A recent article targeted the movie industry for lagging behind television in its depiction of homosexual and lesbian heroes. No doubt there will be television and movie parity on this indicator in the next couple years.
Articles like this offer us another occasion to consider how we think about such things. Here are a few thoughts.
Our culture’s majority position on homosexuality reminds us that we do not live in Christian America. Some of the residual belligerence against pro-homosexual legislation comes from the belief that we live in a Christian America, and how dare anyone hijack our heritage. The reality, of course, is that the Kingdom of God has nothing to do with present-day cartography. Christian America is a myth and, at times, a dangerous one. Perhaps the Christian reaction connects to fears that public approval of homosexuality predicts our national decline, and bad things are sure to come.
Homosexual marriage was a foregone conclusion years ago. There is, I think, very little to do in the public square on this matter. The writing has been on the wall for over a decade. I have never heard an argument against homosexual marriage that is even remotely persuasive to someone who does not accept the authority of Scripture. There are many behaviors proscribed by Scripture that do have broad cultural support. We all stand against murder, perjury, slander, even marital unfaithfulness. Yet, stands against homosexuality seem capricious and even unjust, and we need to understand why other people think so.
Where can we be salt and light? So given that homosexual marriage is here to stay—now what? How do we talk about these things in a way so as not to become a stumbling block? What are the critical political issues? How do we engage with both those who hold strongly to a homosexual political position and those who are in different phases of dealing with their own homosexual desires? The answer begins here: We listen, face-to-face.
Younger evangelicals have already done this. They have homosexual friends and most of their peers think the Christian position is Neanderthal and unloving. And many of these young men and women are beginning to wonder if their peers are right.
We can follow their lead, at least in the way they listen and engage. Then, as we learn more about how to wisely love, we talk about Jesus in a way that is surprising, a little off-balancing, and inviting.
As practical theologians, biblical counselors have always found James to be a kindred spirit. Pastoral, persuasive, practical—in a pinch, he is our guy. Since he peppers his letter with succinct aphorisms, he is memorable and easily quotable. One favorite quote is, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (1:19).
The common application is that when you are in a tense relationship, listen before you speak, and be sure to keep any frustrations on simmer, not high boil. This is a wise saying, but it is not James’ saying. Instead, he is imploring us to be quick to listen to the word of truth (1:18).
The word of truth is Scripture. It is communication from the Creator God who speaks and his creation obeys. It is communication from the personal God who speaks words of truth to us—from the Father, through the Son, applied by the Spirit. In short, the word of truth is Jesus.
Suddenly this passage is no longer a candidate for Poor Richard’s Almanack, which gave us “God helps those who help themselves,” and not much more about God. For James, practical theology is from above and is always our response to God himself. He speaks and we “do” his speech. We are word-of-God-doers.
So if you are disrespectful toward others with your speech, don’t start by trying to listen to the person in front of you who drives you crazy. Start with meekness before God (1:21). Your problem is not poor interpersonal skills; it is arrogance before God himself. You only listen to him when there is a happy coincidence between your desire and his words. Don’t even think about talking to another person until you have heard the word of the Lord and are silent before him. No backtalk. No grumbling or complaining. Simply rest in the certainty that he is God and you are not, and life is not about the satisfaction of your desires or the supremacy of your will. (I am trying to channel James.)
Once we listen to the word of truth and are silent before God, then—and only then—are we free to speak to those who might be difficult for us.
Sometimes I go to secular psychology conferences, hear someone speak, and think, “I would be happy to bare my soul to that person. He seems to understand people and care about them.”
Describe a person well
Skilled secular counselors can describe people well. They seem to understand pain, especially pain from the past, and their counselees feel understood and cared for. Biblical counselors should be able to do that and be able to take people to depths of insight, hope and growth that secular counseling cannot. But I suspect that secular counselors, on average, might do a little better at describing people’s hardships than biblical counselors.
This is a problem.
A good description opens doors
As a general rule, whoever describes the person best wins the person—and whoever wins the person—gets the opportunity to impact the person. Think about it. Speaking for myself, if I feel you understand me, you could give me most any explanation or direction (that is within biblical boundaries) and I’d run with it or be blessed by it. But if I feel you don’t know me or understand me, I am probably not going to pay attention to you, even if what you tell me is true and good. If you don’t “get” me, you don’t get to direct me. I am not saying that I am right in thinking this, but I am typical.
I saw a psychologist on TV recently—okay, it was Dr. Phil. He was talking to a thirty-ish-year-old husband who, to use Dr. Phil’s words, was an arrogant, narcissistic racist. Many biblical counselors would have reacted to his degenerate swagger in the first few minutes, reminding him that his issues were with God more than his fellow human beings, and that he was in spiritual trouble. In response, he would probably have smirked and said that he, indeed, might be the son of the Devil himself!
Dr. Phil took a different path, one that is traditional in modern psychotherapy. He went to the man’s past, found pain, and told him that fear was behind his bravado. “You are afraid of intimacy,” Dr. Phil said. “Because of your past pain, you are self-protective, and your goal is to hurt and reject people before you can be hurt and rejected.”
Bingo! This man, who had felt little or nothing for years, felt understood and he cried on national TV. And—he was willing to follow Dr. Phil anywhere. It made me want to be a guest on the show.
There is no mystery in Dr. Phil’s approach. He looks for the hard things in a person’s life that might lie behind the sinful and bad, and, when in doubt, he tells the person that he or she is fearful of being hurt—you can’t go wrong by offering that to any human being. He follows that up with something that makes sense and has pragmatic appeal but is certainly shallow by biblical standards.
Biblical counselors need to grow
Biblical counselors should be able to offer accurate, “that’s me” descriptions—we must if we want to persuade people. We should be able to look for the good in someone and the hard things in the person’s life, before we consider the bad. Otherwise we will have sound theory but ineffective practice.
Scripture guides us in both descriptions and explanations. When patience and kindness are coupled with biblical insight, we hope that those who receive biblical counsel will feel deeply understood and eager to hear more from the God who knows the heart.
Perhaps the hardest experience in the Christian life is to suffer and experience divine silence. It seems inconceivable. You lose a baby, you are shamefully victimized, or go through what feels like death itself, and you wonder, “Where is God? How could he be silent, distant or idly watching when this is happening?” If even bad fathers do something when their kids are being abused, why would the Good Father let us go through such turmoil without a peep?
This question—where was God?—is so hard and so important. There is not one correct answer. What is both true and helpful for one person might seem hollow to the next. But we all must reckon with the question. If we haven’t already asked it, we will. So how would you answer it? How have you answered it?
The most obvious answer is to ask God himself. The question to him is a fair one, but you might notice incipient unbelief in that you don’t believe that God hears you or is accessible. Unbelief prefers to talk about God rather than to him. Rule number one is to talk to the Lord, especially during hardships.
Your first words might be: Where were you? Later you might consult those who have said similar words (e.g., Ps. 22) and pattern your question with their entreaties in mind.
Let God ask you a few questions
This is the pattern in the book of Job. Job’s counselors say a lot that is good and some that is not, so it is hard to glean a response to our question from them. But God himself responds to Job—not priests, prophets, or friends but God himself speaks, and that is the kind of direct response we are looking for. He asks Job a series of rhetorical questions, beginning with:
“Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?
Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.” (Job 38:2-3)
Then God continues this Father-son conversation through sixty-five or so questions. At the end, Job receives that most prized possession—the fear of the Lord. This brings with it humility and the knowledge that God is God, and we are not.
This would seem to put an end to our search, but that is not necessarily so. Scripture says more after the climactic event of the Christ’s death and resurrection. What was anticipated is now fully revealed. As such, we can ask the question again.
The Son suffers, the sons and daughters suffer
The answer Job received is expanded in the New Testament. God has determined that his Kingdom on earth will be moved forward by his suffering people. Yes, he uses everyone who turns to him in faith, but the real influencers in the Kingdom have been those who are familiar with hardships. We participate in and fill up the sufferings of Jesus (Rom. 8:17, Col. 1:24). This is another mystery and does not really answer the question of why, but it does show us that the church will not be spared the hardships of fallen human life. He certainly is not silent, and he has put us among fine company.
Wait and hope
You went through the darkest of times and you did not receive anything tangible from the Lord. You felt shut out, even reprimanded. But there is still more information up ahead, and it will change everything.
“For in just a very little while, ‘He who is coming will come and will not delay’” (Heb. 10:37). And the emphasis is on “a very little while.” A time is coming when we will tell parts of our stories differently. What is now: “wait,” will someday be: “for the briefest of moments.” What is now suffering will somehow be replaced with glory.
Read the book of Revelation and see the whirlwind of activity. Prayers are being brought up in bowls before the Lord and armies of angels are being dispatched. Heaven, the place of God’s throne, is buzzing with anticipation for the end of days, when the King returns and bring the fullness of shalom with him.
These are just some of the ways that God communicates to his suffering people.
Edward T. Welch (M.Div., Ph.D.) counsels and teaches at CCEF. He is the author of When People Are Big and God is Small.
CCEF: Since 1968, the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation (ccef.org) has set the pace in biblical counseling. We teach people how to explore the wisdom and depth of the Bible and apply its grace-centered message to the problems of daily living. Simply put our mission is to: Restore Christ to Counseling and Counseling to the Church. We offer conferences, courses, resources and counseling. Follow us on twitter and facebook.