“Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life.”
1 Timothy 1:16
How (Not) to Respond to the Messy Business of Counseling
Biblical counseling is a messy business. According to Paul in Galatians 6, those “who are spiritual” should seek to help (restore) those who are caught in any trespass (Gal. 6:1). The kind of person Paul instructs here is a mature believer, who will (through the enablement of the Spirit, cf. Gal. 5:25) have the biblical wisdom and strength to help, while also avoiding the temptations inherent in this kind of ministry. These will be men and women who are striving to keep themselves “unstained by the world” (Jas. 1:27).
As we strive in our own lives for this holiness which God requires (Heb. 12:14), it will be rightly grievous for us to see firsthand (and up close) the sins people have caught themselves in. Witnessing such offenses as unforgiveness, physical and verbal abuse, sexual sin, lying and cheating, and fighting and arguing (just to name a few) should lead us to declare with the Psalmist, “My eyes shed streams of water, Because they do not keep Your law” (Ps. 119:136).
As right and understandable as the inclination to grieve over the sins of others may be, there is a related response (that can even sometimes look similar) of which we must be aware, and which we must avoid at all costs. That is the impulse—seen often among the Pharisees in Jesus’ day (Matt. 9:11; Mark 2:16; Luke 5:30; 7:39; 18:11-12; 19:7)—to be personally offended by another’s sin in such a way as to respond not with humble grief, mercy, and compassion, but instead with self-righteousness and disgust towards the sinner.
Paul: A Practical Example
Of course, Jesus gives us an indispensable example of what our ministry to sinners should look like through His constant willingness to receive them and minister the hope of the gospel to them (cf. Matt. 9:2; Luke 7:48). But unlike Jesus, we have neither Divine impeccability to preserve us from the defilement of sin, nor perfect holiness to transfer cleanliness to others just through touch (cf. Mark 5:24-34)!
So how are we to accomplish this work of drawing near to those who are caught in the worst sins imaginable, while also maintaining a heart of humility and mercy rather than one of pride and disgust? The apostle Paul gives us an example that is unlike that of Jesus in this respect: he was a sinner who constantly remained aware of the incredible sin debt he had been forgiven. This awareness helped him—and one like it can help us—to endure in an effective gospel ministry that is characterized by humility and patience.
The Foremost Ministers Wisely
Paul characterized himself in 1 Timothy 1:15-16 as “the foremost” of sinners. This means that Paul had seen and confessed his sin. Some Scriptures that have bearing here include:
- He who conceals his transgression will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy (Prov. 28:13).
- But with You there is forgiveness, that You may be feared (Ps. 130:4).
- The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 9:10a).
So Paul had the general wisdom that comes with confessing and repenting of sin. Without this, there is no wisdom at all.
Additionally, there is a specific kind of wisdom that is always inhibited when we fail to see and repent of our own sin before seeking to minister to others. Jesus teaches in Matthew 7:1-5 that in order to “see clearly” to help a brother with his sin, one must first notice and deal with his own sin. That is to say, my unconfessed sin will have a blinding effect on me, and will keep
me from ministering wisely to others who are struggling with sin.
A further detail that bears mention from Matthew 7 is this: no matter who you are or what you have done, you are to see your own sin as the “log” and the other person’s sin as the “speck” (Matt. 7:7-5). This helps to explain why Paul is able to refer so decisively to himself as the foremost of sinners: to him, his own sin will always be greater than the sins of others.
It is not easy or natural to gain this wisdom that comes from seeing our own sin as greater than others’—our natural tendency is to want to see ourselves in the best possible light. However, with God’s help through His word, we can see something in ourselves that we cannot see in others: our own sinful motivations (cf. Jer. 17:9; Ps. 139:23-24; Heb. 4:12). If you struggle with this, ask God to graciously help you to search your own sinful heart, and ask Him to lead you to see and deal with your own sin as a “log,” so that you might rightly see and help another with his or her “speck.”
The Foremost Ministers Patiently
In one of the key texts for biblical counseling, Paul instructs the Thessalonian believers to “admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak” (1 Thess. 5:14). While various struggles require various kinds of ministry, Paul adds one universal characteristic for the minister of God’s word: “be patient with everyone” (1 Thess. 5:14).
Looking back to 1 Timothy, we can see how this worked itself out in Paul’s ministry, and likely how it should work out in ours. Paul saw that the reason God had mercy on him as the foremost, was so that he could make Paul an example of “His perfect patience” (1 Tim. 1:16). Basically, Paul is saying, “if God could save me, the foremost of sinners, then God can save anyone.”
This mindset is critical if we are going to minister to the unruly, the fainthearted, and the weak—and do so with constant patience. If we can build a habit of rightly seeing and reminding ourselves of the depth of sin from which God has saved (and continues to save) us, then we will be more inclined to have patience with those He places in front of us for ministry, trusting and praying that they might be among “those who would believe in Him for eternal life” (1 Tim. 1:16).
The Foremost Ministers Indiscriminately
If I am rightly seeing myself as the foremost of sinners, and rightly seeing my sin as the “log” as compared with the “specks” of others, I will not see anyone as beyond the reach of God’s grace through my ministry of the word. Rather than judging “with evil motives” based on personal favoritism or external appearances (Jas. 2:1-5), I will be like Jesus, having compassion on the brokenhearted and poor in spirit—not on those who believe they are righteous, but on those who know that they are sick— those who know that they are sinners (Matt. 9:13; Mark 2:17; Luke 5:32).
Biblical counseling requires that we get close to sinners and their often messy problems. May each of us strive to be like Paul, seeing himself as the foremost of sinners, privileged to humbly, patiently, and wisely minister the hope of the gospel so that more “chief sinners” might become trophies of God’s saving and sanctifying grace!