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Looking Past the Surface: Counseling Others

The story of Job is well known. After suffering staggering losses, three of his friends come to comfort him. One of the first things his friend, Eliphaz, says to him is, “Behold, happy is the man whom God corrects; therefore do not despise the chastening of the Almighty” (Job 5:17).

What Eliphaz says is completely Biblical. Compare his statement to what Solomon says in Proverbs: “My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, nor detest His correction; for whom the Lord loves He corrects, just as a father the son in whom he delights” (Prov. 3:11-12).

The problem, of course, is that Eliphaz’ counsel does not apply to Job. Job is not being corrected or chastened by God because Job has not sinned. But Eliphaz has bought into the idea that only sinners suffer and he sees Job suffering. Therefore, Job must have sinned. Eliphaz is only looking at the surface and not past the surface to Job’s heart. Hence his counsel, while Biblically correct, completely misses the mark.

I have seen this happen many times: well-intentioned people give counsel that is Biblically correct but completely misses the mark because the counselors cannot look past the surface and see the heart of the person they are counseling or see what the real issue is.

In one Bible study I attended, a man of Mexican descent shared that his sister, who, of course, was also of Mexican descent, was considering leaving the Protestant church she was attending and joining the Catholic Church and he needed some advice on what to say to her to dissuade her from this course of action. Some of the men immediately said that he needed to tell her that many of the doctrines of the Catholic Church were wrong and that many of the traditions of the Catholic Church were unbiblical. But these men were only looking at the surface. Growing up in the Mexican culture, the sister and her brother were already familiar with the beliefs and traditions of the Church and had long ago decided to leave it and become Christians and join Protestant churches. No, the sister had not suddenly decided that the Church was correct after all. The sister’s decision to change churches was only a surface issue that was motivated by something deep inside her. Something had happened at the Protestant church that had made her want to leave that church. That is what her brother needed to find out. Then he would know how to help her.

I have also seen instances in which counselors, in their eagerness to help, give advice before the persons they are counseling have given all of the facts. It is always best to wait for the person to tell the whole story before giving any advice.

And sometimes, when you let the person tell you the whole story, you may not have to give him or her any advice at all. I have noticed that many times the person already knows the answer to the problem but is not quite ready to submit to it. However, if you let him or her talk long enough, he or she will finally convince himself or herself that the answer is the correct one and accept it.

Then there are the times when the person is actually trying to convince himself or herself that he or she is really not part of the problem. Years ago I had a friend who was having some marital problems. After another fight with his wife, he came to my house and paced back and forth, telling me how she did this wrong and how she did that wrong. I sat silently, listening to this for half an hour. I finally said, “Did you come here to vent or to get an answer?” For the first time in half an hour, he stopped talking and got his eyes off of her and took a look at himself. My question forced him to look past the surface of the fights and the accusations and take a good hard look at his own heart. When he finally sat down and said that he wanted an answer, I was able to show him the changes that he needed to make to improve his marriage.

Counseling people is not easy and there is no “one size fits all” answer on how to do it. This is illustrated by a passage in Proverbs that at first sight seems to contradict itself:

Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
Lest you also be like him.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
Lest he be wise in his own eyes (Prov. 26:4-5).

The point is there are times when you do not answer a fool because you will only end up just like him, but there are times when you do answer a fool to save him from falling into an even worse condition, because there is more hope for a fool than for a man who is wise in his own eyes (Prov. 26:12).

But how do you know when you are supposed to answer a fool and when you are not? And how do you know when to give someone advice and when to just let that person talk? And how do you look past the surface and see a person’s heart when that is normally beyond our human ability? You pray. You ask God for discernment. Whenever someone asks you for advice, you begin to pray (usually silently while that person is talking to you) and ask God for discernment and wisdom. After all, God looks past the surface all the time.

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