Becoming People of Understanding

Becoming People of Understanding
Written by: Pete McClanathan

I hope you’re finding your time with the “First 40 Days” prayer journey to be challenging and encouraging. The Word of God offers an abundance of both.

Encouragement always carries the challenge of faith and trust, seeing beyond our own circumstances and understanding. And biblical challenge always contains encouragement if we look below the surface for the purposes that undergird the challenges. As we sink our feet into the rich waters where biblical truth intersects human life, allow me to share a caution:

It can be all too easy for challenging discussion to take on a preachy tone, one where biblical truth is explained well but is offered in a simplistic package, tied with a pious bow, and presented as an antiseptic to apply to our lives. As if to say “just do this and you’ll be fine.”

Many times I’ve experienced (or used) this approach, and I’ve sadly learned that it mostly misses the mark. I’ve been guilty of answering before fully listening, or interrupting another to make my own point. I’ve neglected to stop and pray carefully or seek wise counsel when making a decision, thinking I had “God’s will” figured out. I’ve been on the receiving side of rebuke that my problem or pain is a result of not trusting the Lord enough.

However true or well-intentioned a statement may be, it can run a delicate risk of being or seeming incomplete. Mechanical, lacking in real care or understanding, unable to touch the deep places of the heart where life’s struggles dwell. It can leave one feeling confused and hopeless of finding true wisdom, peace or healing. It can even stir up a false feeling of shame or guilt, that there must be something so wrong with us that even these good words can’t reach home.

So we need to be careful. I want to make every effort to avoid such messages in my writing and my speech.

The Bible is the only and the wholly inspired Word of God and is sufficient for instruction and guidance in all matters of faith or life. It is where we begin the discussion of any matter, and it is where we end the discussion. But as we walk the roads in between, alone or with another, we must take care.

I am amazed how often matters of life can work their way back to the bedrock truth of Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”

Yet there is a danger that this passage can be misused. “Trust in the Lord” is wise counsel for any issue or situation. And any discussion of human need must move toward that truth and ultimately land there. But it is not a band-aid to be applied simplistically on a hurting or confused brother or sister. And sadly, too often I’ve found good people and good authors, and myself, doing just that.

A number of years ago I read the thoughts of a well regarded Christian author addressing this issue. He suggested that there can be strong counsel and there can be weak counsel. Strong counsel takes the time, courage, and love to know the other person’s struggle from his or her viewpoint. To establish comfort and trust. To communicate respect, love, and a real desire to know and to help. 

Weak counsel is quick. It jumps to conclusions and seeks simple answers. It can feel superficial, judgmental, often harsh. It tilts toward a form of, “if you just trust the Lord more, you’ll find that direction you seek, or overcome your pain or despair.” It avoids seriously considering what the person may be dealing with that requires trust or makes trust difficult. Or what trust actually looks like for this person in this situation. Or that the person probably has been trying hard to trust the Lord, and that some of his or her despair very well may come from what feels like disconnect with Him. The last thing a hurting person needs is a simple “trust the Lord” or a rebuke for failing to do so, as if he or she is not trying already.

The hurting person we speak of may well be you. In difficult times in your life, might you have experienced  “Sunday school answers,” from a book or from others? Did they bring you more wisdom, peace, comfort, and confidence?

The same author went on to tell of a time in his adult life when he sought the counsel of his father, a pastor, concerning the author’s marriage. He described how his father, appearing uncomfortable, retreated to two things. The father recommended a book on marriage, and directed his son, the author, to study Ephesians 5. No real discussion of feelings, fears, or goals. At that moment, the author states, he realized that his father was a weak man. 

As in all things, there is no black and white formula. If you’ve been on the receiving end of weak counsel, give the person credit for caring enough to want to help. Well-meaning people can become confused at the thought of trying to step wisely and biblically into another person’s life. They may be over-eager to present their own viewpoints or even show off their Bible knowledge. Give them some grace. Even Job’s friends, who turned out to be quite poor counselors, cared enough to travel and sit with him for many days in his pain and grief.

And if you’re one who batters himself or herself with condemnation over past sins and failures, as I am, allow yourself to step back and rest in God’s grace. We never were intended to save ourselves. That is the core of the gospel of Christ. Let’s not, out of guilt, shame, or fear, try to take back a responsibility that was never ours.

The second phrase of Prov. 3:5 reads, “and lean not on your own understanding.” I believe it deserves more attention than it receives. For it is “our own understanding,” our interpretations of ourselves and life, that walk with us into every situation we face. Every decision, every success, every failure, every loss, every desire, every goal, every harsh word received, every hurt, every abandonment, every regret, every anxious thought, our joys, our fears, and our shame: all become part of “our own understanding.” All are affected by it. And they tend to remain long after they have made their marks on us. 

Wisdom seeks to recognize the pitfalls of our own understandings, and clears paths to redirect us to a biblical view of life. In that order. A fine roadmap does little good if the vehicle of life is stalled by circumstances, confusion, or emotional pain, even if it is stalled as a result of one’s own foolishness or sin.

In that regard we can learn well from Jesus’ earthly ministry and how He interacted with people. His approach almost always began with listening deeply, showing care and building trust. He moved slowly and gently, gradually bringing to light truths about life and about Himself. Rebuke came only toward those who ultimately refused to believe.
Take a walk through one of the gospels and you’ll observe this manner over and again.

One more story, this from a Christian counselor and author who told of seeing one of his clients sitting in a local park. The author walked over and sat beside the man, spending time talking about a variety of things not part of the counseling process. Later the man reported to the author that this offering of time, respect, and genuine interest did more for him than the formal counseling meetings had done. 

How could this be? I suspect strongly that it involved the strength and affirmation that can come from another’s unhurried presence. I am noticed. I am significant. My life and thoughts are valuable to someone I respect. 

The words of Prov. 20:5 speak to us: “The purposes in a man’s heart are deep waters, but a man of understanding will draw them out.”

Let us strive to become people of understanding as we examine our own hearts in the light of the Word of God, and as we approach the privilege of coming alongside others.

Meanwhile, you are encouraged to participate in the comments section below. Sharing our thoughts together makes learning easier, I believe, and can be an encouragement to all of us.

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