– How biblical counseling differs from secular counseling in ministering to the family
– Challenges in ministering to family members
– The ministry of presence.
– From child to friend
Below is a transcript that has been edited for readability.
Dr. Dale Johnson: This week on the podcast I am delighted to welcome Dr. Sam Stephens to be here with us. He is ACBC’s Director of Training Center Certification and he helps to oversee many of our training centers across the U.S. I’m delighted that he’s here today to talk about a very important subject, which is critical for many of us as we grow into maturity in the Lord Jesus.
When we think about our parents and even ministry to our parents, we should recognize that over time that relationship may change. What we primarily think of our parents, and the things that we teach very strongly about parents, is that parents are responsible for discipline, for training in righteousness, and discipleship. They are the primary people that God has given to train children as they’re raised. Often as children, we have a perception of our parents that things are going well for them. They’re trying to pour into us. But as life happens and as we begin to grow up in the things of the Lord, that relationship starts to change. Sam, can you talk a little bit about some of your experiences: how that relationship changed now that you’re married, and you have two children.
A Transition in Relationship
Dr. Sam Stephens: I think this topic came to bear in my life personally around seven years ago. My extended family went through a difficult tragedy. We had a loss in our family that was sudden and unexpected. I was in seminary at the time, studying miles and miles away. I don’t know if this is the experience of some of our listeners who went to seminary, but tragedy hits and where do people turn to? They turn to the seminary student. And I found that in my preparation up to that point, I had a lot of tools in my toolbox on how to minister to those that are hurting and counsel God’s Word to people in and out of the church. But to family members, especially my parents, this was a new road for me and I found a difficulty that I didn’t expect.
It was different than just having the right answers theologically. It was different than just being able to walk into a situation and say, “Hey everyone, I’m a seminary student. I’ve got this. It’s going to be okay.” There was real hurt. My parents were confused. They were sorrowful. My family at large had a lot of questions that spoke not just into large theological concepts, but everyday life: the pains and hurts of life.
So, for me now, the tables are turned. These people who have spent my entire life shepherding me, guiding me, teaching me, and protecting me, I find myself almost overnight walking into a situation where they’re asking me questions. They’re asking for guidance. They’re looking for a word of comfort from me. You know, my mother who comforted me when I fell as a kid or my dad who seemed to be bigger than life and a superhero to me, were the ones that were experiencing difficulty in sorrow. As I adjusted to that new reality, I said to myself, “Okay, how do I view my parents in a way that they’re not just my parents now, they’re my brother and sister in Christ, and I have a responsibility to speak God’s Word to them at this time.”
Dr. Dale Johnson: It’s interesting how that relationship changes especially as we grow up into maturity. We start to recognize our parents’ troubles were often hidden from us as children. It’s interesting to see that they’re real people, they struggle, they don’t know everything. And now, as some of that changes, we can give perspective and learn to do some of those one another’s.
Now we understand that we don’t speak to an older brother or an older sister in a rebuking way. The Scriptures warn us against that, but there’s a way that we can speak even to our parents through some of these opportunities as they come up. They arise suddenly, sometimes without planning—just in normal conversation as they’re talking about their life and you’re engaging them. You are engaging them more as a friend and more like brother and sister in the Lord Jesus, as opposed to their primary responsibility being to shepherd you. We see very clearly in the Scriptures there is a need to leave and cleave. When that leaving and cleaving happens in marriage, we do see the relationship with our parents change. So, talk about how some of those opportunities come up as life unfolds.
Honoring Your Parents
Dr. Sam Stephens: One verse that I kept going to, that the Lord stuck out to me as I was studying the Scriptures, was Proverbs 25:11, “Words aptly spoken are like apples of gold in settings of silver.” And the intimidation factor was there when I was first thrust in this situation, in which people were looking to me. My family members and my parents were looking to me for some direction and some word. I was extremely intimidated.
And exactly to what you said, there was the sense of, “Am I going to dishonor my parents by speaking into this situation?” It wasn’t necessarily a rebuking scenario. But even ministering to them was new territory for me. So, would I be dishonoring my parents if I took this “almost a role of authority” in counseling them in this sense? And this passage, the simple proverb brought me so much peace because I remembered that the intention behind me speaking anything in God’s Word is for my counselee’s benefit and good. And of course, especially so, for my parents’ good. Whether that is an admonishment or an encouragement, regardless, the spirit behind it needs to be an apt or fit word.
But to what you said, always speaking with respect, compassion, and love to my parents was vital. Remembering that even though their role as authority over me has changed, that honor does not change. And that speaks into any counseling relationship, but especially with my parents, to keep that at the forefront of my mind.
When I spoke with my mother I spoke with gentleness, even though in my mind, I might have seen the bigger picture. I might have seen more direct answers. I was walking with a sister who is struggling with pain. With my father who has always been and continues to be a great motivation and guiding factor in my life, I wanted to speak with clarity and directness, but also with humility. So, keeping that at the forefront of my mind helped me to minister to them, but also honor them and not dishonor them.
Dr. Dale Johnson: It’s interesting when we think about our families and ministering to them, there are a lot of difficulties. It’s sometimes very difficult to say things to people that you know so well and that know you very well. Interestingly, biblical counseling has a different take on this in these types of relationships. If you were in a secular professional setting this would not be allowed in a therapeutic relationship. There are no dual relationships allowed if you know someone outside of the professional counseling context. But biblical counseling certainly takes a different perspective here.
We see that within the sphere of influence that the Lord has given us, he’s given us those relationships for a purpose. He’s even commanding us in the Scriptures with the one another’s to make sure that we’re taking care of our brothers and sisters. And I would see family in this role, but it doesn’t remove the fact that sometimes it is quite difficult to talk about some of those difficulties because of those hindrances, the pressures that we feel, or the awkwardness that we feel in those types of relationships. Right?
Dr. Sam Stephens: Well, you spoke to one of them: This idea that these are not projects, they are people. Ministering to my parents, being able to have several seasons now in the last few years to continue to be a source of comfort and direction from the Lord to them, has taught me so much about ministering to people at large. Because it’s easy for me to think that way about a counselee that I would see for a brief season and they go their way.
But my parents, they’re my parents. They’re in my life. I love them. And of course, they know me, I know them. So being able to think through how I’m walking with these people long-term. This is my natural life here on earth. My parents will be in my life. And I want to always think about the word that I speak now as not just about solving a problem in the here-and-now, but it’s going to have impacts for years.
But that truth is the same for counselees, whether they’re in our sphere of influence long-term or not. If we counsel under the authority of the Word of God, we must understand there is a long-term impact there. I think that brought a measure of patience and long-suffering that I don’t have naturally. It made me think about the words that I said. And not just the words that I would say, but the motivation behind it and even the mode in which I delivered those words. I did it with an extra ounce of peace and grace that maybe I wouldn’t have before. I wanted to think through not how my mom would receive it today, but for the long term.
Also, at times (and this happens in all our experiences), I think our words are not received well. And so, dealing with disappointment when I just knew exactly what to say to my mom at this moment with her struggle and she didn’t want to talk to a counselor. She wants to talk to her son. And in my own heart and mind, I’m disappointed. I’m frustrated. Why can’t she just understand? And it made me step back and say, “Remember Sam, this is a difficulty that she’s working through. This is hard.”
One thing that I’ve learned also is that it’s the words that we say, but it’s also the presence that we have. One of my mentors taught me the importance of the ministry of presence: being there and agreeing with those who suffer that, “This is hard.” We dealt with some crises in our family. These were unexpected tragedies. And in the very beginning, the freshness of the tragedy, I had a lot in my mind. I had a lot that I wanted to say, but I knew my parents weren’t at that point. They needed me to be there. They needed me to be present, to listen intentionally, to just be ready to comfort, to offer a hug, to be there. And then when the opportunity would arise, to be ready to speak a word of hope and encouragement amid a very difficult situation.
It’s always difficult when you take a new role. Again, a role of a son and then suddenly a role of a biblical counselor: someone who is concerned not just for my parents’ welfare as parents, but my parents’ welfare as brothers and sisters in Christ. So, thinking about those things have been important for me.
There have also been a few scenarios where my parents have received bad counsel. When my mom had gone through a particular situation, she was telling me many things that our friends would say or things that she would read and they would speak, seemingly, at the moment into the scenario and bring some peace. But I realized on this end, that this counsel is not biblically grounded. It’s not going to lead my mom into a long-term solution. These were only temporary fixes. It hit me at an emotional level. It was more than just me thinking about, “Well, he’s heard bad counsel, I need to correct this.” It impacted my mom’s life, which challenged me.
So, how do I navigate those waters? Well going back to what I said, I had to be gentle, I had to be patient and I had to be clear and consistent in the word of encouragement that I gave her. And so, when I heard my mom share something I saw concern with, I wouldn’t just lambaste her. I wouldn’t just say, “No, that’s not right. Mom, that’s going to lead you to a bad place.” I wanted to gently guide her to a place where she would see the sufficiency of what God’s Word says. Again, that is applicable, not just to counseling our parents, but to every counseling situation. I was trained in seminary. I know the right language. I know the theological categories. It’s easy for me to be abrupt and maybe bold in some of my correction, and not loving and kind. But we need to do it with gentleness and patience, nevertheless speaking the truth. So, that came to the forefront in my life, in my counseling journey, when I had to counsel with those who intimately knew me, and I intimately knew them.
Dr. Dale Johnson: I think it’s important to recognize that as we work through life, sometimes we miss opportunities to minister. You know how this is, right? When we have an opportunity to share Jesus with someone and we miss it. Maybe we didn’t see the opportunity or maybe we denied at that moment and we didn’t share the gospel. There are lots of opportunities that the Lord places right into our lap and sometimes that’s with relationships that have been building and growing for years. Through, as we’ve spoken about, opportunities of disappointment and struggle, through family life and normalcy of struggle in family life, we have opportunities. How do we see these as good opportunities where we can be faithful to the Lord while loving deeply through disappointment, through difficulty? Because that’s what love means: loving despite. How do we do that in these wonderful opportunities, where we can take the truth of the Word and grow with the people that we’re ministering to because we love them so deeply?
Joys of Ministry to Parents
Dr. Sam Stephens: Well, there are so many, but I’ll list three that have come to my mind. One is that I have had the unique opportunity and privilege really to reinvest in those who have invested in and shepherded me for my whole life. What an honor that my parents would come to me and say, “Sam, we need a word. Give us a word of encouragement from the Lord.” This is very humbling. And so, taking that opportunity seeing me now become partners with them, co-laborers with them, has added a new facet to our relationship.
Also, to see growth and sanctification happen in my parents’ lives. As you said, growing up as a child, I thought, “Wow, my parents are the whole package. They know all the answers. They navigate life without any problems.” And to see my parents as human has only grown my love and appreciation for them. They are imperfect. They have struggles like everyone else, but they seek to grow and to know our Lord more.
And that has come to culminate in the greatest privilege of all: that I have moved from child to confidant in my parents’ lives. We are friends. I’ve heard people say that as they grow older, but now that I’m actually in that scenario I am humbled, and I’m privileged to now call them my friends.
Dr. Dale Johnson: You know, it’s obvious today, we’ve been talking about relationships where our parents are more than likely believers. But I would encourage you, even if you have parents who are not believers, that you can take on a role just like this. Where the Lord gives you an opportunity through that relationship to be a minister. And maybe in the future, we’ll do a podcast talking about the important ministry of children to their parents, especially those who are unbelievers.