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Biblical Sorrow Without Sinful Complaining

 

Sometimes as biblical counselors we don’t clearly enough understand the distinction between biblical sorrow and sinful complaining, and I think because of that we end up hurting people more than helping people. I do believe there is a biblical distinction. As biblical counselors, we recognize that this world we live in, according to Romans 8, is groaning. And if you read Romans 8, Paul says that even we as believers are groaning because the fullness of our adoption (and everything else that’s been promised) has not come yet. Everyone has this sense that things are not the way they are supposed to be. But God’s given us the pledge of His Spirit. We’ve got a down payment, so to speak. We’re engaged and the bridegroom is coming, but we live in this season of the already, but the not yet. It can be very painful and I think as counselors if we’re too quick to rebuke people for being sorrowful, we miss it.

And we’re not in line with the Scriptures actually, so I want to help us to understand this a little better. It means that our world is filled not just with sinners. It is, but with people who are suffering—with their own sin, as well as ways that they’re being sinned against by other people around them. And so we want to try to recognize the appropriate place for allowing people to sorrow and lament.

Long before you start pointing out how someone might be sinning in their circumstances, I hope as a counselor that you’re willing to create a safe place for them to sorrow. It’s vital that they know you care about the sorrow, that you’re not just in a hurry to move towards the sin. “There’s got to be a sin here somewhere!” And you’re sniffing out sin. It’s not usually hard to find some sin, but I think we need to be more geared towards, “Have I acknowledged any suffering that’s here?” Often it may like it may seem like a no-brainer, but before you rush in, just pause and say, “That must be hard. I am so sorry you’re going through that.”

If you’re someone that thinks, “I don’t need to say that! We know it’s hard. That’s why they’re sitting there.” Acknowledging their difficulty can be one of the greatest gifts you could give them. They may not have had anybody really listen yet. I’m not saying that’s the only thing you should do for them. But that’s a good gift.

So here’s the real question I want us to wrestle with: What’s the difference between sinful complaining and biblical, appropriate lamenting or sorrow?

And what is behind the heart of a complainer? And how did they get there? How did it shift from sorrow to complaining? And if you think you have someone who has slipped over into sinful complaining, how would you help them? So let’s look at the heart of a sinful complainer.

Slipping into the Wrong Kind of Sorrow

So what does the heart of a sinful complainer look like? Well, we’re going to slice into it and take a look below the surface a little bit. Here’s the first thing—sinful complainers have soured and slipped into the wrong kind of sorrow. There’s a right and wrong kind of sorrow. In most cases sinful complainers are the people who become careless, fast, loose, and unguarded with their words. A sorrowful heart has become a bitter, demanding heart, in many cases. You have to watch out because it can easily slip. Where your heart starts is not necessarily where your heart will stay over time. And that’s what’s so hard about suffering. Often, what is most difficult about the suffering is not even necessarily the kind of suffering it is, but the duration of it. People can start off doing well, but as it just doesn’t end, there’s sometimes where they need help. And they can get to a place they never meant to be and sometimes not even recognize it themselves, but they have shifted.

We’ve got a mindset as Americans especially: “How can I keep from suffering?” I always tell our church family, “I want to help you to build a theology of suffering well.” The only question a Christian should have is, “What do I need to know and who should I be to suffer well? Because I’m going to suffer.” And you turn on the TV and see people with their hair swept back, long eyelashes, and the air-conditioned dog houses to get the message of how not to suffer. It’s a lie. They didn’t get it from the Bible, but they’re making lots of money because the human heart wants to know, “What’s the formula? Give me X, Y, Z so that I’ll avoid suffering. How do you get in the zone and avoid suffering and fly above all that in the name of Jesus? Hallelujah.”

The Bible doesn’t talk that way at all. The Bible says in a sense (not quite this harshly), “Buckle up. Prepare to suffer.” The Bible is filled with admonishments that get us ready for that. What we need in our suffering is a sturdy framework of the sovereignty of God: That He’s good, and that He’s wise, and that He’s up to something good. If some of you are pushing back, I want to give a little disclaimer in case you think, “Well, he’s probably never had anything hard.”

And I acknowledge there are other people who’ve had things much harder than I have. But my wife and I have experienced several very hard, long seasons of suffering. When I say season, I’m talking about eight years. If you read your Bible, you just keep seeing people that God used greatly, but they suffered greatly. Just recently I was sitting in the morning on the patio with my coffee. And I just had this sense that we haven’t really suffered something really hard in a while. Part of me inside (because I’m a human being, I’m a sinner) tensed up. And real quickly by the Holy Spirit, there was a settling, “But He’s good. He’ll be with us. It’ll make us more useful.”

And that was about five weeks leading up to July this summer. I was teaching in Montana and I had already flown out there for the conference, the whole family and my wife had been invited to fly out and hike—that was my honorarium. So nice, all my adult kids have gotten off work and the day before they were all supposed to fly out, my wife lost all movement of her arms, her legs, bodily functions—very scary.

I was 5 minutes away from teaching when she calls me weeping. She’s being taken to the hospital. But after I finished I had a two-hour break and I just went outside and I sat and I cried out to the Lord and opened the Scriptures, Isaiah 26, “The steadfast of mind you will keep in perfect peace, for he trusts in you.” And God met me and assured me that whatever this is, wherever this is headed, He’s with us. He’s good. It came through His hands first. She’s been diagnosed with transverse myelitis, and by God’s grace she’s walking again. She’s not normal. It takes a long time they say to see what’s going to happen.

That’s not the point of this workshop, so I won’t go any further, but I just wanted you to know in case you’re sitting there thinking, “Oh, he must have a really good life since he’s talking that way. He wouldn’t talk that way if he had ever had something hard.” No, no, but more and more I believe God wants us to build a theology of suffering well.

We need to help people suffer well. A lot of times part of that is what we allow them to express. It’s very hard for there to be no place for appropriate lamenting. Let’s take another look at this heart that is shifted into sinful complaint.

How to Voice Complaints

Sinful complainers, secondly, need to guard where and to whom they voice their complaints. To be telling a girlfriend at lunch how awful God is—that is sinful complaining. You have to guard where and to whom you voice your complaint. I just finished with our church family a whole sermon series that I called Songs for the Broken Heart.

And I picked out the Psalms of lamentation. Did you know that there are sorrowful Psalms? Every Psalm is not a happy clappy Psalm. In fact, of the 150 Psalms, 53 of them are Psalms of lamentation, of sorrow. And when you read them, they’re saying things like, “God, where are you? God, it seems like you’re silent. God, it seems like you’ve abandoned us. God, it seems like the wicked are doing better than we are.” Most of them have a turning point. Psalm 88 doesn’t. It just ends, “Darkness is my closest friend.”

But they’re being honest and they’re speaking it to God. So the Psalms of lamentation give us permission to acknowledge these emotions. I think Christians need to understand that God doesn’t expect us to pretend. Christianity is not all about pretending. “I know what I ought to think and I ought to be and I just need to pretend I’m always there.” When you’re not and you know you’re not, the question is, “What do I do with this?” Psalms of lamentation.

To appropriately express it, the lament is to complain in faith to God about the calamities He sends into our lives. You complain out loud, in faith, to God about the calamities that He sends into our lives. You see Job did it, you see Jeremiah did it. He was the weeping prophet, he was not the happy clappy prophet and God didn’t rebuke him. You see Habakkuk did it. You see the sweet psalmist of Israel lamented. Psalm 13 is an example, Psalm 77 is another example. Psalm 73 is one of my favorite ones. “Surely God is good to Israel.” There’s where we state the party line. I know what I’m supposed to say, “Surely God is good to Israel. But as for me my feet had almost slipped.” And the Psalmist goes on to say it looks like the wicked have a necklace of pride, it looks like the wicked have no sorrows and pains in their death. Then there is a beautiful turning point. “But when I went into the sanctuary of God then I understood their end.”

Pride Disguised as Self-Pity

We need to watch out, as humble tears of sorrow can easily slip over into demanding bitter tears. We’ll take another cut into this heart and see what the sinful complaining heart looks like. Sinful complainers often have a proud heart dressed up as self-pity. Pride has many manifestations. Every proud person is not recognized by how much they’re talking out loud about themselves in front of everybody. That’s one manifestation of pride, but self-pity very often can be pride as well. The self pitying person is turned inward and focused on themselves. One person may be focused on themselves out loud in front of everybody, but the person who wallows in self pity is equally focused on themselves.

Proverbs 6 says of the abominations, pride heads up the list of what God hates. “A proud look.” When I say, “Let’s build a theology of suffering well,” don’t hear me saying, “Let’s learn to like it. It’s actually fun.” No, it’s really not. Sorrowing is already very difficult and when I suffer I want all the grace of God I can have in that moment. So here’s why this issue of pride is so important, “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5).

For your counselee, you need to say it in a gentle way, and it’s best if you can ask questions to lead them to see it for themselves. But if you have someone that is in a horrible situation and they are suffering, but they are also proud and filled with self-pity and think, “It shouldn’t be happening to me. I deserve better.” Then it’s likely they’re not getting grace, and it makes it even harder. I don’t want to cut myself off from grace.

Bitterness Blocking Grace

If you’re bitter, you also don’t get grace. Hebrews 12:15 says, “Look out amongst you, lest there be any bitter root springing up, causes trouble, defiles many, and you fall short of the grace of God.” With all the counseling I do—whether it’s parenting, marriage, finances, you name it—I’m always asking God by His Holy Spirit to make me alert to: Is there pride? Is there bitterness? Is there idolatry? Is there something they’ve built their world around that they’re prizing and treasuring and worshipping more than Jesus Christ?

Why do I stay alert to those three things? I see those as three grace blockers.

Jonah 2:8 says, “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.” That’s a shocking verse and I’ll say it to my counselees on a regular basis. I’ll show it to them this way: God had grace with your name on it coming your way. Oh, but He sees you clinging to idols. When He sees that there’s something else that you’ve made number one, you forfeit the grace that could be yours.

I’m looking to help them repent of bitterness, pride, and idolatry where appropriate so they can get all the grace. If you’re trying to move forward and get traction with your counselees and help them, but you have not identified bitterness, or pride, or idolatry, it’s like you’ve got your foot on the gas pedal of counseling and God Himself has throne the emergency brake. I tell you who’s going to win: God.

If God is resisting them, it doesn’t matter how much you’re cheering them on. You’ve got to make sure that they are aware of any bitterness, pride, or idolatry. And sometimes a sorrowful person who has slid into sinful complaining is also a proud person. “I deserve better. This should not be where I am. This should not have happened.”

An Accusing Heart

Let’s take another look at the sinful complaining heart. Sinful complainers have an accusing heart that doubts God’s love. And here’s why I have become convinced after 31 years of being a pastor and 54 years of living with myself (because I’m guilty of all this as well); Christians struggle with doubting God’s love because we look for evidence of it in all the wrong places.

It’s so hard for us not to equate His love with pleasant circumstances now. “If He loved me, this wouldn’t be happening. How does this compute with love? No way.” The place to look to be assured of God’s love is places like Romans 5:8, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

You don’t look to the here and now. You don’t even so much look to the future. You look back when you want assurance of God’s love. He solved my biggest problem. That’s why Romans 8:32 says, “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?” That is not a “name it and claim it” verse.

He’ll give you everything you need for this situation. He gave you His Son to solve your biggest problem—your sin problem that had you on your way to hell. If He would do that while you did not deserve it, while you were yet a sinner, while you were at enmity with God, you can trust Him. He loves you and He will give you everything you need now, for what you are going through in these present circumstances.

How does a person keep from slipping into sinful complaining? You’ve got someone in very difficult circumstances, you want to hold onto them and make sure that they don’t slide over into sinful complaining. Allow appropriate sorrow and lamenting, but stop short of sinful complaining. But maybe you’ve got someone, and you realize there’s no hiding their complaining. They don’t even try to hide it because they think, “I don’t care. This shouldn’t have happened. It’s gone on too long.”

I remember one evening I was counseling a woman in a very hard situation. This was not session one. We were way into this and she was really stuck. I was standing there trying to bring the freshness of the cross, Christ, His atonement for our sins, His solution for the biggest problem we have, and what He’s done for her. I’ll never forget, she had her arms crossed and she leaned back in her chair, and she said, “Honestly, Pastor Brad, that does nothing for me.”

And folks, I hope you know I didn’t rebuke her. I just stood there.

When someone talks to you about the cross, or when you read through the gospels, that He didn’t even look like a man, that He was marred, that He was beaten for us, and you say that does nothing for you—that’s a dangerous place. She went on to say as I paused, “I need to know what God has done for me lately.”

That’s not good, really not good.

Four Keys to Put Off Sinful Complaining

How do you keep a person from slipping into sinful complaining, or how do you help them if you think they’re there? Let me give you four steps. These are not the only steps, but these are things that I found helpful in my own life and helpful as I point others in this direction.

This is one beggar showing other beggars where I found some bread on this issue. Please know I get so convicted on a regular basis about my mouth, and I think I’m complaining to my wife too much. And I’ll have rememorize some new verses about my mouth. And so please know, I’m not speaking from the high ground here. I have wrestled with this because I’m in the trenches with my own sorrow and the sorrows of so many others that sometimes I can be guilty of complaining as well.

1. Help them submit to authority, starting with God.

Very often the complaining that’s coming out of the mouth is rooted in a deeper issue of struggling to submit to authority. So if you just jump in with Psalm 141:3, “Set a guard, O Lord over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!” That’s a great verse. But if you don’t get to the heart, you won’t realize that this person is autonomous. In Matthew 15, Jesus says out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. Your counselee may hate submitting to authority. And because of that, they’re going to complain a lot. Life is filled with occasions where you just need to submit even if you don’t agree, even if you don’t respect the person.

Remember all the complaining that was going on with the Israelites in the wilderness. When I go through Numbers every year, I don’t think, “Oh, what’s God’s take on complaining? Ah, adultery is the big deal. We’ll deal with complaining some other day. I don’t care if my people complain a lot.” I see the ground opening up and swallowing the Israelites who complained against God. I mean praise God we’re under the New Covenant. I haven’t seen the ground swallow up a local church or pastor yet.

But the conclusion should be: God hates complaining. Complaining often indicates something far worse, as in pride and a lack of submission to authority. So as you read places like Numbers 9, you’ll see there’s an authority problem. Remember how the Israelites just constantly complained against Moses, saying, “Why are we here?” and “You brought us out here to die. Why is there no water?” And even once there was food, “We’re so sick of this food.” And just complaining, complaining, complaining.

When I read the Bible and see something repeated, I don’t think, “The Holy Spirit needed a better editor here. I mean got it. You said that already.” For example, we look at Ephesians 5 and see, “Husbands, love your wives.” “Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church.” Three times in two or three verses He commands that. Why? I think it’s because we do it so poorly.

When you read Numbers 9, it is ridiculously redundant on a very simple issue. At the command of the Lord you move. When the cloud moves, you move. When the cloud stops, you stop.

What about that’s complicated? But if you read Numbers 9, he says it over and over. I can just picture in my mind people raising their hands, saying, “But what if we walked a lot the day before? What if we’re really tired?”

But we’ve been here for two years if you read it and understand it. They were not moving constantly. They would stay in one place for periods of long as a year or more. “What do we do if we’ve been here a long time? We’re sick of this dirt and we want to move. We feel very rested. We’re rested. We’re good to go. In fact, we’ve been doing stretches and we got a whole team and someone is leading us. God look at us. We’re ready.”

Is this not human nature? We desire that everything make sense to us.

The key phrase that you see in Numbers is, “At the command of the Lord.” If you read through this portion of Scripture and mark every time the text says that, you will be amazed. I think God wants to drive it home that we need to simply obey God and submit to His authority. When you do that, a lot of the complaining just gets flushed away along with the spirit of resisting.

Though I would disagree with on many things, I think Larry Crabb gives an insightful comment on this chapter. He says, “I wonder if God is saying something like this, ‘I know my ways will seem to ignore your concerns at times. I want you to trust me when you feel unusually tired and I call on you to get up. I want you to trust me when you’re eager to serve and I put you on hold.'” Aren’t you dealing with this in counseling? Sometimes in a counselee’s mind, their suffering limits their ability to serve God.

They think, “I could serve you better without this trial.” We forget that God delights in using weak people, people with a limp, people with limitations. We tend to have a mindset that desires for God to remove all our encumbrances. Yet trust will never emerge from a demanding spirit.

So pray, ask questions, and see if you can discern if there is an authority issue in the life of your counselee. Is there a demanding spirit that is feeding a complaining mouth?

2. Help them to feed their faith by spending time with the right kind of people.

It’s amazing how people tend to flock together. Often complainers will group up with other complainers. For example, at our church we require that everyone who enters counseling also join a small group if they are not already part of one. And I’ll tell you, if there is a complainer in that group, they will become best friends, right? You’ll have to help them spend time with the right kind of people.

Did you know your counselors can spend time with dead people?

Those are some of the best people they should spend time with. By that, I mean some of the people in the Bible and biographies. Start with biblical examples. Take them to places like Hebrews 11, the Great Hall of Faith, where God highlights men and women who lived by faith. And here’s what I think is interesting for the “name it and claim it” crowd.

We love the first part of Hebrews chapter 11, right? By faith Noah did this, and by faith God stopped the mouths of lions for Daniel. By faith, by faith, the list goes on and on. There is a turning point. In Hebrews 11:35 it says, “Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword.”

It doesn’t say “Others who didn’t have enough faith.”  This is the Hall of Faith and God is sovereign. He decides in His wisdom and goodness what’s going to happen to all of us. These were not people with less faith from verse 35 on.

Also, wake up to some of the great contemporary examples that we have. I love biographies, for the very reason what we’re talking about here. Biographies help you see that you’re not the first person to suffer. When you don’t read, your world is often no bigger than you. If you read history you realize you’re not the first to suffer.

Even on a smaller level, that’s why we push our counselors in the small group. Why? Yes, there’s grace there at close range. Guess what else? Other people who are suffering. Because your counselee can tend to sit on Sunday morning and think, “I’ve got it worse than anybody else. I’m the only one going through something.” And then they get in a small group at close range and during the sharing time realize, “Oh my goodness. I had no idea she was going through that.” They see that they aren’t the only one.

We tend to know the amazing things that God did through a godly woman or a godly man. Somehow the word doesn’t get out about some of the really hard stuff they endured. When you read a biography you realize, “Oh, he lost three wives. Oh, she lost two husbands. Oh, this was going on.”

Here are some examples of a couple of my favorites. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a the German pastor killed by the Nazis in World War II. His biography by Eric Metaxas is just wonderful book. Corrie Ten Boom went through a concentration camp in World War II and watched her father and her sister die in those camps. Yet she survived, and she went on to testify and forgive. You see real people who suffered. Elizabeth Elliott was a missionary whose husband was speared to death by the Auca Indians. She also lost another husband. The Heavenly Man records the story of a Chinese Pastor in the 80s who survived multiple imprisonments. John Piper has a whole series of books called The Swans are Not Silent, where he puts three biographies in each book. They’re excellent. The Roots of Endurance features John Newton, Charles Simeon, and William Wilberforce. I could go on but it’s a great start.

Get your counselee to read their Bible, have them read some biographies, and then zero in on the example of Christ himself. There’s no better place to look than Christ if you want to feed your faith and endure rather than complain.

In fact, Hebrews exhorts us to look to Christ as a means of persevering and enduring. Think about what Hebrews 12 says, “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” And then the writer goes on and says “For consider Him.” Consider is a word in the Greek that means take it into account. It’s an accounting term. Carefully “consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls.”

You have counselees that need more than just a good night’s rest. They are weary on a soul level. “Lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls.” That word weary is the Greek word that means “sick.” A complainer has a sick soul. That word weary and discouraged means a bow that has been unstrung. The string has been clipped. Is it still a bow? Yeah. Is it effective? You’ve got some counselees who’ve been unstrung. And they’re sick.

And a lot of it has to do with where their eyes are fixed. They’ve taken their eyes off Jesus and they’re fixed on circumstances.

The word Christian means little Christ and yet Christians continue to be surprised by suffering. When persecuted, marginalized, or treated as odd, Christians can often be surprised at what’s happening. Yet if we look at the New Testament, we’re called pilgrims, exiles, foreigners, strangers—everything about that indicates that you’re not home yet. But we’ve got Christians that keep trying to pad the nest and ask, “When is this going to get really really nice?”

Never! This is Motel 6. We’ll keep the light on that’s about as good as it gets. Heaven is home. Think about how often the reason we’re unhappy with something is because we expected something different. If I put something in my mouth at a restaurant that I thought was going to be sweet and it’s sour, I don’t like it. But what if I knew ahead of time that it’s really sour, I’ll be prepared.

And I do like things like that. Cincinnati has these certain pickles that are very special from Izzy’s—they’re sour and there’s garlic on them, but I know that and I put it in my mouth on purpose wanting sour and garlic. But if I thought this was dessert, would I be happy? No!

At our church, we have a big Japanese ministry—that might surprise you in Kentucky, but Toyota’s North American headquarters is there, so lots of Japanese Executives get sent over for training and we’ve reached out.

We have a Japanese Bible study for them, and so sometimes there’s leftover desserts on Japanese Women’s Bible Study day. And so as a typical man, I’m grazing in the church break room, and there’s this food in the dessert section. And I’ll never forget the day that I grab this thing and put in my mouth. Oh!

The Japanese are not into sugar. And because my expectation was that it would be sweet, I was shocked.

Now that’s a silly example, but it illustrates how impactful expectations can be. I’m not saying we need wake up and everyday said, “God, I want to suffer more today.” That’s not what we’re saying. But what if you just said, “God, I’m Your servant. I’m Your Pilgrim. I’m Your alien. I’m here to glorify You. I want to serve You. I know You’ll help me.” And we weren’t just having an expectation of, “Nothing hard is going to happen. I will not suffer,” I think we would do better.

3. Help them to cultivate an appetite for the afterlife.

So many of our counselees are obsessed with right here, right now, with little view of eternity. Complaining is going to flow out of your mouth if your hope is set on this world.

This was never intended to be your best life now. That is coming. So your counselees need a view with a wide angle lens on life. The trials of life can be like a magnet that just sucks me down to a smaller place—me, my kids, my church, our trials, our problems, our street, etc…

And the Scriptures reverse that attitude. It’s only the Scriptures that reverse that mindset—this is why I’ve got to read the Bible. It’s like a wide-angle lens if you’ll read it. I feel my life and my thoughts and my emotions shrinking down and then I read my Bible again, and I’m helped.

Let me give you my two favorite wide angle lens passages that I go to over and over. Romans 8:18-30 and 2 Corinthians 4:16-18.

Romans 8 tells us that our suffering doesn’t even compare with the glory that is to come. Whether you use this passage with a counselee or use it for yourself, I would encourage you to look for three things in Romans 8:18-30. There’s a three-fold cord that I see woven together of groaning, waiting, and hoping.

Very often the problem is that your counselee is only groaning.

You got to get them hoping and waiting. And by biblical waiting, I hope you know that’s not just idleness. “I’m waiting. I’m waiting for this to stop.” Biblical waiting is a leaning in with expectation based on the character and goodness of God, that He’s up to something. He’s on His throne. You got to get them biblically waiting and hoping.

Biblical hope is not, “Well, I hope so.” Biblical hope is a confident expectation of future blessing based on the character and promises of God.

Hoping, waiting, groaning. That’s what you see in Romans 8. But then in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18, Paul says, “Therefore we do not lose heart.” And it’s the second time he has said it in that chapter. Why? I think he struggles to not lose heart! So he’s telling us how he doesn’t. “Therefore, we do not lose heart, even though the outward man is perishing.” That word perishing in the Greek literally means “is being disabled.”

As we age and go through this life, we’re being disabled.

You know, sometimes people at church will run up to me saying, “Pastor Brad, it looks like you still go to the gym. What are you doing?” And I’ve start saying: I do whatever I can do that week that doesn’t hurt. I just walk through the gym and I think, “Shoulders, not today. No squats. No lower back.” Sometimes all I do is walk through the gym. I just see the machines and I think, “That was probably good for me. It’s better than not coming here at all.” But all kinds of things have been changed because I kept hurting things.

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day…. while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.”

It comes down to where is your counselee is focused. Don’t hear me advocating that you should stick your head in the sand and pretend there’s not a problem with your child. That’s not what we’re saying, but there’s a difference between sticking your head in the sand and focusing exclusively on your trial, where it becomes all you think about.

When you’re trying to counsel someone going through a difficult time, do not let them pull out of all serving. I see this so often: They were teaching a children’s class, but their 24-year-old is is going crazy in Oregon and their heart is breaking. I get it, I’ve lived through a lot of that, but it’s not going to help you. “I just can’t teach class right now.” That only gives you more time to just think about your son in Oregon. That is not helping. Keep serving, it pushes you.

Even the worst things that we went through our kids for eight years, it was hard to keep regular responsibilities going, but I looked at my wife and actually said, “You know, it’s a blessing from God that you’re still homeschooling the younger kids.” Because she had to get up, she had to think about something else. And I had a job at the church, so I still had to write a sermon, still had to counsel other people. It was hard, but good.

I think sometimes when someone gets a doctor’s excuse and they don’t have to work and they pull out of all serving at church, it’s the beginning of the end. Now they can just curl up and think about their trial all day long.

4. Hold them accountable to stop making excuses.

Often your counselee will acknowledge to some degree that what you’re saying is right, but they’re the exception here. Sometimes what you’ll hear is, “I’m not complaining. I’m just stating the facts.”

Your counselee will sometimes state the facts, but you’ll notice that something is missing. You’ll notice that they just told this entire story without mentioning God at all, or their Savior at all, or the Scriptures at all, or grace at all, or brothers and sisters at all. This story of facts is quite atheistic, right? Don’t hear me saying on paper they would sign it now and say, “I’m an atheist. I’m out.” But to some degree they’ve become functional atheists.

Because their story is just all the hard facts of their circumstances minus God. You’ve got to keep them focused on the bigger picture. They still need to see places like 1 Timothy 1. There’s a place loaded with facts. Despite what’s going on with your child, despite the cancer, despite the job loss, despite whatever is going on: You’re still an object of God’s mercy. That can’t be changed. That can’t be taken or shaken. There’s a good fact: “but I obtained mercy.” Too often, they’re stating the facts, just not all the facts.

Secondly what you might hear is, “I’m trying not to complain, but I just don’t feel like God is with me.” I get it. But here’s what’s encouraging; the Psalmist gets it too. Take them to the Psalms of lamentation. Let them pick one of the Psalms of lamentation and make it their own and pray it.

Many of the Psalmists were saying, “I don’t feel like God is with me.” In fact, Psalm 77 is one of those Psalms that actually says, “I remembered God and it pained me.” Okay, pretty honest. There aren’t warm fuzzy feelings about God, but we don’t live by our feelings.

It’s wonderful when my feelings are in line with what is true. Yet, the very definition of maturity is the ability to do what God calls us to do next, despite lack of feelings.

That’s not hypocrisy. Your counselees will sometimes push back, “Well, I don’t want to be a hypocrite. You don’t expect me to do something I don’t feel.” Yes, please do some things you don’t feel!

That’s what distinguishes those with jobs from those without jobs. I mean, here’s my favorite answer back to people like that, especially when I’m saying: Do three loving deeds for your spouse this week. “Well, I don’t feel anything. I still hate her. Why would I want to do that and be a hypocrite?”

I’ll say, “Monday morning when the alarm goes off, do you launch out of bed and think, ‘Oh my goodness. It’s another week at Fidelity Insurance, let’s go!'” I don’t think so.

“Do you love the job?”

“Not really.”

“Do you like being there?”

“No.”

“Well then be authentic and lay there!”

No, you’ll be unemployed. And so you do what you don’t have feelings to do, because it’s right. That’s maturity. That’s not hypocrisy. You got to help your counselees to understand this.

Here’s another excuse that you’ll hear, “This caught me by surprise. I never expected this.”

I understand what they’re saying, because it does feel that way when we encounter trials. But is there any suffering that has not caught you by surprise? I don’t open my Bible and there’s a verse that gives me a heads up on exactly what’s coming. Now, I did already acknowledge by the grace of God and His Holy Spirit, I had a sense some weeks leading up to Vicki’s illness. God will sometimes do some heart preparation, but there wasn’t clarity.

I remember being as shocked as anyone could be in 2005 when my sweet wife called me. I was at Cracker Barrel meeting with the Regional Director of our denomination, and she said, “You’ve got to come home now.” And horrible stuff about our daughter had just erupted. I was shocked.

She was 15, singing on the youth praise team. We were homeschooling. I had no idea. I could have said, “But God this caught me by surprise.” Yes. I mean literally those first three days, I felt like we were in the Twilight Zone. Just pinch me this can’t really be happening, right? You feel that way sometimes, but it’s not an excuse to say, “But I didn’t see this coming. I didn’t get a notice. So I’m allowed to complain and be bitter and demanding and proud.”

Christians, by the way, should expect to have problems. 1 Peter 4:12 actually states it this way, when he says, “Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy.”

If you are suffering as a believer, it is according to the will of God. Our God is absolutely sovereign over good, bad, evil, and suffering. If you’re a believer, you’re suffering according to the will of God right now. And He’s good, He’s up to something. Good doesn’t say the suffering is good. Be careful not to misinterpret verses like Romans 8:28.

“And we know that all things work together for good.” It doesn’t say all things are good. God doesn’t call cancer good. He doesn’t call a rebellious child good. He doesn’t call sexual abuse good. But for the believer, all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.

The Bible never says to a suffer: “Just keep quiet and suffer in silence.” But it also doesn’t say: “Just complain anyway you want.”

Help your counselee to understand the difference between appropriate biblical lamenting and sorrowing, and give them a safe place for that. Acknowledge the suffering but hold onto them lovingly, and don’t let them slip into sinful complaining. The heart beneath that is more serious than you think with resistance to authority, pride, and bitterness, which will cut them off from grace and exacerbate the suffering far worse.

Let’s complain in a biblical way like the Psalmist did.


This post was released as part of a package to equip the church to respond well to the COVID-19 pandemic. View other resources in the collection.

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Brad Bigney
Brad Bigney is the lead pastor at Grace Fellowship Church in Florence, KY, and a certified biblical counselor with ACBC.
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