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Am I Helping or Enabling?

Now we exhort you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all.

1 Thessalonians 5:14

The Presentation

For just a moment, I was stumped.  My counselee told me about how draining it was for her to have to restrict her routine in order to be available by 7pm for her middle-aged daughter’s circadian phone call. Every evening, her daughter would relive a trauma she suffered several years previously, an event which has led to her inability to hold a job, attend church, or do anything productive or helpful. This loving and supportive mother desired to do right by her daughter, but she was concerned at the lack of progress her daughter was making. She came to a point at which she asked me an excellent question.

The Question

“Do you think I’m really helping her or just enabling her?”

For her, it was a moment that expressed great vulnerability. Dependent upon my counsel, she might be challenged to change a long-standing course of action that had become familiar and comfortable to both of them. For me, it was one of those moments when the Lord gave me a kind dose of illumination to apply a favorite portion of Scripture that is used often by biblical counselors.

1 Thessalonians 5:14 gives us three applications for three conditions. Each one is a particular action to be applied to a specific state of being. We must understand all of these terms accurately in order to apply the correct prescription. We are told to:

• admonish (rebuke, warn, reprove) a Christian who is unruly (one who is disorderly, rebellious, intractable, out of line)

• encourage (comfort, assuage, relieve) a Christian who is fainthearted (discouraged, despairing, dismayed)

• help (uphold, assist, support) a brother who is weak (vulnerable, immature, feeble).

Each of these actions is to be applied with patience no matter the condition.

The motives and devotion of this mother were not in doubt, but her both her assessment of her daughter’s spiritual condition and her employment of the correct biblical application were questionable. Though she didn’t use the specific terms mentioned in the passage, she had been operating under the belief that her daughter was weak and fainthearted and needed only to be helped and encouraged back to a vigorous life—and I’m sure there was a point just after the crisis at which this was true. But years later, her daughter was even more anxious and had now become bitter, manipulative, lazy, and was showing every evidence of a life exercised in self-indulgence and entitlement. Her health was suffering, and her world was becoming ever smaller and more doleful. Her mother had certainly encouraged her, but not in the manner desired. Instead of being steered towards biblical thinking and living, this daughter had used her mother’s listening ear as license to ruminate on the original upheaval that had led to her unbiblical responses to her trauma and the “injustices” for which she felt even more victimized.

The Answer

I quickly asked the Lord for a biblically sound and wise answer to her legitimate question, and He faithfully responded. We turned to 1 Thessalonians 5:14 together, read it, and reassessed her daughter’s response to her mother’s comfort and help. Had her daughter been refreshed and fortified by the years of constant encouragement? No. Had she become stronger and more robust by the continuous stream of help? Quite the opposite. Admonishment, presented with love, gentleness, and patience was what was necessary.

Often, we must re-evaluate our assessment of the counselee’s condition and our own application of the Lord’s prescription for it based on the results after our counsel is prescribed and practiced. A discouraged believer will be inspired and heartened by the faithful administration of godly encouragement. Likewise, a weak believer is strengthened and bolstered by Christian brothers and sisters who help bear his burdens until such time as he is able to do so himself. But the unruly seldom crave admonishment, and they might not appreciate it when a member of their eternal family suggests the necessity for repentance and hard work. The response to the counseling can often be the verification of the assessment itself.

Christians who are discouraged or weak may be so for many reasons. The unyielding fight against temptation; the trials and tribulations of life—especially if they hit in rapid sequence; spiritual immaturity and inexperience; or lack of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom are just a few. But discouraged or weak believers are not necessarily in sin. Unruly Christians, however, are in a state of sin and possibly suppressing the sense of guilt which the Lord is using to bring them back into the peace of God. Sometimes when our counselees are unpacking the events that led them to seek us out, it is challenging to discern the category in which they should be classified. They may present as discouraged, so we encourage them; perhaps weak, so we attempt to strengthen them. But if they continue to be unchanged despite these measures, it is wise to reassess and consider whether they are in the unruly category, in which case a loving rebuke is in order. A misapplication of what God commands us to do will result in enabling by encouraging sinful behavior.

Principles to Remember

1. Admonishment can be very hard for a counselee to hear. But it can be delivered in love mixed with hope for what the Lord can do in a Christian’s life. If the counselee chooses to replace unruliness with humility and obedience, then repentance shouldn’t be too far behind (Proverbs 27:6; 1 Peter 5:6; Hebrews 12:1-11; Ephesians 4:22-24; Philippians 1:6).

2. Being “patient with all” must not be confused with indulgence. For example, failure to complete homework should elicit a gentle reproof which, if unheeded, terminates the counseling process until such time as sincere effort is exercised (2 Timothy 3:5; 1 Timothy 5:20).

3.Though the counselee’s understanding of salvation is the first order of business in the counseling process, an unyielding refusal to change dictates that the counselor revisit the matter. It is entirely possible that the counselee is operating under the assumption that he or she is saved because they believe in God, a prayer was prayed as a child, but there was never a recognition of the counselee’s sinful condition (Luke 4:18). The counselee may still need to repent and trust Jesus alone for salvation (Acts 16:31).

Ascertaining the condition of a counselee requires wisdom. How good our Lord is to promise that He will abundantly supply us with His wisdom when we ask in faith (James 1:5). When we receive it, our own faith is matured and our counselees are steered towards sanctifying change.

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Suzzanne Bonn
Suzzanne Bonn is an ACBC certified counselor, and currently serves as Director of Biblical Counseling Ministries at Arcade Church in Sacramento, CA.
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