For those of us who love God’s word and want to let it guide our counsel to others in life matters, we sometimes find ourselves in a puzzling tension between wanting to help someone and not finding the passage we are considering fully applicable to the situation. When the application of a plain, no-nonsense reading of a text seems to be more harmful than helpful, or more enslaving than freeing, how or what do we counsel?
God’s word is beautiful in its simplicity and straightforward truth, but sometimes we must appeal to the whole book if we are to see how that simple truth harmonizes with all that God has for us – the larger, deeper wisdom that comes from going the distance over time with the Spirit of Christ. If we take the time and trust the Lord to give us wisdom, the Bible itself will guide us to a larger, deeper understanding of the truth.
As an example of how that can play out…
As an example of how that can play out, I remember a time when God showed me what my posture needed to be in regard to his law and what I counseled others regarding his will for us in Christ.
I was a divinity student working in the seminary’s print shop. The district office for the Evangelical Free Church of America was located in the same building. The secretary for that office became a good friend since she often utilized the print shop. So, it wasn’t long before I noticed she had a bruised heart and was carrying heavy burdens. When I learned from the district superintendent that she had a marriage in trouble I looked for an opportunity to express my concern and care for her.
When that opportunity came she explained that her husband was very abusive. He had thrown her down flights of stairs and generally made her life a living hell. She had recently won a separation from her husband but the court unexplainably allowed her husband to have the first floor of the house and she was given the basement apartment for her living quarters. She could not come and go without going through his living space so the abuse continued.
My friend belonged to a congregation at that time whose pastor had told her she could not divorce her husband without committing a terrible sin. He seemed to side with her husband and to ignore her deep groaning of spirit and her hurting body. She felt unable to make any changes and was enslaved to this man’s demands.
At that point I had a choice that was crystal clear to me…
I could continue as I had for most of my life up to that point to take a hard line on divorce and remarriage based on a straightforward reading of Jesus’ words in Matthew 19, or I could take, as my guideline for ministry in the kind of situation I found myself in with my friend, Jesus’ approach in John 4 with the Samaritan woman.
In the Matthew 19 passage Jesus is looking into the eyes of self-righteous people who believed that keeping the law was the basis of their acceptance before God. Over the years they’re understanding of what God had said did not relate to hardness of heart but flowed out of the natural human tendency to justify ourselves before God by keeping the rules. On the other hand, in John 4, Jesus is looking into the eyes of a broken woman who had gone through four husbands and was on her fifth.
It was obvious to me, as I considered these two passages, that Jesus approached each situation differently based on the people he was dealing with. By taking into account both passages we are given a deeper, fuller understanding of God’s heart in regard to marriage and divorce.
The Samaritan woman at the well may have committed adultery at some point, but for Jesus on that day adultery was not the burning issue. For her, Jesus offered living water, not a restatement of basic morality in God’s law or the purposes for which that law had been given to a people with hardened hearts. The woman at the well was past the point of deciding to obey a law or not. She was in deep trouble and could only be rescued by the Christ. He revealed himself to her as the Messiah who told her that to worship God she must do so in spirit and in truth, not in the keeping of religious traditions. Her salvation was in recognizing who he was and deciding to follow him with all her heart.
Through this experience, God was opening up to me as a counselor new, creative, deeper pathways for seeing the heart of the matter, and then helping people. The Spirit of the Lord in Jesus when he said he wouldn’t crush a bruised reed or blow out a flickering candle was now arising in me because I wasn’t letting my understanding rest in only one passage or one way of looking at things.
Jesus did not tell her to leave her fifth husband and go back to the first one. And neither could I tell my friend from the print shop to stay with her husband. If divorce was the only way that she could be free from the abusive slavery that he put her in, supported by their pastor, then divorce was what she must do. I told her that’s what I believed based on how Jesus dealt with those like Mary Magdalene and the Samaritan woman. I shared with her that my wife Julia and I would pray that God would show her what steps he would have her take to freedom. And finally, my wife and I offered her a safe place to stay until things resolved and she was free.
A year later our friend was free, not only from her abusive husband but from her domineering and misguided pastor. She had joined another congregation and found grace and healing in the comfort and strength of others. And a year later found me serving as an assistant pastor to Dennis Miller who started a divorce recovery ministry for our county. I will always be grateful to Dennis for fleshing out the Bible-counseling principles that I was taking into my heart at that time. We could serve together because I was free to steward the grace of God with greater humility and deeper compassion for those who cannot save themselves – i.e., every single one of us.
My friends, we cannot become arrogant and abusive in the use of Bible passages without destroying the healing work of the Spirit of God in others. I’m adding a commentary from my sister Ruth to this blog that I think is very valuable and full of wisdom. I want you to hear it as a closing plea to all of us who have a chance to counsel others. Let us be humble seekers of truth through God’s guidance in all matters that those we serve might be saved by his grace, through faith, just like we have been.
My sister Ruth’s wise comment:
“Really good blog. I believe those self righteous folks who use parts of God’s word as a weapon or, like you said, who justify their actions and thoughts before God by keeping the rules are incredibly hurtful. It’s dangerous to decide how we feel about something, then go looking for a verse that supports that position. Finding God’s love and grace is amazing in its simplicity and I think so many forget that is the core message and can’t see past the law to use that as their guide, can’t open themselves to the whole picture, that acceptance and love are not in competition with the law. I loved the story of your friend. Had you not looked for the bigger interpretation of God’s intent she may never had the courage to leave a terrible situation and find a different pastor. Yes I can see how your words could draw criticism but your thinking is spot on; otherwise how can you possibly give counsel to human beings with all our messy complications that bring so much pain. ❤ “
Bible passages on which to meditate and seek God’s wisdom:
- “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. …Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them.” Isaiah 42:1-9 ESV
- “He [Jesus] … a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; and in his name the Gentiles will hope.” Matthew 12:9-21 ESV
- “And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, ‘Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?’ …Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.’” Matthew 19:3-12 ESV
- “…A woman from Samaria came to draw water… Can this be the Christ?” They went out of the town and were coming to him. John 4:1-30 ESV
- “Why then the law?…heirs according to promise.” Galatians 3:19-29 ESV
- “For through the law I died to the law…” Galatians 2:19-21 ESV
- “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery…whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Matthew 5:27-32 ESV