Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction. (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)
Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:16)
Do good… be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share. (1 Timothy 6:18)
For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead. (James 2:26)
Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that our works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. (James 3:13)
We urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. (1 Thessalonians 5:14-16)
The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace. (James 3:17-18)
Whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. (Matthew 6:2-3)
Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart. (1 Peter 1:22)
Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. (1 Peter 3:8)
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10:31)
And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:17)
In one of his novels Somerset Maugham wrote this epitaph to some of the characters: ‘These folk had done nothing and when they died, it was just as if they had never been.” Christianity has always taught that the good deeds we have not done will damn us as much as the evil deeds we have done. What a waste – to have lived only one short life on this planet and to have lived it uselessly!
The greatest need in our time is not for preaching, nor for service on behalf of justice, nor for the experience of the Spirit’s gifts. The greatest need of our time is for koinonia – to love one another, and to offer our lives for the sake of those in need.
An understanding of Christian concern for others begins with the character of God. Ours is a ‘social God’, relating within the community of the Trinity, and, in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, with the people on this planet. Jesus came with a mandate to preach, liberate and heal (Luke 4:18-19) and commissions his followers to do the same as he did (John 20:21). So the church, the body of Christ, does in its world what Jesus did in his: no more, no less. It adopts Jesus’ stance towards others: that of a servant. And it will be called into account at the Great Judgment relative to the presence or absence of ministries of compassion to those who need what we can give (Matthew 25:31-46).
‘Compassion’ comes from the Latin pati and cum – ‘to suffer with’. The church takes Jesus as its model for compassion. Twelve times in the gospels, Jesus or his Father-God are said to be ‘moved with compassion’ for worried and helpless people (for example Matthew 9:36). Our Lord sends his followers into the world to ‘be compassionate as your Father is compassionate’ (Luke 6:36).
How does compassion work? In the same way as God’s does: Jesus is sent into the world to be with us. He emptied himself and became a servant (Philippians 2). That gives us dignity: we must be worth a lot if he is willing to be our slave! He says to us: ‘I will be with you always until the end of the age’ (Matthew 28:20). We are not alone.
So compassion is more than sympathy – ‘feeling sorry’ for others. It’s not ‘pity’ for someone weak or inferior. Compassion is a ‘doing verb’ – relieving the pain of others, not just emoting about it. But it’s more than ‘helping the less fortunate’ – that’s elitist and paternalistic.
Compassion, says Matthew Fox, is the world’s richest energy source. A few days before his death, Rabbi and scholar Abraham Heschel said, ‘There is an old idea in Judaism that God suffers when we suffer… Even when a criminal is hanged in the gallows, God cries. God identifies himself with the misery on this earth. I can help God by reducing human suffering, human anguish and human misery’.
But there’s so much pain – where do I start? In the Matthew text describing Jesus’ compassion (9:35-38), our Lord then turns to his disciples and says ‘There’s so much to do, and so few do it, pray!’ First, pray! Prayer tunes us in to the heart of God. Prayer helps us focus on others and their needs. Prayer turns frustration and anger into hope. A by-product of prayer is peace, without which we will never act appropriately in an unjust world.
We are called, to use an image of Thomas Merton’s, motivated and empowered by the love of God to be involved in the sufferings of the world because it is the aim of God’s love to reset the broken bones of humanity…
But humanity’s brokenness is almost infinite. If a helper is not careful he or she will be ‘spattered all over the wall of needfulness’ as one therapist puts it. Shakespeare was right (in Measure for Measure): ‘Good counsellors lack no clients.’ An important habit for good counsellors is to find a time and a place each day, each week and each year for varying periods of solitude. Great people-helpers like Mother Teresa or Dom Helder Camara are great because of their disciplined private prayer. Have you ever noticed the remarkable statement in Luke 5:15-16: ‘Many crowds would gather to hear Jesus and be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray’. Imagine that! The greatest healer of them all left people unhealed to get himself together alone in the presence of God. There’s an important lesson there for us.
Now let’s get practical. Here are some golden rules for people-helpers:
A caring friend is worth ten uncaring ‘professionals’: your help will make a difference! (But learn when you have moved beyond your expertise, and need to refer the other to a more skilled helper.)
You won’t ever be an ‘expert’ on people’s problems: a lifetime is too short to understand all that you should know about psychology and counselling.
A Christian counsellor has three roles – listening, befriending and ‘shepherding’. As a listener you hear, deeply, what the other is really saying – especially any agenda ‘behind the words’. As friend, you share your journey and your struggles – but only when you have earned that right and it is appropriate. A shepherd or pastor, with the proper authority and on the right occasion, may share biblical insights. The three roles are expressed as ‘I hear you saying…’, ‘I want to say…’. ‘God says…’ (‘what you think, what I think, what God thinks’). But don’t be ‘trigger-happy’ with Scripture: don’t use Bible texts as weapons (or as magic pills!).
And only rarely (and when you’re more experienced) give advice: you are not God; you might get sued these days if the advice is lethal; and the person must ‘own’ their growth and changes rather than depend on your ‘parenting’ them. Your aim is to encourage the counsellee to stand on his/her own two feet as soon as possible, without your constant support. Some people are actually best helped by being left alone (particularly those who ‘hug their hurts’ and who are constant attention-seekers.)
Feed back words and phrases that indicate you’re tracking with the counsellee: ‘You’re saying that…’ ‘What I hear is…’ ‘So you feel…’
Don’t be judgmental: never be shocked; accept the person totally, even if you can’t accept their behaviour. If something makes you very angry or anxious or fearful, there may be some unfinished business somewhere in your own life.
Watch for ‘transference’ (when someone dumps emotions on you that don’t belong to you) and ‘counter-transference’ (when you respond by getting emotionally ‘hooked’ by the counsellee.) Check with a counselling supervisor.
Beware the ‘redeemer complex’ – getting in deep with others’ problems to satisfy your own needs. Be ’empathetic’ rather than ‘sympathetic’. Sympathy may be a selfish emotion. If you’re getting too involved emotionally, or if you are sexually attracted to a counsellee you may have to refer to someone else.
What a person tells you in confidence must not be repeated to anyone else (except to an experienced supervisor with the counsellee’s consent.)
In a more formal counselling interview have some sort of understanding/contract/covenant. I sometimes find myself saying to someone who’s never been to a counsellor, ‘Feel free to talk about anything: but you don’t have to if you’re not comfortable. If I ask something you don’t want to explore, you can simply “pass”. I may not be the best person to help: but I’ll tell you when I can’t and when someone else might have different skills or insights’. (Incidentally, after about 16 thousand hours of pastoral counselling, this helper can’t remember anyone ‘passing’.)
Generally, experienced counsellors find the ‘fifty-minute hour’ best: most of the healing in therapy happens between sessions.
As a general rule, I would not advise counselling someone of the opposite sex alone: have someone else ‘around’ (in the next room, or with you as a co-counsellor.)
Pray for (and, if appropriate, with) your friend.
Finish every session on a realistically hopeful note.
Above all, become a whole person yourself. Get in touch with your feelings, your ‘scripting’, your motivations, your sexuality, your besetting sins. Ideally, see a spiritual director regularly. Get to know God. Learn to grow into the sort of spiritual maturity that is less and less affected by praise or blame: the less you expect, the less you’ll be disappointed (saints expect nothing – or anything – and are rarely disappointed.)
One psychotherapist summarises the marks of a ‘therapeutic therapist’ as follows: they have found their own way; possess self-respect and self-appreciation; are able to be powerful; are open to change; are expanding their awareness of self and others; are willing and able to tolerate ambiguity; have an identity; are capable of nonpossessive empathy… They are alive! They are authentic, real, congruent, sincere, and honest; are able to give and receive love; live in the present; make mistakes and are willing to admit them; are able to become deeply involved in their work and their creative projects; are able to reinvent themselves; have the ability to be emotionally present for others; are in the process of making choices that shape their life; challenge unreasonable assumptions rather than submitting to them; and have a sincere interest in the welfare of others. (Gerald Corey, Theory and Practice of Counselling and Psychotherapy, Monterey, California: Brooks/Cole, 1982, pp. 269-71)
May you live – and help others to grow – all the days of your life!
During the last months of his life, while confined to a Nazi prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer sketched the outline of a book which he never lived to complete. In the fragments preserved for us, we find him defining the essence of Christian discipleship as ‘being-there-for-others’. For him, this captured the accent on servanthood which marked Jesus’ career. Life for Jesus, as it must be for us, was defined by a wholehearted response to the claim of the neighbor… There is ample evidence that Bonhoeffer’s phrase grasps a major theme of the Christian life as the Scriptures interpret it. For in Jesus’ estimation, the law is largely summed up in neighborliness and greatness is associated with servanthood.
(Bruce Turley, Being there for Others, Melbourne: JBCE, 1976, p.35)
A man was told, through prayer, that Christ was going to visit him on a certain day. He went about his business as usual; he was a shoemaker. His first customer was a prostitute, the second a mother with a sick child, the third was an alcoholic. He hurried around, trying to be hospitable to these people. When evening came, he was rather disappointed. It was time to lock up – and Christ still hadn’t come. He was very unhappy. Suddenly he heard a voice, ‘But I have come, in the person of each of the people to whom you offered hospitality today.’
(Catherine de Hueck Doherty, Poustinia, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1979, p.106)
Many churches are more concerned about what happens inside their doors than outside. Members will help the poor and needy so long as they don’t have to dirty their own hands to do it. Admittedly, it’s easier to organise fellowship suppers and church picnics than it is to reach out to the sick and suffering in the community. Caring, after all, takes time and personal involvement.
(Charles Colson, Against the Night, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1990, pp. 103-4)
To be most effective, therapists must be real, human persons… offering genuine human relationship… Much of what therapists do is superfluous or unrelated to their effectiveness, in fact, it is likely that much of their success is unrelated to what they do or even occurs in spite of what they do, as long as they offer the relationship that it appears therapists of very differing persuasions do provide… It is a relationship characterised not so much by what techniques therapists uses as by what they are, not so much by what they do as the way they do it.
(C.H. Patterson, Theories of counselling and psychotherapy, New York: Harper and Row, 1973, pp.535-6)
There is no real alternative to genuineness in the (healing) relationship. Even if they were skilled, polished actors, it is doubtful that therapists could hide their real feelings from the client. When therapists pretend to care, pretend to respect, or pretend to understand, that are fooling only themselves. Patients may not know why the therapist is ‘phoney’, but they can easily detect true warmth from phoney and insincere ‘professional warmth’.
(Charles B. Traux and Robert R. Carkhuff, Towards Effective Counselling and Psychotherapy, New York: Aldine, 1967, p.34)
Women usually volunteer more information than you need, men less than you would like… Men tend to wrestle more with problems in their career and less with problems at home. In fact, a man can tolerate a fairly low degree of marital happiness if his career is moving forward… Women tend to come for counselling earlier with their problem… Women usually come in wanting support: ‘I want somebody to understand me.’ So the ministry of presence is a lot more important with women. The ministry of providing options is more important for men… Although women often cry, they seldom apologise for it… on the other hand women are afraid that I’m not going to think well of them if they tell me some dark fantasy or secret or urge…
I like to think of mental health as a continuum: to the left are people who feel excessively responsible for others (neurotics) and to the right people who are too wrapped up in themselves (narcissists). On this continuum, women tend to fall on the left and men on the right… A milder version of excessive neurosis is co-dependency, which I see in many more women than men…
Up to age forty, men focus on their careers… Men in their forties start to get in touch with their emotions and their relationships. They are ready to give themselves to their kids. The problem is that just when the father has more time and energy to give to his kids, the kids are in their late teens, saying ‘Hey, I’m out of here’ or ‘Where were you when I really needed you?’
(Jim Smith, Counselling Men, Counselling Women in Archibald Hart et. al. Mastering Pastoral Counselling, Portland: Multnomah/Christianity today, 1992, pp.109ff)
The philosopher who said ‘Know thyself’ understood that it is too easy to be deceived about oneself. Part of the wisdom of Jesus can be attributed to the fact that ‘He knew what was in men and women.’ Both of these – knowing both yourself and others in caring, reflective, unvarnished ways – will help you develop the wisdom that enables you to move beyond the technology of helping, the helping alliance, and even the ‘real relationship’ to (real)
authenticity… The ability to befriend the ‘shadow side’ of yourself and your clients, without becoming its victim, is not the fruit of raw experience, but experience wrestled with, reflected on, and learned from, not mere reflection but meditation with yourself, your colleagues, your intimates, your demons, and your deities.
(Gerard Egan, The Skilled Helper, 3rd Edition, Monterey, California: Brooks/Cole, 1986, p.362)
Recently a friend of mine, a Methodist minister, had the tragic experience when he was driving his car of knocking down an old man who suddenly stepped off the curb in front of him. The old man died from his injuries, and my friend was utterly shaken, asking himself many questions about his worthiness to be a minister and to stand and preach to his people. But courageously he told his own congregation and others like ourselves, asking for our friendship and prayer. Eventually, when all the evidence was collected, he was declared to be completely blameless, but while we all waited in tension and suffering with him, we were all drawn together in love. And one day, when his door-bell rang, he found outside a West Indian lady with her entire family. She told him he might not recognise her, because she did not often come to church, but he had once been around and prayed with her, so she decided she would come, in his moment of need, to bring her family to pray with him. She began to pray and roughly what she said was, ‘God, I hope you are going to listen to me. You may not recognise me, or know my voice, because I don’t often come to church or talk to you. But I come to you because a friend of mine is in trouble, and I want you to help him…’
(Michael Hollings, Hearts Not Garments, London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1982, pp.39-40)
Because I was a parish minister for years, and have been a teacher for still more years, many people have at one time or another opened their hearts to me – and I do not think that I ever revealed anyone’s secret to anyone else. People used to say to my wife: ‘He’ll have told you such and such a thing’, only to find that I had not mentioned it even to her. But I wonder if there is anyone to whom I would open my own heart.
(William Barclay, Testament of Faith, Oxford: Mowbrays, 1977, p.29)
Service that is duty-motivated breathes death. Service that flows out of our inward person is life, and joy and peace. The risen Christ beckons us to the ministry of the towel. Perhaps you would like to begin by experimenting with a prayer that a number of us have used. Begin the day by praying ‘Lord Jesus, I would so appreciate it if you would bring me someone today whom I can serve.’
(Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, Sevenoaks: Hodder & Stoughton, 1980, p.122)
Lord, make us instruments of your peace; where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.
Adapted from The Prayer of St Francis
God of seed and growth and harvest, creator of need, creator of satisfaction; give us, we pray, our daily bread, sufficient and assured for all. Give us also, we pray, the bread of life, and we shall have a care to feed the hungry, and to seek for peace and justice in the world.
Help us, then, to remember and to know that you are our life today and every day;, you are the food we need, now and for ever.
Look kindly, all-seeing God, on all who spend this night in anxiety or pain. Be with those who will die tonight. Look kindly on those who are without food or shelter, on those who have no love.
Your will is that we should have life, and share it. Be present, merciful God, and protect us through the silent hours of this night, that we, who are wearied by the changes and chances of this fleeting world, may rest upon your eternal changelessness. Amen.
A New Zealand Prayer Book, pp.127-8
Help us, Lord, to be helpful to those who are falling by the way. Strengthen us, Lord, so that we may be agents of healing for others. Make us whole, so that, understanding who we are, we might be authentic helpers of others who are struggling to find their identity, or searching for life’s meaning. Through Christ our Saviour, Healer and Forgiver. Amen.
Now to the one who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Based on Ephesians 3:20-21)
Rowland Croucher, Live! More Meditations and Prayers for Christians, Melbourne: JBCE, 1993, chapter 18.