Have you ever been in a situation where you really wanted to identify and empathize with the suffering that one of your counselees was facing but you were afraid to do so lest you make excuses for your counselee?
I have been there many times. I once counseled a man whose wife had left him. As I looked at my counselee I was conflicted. On the one hand, he had been encouraged for years to change, to give up his sin, and to do right. There was part of his story that was explained by the reality that sin has consequences. In order to grow and change he needed to deal with his sin. But on the other hand, I also saw a broken man. He was a man who had lost a lot, he was facing the reality that she was not always nice or cooperative in dealing with the children, and there were yet other difficulties coming in the days ahead. He needed compassion, he needed a friend to walk with him, and he needed someone who cared not only about his sin but about the fact that he went to bed alone.
So, what do you do? How do you identify with suffering without taking the issue of personal responsibility for sin off the table? Here is one suggestion.
A couple of years ago I was reminded about a passage of Scripture that can really help in these cases – Psalm 25.
First, Psalm 25 describes how to handle suffering. Of course, Psalm 25 does not give the wholesale treatise on suffering but it does include some of the crucial elements such as (1) returning to the Lord, (2) asking God to strengthen and protect them, and (3) trusting God in the midst of the suffering.
So a discussion of Psalm 25 is one of the ways you can acknowledge those hurts caused by others.
Second, Psalm 25 also discusses how to handle sin. Again, it is not that everything one needs to know about handling sin is in this psalm, but the basics are there (1) acknowledge it, (2) confess it, and (3) rest in the forgiveness of God.
In other words, Psalm 25 gives you an opportunity to talk about both sin and suffering. It allows you to relate to them, to talk about their struggles at the hands of others, and yet it does not sound as if you are making excuses for them to behave in response any way that they want.
Here is a sample homework you could give after you discussed Psalm 25 in your session.
- “Read Psalm 25 each day this week and write out how the Psalmist handles his suffering. In other words, what does he think about and what does he do? Then write out how the Psalmist handles his sin. What does he think about his sin and what does he do about it?” This allows them to personally interact with God’s Word and it shows them how God’s Word helps them.
- “Please keep a sin/suffering journal. Over the next week record each time you were a ‘sinner’ or a ‘sufferer’ and answer the questions (1) what was the situation? (2) what made you believe you were a ‘sinner’ or a ‘sufferer’ in that situation? (3) What did you do? (4) Was what you did consistent with what Psalm 25 encouraged you to do? (5) if not, what could you have done differently to more properly apply Psalm 25 in that situation.
I believe that by acknowledging their suffering and giving them some Scriptural help we build a tighter bond and have greater opportunities for more effective ministry. In addition, we also avoid the traps of (1) coming across too harsh by only trying to focus on the sin issues in their lives and (2) giving them reason to make excuses by only identifying with their suffering.