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Painful experiences are confusing. Experiences of trauma, mental health, illness, grief, and relationships leave people shaken and disoriented. As they reach out to us for help in making sense of it all, we can rush in with advice before fully understanding what is going on. Instead of alleviating some of their distress we leave them even more confused, uncertain, and overwhelmed.

When we do not take the time to hear the full story, we think we know what is happening and rush in with advice on how to fix things, work to make immediate changes, or do our best to squash out the sins that we are seeing and hearing; all without fully comprehending what it is that is going on. In our hurry, we insert our own personalities and experiences into the story instead of seeking to listen and understand what the experience is for the person in front of us. While we think we are being empathic and compassionate, we end up missing out on so much of their story. In our rush to fix things, we are not able to care well or minister to the person in the way that God calls us to.

Author and researcher Brene Brown says it this way:

“We need to dispel the myth that empathy is ‘walking is someone else’s shoes.’ Rather than walking in your shoes, I need to learn how to listen to the story you tell about what it’s like in your shoes and believe you even when it doesn’t match my experiences.” – Brene Brown, Atlas of the Heart.

Loving someone well cannot be done in a hurry. It takes time to learn someone’s story, we need to carefully suspend our own emotions and experiences and believe the person in front of us, gently stewarding their story.  Ministering well to those who are struggling asks us to tread softly, continually being mindful of the complexity of who they are and what has happened. In this, we are quick to listen and slow to speak or act,[1] asking questions that help us to understand as much of the story as possible, seeking clarification where we are confused, and continually pointing the person to God. If we offer any advice, we do so with caution, knowing that our priority is their relationship with God and the comfort that we find in the cross of Christ.

People are complicated. They are difficult to understand, and at times hard to love. As we get to know their stories we learn of incredible heartbreak and witness deep despair, we come to understand the weight of suffering and gain more insight into behaviours that bring further chaos and distress. As our knowledge of the messy and confusing details of a person’s life grows, we come to appreciate the care needed to share God’s truth with wisdom and humility. Mike Emlet has a very helpful framework for ministering well to the people that God places on our path that is outlined in his book Saints, Sufferers and Sinners. The word of God ministers to all of us as saints, as sufferers and as sinner, offering the same framework to us in our calling to love and minster to others. As we come to learn the story of the person God places in front of us, we can map the good (Saint), the hard (Sufferer), and the bad (Sinner) onto this framework, working to understand the whole story instead of the pieces we easily land on.

Saints

All of God’s children are saints. No matter where they are on their journey of faith, the Spirit is working in them, sanctifying them, and restoring them into the image of God. As we listen to their story, we pay attention to the good fruit that can be evidenced in their life. We affirm and encourage their faith, building them up so that they can be empowered in facing the hard and sinful parts of their lives. It is easy for us to skip over this category, drawing on the biblical category of sinner because that is the most familiar to us or being overwhelmed by the sufferer category because that is the loudest part of the story we are hearing. As we come to learn more about how the person in front of us fits into the biblical category of saint, some questions we might ask are:

  • What does it look like for you to pray about what you have just shared?
  • That is such a great way that God has cared for you during this time, what are some other ways that you can see his protection and care for you?
  • Praise God for the strength that he gives you to continue to serve him well. What are some biblical truths that you are holding onto during this time?

Sufferers

A part of living as broken people in a broken world, means that we also face suffering and difficulty in our lives. The biblical category of sufferer is difficult for us to ignore, but that doesn’t mean that we always approach it with the necessary wisdom. It is tempting for us to maximise the suffering, letting it overwhelm us and define the person that we are ministering to, or to fall in the opposite direction, minimising the experience as if it has little or no significance. The bible teaches us what it means to hold a balanced view of suffering, taking it very seriously while holding Christ in the middle of it all. As we minster to the sufferer in front of us, we want to grow in embodying the love of Christ for them, drawing them out and seeking to understand the complexity of their situation.

The stories we hear can be heartbreaking, but the understanding with have from scripture means that we do not need to be surprised or shaken at the depth of suffering and pain our brothers or sisters in Christ have experienced. The bible is very real and honest about the depth of depravity and painful experiences the children of God face and tells us to not be surprised by suffering.[2] Instead we take it very seriously, encouraging the person in front of us to turn their face to Christ and hold on to him through the storm.

Sinners

Sometimes the sin in a person’s life is the easiest thing for us to see and respond to. We can very quickly respond to or speak against their bad behaviour because that is what is the most obvious to us, particularly in the context of the Church. We often bear witness to some of these sins and might be told about them from people who are not the person in front of us. We should take these sins seriously, while also being cautious to not jump on them without learning more of the story. Typically, the sins that are obvious to us are also obvious to the person we are ministering to and pruning the sins out of our lives is not as straightforward as we would like it to be.

Hold onto the Bigger Picture

None of these categories are isolated from each other, as we minister to the people in front of us, we as ministering to them as saints, sufferers, and sinners. We may be entering in and learning about their story through one of these categories, but we do not stay there and continuing to learn more about their story.

Holding on to the bigger picture allows us to really empathise with the story that we are hearing, with a biblical framework for understanding what is going on we can let go of our own framework and really work to understand the experience of the person in front of us. We can grow in differentiating between their suffering and experiences, and the sins we might be noticing and have a stronger reference in knowing that our suffering does not become an excuse for sin. Through it all, our goal shifts from wanting to fix or stop the suffering but to helping them focus on God and the relationship they have with him.

To learn more about this biblical framework you can purchase Mike Emlet’s book from ProEcclesia bookshop, or you can get in touch with Trellis to organise a workshop or training program for your church or small group.

 

Camille de Vos – Trellis Counselling

 

[1] James 1:19

[2] 1 Peter 4:12-13