I recall my very first conversation with a gentleman I mentioned earlier, a gentleman who called me one day and said, “My wife is leaving me, and I would love to chat with you about that.” He did not put it in these words but what he said was, “My soul needs some care. I’d like somebody to walk with me in a very difficult journey. Can you arrange to meet with me?”
I will never forget the first time that we met; we chatted about the sadness, the horror that he felt, the devastation, the disappointment, the pain, the struggle, the feeling of rejection, the concern with his kids, all the obvious, the very real and very devastating things that he was dealing with. And I found myself very tempted to provide nothing but comfort. But I was not sure what comfort to provide. I found myself wanting to go find his wife and talk her out of the divorce and bring her back. But I knew I did not have the power to do that. I found myself wanting to give him Bible verses that maybe he could hang onto, but Bible verses, sometimes out of context, can seem so cheap. And a Bible verse should never seem cheap. But the way we use it sometimes results in that kind of a perception.
In the course of our first conversation, with the idea of a compelling vision in my mind, what I said to him was this. I said as we finished our conversation, “You were not put on earth to be married to that woman. You were put on earth to know God and to reveal Him as a husband as long as you are married to that woman; and to reveal Him to others if you no longer have the opportunity to love this woman as your wife. Your goal in living is not the enjoyment of your marriage with your wife. Your goal of living is something very, very different. And if that is what you want, if that is what you are after, then I would love to have the opportunity to provide care for your soul—to provide spiritual direction, to walk with you on the journey, to developing an appetite for God, and to develop an experience of God that is so strong that there will be a joy and a peace and a sense of purpose and meaning in your life, whether you are divorced and experience all the pain that will be there associated with that, or if she reconciles and comes back and you have a wonderful marriage, which I will be delighted about. But that is going to be a second thing. The first thing has to do with the compelling vision of an appetite for God with experience of God.”
Well, I shared that with him, and I want to suggest to you that I believe it is a good thing to share the vision that you have as you begin SoulCare with somebody. And I think it is a good thing for really two reasons. One, that when people come to chat with us and make known a concern— whether it is a friend over lunch or psychologist or spiritual director or pastor—when people make known a particular concern, more often than not, that is not what they are after. When somebody makes known a concern, they really want it to be different. They want the concern to be solved. They want the problem to be ended, and maybe they are talking to you because you are going to help them feel better or know better how to deal with their kids who are rebelling—there is something that you can do to make things better. And if your goal as a provider of SoulCare is moving toward the compelling vision of this person’s soul becoming more like Jesus, and their goal is something else, you are going to butt heads. There is going to be resistance. You are going to have a hard time with that. So you have got to get on the same page.
But the second, and the even more important reason why I think it is wise to share, at least to some degree, the vision that you have as you provide SoulCare, is there is something in the soul of every believer that wants that. You are not building the appetite for God; you are touching the appetite that the Spirit has already planted within us. Remember that God introduced the Gospel for the central purpose of creating a people who want Him more than they want anything else. So when a person becomes a Christian at that point, not only are their sins forgiven, but also there is an appetite planted in the center of their soul that wants to know God more than they want anything else that is already there. Keep that in mind as you provide SoulCare.
This particular gentleman said to me a year later, as we journeyed together in SoulCare—spiritual direction, counseling, pastoring, befriending, whatever you want to call it—as we journeyed together, about what it means to know God and to honor God as he goes through the divorce, to honor God as he deals with the terrible temptations that came into his life, as he honors God with all the discouragement and frustration—as we began to think all that through for a long period of time, he said to me, “Larry, I never told you this, but the reason I found myself wanting to come back and talk to you was because of what you said to me at the end of our first session. You said that I was not put on earth for the purpose of enjoying a marriage with the particular woman that I had married. That is a legitimate desire, but if that is taken away my purpose for living is still intact. And you touched something in me that felt alive. I left our first session saying, ‘There is a deep part of me that wants to know God. And I want to journey with this man in the way that maybe that appetite will become stronger and deeper and more and more alive.’”
To walk with somebody on that journey requires that we be a certain kind of person. If we are going to provide SoulCare that stimulates a desire for God and provokes a consuming experience of God, we are going to have to become a particular kind of person that we cannot become, apart from supernatural resources.
Someone has said that “the cornerstone of the Christian religion is the doctrine of the Trinity.” Did you ever think of that? Most of us believe in the Trinity—God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit—and we say it in our creeds perhaps on Sunday morning, but have you ever thought about how practical that doctrine is? What does it mean that you and I believe that God exists as an eternal community of three persons who really get along very well? Whoever said that two is company and three is a crowd, did not have it right about the Trinity. Because these three persons, one God, but somehow (and of course, we are out of our league talking about this) three distinct persons who all are one God, they relate to each other in a very unique way. They relate to each other in a way that is absolutely other-centered. They are there for the other. The depth of who they are in the core of their interior world, if I can speak that way, there is nothing but radical other-centered purity and love. That is all that is there.
Remember Jesus prayed in John 17, “Father, as I go to the cross, as I am about to die and be made sin, what actually motivates me right now, what I want to pray about, what I want to talk to you about, Father, before I go and endure this terrible, terrible suffering, my prayer is this: I want my people, because of my death on the cross when they become Christians and trust in me to pay the price of their sins, I want my people to learn to relate to each other, the way that You and I relate to each other, Father. I want them to become one the way, You and I, Father are one. I want them to be in Me, the way that I am in You.”
What is He talking about? Some very intimate kind of a connection, where one person walks with another now at the human level, where one person walks with another and joins another and pours out what is deepest in them into the other so that they both walk together in a way where their appetite for God is aroused. SoulCare requires a kind of person that only the Spirit of God can produce—a kind of person that really relates to another the way that the Trinity, the members of the Trinity, relate among themselves.
My first point in the last presentation flows out of the doctrine of the Trinity and the prayer of Jesus. My first point was this: SoulCare is not about doing something to someone. I want you to get out of your minds that SoulCare, that psychotherapy, that counseling, whatever word you are more comfortable with—I like the word “SoulCare”—is not a matter of an expert repairing what is broken; it is a matter of a certain kind of person giving what is in them to another in a way which has an effect on their soul, that reaches the compelling vision, that helps my friend realize that his deepest appetite is not to be happily married—that is a huge appetite, and the absence of that blessing causes incredible pain and struggle—but his deepest appetite is different. Can I be the kind of person who is safe and powerful, who can walk with him on that kind of a journey?
Well, I want us to look inside of our depths and see maybe that we are not those kinds of people. And maybe come in brokenness before God, asking him to make us those kinds of people that are safe and powerful and can do the work of SoulCare.
In this presentation, I want us to take an inside look. I want us to look below the waterline of the iceberg into the soul of the person providing the SoulCare, into your soul, into my soul, and see what it takes to be the kind of person who can provide the relationship where SoulCare takes place.
Go back in your mind, if you will, to that person that you earlier wrote down, that person’s name who shared a struggle with you, the person that made known to you something. They saw you as safe enough to make known a burden, a concern, a problem, and as they made known that to you, they were sharing something out of their life that probably was not all the way into the depths of who they are, but maybe it was pretty vulnerable. Maybe it was a sexual problem or a relational problem or a discouragement problem—something that was very real—and you are there listening to them. The question that we are now asking is, “What happened inside of you?” Go beneath the surface of the nice words that you said—the empathic response and the offer to pray for them—go beneath all the things that you might have done in listening well. (I know that there is one course that teaches listening skills that I was familiar with, where they make it into very much of a skill where you learn to kind of tilt your head to a certain angle, and lean forward and communicate that you are really listening.) My question is, are you really listening or not? If you are really listening, then all this does not make a difference. And if you are not listening, all this does not help. The question is, what is really happening inside of you, beneath the surface of whatever you do? So somebody shares with you now a burden, a struggle. What happened inside of you as your friend shared this struggle? What did you feel? What emotions stirred within you? What attitudes came charging to the surface of you mind? Well, you follow through with your own example as you remember the person that you have recently been chatting with who shared a burden with you, as I make known a situation in my life, where a friend shared a struggle with me.
It was not too long ago that a woman, who was turning forty, said to me as we were chatting in a SoulCare kind of relationship—she had asked me to walk with her on her spiritual journey a bit—in the course of our chatting she said, “You know, I have handled unwanted singleness pretty well for a number of years, but turning forty became a symbol of something. I don’t know what it triggered, but it just did a number on me. And I have been undone and I feel more lonely than I have ever felt before. I worry about how attractive I am. Why does no man want me? I just don’t get it. I am just hurting, and I don’t know what to do in this situation.” That is what she said to me.
Now, let us go back to our very simple sketch. I know you are used to seeing the sketch, but let us see if we can make a little more out of the sketch now. Here is me and here is the woman sharing with me her struggle. Now, let us put this into “iceberg language.” And let us suggest that she makes known the fact that she is lonely, that she is hurting, and that she is experiencing something that I think she would call self-hatred. Now, as I am listening to her, do I want to know all that is happening down deep within her? Do I want to explore what is happening in her? Do I want to discover the reality of Christ, who is beneath all of the mess of her interior world? Do I know what it means to touch the reality of Christ in her? What is happening inside of me as she makes known her struggle?
I have got to start looking into my interior world. I have got to start looking into (and this is not too strong a term) the mess of my interior world. What is happening inside of me that maybe is bad? I do not think you are going to get very far with this lecture, with this presentation, if you do not begin with the acknowledgment, which I am sure most of you agree with, that when you look inside of yourself you really do find a mess. You find a mess of insecurities, a mess of pressure, a mess of trying to prove something. You really do find a mess.
I remember the very first book that I wrote was called Basic Principles of Biblical Counseling. And when I wrote the book (it was my very first book, and I was excited about writing it), I wanted to have a jazzy title; I wanted to have an interesting title for my very first book. My book came out shortly after a secular book hit the marketplace and was a runaway bestseller, written by Tom Harris called I’m Okay, You’re Okay. It occurred to me that a good title for my book might be a more biblical alternative to Tom Harris’ book. I wanted to call my book I’m a Mess, You’re a Mess. It felt a little more honest, a little more biblical. The publishers responded by saying, “Well the title is very interesting, but the book may not be as interesting as the title. So let us give it a more fitting title and call it Basic Principles of Biblical Counseling. I still want to write a book called I’m a Mess, You’re a Mess, someday. Why? Because, in the SoulCare relationship, yeah you are a mess, but I am too. And we have to start with that fact, that I am a mess in the SoulCare relationship.
When I am chatting with you in a SoulCare relationship, what is my first impulse? Well, my first impulse it to do something, to say something, to respond above the waterline as opposed to acknowledging what is happening inside of me as this person talks. Do I even have that category for thinking? What is going on inside of me as this person is talking? Or do I come up with things that sound like they are appropriate, things that I have been trained to do? Do I come up with a good empathic response and say to my woman friend who is telling me how hurt she is over her singleness and how lonely she feels and self-hating she feels, do I say something like, “That must really be getting to you? I can hear you. That must be hard.” That might be a good thing to say, but why am I saying it? What is the energy within me that is driving my saying that? That is where the action is. Or do I say something in terms of a piece of advice? Maybe do I say to her, “You know, I know you fairly well, and I know that you just don’t go to church anymore. And I wonder if you need to get involved in your church—that’s where you meet a lot of people. There are some guys in church, and I know singles groups are sometimes wonderful and sometimes aren’t so good. But have you tried it?” And maybe I exhort her with a piece of advice— that might be a good thing to say.
But the real question is, what is happening in me as I say it? It is not whether my empathy is skilled or my advice is on target. The issue is what are the passions? Remember the passion/wisdom model? What are the passions within me that are energizing me as I give my empathic response or give my advice or perhaps offer a word of affirmation and say something like, “You are being way too hard on yourself. Don’t you know that you bear the image of God, that you are a woman of rare beauty, and if a man could see who you really are as God’s creation and recreation he would be delighted with you?” As I give that kind of affirmation, which might be the right thing to do, the question is, what are the passions within me that are energizing that? Are you hearing the point? It is a huge point. It is not what you do that matters nearly as much as why you do it. What stirs you? What is the mess within you? What are the passions within you?
Sometimes we decide we are going to go beyond the surface responses of empathy and maybe giving a word of advice. And maybe saying something encouraging and affirming, we have taken a good course in counseling, read a good psychology book and we decide to be a little more psychological, and we probe a bit and say something like, “I wonder what turning forty means to you.” We feel very Freudian and very intelligent, and we want to smoke our pipe as we are wondering about these deep things. Or maybe we interpret, “You know, it sounds like you stiffen up as we chatted. And maybe you stiffen up when men approach you and I wonder if the way you relate to men who seem to show an interest in you is really sabotaging something.” And we feel really brilliant in our interpretations and wonder why people are not helped. The issue is not the accuracy of our interpretation. The issue is not the wisdom of our probing. The first issue is, what is energizing us as we probe or interpret? Are you hearing my point? What is the mess inside of me? What is the reality of my interior world, the reality of your interior world? The issue is not what we say so much as why we say it.
Now, let us just take a look at some very simple categories as to the kind of things that are involved in our interior world as we chat with people. Go beneath the waterline in your own heart, and I will go beneath the waterline in my heart, and ask whether you felt— when a person shared their struggle—ask whether you felt confident. Was there some part of you that felt confident? You felt fairly comfortable and thought, “You know I think I have learned some empathic skills, and I am fairly intuitive, and I’ve talked to a lot of people, and people seem to find me a rather safe kind of a person to chat with, and I think I feel fairly confident in my naturally caring, intuitive style. I think I know how people feel, and I can relate to people in some good ways. I guess I know what to do, and I guess there is something within me that feels pretty good about the fact that this person is sharing with me.” Is there anything within you that feels confident, like you are a gifted, intuitive person?
Much to my shame, after about twenty years of being a psychologist, I can recall saying to a class of students, “You know I am to the point in my career now (I actually said this) where I believe that if anybody comes to me, if they stick with me long enough, I’ll be able to help them.” I think it is one of the most foolish things, one of the most arrogant things I have ever said. I do not discount the fact that God gives certain gifts and gives certain calling—I do not discount that. But is there some kind of a confidence within me that makes me feel really quite sufficient that my talents—my abilities, my intuition, my training, my giftedness, my skill, my experience—they really equip me to do the job? Folks, if that is where a person is, you can count on the fact that they are quenching the Spirit. You can count on the fact that their SoulCare is not a spiritual activity; it is fundamentally a fleshly activity. “Do you feel confident?” is Question 1.
Question 2: Do you feel irritated? I know a lot of people who, when I have shared certain struggles with them, I just sense the irritation, and I felt that with other people. The kind of irritation I am talking about is the mood that says, “You know, you are bringing this on yourself. You know that you are doing it all wrong. Seems to me that you are kind of whining as a victim. And, yeah, I know your husband doesn’t treat you right, but crying out loud, you could care for somebody else once in awhile, you know. And, yeah, I know your kid’s a mess, but how much time do you spend with your kid?” And it is kind of a judgmental, angry mood that we feel like that there are biblical principles available, and we should be applying them and that is the key to change. You see, when you get irritated with somebody on these kinds of grounds, what you are really doing is buying a false theology of change. What you are saying is, “All people need to change is to be more responsible about being obedient to biblical principles—that is all there is to it. Just shape up, and you will be a lot better.” Is that your mood?
I remember telling a friend over dinner a while ago that I was feeling pretty discouraged. I was kind of down on myself. It was a pretty vulnerable thing of me to say to this particular friend. And I remember the friend just kind of rolled his eyes and said, “You have no reason to feel like that. Get over it.” I have not talked to him since about my life. Maybe that is my own self-protection, and I need to be vulnerable and go share more with him, but frankly, I would rather talk with somebody else.
Do you feel confident? Do you feel irritated? Or do you feel, the way I feel a lot of the time and I should feel all the time, do you feel profoundly inadequate? You will feel inadequate to the degree that the compelling vision that you are pursuing is something you cannot make happen. Is your vision high enough? I want to see this person’s soul conform to the image of Christ. I want to care for this person’s soul so that their appetite for Jesus is stronger than any other appetite. I want to provoke a consuming experience in them of Jesus Christ that gives them a joy that nothing else can afford. That is what I want! Who is adequate for that? Well, it sure is not me.
Let me suggest an important principle When you have even a glimmer of a compelling vision for what could be as you engage in SoulCare, you will realize that you are inadequate to make it happen. What I want to say to you is inadequacy is not an obstacle; it is an opportunity. Inadequacy is not something which gets in the way; it is rather something that provides an opportunity for the Spirit to flow through you. Feeling profoundly inadequate—hear me carefully—is the only legitimate way to feel when you are involved in SoulCare. SoulCare can happen when one person feels safe enough to share openly with another person who feels profoundly inadequate. Strange language? Maybe it is to some degree, but I am hoping that because of this lesson that maybe you will find the courage to honest about what’s inside of your own soul as people share with you. And I would guess that most of you would agree with me that when people make known their problems, you really feel like you do not know what to do. You feel inadequate; you are not sure how to help; you do not know what to say. And sometimes you cover it over with nice sounding words or Bible verses or offers to pray, but maybe there is a different way to handle your inadequacy.
Now let me finish up this presentation by thinking with you about what you can do if you acknowledge the mess you are that makes you inadequate to really help anybody else. You enrolled in this course because you want to become effective at SoulCare and that is a wonderful ambition, and I pray this course will be used of God to help you in that. But it will help you in it to the degree that you embrace your sense of inadequacy as opposed to fighting it. Now, once you have acknowledged your sense of inadequacy, you can go in one of two directions. One direction is you can try to overcome your inadequacy: “I am going to take this course in SoulCare, and I am going to read twenty more books, and I am going to work really hard at this, and I’m going to become really good at SoulCare so I will not be inadequate.” Do not misunderstand; training in SoulCare is not designed to help you overcome your feelings of inadequacy. Training in SoulCare is rather designed to help you embrace the reality of your inadequacy as an opportunity for the Spirit of God to work.
This course in SoulCare makes no effort to overcome your inadequacy by teaching theory and skills. Rather it encourages you to embrace your inadequacy in order to achieve supernatural goals with supernatural resources. I am inadequate. You are inadequate. I do not have an inferiority complex. I am inferior. I do not have an adequacy complex. I am really inadequate. I am inadequate for what? Well, to achieve supernatural goals, I need supernatural resources. When you acknowledge that, then you go into a very different direction than wanting to overcome your inadequacy to become competent. You move in the direction of saying, my inadequacy becomes an opportunity for dependence on the Spirit of God in a way that can actually help me listen to the Spirit as I engage in SoulCare versus, with natural strength, coming up will all the right things to say. Look deep into your soul. I suggest you will find one of two ruling passions: either you are trying very hard to prove that you are adequate, or you are trusting God to work through your inadequacy. Competent people do a good job—dentists, plumbers, schoolteachers, and technicians—but it is inadequate people, people who know that they are inadequate, that become effectively usable by God, by the Spirit of God in the work of SoulCare.
What is the passion that rules within your soul as you engage in conversation with people, as I talk with my friend who is so discouraged? What is the passion that rules in my heart? The concept of ruling passion is crucial to becoming an effective provider of SoulCare. And we will look at that more carefully in our next lesson.