How often does someone approach you –over the office water fountain, or standing beside your backyard fence, or as you pass each other in the produce aisle — and mention casually that there is a problem in his life and ask that you pray about it? And just as often, we will casually, nonchalantly, reply that Yes, I Will Pray For You but then drink our water, mow our grass or purchase our greens and never give the request another thought, much less the prayer that we so routinely promised.
What is not surprising about these encounters is that the one who mentions the problems and asks for prayer rarely has approached her pastor with the issue. What is surprising is the severity of the issues raised; almost nothing is off limits, even for the produce aisle.Standing right there beside the celery and the cabbage, sometimes with a stock boy in earshot, or right there in the meat market with the butcher in plain view, almost-strangers will tell us of their teen with drug problems, their failing marriage, their addiction to gambling or chocolate or whatever.
And having mustered up the gumption to actually say the public words that describe their private pain, it seems she would hardly be satisfied with our pseudo-promise to “pray for her.”
Don’t get me wrong: believers should, as we are commanded, “pray without ceasing,” even if it is praying beside the pork chops, and we should not undertake any endeavor, especially spiritual counsel, without having first prayed about the matter, without having prayed during the matter, and having prayed after the matter. Additionally, there is certainly a benefit one believer receives from knowing that another believer is praying for him (if he actually is!).
So, prayer must be part of biblical counsel that we offer one another. But while counsel includes prayer, it also includes much more than prayer. When one person approaches another and divulges dark secrets or dire circumstances, it is an opportunity to speak truth and hope into the situation.
Admittedly, not every produce-aisle confession warrants a full-on counseling session. If your friend reveals marital strife to you, it may not be appropriate to give a delicatessen dissertation on God’s original design for marriage and family, and it may not be timely to engage in back-yard Bible study on the first two chapters of Genesis. The Bible tells us to be prepared to give such an answer as is good for “edification according to the need of the moment, that it may give grace to those who hear.”
Here are some things to keep in mind to balance the need to give spiritual counsel and guidance with a respect for decorum and timing:
1. Give Timely, Appropriate Words. God is certainly able to inspire us with the right words on the spur of the moment. Yet being prepared means that we would probably need to think about what we would say to people in such situations. Begin by remembering those occasions when someone stumped you with an unexpected confession or request, and think through what an appropriate biblical response to that would have been.
2. Encourage Intensive Discipling. It will be a rare day, indeed, when whatever you say to someone during your water break with constitute the spiritual breakthrough they need, and fully resolve their complex needs. Direct people to receive discipleship on the issue, from a pastor or trusted (and maturing) believer who is willing to do the hard work with them of finding biblical solutions to sinful behaviors.
3. Pray. It should go without saying that prayer should undergird and support our intensive, discipling, counsel. If we promise to pray, we should pray. And our prayer should not merely be the sort that asks God generally to “be with” s0-and-so as she faces her troubles, but the biblical sort that applies specific promises to specific sin issues.
4. Follow Up. Get a phone number, an email address, or, if you are antiquated, a mailing address, and follow-through with the advice you gave, the counselor you recommended, or the commiseration you shared.
The rebuke, exhortation and encouragement that occurs in biblical counsel among Christ-followers does not only — or even primarily — occur in the pastor’s office or on the counselor’s sofa. God uses ordinary believers empowered with the Word and by the Spirit to work sanctification in the lives of others. Be prepared that God might also use you.