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Bob and Betty pull you aside after the morning service, and with a mixed look of despair and frustration ask if they could meet with you later in the day. Without giving details in their request to meet, their bloodshot eyes indicate that their world has somehow imploded. Wanting to help and without giving it a second thought, you agree to meet with them at 6:00 p.m. They walk away… and suddenly you realize that you have absolutely no idea as to what kind of mess with which you are about to be engaged. Anxiety sends your thoughts spinning out of control! Then out of nowhere, the story of Jonah sails through your mind as you consider asking Siri if there is a boat ride to Antarctica on which you could depart in the next hour. Realizing this is a bit extreme, and with your stomach now tied in knots, you think that you could just call them up and let them know you have suddenly come down with a stomach bug,  and THEREFORE it would be better for everybody if they found someone else with whom to meet! Then comes Romans 15:14 through your spinning head, “… you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another.” How are we to respond to the request of others for help and to God’s Word which says we are able to help? Here are five considerations to help you love your neighbor well in the opportunities that God will set before you:

1. Pray!

Are you anxious about the meeting and the all the unknowns? “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God (Philippians 4:6).” Do you lack wisdom? Ask God “who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given” (James 1:5).

When seeking to help others, we must pray because only God knows the situation fully, and we need to express our dependence upon him to be given the discernment for exalting His name in every circumstance of life. To that end, Stephen Yuille wrote: “God commands us to love one another, abstain from what is evil, pursue righteousness, submit to those in authority over us, be patient and humble, love our spouse… endure persecution, and love our neighbor. We can’t do any of these things in our own strength. We can’t obey in our own power. And so, we must pray.”

We pray before our first meeting, during the meeting, and after the meeting in light of Colossians 4:2. “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.” As the counselor, you must acknowledge your utter dependence upon the Holy Spirit as the Great Counselor, and upon His power and guidance to bring about any real hope and change. For the counselees, they must not come to rely upon you, but upon God. Such reliance is expressed through prayer! You love your counselees the most when you pray for them, and the more you pray for them the more you will be inclined to love them. Pray before your meeting, at the opening of your meeting, during your meeting, and as you conclude it (1 Th. 5:17). After opening your meeting with prayer, seek to understand the situation at hand.

2. Gather Data.

As Bob and Betty pour out their hearts, be quick to listen, slow to speak (James 1:19), and diligent in asking good questions to clarify both the situation at hand and the ruling desires of their hearts. Proverbs 18:13 gives us reason to ask before we answer: “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.” Proverbs 18:15 instructs us to get the facts. “An intelligent heart acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.” We need to make sure both Bob and Betty are given full opportunity to speak, as Proverbs 18:17 says, “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” By extensive probing, we get the facts about the situation, and by intensive probing we get to the heart behind the behavior (Proverbs 20:5). Of chief importance in getting to know them is whether or not they truly know God. What is the state of their souls? If you discover you are working with non-believers, giving them biblical principles to live by will bear no fruit (John 15:5) as 1 Corinthians 2:14 says, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” Having asked lots of questions and clarified that you rightly understand the problem(s) they are presenting, the next step is to prayerfully prioritize what to address in your first meeting.

3. Determine Agenda.

With the problem defined in biblical terms, discern what needs to be addressed right now and what can wait. What steps need to be taken right away concerning the issue(s) at hand and the desires of their hearts? How does God’s sufficient Word address both (2 Tim. 3:16-17), and what would it look like for them to glorify God in the midst of their situation (1 Cor. 10:31; Mt. 6:9-13)? Up to this point, you have gathered data, asked questions, and determined an initial agenda. It is time now to give them what they came for, or at least what they most need: God’s Word.

4. Give Instruction.

Proverbs 27:9 says, “Oil and perfume make the heart glad, and the sweetness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel.” Of course, the counsel given to Bob and Betty comes directly from God’s Word, which is no empty word, but to be their very life (Deut. 32:47). In Romans 15:4, Paul writes: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures, we might have hope.” God has preserved His Word for the purpose of instruction, by which Bob and Betty may endure, be encouraged, and have hope or a confident expectation of God’s will for them in their situation. In addressing their situation, open up the scriptures to them that it may be a lamp to their feet and a light to their path (Psalm 119:105). Through God’s Word, show them Christ and how the power of the gospel provides the enabling grace for them to glorify God in whatever situation they find themselves. To that end, Milton Vincent wrote that “the gospel is not just one piece of good news that fits into my life somewhere among all the bad. I realize instead, that the gospel makes genuinely good news out of every other aspect of my life, including my severest trials. The good news about my trials is that God is forcing them to bow to His gospel purposes and do good unto me by improving my character and making me more conformed to the image of Christ.” With that in mind, send them off with scriptures that will further give them the hope and insights that are needed to renew their minds and look afresh to Christ each day until your next meeting (Eph. 4:22-24).

5. Assign HOMEWORK.

More often than not, people coming for counseling are in difficult situations because they have not been in the Word. Likely they are familiar with God’s Word, but not fixed upon it (James 1:22-25; Mt. 7:24-27; John 17:17). Give them specific verses to study and apply which point them to Christ and the sufficiency of His Word as they seek to glorify His name in following Him. As Jay Adams wrote, giving them homework “(1) encourages the counselee to return; (2) encourages the counselee to see that there is much more to be done; (3) encourages the counselee to see that the counselor (a) has a plan and program, (b) moves thoroughly, not rushing things through in order to get them done, and (c) cares enough to explain what he is doing, when, and why.” So WHEN “Bob and Betty” approach YOU, approach God in prayer and remember these words from 1 Corinthians 2: “For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God, we speak in Christ.”

Bryan Gaines is Pastor of Family Discipleship at Grace Community Church in Glen Rose, Texas.  He regularly teaches classes to encourage and equip parents, works in the Student Ministry, leads an adult Care Group, and oversees Grace Preschool.  Bryan also leads Grace Biblical Counseling, LLC.  He is certified biblical counselor with the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC, formerly NANC).