How Do I Counsel A Friend?
Text: 1 Thessalonians 5:14 | Listen to Message
If you’re living in community, there will be plenty of opportunities to observe both sin and suffering in the lives of others. You may even think to yourself, “Someone should do something to help this person! But who?” It’s so easy to excuse ourselves from the responsibility to counsel a friend because, after all, we have plenty of our own issues to deal with. “Shouldn’t I fix my own problems first before attempting to help others with theirs?”
While these are understandable concerns, the New Testament assumes that ordinary and broken believers will invest their lives in counseling other ordinary and broken believers. (For example, see Romans 15:14 and 1 Thessalonians 5:14.) Paul David Tripp puts it like this: “God uses people, who are themselves in need of change, as instruments of the same kind of change in others” (Instruments in The Redeemer’s Hands).
Christians counseling Christians should not feel rare or exceptional. It should be woven into the fabric of every friendship.
Okay, but how? Most believers are not trained counselors. So where do we even begin? Again, Paul Tripp has some profound wisdom for us: “[Counseling] is almost embarrassingly simple: Love people. Know them. Speak truth into their lives. Help them do what God has called them to do.” Let’s look at each of those very briefly.
God’s love for us looked like incarnation. He drew near to broken sinners, identified with us, and shared compassion and grace.
We tend to farm out counseling (or “therapy”) to the so-called “experts” who rely on their education and techniques rather than love. But most counseling happens best within the context of loving, wise, and grace-saturated relationships. If you already love people – your family, friends, and church community – you’re halfway there!
You can’t speak wisdom into a situation you don’t first understand. So start with questions – thoughtful, open-ended questions that invite your friends to share. As they speak, listen for four major things (borrowed from Tripp’s Instruments):
First, understand the situation. What actually happened? What led up to that? Is this an isolated incident or a common occurrence?
Second, understand your friend’s response to the situation. What did he say? What did he do? How did he react to those pressures and provocations?
Third, understand what your friend was thinking and feeling. How did it feel when that person said that to her? How did it feel after she reacted that way? How does it feel now? Listen for thoughts and emotions that help you understand your friend.
Finally, understand what your friend desires. All real biblical counseling must go after the heart, where desires (and idols!) drive us to do everything we do. What does your friend ultimately want? What does he want so badly he thinks he needs it in order to be happy or successful? What desires control him and shape his reactions to his circumstances?
As you listen and learn, take note of patterns and recurring themes. Take note of root causes. Take note of evaluations, interpretations, and conclusions that reveal your friend’s heart.
Speak the truth in love – and especially speak the Gospel. Don’t just share the obligations and imperatives of the Christian life; focus first on the declarations and indicatives of the Gospel! Think about the greatness, goodness, grace, and glory of God, and apply this Good News directly to the heart desires of your friend.
Don’t talk about behavioral changes until you’ve talked about who God is and what God has done for your friend. Wash them with words of grace and hope. Then show them the implications of God’s grace for their battles with sin and/or suffering.
Help your friend do what God has called her to do. Spiritual formation is a group project. Develop an agenda to help her implement baby steps of change. Provide firm but gracious accountability. Check in often. Be there for her.
If you’ve never done this, here’s a simple way to practice: Start with yourself. Think deeply about a situation of sin and/or suffering in your own life. What happened? How did you respond? What thoughts were your primary drivers in that situation? What emotions did you experience? What do you think and feel right now as you reflect? Ultimately, what did – and what does – your heart desire? What affections and felt needs are driving you? This process of counseling yourself leads to a radical self-awareness that most people don’t possess. And it’s vital to your Gospel transformation. As you become more adept at identifying and surrendering your own heart desires, you’ll be gaining invaluable experience to help others!