? I’m not qualified for this. They need “help.” In terrible plight, they have come to you, and it all sits on your shoulders to make them see the light, to make them love it, and to make them change and trust God in their situation. This is extremely intimidating, is it not?

I’m sure many of you have already noticed the glaring heresy I put at the end of that last paragraph: “it all sits on your shoulders to make them…” I put it there on purpose, not because it’s true in reality but because it’s how we all usually perceive reality to be when another’s burden falls on us to help carry. Even though it’s unbiblical and even though we confess the truth, our hearts so often spring up in wrong beliefs and wrong desires as a first reaction. So often, we really do feel that it all depends on us and what we do. We ask:

How am I going to make them turn and trust? What if they hate what I’m saying? What if another person hears this advice and hates what I’ve told them? What if someone else could do it better? What if I’m actually hurting them and not helping? What if I talk to them and they don’t listen? What if I miss something in my advice? Who am I to do any of this?

These are fears we all have when we meet a heavy issue in a friend’s life, and the very fact that they’re our friend whom we love so much only adds weight to these fears. These fears lead to a lot of very bad counsel for all of us:

  • We do not counsel at all
  • We placate them with things we know they will like
  • We only say what others would nod their heads to
  • We don’t confront them with their sins
  • We don’t expose sins of our own as examples to them
  • We obsess over them in anxiety when we’re not around them
  • We lack confidence in our counsel to them
  • We don’t rest in the sufficiency of scripture for all our sins and trials

When we approach the idea of putting our hands (our simple, untrained hands) to the plow of everyday counsel in the church, we cannot approach it in the midst of these fears. Something needs to break us out of these fears. We need something that speaks to it all in order to free us from anxious obsession, from cowardice, from man-pleasing, from constant uncertainty, and from being ashamed of the gospel. I want you to have a sure source of remedy for these fears because they absolutely will crop up often, needing to be put down often by this remedy.

I want to take you to the story of Moses in Exodus through Deuteronomy. I want to show you a man who, by all accounts, was quite possibly the worst choice for leader and counselor to the Israelite people and confronter-in-chief to the Pharaoh of Egypt, a man basically considering himself to be a god. Moses is an outcast murderer who spat upon the kindnesses of Pharaoh’s finest things because he hated what Pharaoh was doing to the Israelites, a people he belonged to by birth. Moses was plagued by fear, he stuttered, and he was quite content in residing hidden among a group of tribes outside the immediate view of Egypt. But God called Moses in all his weakness, in all his failings, in all his fears, to confront Pharaoh with a simple message, to comfort Israel with a simple message, and to lead Israel with a simple staff. And God’s sole comfort to Moses, His sole motivation, His sole source of help was a simple but deep reality, “I am with you.” I would do you a severe disservice if I did not comfort you solely with the same thing: God is with you!

This week, I want you to meditate on one truth only: You, in yourself, can do nothing, and God, Himself, can do anything. When Moses had led Israel out of Egypt to the edge of the Red Sea, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart to pursue Israel with intent to kill them all, pinning them between an impassable sea and the world’s finest military, a very angry military. Then God commands something quite impossible for Moses to do: “Why do you cry to me? Tell the people of Israel to go forward. Lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the people of Israel may go through the sea on dry ground.” Take that in! God actually told Moses to part the Red Sea. He’s calling Moses to do the impossible. And what happens with Moses lifts up his staff, obeying by trust? We read that it is God who actually parts the Red Sea. God told Moses to do the impossible by a simple, real-life, tangible act. Moses obeys by faith in doing this simple, real-life, tangible act. And we see that God Himself does the impossible work. It’s all right there for you to read in Exodus 14. Check it out.

What impossible things has God commanded you to do and also promised that He Himself will do? What real-life tangible commands has He given for you to obey? What promises has He given for you to trust as fuel for your obedience?

I want this be your comfort and motivation in counseling, your greatest anchor and hope for yourself in your sins and trials and your greatest anchor and hope for others when you enter into their sins and trials with them. Do not be ashamed of His power. Do not be ashamed of His gospel. Their greatest hope is that you faithfully obey God in His commands to do impossible things through real-life obedience by faith. Display who God is to them both in words that breathe out scripture skillfully and applicably to their life and in actions and embodiment that put texture and shape to those words. Knowing God intimately — that He is with you, that it is His power at work and not your own, that He Himself is your greatest treasure and theirs — is your cure for intimidation and fear in counseling. It disarms sinful reactions and breathes out vibrant God-displaying, heart-changing power to those around you.

Posted by Matt Norman with