If you’ve been in ministry for a while, I’m sure you’ve encountered hurting people who resist biblical counsel. They are quick to say something like, “Yeah, I know that, but …” Assuming relevant Scripture is offered, why wouldn’t a Christian be eager to receive God’s Word? Here are some possible reasons.
The person might have been misunderstood
If you fail to get a thorough understanding of people’s struggles and life circumstances, then there could be a number of unwanted consequences—any of which might “sour” a person from receiving what you have to offer. For example:
- Your advice might not even address the central concern of the person. That certainly will cut down your credibility with the person who has received “off the wall” advice.
If you are uninformed, then you can come across as insincere (or rushed or even annoyed), because you have spoken too soon without double-checking that your conclusions were warranted. Notice, this is not saying that you really are insincere, rushed, annoyed, etc., only that you have given this impression. Either way, the effect can be the same.
Notice that in both of these scenarios, the hurting person has trouble getting beyond the person who is offering Scripture. Although God’s Word is powerful and effective, that doesn’t remove the responsibility we have to present biblical counsel in a sensitive and winsome manner. Recall Proverbs 27:14, “If anyone loudly blesses their neighbor early in the morning, it will be taken as a curse.” Even words of blessing can be “blunted” by the sharpness of a person’s insensitivity. I think this is a powerful reminder that God’s Word is not a “magic bullet.” The Bible is a tool used by the Holy Spirit to prompt change when it is offered by people who have already been changed by it. This is why Paul goes to great lengths to remind Timothy about what kind of person he should strive to be (1 Tim. 4:12, 6:1; 2:20–25) and what kind of people he should seek out as leaders in churches (1 Tim. 3:1–10).
- Without first getting to know a hurting person, you might fail to grasp that the person has a different expectation for this conversation than you do: you might want to offer a solution, but the hurting person is not looking for a solution (at least at this time). Some people think out loud; they are best able to process needs in their life by using others as a sounding board. It’s not uncommon for these people to perceive a quick solution as intrusive rather than insightful. After all, they are still trying to understand themselves.
Attentive listening prepares people to embrace scriptural counsel
All three of these potential scenarios remind us that before any word of advice—or encouragement—is given, sufficient time must be devoted to understanding the hurting person’s struggles in the context of his or her life. Furthermore, they also underscore how important it is to listen attentively and deliberately, because careful listening is the only way to understand another person’s particular needs.
The book of Proverbs mentions the value of attentive listening numerous times, and strikingly, the writers link poor listening habits to folly! For example: “Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions” (Prov. 18:2). In Proverbs, “fools” are self-absorbed, shortsighted, impulsive, and dangerous. It makes perfect sense, then, that they would be poor listeners. Because they don’t care about others, they are more interested in getting themselves heard. Even if you don’t intend to be foolish, you can inadvertently come across as foolish if you speak too quickly. “To answer before listening—that is folly and shame” (Prov. 18:13).
You cannot be wise in relationships without developing good listening skills. “The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge, for the ears of the wise seek it out” (Prov. 18:15, emphasis added). If you take the time to focus on understanding hurting people, you will simultaneously be inviting them to consider what you might have to share from Scripture. Although it is not from the Bible, this proverb rings true: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
The hurting person might misunderstand spiritual growth
It is also possible that hurting people might resist biblical counsel because they have been disappointed by shattered assumptions about how God produces change in us. They might have expected that the Holy Spirit would produce quick or absolute changes in their desires (motivation), and this did not happen. If so, we can appreciate how discouraged they might become when more Scripture is given to them.
Although quick changes in God’s people might occur, we have no biblical time frames laid out for how quickly change will normally occur in our lives. The Corinthian church must have challenged Paul’s patience, considering the multiple letters he had to write to them. He certainly was perplexed by the Galatians’ being persuaded by the “agitators” he wrote about in that letter (Gal. 3:1). And Jesus shocked the apostles when He said, “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them” (Luke 17:3–4).
Part of sensitive caregiving with a hurting person is finding out if he or she has such a misunderstanding of the Spirit’s work in our lives.
Conclusion: Suggestions for helping people embrace Scripture
Take the time to listen attentively to the other person. Rather than rushing the conversation, ask questions that uncover not only what has happened in the person’s life but also why this situation has had the great impact on the person. Here are a few ways to make sure you’re listening attentively:
- As you listen, don’t think about what you might say to the hurting person.
- Stay focused on how the hurt this person has experienced tears at his or her heart.
- Ask clarifying questions about what happened, about what the person thought and felt in that situation, about the aftermath of the situation in the person’s life.
- At natural breaks in the conversation, offer your summaries of what was shared to gauge how well you’ve grasped it.
Following these guidelines, you will be in a better position to “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15 NET) rather than be like “vinegar poured on soda” (Prov. 25:20 NET).
If you know this person is a “verbal processor”—someone who thinks out loud—then:
- First ask if the person has thought about how to respond.
- Listen for whether or not the Lord or His Word is mentioned and how the person seems to think about God’s involvement in the situation.
- If you are not sure, ask if the person has thought about God’s role.
If the person has a negative reaction to God’s involvement:
- Ask for clarification: “Help me understand how you came to your conclusion about God in this situation.”
- Listen for whether the person is responding out of confusion, being sinned against, shattered expectations, overwhelming grief, etc.
- Ask if your assessment is accurate: “Wow! I’m so sorry about that. It sounds like you expected God would ___, but He didn’t. Is that correct?”
- Keep in mind that it may not be valuable to address right away the misunderstandings about how God “ought” to work in situations, especially if the hurtful situation has been recent and there is still a level of shock that the person is wrestling with.
- If the person has a little emotional distance from the hurtful situation, you might consider saying, “I can see how you’d be so discouraged by this situation. I wonder if the Lord might be up to something else in your life. I know God loves us, but it’s certainly true that He also surprises us. Maybe God is ___.”
The overarching goal in this type of conversation is to help the hurting person see more clearly (more biblically) what God is doing in our lives. One lesson we all have to learn to accept is that God does not always reveal why He orchestrates the events we experience in our lives or in the lives of the ones we love. But what He has revealed in Scripture is meant to reassure us that even in the confusing, scary times, He is still working out His perfect plan—a plan that involves working in all things for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose. This lesson is not easy to learn, and we might need to learn it in degrees, but it is always a lesson we need in our lives.