Maintaining Control

The Wreath

September 27 – The Wreath

The following was given to me by an inquirer for Christmas. It was written in the middle of a wreath she made out of grape vines. It hangs in my office as a constant reminder to be patient.

A friend of mine whose grapevine died, had put it out for trash.

I said to her, I’ll take that vine and make something of that.

At home the bag of dead, dry vines looked nothing but a mess.

As I gently bent one vine, entwining ‘round and ‘round,

A rustic wreath began to form, potential did abound.

One vine would not go where it should, and anxious as I was,

I forced it so to change its shape, it broke – and what the cause?

If I had taken precious time to slowly change its form,

It would have made a lovely wreath, not a dead vine, broken, torn.

As I finished bending, adding blooms, applying trim,

I realized how that rustic wreath is like my life within;

You see, so many in my life have tried to make me change.

They’ve forced my spirit anxiously, I tried to rearrange.

But when the pain was far too great, they forced my fragile form.

I plunged far deeper in despair, my spirit, broken, torn.

Then God allowed a gentle one that knew of dying vines,

To kindly and patiently allow the Lord to take His time.

And though the vine has not yet formed a decorative wreath,

I know that with God’s servant’s help one day when Christ I meet,

He’ll see a finished circle, a perfect gift to Him;

It will be a final product, a wreath with all the trim.

So as you look upon this gift, the vine, round, and complete;

Remember God is using you to gently shape His wreath.

Dr. Neil

For Spanish, see http://www.ficmm.org/blog

More Patience

September 26 – More Patience

Discipleship Counseling takes patience (and big bladders!), because some freedom appointments may last hours. Just mentioning that causes some pastors to shy away from using our material. They reason, I don’t have enough time to do that! I beg to differ. I don’t think they have enough time not to do it this way if they want to resolve anything.

If I had the choice to offer an inquirer fifty minutes a week for six months, or five consecutive hours, I would choose the latter, and I would resolve a lot more in that time frame. Fifty minute sessions work okay for teaching, because we can only handle so much information and homework at a time. But you can’t resolve much in that time frame. Fifty minutes sessions never start the next week where you left off last week.

Suppose your doctor recommended exploratory surgery. He dug around for fifty minutes and said, Well, we have run out of time. You hang in there and we’ll dig around some more next week. With rare exceptions, surgeons don’t open wounds without closing them, and neither should we. People’s lives are too important to follow little scripts that suite our schedule. One pastor turned counselor asked for my help. He said, I have been able to help others, but I can’t seem to resolve my own issues. During the Steps he prayed and asked God to reveal to his mind the people he needed to forgive. Out came 40 names. He looked at the list and said, You don’t have enough time. I said, I’ll stay all night if it takes that long. He started to tear up and said, You are the first person who has ever said that to me.

Freedom appointments are not timed exercises. If God is bringing up painful memories, I must exercise the patience necessary to see it through. If I don’t, I may be sending people home to the worst week of their lives. I recommend scheduling half-day sessions for most, but whole-day sessions for difficult cases. Trained lay encouragers are willing to give up that amount of time in our churches, and they do so because they love to watch God set his children free.

Dr. Neil

For Spanish, see http://www.ficmm.org/blog

Why Share?

September 25 – Why Share?

In conferences around the world, I asked: How many would be willing to share all the dirt in their lives, just for the purpose of sharing it? Nobody raises their hand. What is to be gained in doing that? Then I asked: How many would be willing to share all the dirt in their lives in order to gain some explanation as to why they are all screwed up? I get the same response all over the world. Most don’t raise their hands, some raise them half way, and a few will raise their hands indicating that they are willing to do that.

That is as far as secular counseling can take anyone. The theory is not hard to understand. The counselor develops skills like congruence, concreteness, empathy, etc. Those are just pastoral skills and there is nothing wrong with that. The goal is establish a trusting relationship so the counselee will tell their story. Suppose you are the best of the best. Through a caring relationship you are able to help people share in intimate detail all the sordid details of their lives. With that information you are able to explain why they are feeling and acting the way they are. What does that accomplish? The most complete and accurate analysis doesn’t resolve anything. It may help us understand one another, but it still leaves people as products of their past. The secularist can help them learn from the past and give them coping skills. They can’t do any more than that, because they have no gospel. God doesn’t fix our past. He sets us free from it. We are not just products of our past, we are new creations in Christ.

Then I asked a third question: How many people would be willing to share all their problems in order to resolve them? Everyone raises their hands. Trained encouragers will listen intently to inquirers share their stories, and then ask, Would you like to resolve that? Nobody ever says no. Encouragers respond by saying, Then with your permission I would like to lead you through these Steps to Freedom in Christ. Inquirers give very little detail when sharing their story. The necessary details emerge when they go through the Steps, but they are not sharing to gain explanation. They are sharing to gain resolution. We commonly hear, I have never shared this with anyone ever before. Such vulnerability has very little to do with us, because God is granting them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth that sets them free (2 Tim. 2:25). The conviction of God leads to genuine repentance without regret (see 2 Cor. 7:10). What an incredible ministry. We have the privilege to help people get in touch with the ugliest and most painful aspects of their lives and they can’t stop thanking us afterwards.

Dr. Neil

For Spanish, see http://www.ficmm.org/blog

Patient When Wronged

September 24 – Patient When Wronged

Working with people will test one’s patience. Being an engineer was easier than being a pastor. In those days I could build something and it stayed built, and what I built never gave me a hard time. You may get bit pulling a thorn out of your dog’s foot, but you would take the risk if you loved the dog. Patience has its own reward.

When God’s chosen people were liberated from Egypt, they ended up in the wilderness, which was worse. They murmured, complained, and said they wanted to go back. The same is true when people seek treatment for any problem. It gets worse, before it gets better. So people start to reason that the bad in the past was better than the present worse, so they stop treatment and go back to their bondages. It is not uncommon for people to get very testy during the early stages of treatment. We must be patient and help them press on to the Promised Land.

It is easier to be patient if you knew the source and nature of the opposition. One source is festering wounds. Touch someone’s sore spot and see what happens. People don’t like to talk about painful memories that they have been trying to forget. One inquirer said, If you are going to talk about my dad, I’m leaving. This is a major obstacle for traditional therapy, and why most people avoid it. Rehashing the past without resolution only brings the painful memories to the surface, which is not helpful if you have been trying to forget what happened in the past.

The enemy is the other source of opposition. The devil doesn’t want the truth to come out, because that could lead to resolution and the end of his reign. The same is true for political cover up. The typical strategy of Satan is to remain covert and intimidate the inquirer. If that is exposed, then the encourager is threatened. A ritual abuse victim suddenly changed personalities and said, Don’t you know that I could make one phone call and within an hour you would be dead? I said, There’s the phone. Make the call. It’s all a bluff. It is just an attempt to get me to stop moving toward resolution. Patience is a virtue.

Dr. Neil

For Spanish, see http://www.ficmm.org/blog

Able to Teach

September 23 – Able to Teach

The apostle Paul said the effective encourager is dependent upon God, kind, and not quarrelsome. He then lists, “able to teach” (2 Tim. 2:24) as the next requirement for an encourager. The emphasis is not on the ability to communicate. The focus is more on the content than the delivery. The Greek word for teach (didache) is sometimes translated as doctrine. The person who has the gift of teaching would be more like a theologian. The pastor who is very good at communicating the truth probably has the gift of exhortation.

“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching (didache, doctrine [KJV]), for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16,17). Speaking the truth in love should bring reproof, followed by correction that results in righteous living. Unfortunately, that is not always happening. We have grown accustomed to something far less. For many: The word of God is profitable for teaching and training in competence. Without reproof and correction there is no righteousness. The result is intellectual arrogance. Remember, you can have intellectual knowledge of Scripture and be arrogant, but you can’t know God and be arrogant. That is just another reason why we must keep in mind that Truth is more about knowing Jesus than knowing the Bible. You can know the bible and not know Jesus at all.

The encourager has to know the truth, because the truth is what sets us free. Always keep in mind that Truth is a two-edged sword. Jesus is the truth and the One who sets us free, and God’s word is truth. We should strive to know both. The opposition is the father of lies, and inquirers are usually confused about what they believe. Remember, people are not in bondage to past traumas, they are in bondage to lies they believe because of past traumas.

Suppose an inquirer says, I could never do that. Is that true? The truth is: “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). I don’t want to be a complete reductionist, but if any person believes that they can’t do what is clearly taught in Scripture, they will likely not do it. The key to effective ministry is to let the reproof come from Scripture and not from us. Rather than saying, You are believing a lot of lies, which is attacking their character. It is better to say, What does Scripture say?

Dr. Neil

For Spanish, see http://www.ficmm.org/blog

The Wonderful Counselor

September 20 – The Wonderful Counselor

Inquirers may be reluctant to share intimate details with us, but what happens if they share openly with God? What does God do with the information we share with Him? “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9). The more open we are with God, the more we stand to gain.

But how could God possibly understand us? He is God who sits on His throne. He can pull any lever He wants! Isn’t that what Jesus is all about? “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:15,16). The church has the grace to help in time of need, but if we don’t first show mercy, we may never be given that opportunity. Mercy is not giving people what they deserve. Grace is giving others what they don’t deserve.

Although encouragers will not be perfect in this lifetime, they have the opportunity to connect with the One who is. They also have the privilege to connect others with perfect love. Including God in the discipling process changes the whole dynamic. Inquirers may be tempted to withhold information or lie to us, but that is a lot less likely to happen when they connect directly with God. When God brings truth to their minds; love, forgiveness, and acceptance comes with it, because Jesus is the Truth, and God is love. When conviction comes from God, the power to change comes with it.

Dr. Neil

For Spanish, see http://www.ficmm.org/blog

Overcoming Reluctance to Share

September 19 – Overcoming Reluctance to Share

When I taught pastoral counseling, I would give the students a blank piece of paper. I instructed them to write on the paper the most offensive sin they have ever committed, i.e. the best kept secret of their life. The anxiety level in the students instantly went from minimum to maximum. They were probably wondering, What is this sick professor going to ask us to do with this piece of paper, or What is the sixth or seventh most offensive thing I have ever done that I may share with my fellow class mates under the penalty of failing the class if I don’t.

I let them struggle for about a minute and then said, Stop. I really don’t want you to do that, but I wanted you to feel how difficult it must be to disclose that to another person. Here is what I want you to write on the paper. If you had to share that with someone, who would you share it with? I don’t want the name of a person. I want you to consider what kind of person they would have to be or not be, what would you want them to do, or not do. What is the first thing that comes to your mind?

I had everyone share what they wrote on their paper, which I wrote on the board. They said: compassion, confidentiality, forgiving, accepting, loving, patient, kind, empathetic, able to help, etc. After they had all shared, I pointed to the board and asked, Who does that describe? They all said, God!

I told the students, If you haven’t committed yourself to become that kind of a person, would you now? If you are not that kind of a person, nobody is going to share anything of intimate detail with you. If you don’t know what the core issue is, then you have no way of helping them.

People will always be reluctant to share intimate details of their lives. They wonder, What is this person going to do with the information I am sharing? Will they use it to help me, or will they use it against me? We have told even the most hardened criminals, You have the right to remain silent, for the information you share may be used against you in a court of law.

Encouragers will never be perfect like Christ, but God’s will for our lives is to become more like Him. The more we do, the more effective we will be in ministry.

Dr. Neil

For Spanish, see http://www.ficmm.org/blog

Kind to All

September 18 – Kind to All

For years I have made the following comment in conferences, “What is desirable in a man is . . .?” A wait to see if anybody wants to respond, but nobody ever does. After a pause I say, “What is desirable in a man is his kindness” (Prov.19:22). Then I would illustrate that truth by saying, “Okay ladies, here is your chance. If you had to choose in us men, strong masculinity, or kindness, what would you choose?” They all say in unison, “kindness.”

Kindness is the essential character pre-requisite for ministry. The reason is simple. One act of unkindness, and your ministry is over with that person. The inquirer will clam up and stop sharing. People don’t care how much we know, until they know how much we care. This is not only true for pastoral care, it holds for parenting as well. A mother was telling me about her children, and said, “I know they have problems, but they won’t share them with me. Why is that?” I said, “Do you really want to know?” She assured me that she did want to know, so I said, “They probably don’t feel like they can trust you.” She said indignantly, “Of course they can trust me, I’m their mother!”

So I said, “Suppose you 15 year old came home and said, My best friend is smoking pot. What would you say and do?” Even though she knew it was a test question, she still responded as many parents will with some sage advice about what she should do or not do, and that is the end of the conversation. There is a good chance that the one smoking pot is the child. With such limited information the mother didn’t know enough to offer any advice. Wouldn’t it be better to say something like this: Thank you for sharing that with me. Do you want to talk about it?

Those who are truly searching for some answers will drop a line to see how we respond. If we come across as arrogant, judgmental, or unkind in any way, they stop sharing. One lady poured out her life story after a church service, but there was no time to deal with anything. Monday morning the phone rang about 7:00 AM. She said, “I can’t believe I shared all those things with you yesterday. What do you think of me?” I said, “Well I love you for taking that risk to share with me. How else could I help you if I didn’t know that?” There was a pause and then she said, “Well I have a lot more to share with you then.”

Dr. Neil

For Spanish, see http://www.ficmm.org/blog

Not Quarrelsome

September 17 – Not Quarrelsome

“The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome” (2 Tim. 2:24). Notice how the word “quarrelsome” is used in Acts 7:25,26, “And he supposed that his brethren understood that God was granting them deliverance through him, but they did not understand. On the following day he appeared to them as they were fighting (quarreling) together, and he tried to reconcile them in peace.” Stephen’s powerful and courageous preaching in the early church was referring to Moses, the prototype deliverer. His deliverance was from the taskmasters of Egypt, but Jesus, the Prince of Peace, would deliver us from the taskmaster of sin. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matt. 5:9).

Every attempt to bring freedom is contested, whether it is political or spiritual, and people will always be divided by how it can be achieved. The key is to avoid being quarrelsome and degenerating into a fight with one another. I never argue with an inquirer, because it doesn’t accomplish anything. Winning arguments doesn’t necessarily win converts. A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.

When I taught evangelism at the seminary, I didn’t teach the students how to win the argument. I taught them how to avoid it. The reason a nuclear physicist doesn’t trust in Christ is the same reason the un-educated manual worker doesn’t trust in Christ. They don’t want to. It is a moral issue, not an intellectual issue. There are some really smart Christians and some not so smart, and the same for non-believers. If someone just wants to argue, I suggest they go outside and start without me. If someone steadfastly says, “Well, I believe this and this.” I say, “Okay. I disagree, but that is your choice, and I respect that.”

On the other hand, I will stay up all night and dialogue with the person seeking truth. I respect a pastor who questions my theology, because it is his responsibility to ensure that truth is being taught, but I won’t engage in an argument (fight). The apostle Peter wrote, Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet. 3:15).

Dr. Neil

For Spanish, see http://www.ficmm.org/blog