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Back in the ’90s, the Lord brought a married couple to me for counseling. Their marriage and individual lives were falling apart. In the succeeding years, I have worked with them on many marriage and family problems.
Eventually, we became friends. Our friendship grew to such a depth that Lucia and I asked them to take our children should we die prematurely. They accepted. Yes, they were counselees, a Christian brother and sister who needed help from someone.
Our friendship continued to grow to where we were willing to entrust them with the most precious of our possessions. I have many other stories of grateful people who understood the process of counseling and were appreciative of my role in their lives.
Then there are others whom I’ve tried to help who have been downright nasty to me. Their attitudes and actions have been snarky, sarcastic, unkind, uncharitable, accusatory, judgmental, mean-spirited, and hateful.
Their reactions are part of the liability of giving yourself to people in situational difficulties. Ironically, I don’t want anything from them. My singular goal is to help them to love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength.
My prayer for every person that I meet is to help them find Christ, the only person who can ultimately change them. That’s my motive. And while I do not minister with every person perfectly (or according to their preferences), I have no sinister, evil, or ulterior motives for them. I’m not purposely boogie-trapping their lives for them to continue in the dysfunction that they are living.
I am for them as much as a human can be for anyone. Even with that said, some people will turn on you and do whatever they feel justified to do to hurt you. Some people are mean-spirited and will always be mean unless God changes their hearts.
Spheres of Responsibility and Spheres of Concern
There will also be people who do not want Christ. They aim to maintain their evil reputation while preserving their selfish image. They are willing to do this even if it means the destruction of those around them. And that’s how it goes with people who don’t want to change.
If you try to help a person who is unbroken before God, he will take the things that you intend for help and turn them around and use them against you. There are hundreds of pastors, disciplers, and counselors who read my articles every day, and they can fully attest to what I’m saying.
Humble helpers who try to serve other people do not drum-up ways to hurt those needy folks. Paul is a classic example of what I am saying. His affection for the Corinthians was profound (1 Corinthians 1:3-9). This church was one of the many that he cared for, as he sought to bring them to full affection for Jesus.
Unfortunately, some of the people in the Corinthian church did not want his help. They had no intention of listening to his counsel. Their desire was more about protecting their image and reputation than being open to the truths of the gospel.
Fortunately, their sinful reactions did not deter Paul. He persisted in helping them in any way that he could. This kind of gospel-aggression toward others who do not want to change could not do anything but cause a conflict. Do you see how Paul’s love for them could not avoid conflict with them?
Whenever love runs into self-centered stubbornness, the self-centered person inevitably will go into rants about how the helper was sinful in attitude and actions. If you are a persistent lover of others, you’ve experienced this. They have accused you of things that are not true.
Pastors, disciplers, and counselors are not the only ones who receive this kind of harsh treatment. Hate-speech happens everywhere, e.g., small group settings, a marriage, or a family. It can occur in any context when you are trying to help someone who is drifting from the Lord.
The real question is, “How do you help the drifters?” If 2 Corinthians 12:11-21 can be a test case on this, I think we can learn how to help, or at least respond to those who are antagonistic to your desire to “love them back to Jesus.”
Let me reiterate what I said earlier: no helper helps perfectly in every instance. We’re all sinful, even on our best days. No person is entirely sanctified, not even loving Christians. This truth is by no means a justification for someone to help a person imperfectly. It is merely a truth claim from the Bible.
Any person could pick apart anyone if they looked long enough. You spend a couple of hours with me you will be able to find my flaws. I’m not happy about this, but I’m a biblical realist: I’m a saint who still sins on occasion.
In a counseling or discipleship context, it won’t take long to find the flaws of your helper. It might take longer if you only have superficial relationships, but counseling is not shallow relationship building.
Paul was not one to lollygag around. He was a “gospel businessman,” and applying the gospel to the souls of people was his business. There is no way Paul could avoid conflict. Anybody who seeks to delve into the heart of another person should expect at least three possibilities:
The bottom line for some of the people in Corinth was that they turned on Paul because they had ulterior motives. They did not want what he wanted, which was a gospel-centered transformation. A few Corinthians were challenging to care for and felt no guilt for giving Paul a piece of their minds.
If you try to help any challenging person, here is a piece of vital information that you must know: God-centered strength for this kind of caring will not come from personal ability, but your inherent weakness.
While your gifts can persuade some people, the real spiritual impact you desire to have on others is not transformative, and there will be no heavenly fruit-bearing just by using your natural gifts, no matter what your skills may be.
This truth is one of the reasons people burn out of the ministry so quickly. It is also one reason there are so many divorces, or why some folks refuse to get involved in the lives of complicated people.
You cannot accomplish the heavy spiritual lifting that requires another person to change with human wisdom or human strength. It was Paul’s weakness that provided the key to the victories he saw in the lives of others.
Just before the text that I’m addressing here—2 Corinthians 12:11-21—we see how Paul fully grasped his weakness. Paul learned that he could never pull off what he needed to do unless God entirely broke him and fully empowered him for the task ahead.
For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:10).
This kind of brokenness created the character Paul needed to be on the Lord’s redemptive team of disciplers. If you don’t have this attitude, your usefulness in the lives of exhausting people will run into limitations.
Here are three character qualities you need if you desire to help someone who needs to change. These things are what we see Paul modeling for us as he tried to help the Corinthians to love God.
Paul was not inferior to anyone in the Corinthian church even though he knew he was nothing. At the foot of the cross, we all stand on equal ground. Nobody is better than anyone else. Paul did not have a “better than, greater than” attitude towed these mean-spirited people.
One of the most remarkable character traits of a discipler is patience. It takes a lot of patience to deal with folks who do not have the vision or desires that you have for the change process.
When you are working with someone who is stuck between doing right and wrong, you need to stick with them as long as they will let you. If you’re not a broken person or not filled with the patience of Christ, you will fail.
Your challenging friend is wrestling with Christ, not you. It may feel as though he is fighting with you, but he is not. He is in a war with God, and you happen to be in that war zone with them.
All Paul received from the Corinthians was suspicion and meanness. Somehow these Corinthians turned Paul’s love for them to deceit and unkindness. They accused him, which can happen when you try to help people.
Mean people will turn your words and actions and twist them to make you look bad, and if you’re not careful, it will cut you to the quick. Any follower of Jesus, who wants to help others, will experience the challenges of iron sharpening iron.
Paul could not help but take what they were accusing him personally. He was under an attack, and the temptation was to respond self-righteously. I understand. The temptation to react in anger when people lash out in anger toward you is natural.
Along with your persevering patience, you will need selfless love for difficult individuals. Doesn’t selfless love get to the heart of the gospel? Do you remember? None of us were happy with God. We despised and rejected Him and hid as it were our faces from Him (Isaiah 53:3). But He came with persevering patience and selfless love.
If the gospel has not broken you down, you will not be able to export the gospel to a gospel-rejector. A part of this brokenness means that you see yourself as equal to the person you are trying to help, and only the grace of God in your life makes you different. Without recognizing your helplessness apart from God’s grace, your selfless love will turn selfish and retaliatory.
Sometimes it is necessary to address anti-gospel living, even if it calls you to do difficult things. For some folks, sin is not a big deal anymore. Some Christians believe they can do and say whatever they want to and not be held accountable.
This attitude was not acceptable in the Corinthian church—at least not for Paul. It should not be admissible in our church today. Paul loved people enduringly, but he would not hesitate to step in and put an end to their sin.
Paul wanted them to know that Jesus was in their midst, and he was doing His work, and he would not stop, no matter how difficult the trudging. When you are trying to help someone who is drifting from God, you cannot let it continue without doing something.
You are not the Savior, but you are His servant. You are called to stand in the gap between right and wrong, pulling drifters toward Jesus. Your goal, like Paul’s, is for God to use you to help them embrace the gospel and eventually live by it.
Paul would not bend no matter how hateful the people acted. The gospel properly weakened him so he could be a powerful messenger of it to the people who needed to hear it the most—even if they hated him for it.