A few days ago, I took on a needed maintenance job at my home—clearing some tree stumps from our vegetable garden and yard. I naively thought I would be able to finish the job in an hour or so. I underestimated the job by three or four hours.
I started with a hatchet and shovel. I finished with a chainsaw, a fire, two sweat-soaked t-shirts, a pair of smoke-infused, dirt-saturated pants, and three blisters. My job took longer than I wanted and demanded more (far more) labor than I expected.
I thought of that episode as I was thinking about the process of helping struggling sinners. The task often takes longer than expected because people’s lives are complex and sin weaves a web of entanglements that are frequently unimaginable when starting to help others. (So I’ve learned not to say things like, “Oh, this is a simple marriage problem” as few marriage problems are as simple as they first appear.)
We want to help sinners, but we need to be careful in our help. In a passage that is well-known to biblical counselors, the apostle Paul reminds us of four principles as we seek to restore sinners to a life of faithfulness to the Lord. These are reminders that we should be conscious of whenever we sit behind our counseling desk and begin to minister biblical truth. They are four principles that will help us faithfully care for others when the situations are longer and harder than we anticipated.
“Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.” (Galatians 6:1; NASB)
The Nature of Sin
In a word, sin is “catchy.” The word Paul uses about this sinner is that he is “caught” (NASB; prolambanw, in Greek). It can have the sense of being caught unaware and surprised by the sin. That sense is given by the KJV word, “overtaken.” Or it can have the sense of being observed and “caught in the act of sin,” which is indicated by the NASB translation, “caught.” Both senses are reasonable translations of the word.
However we interpret the word, one aspect of sin’s nature is common to both translations—sin will “catch” the sinner. There is no freedom in sin. It ensnares, traps, binds, and ultimately will kill the sinner.
One way to minister this truth to our counselees is to think with them about all the ways their particular sins are “catchy” to them. For instance, “In what kinds of scenarios are you attracted to anger, anxiety, or abusive speech?” Then we can press the truth of Galatians further into their lives by asking, “What are the ramifications when you are caught and entrapped by these sins that seem so ‘catchy’ to you?” In asking these questions, we are helping our counselees to see both the sin and its consequences—the crop that is reaped from the sin that is sown (v. 7).
We help sinners by remembering and helping them remember the nature of sin.
The Goal for Ministry to Sinners
To help sinners ensnared by sin, we also need to remember the goal given by the apostle in this verse: restoration. Or goal is not to be punitive. Our goal is not to fix the problem. Our goal is to restore the sinner. The word “restore” was often used in medical or repair settings, like setting a broken bone or repairing a torn fishing net. That’s the goal of the counselor and discipler; he longs to “repair” the sinner.
But repairing the sinner doesn’t mean “fix” the way we generally mean it. Restoration and repair means that the sinner has confessed and repented of his sin, is walking in fellowship with Christ, and is equipped again for ministry and service in the church. The consequences of his sin may not be “fixed” (e.g., his financial credit may not be restored), but he is walking in repentant obedience to Christ (e.g., he is faithfully following a repayment plan and his spending is being controlled because his covetous desires have been transformed into a greater desire for Christ).
So our goal for our counselees is that we want to saturate them with a delight in Christ—His cross, His Word, His Spirit, and His joy. Remember that this verse follows immediately after the passage on the fruit of the Spirit (5:22-26). The march towards the goal of restoration begins by rejecting the works of the flesh (5:16-21), and submitting in obedience to the Spirit and His Word. Our goal above all is to help our counselees be restored by pointing them to the Spirit of Christ, who will produce His fruit through them, if they repent.
The Means for Ministry to Sinners
How will we help our counselees be restored? As any parent of a two- or three-year-old knows, you cannot force someone to do something they do not want to do. We cannot physically compel, verbally berate, or emotionally manipulate someone into true and lasting spiritual transformation.
If we are going to help our struggling counselees, we will only be effective when we use the means Paul reminds us to use—a spirit of gentleness. This is the word that is sometimes translated “meekness,” which should never be understood as weakness. To be meek is to use our strength and power in appropriate and controlled ways. We humbly, kindly, graciously, clearly, and directly exhort and admonish the counselee with the hope of the Scriptures.
The emphasis of the word “gently” is that we work with humility. We “judge” (expose and help the counselee evaluate his condition) without judgmentalism. We instruct and pray and plead for change without berating and manipulating. We model what our Savior does for us: “a battered reed He will not break off, and a smoldering wick He will not put out” (Matthew 12:20). Our Savior is gentle, persistent, and patient with us. That same gentle patience is our primary means and attitude we use to guide our counselees.
The Warning for Ministers to Sinners
It is particularly striking that Paul’s reminders for restoring sinners doesn’t just focus on the sinner; he also gives attention to the restorer. The one who is in the ministry of restoration (which is largely what counseling and discipleship is), must also, in a sense, minister to himself. Specifically, he must watch his own heart and his own life, “lest you too be tempted.” In other words, sin isn’t just “catchy” for the sinning counselee. Sin is “catchy” for the counselor as well. He also might be attracted to sin. He also might be ensnared by sin.
While the apostle clearly says there is a possibility of temptation, he is unspecific with the kinds of sins that might be a temptation for the counselor. While the specific temptations might be as many as the sand of the sea, the temptations will likely fall into one of three categories.
He might be tempted with the same sin as the counselee. In telling the story of his sin, the counselee might unwittingly entice the counselor to engage in similar sins. The struggler’s sin might awaken a desire in the counselor to engage in those same sins, or he might begin delighting in mental, vicarious involvement in those sins (which we would call “desires of the heart”). More than once, I have prayed something like, “Lord, I need this information to help this person, but I cannot hold onto this story—so would you keep me from dwelling on it and purge it from my mind when we are finished counseling?” We do not want to train ourselves to delight in sins from which we are attempting to liberate our counselees.
He might be tempted by a sin related to the counselee’s condition. For instance, he might have an unrighteously angry response against the counselee for the way the counselee has treated others (a particular temptation in abuse situations). Or he might pridefully disparage the sinner’s struggle, believing that he would not or could not sin in such ways. Or he might be uncompassionate, deeming that the sinner’s struggle is inconsequential. Or he might be impatient over a counselee’s repeated struggles. Or he might be defensively angry when the counselee criticizes the counsel he has received. These few illustrations demonstrate that there are many opportunities for a counselor to be tempted to sin because of this counselee’s actions. The counselor must “keep watch on himself” for such temptations.
He might be tempted to unrelated sins of the counselee. Because he is so involved in the process of restoring the struggling counselee, he may not give full attention to his own heart. He may spend time studying to help the counselee but neglect meditating on Scripture to minister for his own heart. Or, he may be so weary from the task of caring for others that he becomes lackadaisical and apathetic for his own heart, and he then might be tempted to fall into some of his own patterns of sin.
In all three of these kinds of situations, we counselors must be quick to guard against every temptation and to confess any and every sin as quickly as we can—to those against whom we sin against both on earth and on Heaven’s throne.
The Lord has graciously given us the ministry of reconciliation so we might help sinners be restored to fellowship with the Lord and ministry in the church. But we must also be diligent to watch our own hearts and actions so that we resist every temptation, stay restored to fellowship with Christ, and equipped to serve our Savior in His church. This is Paul’s reminder for us as we labor for Christ—often in wearying and wearisome circumstances. The work may be hard, but we have been given the tools we need to be faithful.