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The Counselee – Biff came to counseling with his wife. He talked about the problems in his life and listed several reasons why he was not changing. He said that if his wife repented, he could change. He talked about why his children were part of the problem. Then he shared about his employer, his finances, and even talked about how his wife’s parents were also problems. Biff then listed reasons why he was spiritually stagnant.
From listening to him, there appeared to be a lot of things working against him (Genesis 42:36). He later added that he felt like his previous counseling experience could have been better. It did seem, though I did not tell him, that his former counselor could have done a better job.
The Counselor – We’re not perfect disciple-makers? Any caring counselor is aware of his deficiencies, some of which are real while others are not. A pastor, small group leader, discipler, or counselor senses their weaknesses and inadequacies. And the more they long for someone to change, the stronger the temptation to over-examine their flaws.
The counselor lives in the fluid tension of what they could have done better and the excuse-making of the person not changing. Practically working through this duel problem begins with understanding and trusting the transformative power of God’s grace.
By 1984, I had lived one-quarter of a century. My journey was devoid of a relationship with God, an awareness of who He was, what He was about, and what He required of me. I did not know Him, His Word, or His people. Though my life was not a total wreck, it is accurate to say that I had gone from dysfunction to dysfunction. I was a “regular joe,” working a regular job, experiencing ordinary discontentment.
A friend from work appealed to me to become a Christian. Though I knew what he was asking, I did not know how to follow through with his advice. He did not show me the way to Christ. He just told me I needed Him but it was enough to motivate me to make my way to a Christian bookstore to buy some books about the Bible since I did not understand it (1 Corinthians 1:14).
At some point, one of the authors showed me how to become a Christian. I repented of my sins; God regenerated me, and I was born from above (John 3:7), by the power of God, because of the grace that He gave me to repent (Ephesians 2:8-9).
You must understand where I was at this point in the story. I was living in a double-wide mobile home on a country road that had no painted lines. I was remote from God, the Christian community, with no knowledge of the Bible.
It was in a back bedroom, in a double-wide mobile home, beside a nondescript country road, where God intervened in my life and birthed me into His family. God adopted me on that day, and it all happened without knowing a single Bible verse.
Perhaps you have had a similar story. Maybe God found you in some desolate place, restored you to Him, and set you on His path as a Christ-follower (Psalm 23:3). The grace of God can do this for anyone. God can make a way where there seems to be no way (Exodus 14:21).
Because it does not matter where you are or what your circumstances are, God’s grace is more than sufficient for what is happening to you. If you are not changing like Biff, be careful where you place the burden for change. You can’t place it primarily on God or any of His messengers: you can change if you want to.
I had no human messenger helping me find God. In time, God led me to a local church. He gave me a desire that I never had in my life, a desire to be with His people. He gave me a desire and persevering grace to keep trudging through His Word year by year.
The day after God regenerated me, I lusted after a female co-worker and felt something odd in my soul. I was experiencing convicting grace. I had never felt wrong for lusting after women. After the Spirit of God came inside me, things began to change incrementally.
I have heard testimony after testimony from people who had attended bad churches or bad counselors or bad schools or bad jobs, and their situation only worsened. In these cases, they placed the weight of the fault on their external circumstances.
While I understand the complexities that other people, churches, and individual institutions can bring to our lives, God’s grace is more than sufficient for the things we go through, no matter what they are or who the perpetrators are.
I watched the pallbearers lower my drunken dad into the ground, and my anger toward him was at an all-time high. I’ve buried two brothers ten years apart, after their brutal murders, and wept many times over the foolishness of their deaths. You, too, may have similar stories of heartbreak, disappointment, and disillusionment. Even still, you can testify that God’s grace was sufficient for you during your harshest times.
If I talk long enough about parts of my past, I will cry. But that does not mean God’s grace was not or is not sufficient for you or me. I would never in a million years minimize your pain and suffering. But I cannot marginalize the grace of God that He offers you during your troubles.
You will not get leave to steal quietly to heaven, in Christ’s company, without a conflict and a cross. – Samuel Rutherford
O, what owe I to the file, to the hammer, to the furnace of my Lord Jesus. – Samuel Rutherford
Why should I be alarmed at the plough of my Lord that makes deep furrows on my soul? I know he is no idle husbandman; he purposes a crop. – Samuel Rutherford
I hope to over-hope and over-believe my troubles. – Samuel Rutherford
The point of God’s grace is not primarily to change your circumstances. That outcome is another issue. The purpose of God’s grace is not to make you feel good about what you are going through or what has happened. That, too, is another issue. The point of God’s grace is sufficiency to sustain you through your troubles.
Will you gauge yourself to see how you are responding to God’s sustaining grace? You can do this by assessing how you’re reacting to what is happening to you. Is God’s grace present in your life? What I am asking is whether God is sustaining you through your ordeal, not are you acting like Christ every waking moment of your trial.
I’m also not asking if He is changing your circumstances or making them more palatable so that you can be more comfortable. I’m asking if you are incrementally changing for the better because of God’s transformative grace.
Work – Perhaps you have worked for a company that is affecting your attitude. Maybe your employer was legitimately in the wrong. You were critical of your employer. You became divisive on the job; you were sinning. If that is the case, God’s grace was not sustaining you.
While there may have been something legitimately wrong with your employer, and it would have been great if things changed, the vital point is why God’s grace was not sufficient for you? Why weren’t you changing, growing, maturing through the trial?
School – Perhaps you went to a Christian college where you experienced things that you did not agree with at the time. Maybe you were correct in your assessments. Most certainly, it means the people who ran the college were imperfect. But rather than living in God’s grace, you became bitter, cynical, and resentful when you think about your time on campus. Why is God’s grace not sufficient for this?
Relationship – Perhaps your spouse is a disappointment to you. Your response to your spouse is distance, apathy, and unkind words. If the grace of God were sustaining you in your marriage, you would be regularly repenting of your sinful attitudes and behaviors. And though your spouse may not change, you can because the grace of God is sufficient for this too.
He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
The sustaining grace of God does not make you perfect, but it does empower you to respond in a Christlike manner. If you do not respond in a Christlike manner and are not maturing in Christlikeness, the first place to look is your relationship with God, not what is wrong externally. If you are not changing, growing, and maturing in Christ, it is not because the grace of God was inadequate, and it is not because your circumstances are unique.
No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it (1 Corinthians 10:13).
We do not have a leg to stand on if we are not changing. God’s grace is sufficient. It would be a “slap in the face of the gospel” to say, “I can’t change.” The whole point of the gospel is about transformation. Our inability is why the Savior came to save us from our sins and to begin the restoration process that will eventually fully restore us to Him.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Romans 1:16).
Caring or Over-Caring?
You are not a perfect discipler. There was only one, and you or I are not Him. You will make mistakes in your discipling, your small group leading, your preaching, and your counseling. And while I’m not making a case for sloppiness, I am making a case for the grace of God. Your job is to water and plant. That’s it! And you will do it imperfectly.
Your responsibility is to keep on honing your gift. Keep sharpening your sword. Keep learning, changing, growing. Keep on discipling. But never place the burden of change on your shoulders. That is pride.
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the increase (1 Corinthians 3:5-7).
If you think the burden for change rests on you, I appeal to you to repent, which includes getting out of God’s way. He is the Changer! Do not allow anyone to place the burden of change on you.
Acknowledge your mistakes when you make them. Own your deficiencies and try to learn and grow out of them. Relax. Enjoy what you do. Laugh at yourself. Do not take yourself seriously, as though people’s problems rest on your shoulders. It does not. Thank God that it cannot.
God has given us the grace to help people, but not to change people. You must live in His grace. Expect His grace. If a person changes, rejoice and praise God for what He did. If a person does not change, keep on watering and planting, while praying to the Counselor, asking Him to grant the grace they need to change.