Executive Director Jim Newheiser speaks about the grace, patience and faith needed to counsel people who have ongoing problems.
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Hello and welcome to the IBCD Care and Discipleship Podcast. I’m Craig Marshall, and with me today is our Executive Director Jim Newheiser. We’re going to be talking today about how to counsel with ongoing problems. One of the categories we continually are asked about and then that we also wrestle with ourselves here at our church is regarding people who don’t seem to change or seem to have ongoing issues. You’re trying to jump in and help them and sometimes intense counseling is given. We’ve had a few scenarios that have been raised just as we’ve done seminars and questions have come in. I want to start with one of those just as we think through this, and that is, “What counsel do you offer for marriages whose problems persist despite having biblical counsel from numerous godly men and couples in their church?
You’re asking really tough questions. I don’t have a track record of great success in these cases. These are cases both in the church and at IBCD. It’s almost like sometimes when there’s a calamity and there’s been adultery or something awful has happened, the husband’s been caught stealing or the wife drunk, and handling those big issues and you see amazing change and it’s very exciting. I’ve had cases, both in the church and at IBCD, where I’ve met with people many, many, many times, and it’s like these marriages, they have a low-grade fever. They’ve got a bad cold. It’s no pneumonia. It’s not going to kill them, it’s just they’re just living in mediocrity. They’re staying married because they’re Christians and they’ve got kids and they’ve got a life, but they don’t really like each other very much. They don’t enjoy each other. They’re each falling so far short of Biblical ideals for marriage.
There’s been one thing that, lately, has been on my mind. A new place for us that we’ve been starting is instead of doing crisis counseling … What often happens is those marriages that are sort of chugging along with this 99.7 degree fever and the mediocrity and then there’s a crisis. They call the elders, they come to counsel. You try to address the crisis but the crisis is the same old sin issues just … You squeeze the bottle and out came the ketchup, the anger or whatever.
You try to address it again and you find yourself quoting the same verses and giving the same exhortations. You’re almost running out … “What new homework can I devise for this?” Recently, we’ve tried to put an emphasis on discipling both husband and wife individually. Not even primarily about marriage, but just growing in Christ. This fits so well with what Paul writes at the end of Ephesians 3. In the first 2 1/2 chapters he’s elaborated on all that God has done for us in Christ. Then he prays, at the end of chapter 3, that his hearers would be strengthened in the inner self by the Spirit and that they would be able to grasp the dimension, the height, the breadth, the length of the love of Christ which then goes on to chapters 4 to 6 which, by the way, includes all kinds of things the Lord wants us to do, including how He wants us to act as a husband and wife.
If a husband is not loving his wife in a Christ-like way, if a wife does not respect her husband and is not a helper, what is the problem? It’s not just a problem of technique. The problem is not the other person is failing, although that makes it a tempting situation.
My analysis of what Paul is saying in Ephesians 3 would be, this person needs to grow in their comprehension of Christ’s love to them. The truths of the first 3 chapters of Ephesians, that’s what’s going to empower them, that’s what’s going to motivate them to live in their marriage differently than they did before. These people, individually, are weak in their walk with Christ which is why they’re not walking in the Spirit like Galatians says, why there’s fleshliness coming out in terms of irritability, low-grade, sometimes a little bit more than low-grade anger.
My approach now is let’s get these people discipled. Individually, are they really walking with the Lord, do they understand the grace of God, are they in the Word, are they enjoying a rich prayer life, are they reveling in all that Christ has done for them and growing in that? That will hopefully carry over to … It has to carry over, [inaudible 00:04:53] it’s not just maybe. It will certainly carry over if they are caught up and enraptured by Christ’s love to them in terms of how they treat the other person. If they’re walking by the Spirit, they’ll be bearing the fruit of the Spirit. After making progress, there may be discipleship on marriage specifically would be a next step building on that foundation. That’s what I’m excited about right now.
Instead of just, “Wow, we tried counseling, focused on that specific problem, now that problem’s back again. What do we do?” It’s kind of zooming out and saying, “Let’s look at it from a different angle and make sure we really pour resources into their walk with Christ personally. “Yes. I can say, in concrete terms, I can think of a couple where different ones of us have tried to meet with them. You think you solved the problem in that the crisis ended. They’re smiling a week or two later but then it keeps coming back. It’s like, “You didn’t finish the antibiotics and so the bug is never killed and it keeps coming back.”
The most recent approach has been much more intensive discipleship. Not firefighting with marriage crisis or even marriage problems, but just growing in Christ as believers with the fundamentals of the faith. Some have been using a book by Jerry Bridges called Disciplines of Grace. It’s not a marriage book, it’s a living as a Christian book but I’ve seen far better results with this couple from having spent months in that book just to grow in Christ than I did with all the firefighting efforts that proceeded it.
Some of this might be – with ongoing problems – maybe what we have in our mind is that intensive Biblical counseling should solve the problem and if it doesn’t, we’ve done the counseling wrong, something’s wrong with the people. It seems like I get questions like that quite a bit of, “We’ve tried this, it’s not fixed. What do we do?” Has your perspective of that changed, as you’ve counseled over the years, in what it takes to really help people grow?
Craig Marshall: I think you’ve raised an excellent point that needs to be added. What I said before, what I just said is not the magic bullet that will solve all of these problems in terms of one-on-one discipleship. There will always be people who come for help who are not helped. We have some people who come to us whose lives are transformed. They’re the ones who get in the newsletter, they’re the ones who we have given testimonies at our conferences, and they’re the ones who keep you coming back to counsel, because counseling’s hard. There are some people who get nowhere. They don’t come back. They get divorced. We don’t see much of them because they give up pretty fast. They make you sad because you remember them and then there are the ones who are just gradually making progress.
This is true in the life of our Lord, as I have been studying recently, in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus had people who wanted to come and follow Him and they weren’t willing to do what Jesus called them to do. It was not a failure of Jesus in counseling them of what it means to follow Him – rich, young ruler being the most famous example – These people did not choose to do what Jesus called them to do. You’re going to have counselees where you show them from the Word of God what God is calling them to do and they just don’t do it.
There’s no technique that we can train our counselors to enact that will change the hearts of hard-hearted people. Only the Spirit of God can do that on the divine level. On the human level, they have to choose to listen in faith and act on faith so there will be failures to change because some counselees aren’t really regenerate. They profess faith and they’ve never received the Spirit of God in them. They’re not yet new creatures and they’re incapable. Those who are of the flesh cannot please God Romans 8 says, and so they are incapable of real change.
There are also real believers who are just slow and it may take in their lives a great crisis later. Right now they’re not getting very far and the Lord may have in mind to bring an overwhelming trial in their life. A child may rebel, a child may die, one spouse may get so fed up they kick the other one out. It may take that kind of shake up to bring them to their senses and seek after God passionately in a way they’d never done before so yes, there will be situations where no matter what you do where people don’t change. We just want to try to through the whole counsel of God at them. We’re desperately dependent upon the Holy Spirit to help us to know where to go to work on the hearts of the people. Results will vary according to God’s sovereign purpose, as they do as you read in the New Testament.
How do you handle that personally? When you’ve met with someone, you feel like you’ve given them what they need to know for the situation to change, and unfortunately it’s not changing. They’re still struggling but yet you’re still encountering them week-in/week-out. How do you keep from either resenting them for not changing or taking it personally that somehow you failed? How do you think about that?
I think that in order to be counselors it helps when you’re really humble and realize you can’t change anybody. It’s going to be hard. You’re human. It’s going to be disappointing. The more you care for people the more sad you will be, but again, going back to the experiences of those who proclaimed the Gospel in the New Testament – Our Lord especially – There are going to be varying results. Parable of the Soils is another example.
My wife does a lot of counseling, as well, both inside the church and at IBDC. She’s probably more sensitive to this than I. We often pray together for specific couples with whom we’ve been involved. We lay this before God and plead with Him to help these folks whom we have not been able to change. Sometimes we’ve seen Him work and sometimes we’ve been sad in that these couples have remained hard-hearted.
Ultimately it’s humbling, which is what we need, to say it’s totally in the Lord’s hands. Sometimes people change later. Sometimes people talk to somebody else and they hear the something you said but God chooses to work and if your passion is to see God work and to see people grow in Christ that’s fine. You can rejoice in that.
Same attitude as Paul being able to rejoice even though people are slandering him. Hopefully they are not slandering you and your counsel but still the Gospel is being preached or held out to these people for change.
Sometimes Paul was slandered we see in Philippians 1 and it will happen to us as well but I’m thankful the Lord has kept me from experiencing a lot of frustration, even in my heart, in terms of those of those who don’t change. I’m sad for them. I’m grieved. I feel like they’re … was it C. S. Lewis’ story where they’re playing with mud-pies when they’ve been invited to spend the holiday at the beach. They’re not enjoying the blessings that God offers them in life and in family, but you can’t take this personally. It’s between them and the Lord. It’s not your failure, it’s a reflection of their relationship with Christ. You’re trying to point them to Christ but you can’t make them turn to Christ.
That leads me to another question that’s related to this which is, how do you counsel church members who are struggling but they’re not seeking help. They are not coming to you in a crisis.
Right. It’s hard, in the context of the local church, to know that there are marriages which are this mediocre level where you don’t think they’re on the verge of divorce. There’s not violence, there’s not adultery. They’re just kind of bearing up with a bad situation or a not so good situation but there is no joy in it. I think reaching out through hospitality.
Rather than saying, “This is going to be a counseling session and you guys are going to have homework.” Just to care for them, see where the conversation goes, see if there’s opportunities where you can naturally point them in right directions or offer help. Depending on how severe it is. Often it’s one spouse who will be complaining. Almost always it’s the wife who will tell my wife or someone else, “Things are really rough, we need help.” Based on that, she has a right to seek help. Not just for herself but if her husband is a member of the church … in Matthew 18, if your brother won’t listen to you, you can get other people to talk to him.
There have been times where one spouse says, “We need help.” We say, “You’ve got to talk to us, we need to try to address this.” There could be a case where you can see things are terrible and neither spouse is asking for help. What rises to that level is a judgement call in terms of it’s just so bad that you need to say, “Look, we need to talk. We’re going to visit you. We’re going to have you over.” There will be cases where you wish you could help them. Coming to mind is Jesus just crying over Jerusalem. The parallels aren’t identical, oh I would have gathered you, but there are times you feel that way where you see wayward sheep, you try to offer them help.
It doesn’t rise to the level where you can exert authority in the disciplinary sense, you’re just sad to see them playing in the mud and not enjoying the holiday at the beach. All you can do is make yourself available. You can’t force them to get the help they don’t agree they need. Probably in time, the Lord will bring some kind of crisis where they will seek your help which gets back to where I began. When that day comes probably what they need is not putting out the flames of the fire, the crisis. What they need is discipleship to build their lives in Christ in a way that real and lasting change is possible.
In a lot of these situations it’s just this continually holding them before the Lord in prayer and then seeking to continue to move towards them in love to the best that you can, and as things come up offer to help, offer to talk more intensely about it or in a more focused way if they are willing. Just being able to continue to be in their lives as a fellow believer is what the Lord’s calling us to?
Yes. In the context of the local church, I have some structure for some of this. I seek to pray, in a week, for every single person in our church. Our church has about 300 people so that’s manageable. If you’ve got a thousand that’s a little harder. Often things come to mind to pray for specifically, or things come to mind where I think, “Well, I need to talk to that person.”
As a shepherd, it’s being among the sheep. We have 7 shepherds here – elders – to be out among them building relationship so that if they were in trouble they’d feel comfortable coming to you. Just talking to them things will come up more naturally rather than in a highly structured, “you’ve got to talk to me in an office type of setting.” Equipping others to care so you have a network of people in the church who know what to look for, know how to offer basic help, can come get more help from you if they need it. You want to build in the church a culture of care and especially among the leadership, a culture of shepherding. As I mentioned earlier, when you see problems, praying specifically for those needs. I’ll pray that the Lord would open a door where in a natural way – not barging in against their will – help could be offered and received.
One other direction that I think would be helpful to talk about is, obviously sometimes we see situations become so bad that discipline is involved. There are also ways you can start to use the church as a hole to bring these things to a head or as a tool for restoration. What are some ways that you’ve seen that happen in the church? Where it’s not quite at discipline yet, but enlisting the rest of the church for help.
Sometimes problems are so evident that other people in the church become aware of them. It could be through speaking to one spouse about the problems at home, it could even be just observing an argument in public or something like that. If those people come to you, obviously pray for these people. It’s making you aware that you need to take action.
There are sometimes cases in the church where another couple could be a great help in discipling the couple who are in trouble. I’ve had cases where I would encourage a husband – and sometimes even without encouragement – a husband would share, either in a public time of prayer or in a home group, and just say, “My marriage is in trouble right now. and Please pray to God that I will be a better husband and that my wife and I will be able to be reconciled, be united.” You want to be careful that that’s not going to upset your wife more before you do that but I think incorporating the prayers, the care of the rest of the body into that relationship can be a great thing in a certain setting within the church, and then encouraging other people in the church.
I’ll tell people when their marriages are struggling to spend time with couples whose marriages seem to be much stronger. You’ll learn that those marriages aren’t perfect. What makes a marriage great is not perfect success in keeping all the marriage laws. You’ll find that the great marriages are the ones that are full of grace and forgiveness for fellow sinners. Being around those people and being real beyond just the immediate leadership of the church can be a great thing for a couple which is struggling.
So much of this is an attitude of understanding our own struggle, our own weakness, and the Lord’s patience with us. That then enables us not to just look at problems to be fixed or problems to be solved but it’s ongoing opportunities to show love and grace in the body.
Amen. That’s why the best place for counseling to take place is in the local church where you have the biblical structure of elders, of pastors to care for them. You have all the other gifted members of the church to come along side of them and that’s why our objective at IBCD isn’t just to help people solve their crises by meeting with them for a few weeks and then not seeing them anymore. Our objective is to get churches equipped to be able to provide this kind of culture of care to their own members. That’s the best place, that’s the biblical place for this to be taking place.
We have many resources available to help you in that on our website. The whole IBCD Care and Discipleship program has been designed to cultivate this culture of one-another care in the local church so that we can all be working together to help each other with life struggles. Some of those are resolved really quickly and then some are ongoing struggles but they all require the grace of God.
Jim, thanks for your time today. We look forward to being with you again soon.