In This Series
Caring for a friend in the midst of a trial is difficult. Feelings of inadequacy can surface as one searches for the perfect words in an attempt to ease the weariness of their soul. Empathic listening is always the perfect starting point, but if “soul care” is to take place, the conversation must go deeper than superficial discussions.
With gentleness and patience, the conversation must lead and encourage them to engage with God to embrace His Sovereign and purposeful work in their lives. God uses all things for their good (Romans 8:28-29), and often these seasons provide fertile ground to expose idols of the heart and gaps in an individual’s Gospel understanding.
Due to our fallen natures, we tend to be blind to the things that move us, which are the catalysts that fuel our engines. Often those who are biblically literate have no sound grasp on the ruling motives of their hearts.
One may question the wisdom of this line of reasoning during a season of difficulty. For example, how does directing a wife to understand the idols of her heart help when she is reeling from her husband’s recently confessed adultery?
From a Christian, gospel-driven perspective, this type of conversation is profitable both practically and spiritually.
Suffering brings weariness to the soul, which can be made worse with sin and idolatry (1 Peter 2:11). The purity of your worship directly impacts the health of your soul, and the identification and dismantling of false worship structures (idols/misplaced desires) will help your soul find rest.
Heart idols are the fruit of improper thinking, and if this thinking is left unchecked, the conclusions reached in the midst of a season of suffering can lead to further harm by seeking counterfeit solutions.
Even in the midst of a life turned upside down, you must remember Christ didn’t come to save you from a bad marriage, or a lousy job. Your greatest need remains Christ; for your salvation and your ongoing sanctification. As Paul Tripp said,
The good news of the kingdom is not freedom from hardship, suffering, and loss. It is the news of a Redeemer who has come to rescue me from myself. His rescue produces change that fundamentally alters my response to these inescapable realities.
Christ powerfully meets people who are aware of their real need for help. Christ’s forte is our acknowledged need in the face of compulsions from within and pressures from without” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
One way is to recognize how their worship reflects their identity. It is often effective to use a person’s self-defined identity as an entryway, helping them ascertain their purpose in life, and gain a more accurate assessment of themselves and their environment (Psalm 139:23).
This avenue of inquiry can often bring a freshness and clarity in their thinking as they focus on the workings of their heart; ideally leading them to a renewed dependence on Christ for all things (John 15:5). Asking these kinds of questions can help them find rest for their soul, and empower forward moving, hopeful-filled progress.
Christian counseling is counseling which exposes our motives—our hearts and our world—in such a way that the authentic Gospel is the only possible answer. – David Powlison
The Westminster Catechism states man’s chief purpose is to, “Glorify God and enjoy Him forever” though sin has taken humanity away from this original position and purpose.
Individually, we were created to serve God, but sin confused everything, tangling our hearts with pride, false idols, false securities, and false saviors all knotted together into one disordered mess from which we cannot free ourselves. Only by grace are we given eyes to see the depth of our complex hearts and two-faced motives, and only by grace do we find a Great Physician committed to untangling our disordered hearts.” – Tony Reinke
Hearts are continuously enticed, tempted and deceived from the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (1 John 2:16).
Hidden and insidious desires are always looking to shape lust-filled hearts. You choose things that you perceive as good and desirable; things you think will result in success, comfort, and significance. Over time these selections metamorphose into your identity.
How do we make an identity out of temptation? By collapsing what you desire with who you are. – Rosario Butterfield
A man may desire to become successful in his career. There is nothing wrong with this desire, but if he is not careful, he can start to place his value in his career. As a result, his career becomes his identity, and his focus turns away from Christ and onto the many opportunities or threats to his career. As a result, his joy, or soul-health, links to his performance at work, which can manifest a multitude of false worship structures.
A woman desires to be the perfect mother and starts to define her worth as such. When this happens, her children’s behavior in public will take on a self-focused commentary, and she becomes fearful about how their actions reflect her parenting ability. Her joy, or soul-health, links to something apart from Christ.
False identities can even attach themselves to ministry. If a pastor’s identity shifts away from Christ to being a pastor, his allegiance will become askew. He will analyze trends in church attendance, the reception of his messages, or the divorce rate of couples he counsels and reaches unfortunate conclusions about himself.
In all cases, their thinking turns temporal and their focus inward. God’s role of provider becomes the primary attribute of worship, and unanswered prayers lead to unbelief.
Given the wayward tendencies of fallen hearts, the first step you must take each and every day is to remind yourself of your true identity. During the business of family and work, with all of the entanglements of church and community, you must continue the daily work to orient your life to Christ (Colossians 3:11).
“If I may speak my own experience, I find that to keep my eye simply upon Christ, as my peace, and my life, is by far the hardest part of my calling. A thousand such surrenders I have made, and a thousand times I have interpretatively retracted them.” – John Newton
You can see the well-known pastor and hymnist engaged in the conflict we all face as Christians. You want to do right but find yourself doing the opposite (Romans 7:15). It is the daily call to die to yourself (Matthew 16:24).
The fight for your identity is the same flesh-Spirit battle you face as a Christian (Galatians 5:17). The enemy, while using the world’s temptations, aligns with your flesh to shift your identity, and ultimately your focus away from Christ.
We should be careful at the temptation to minimize our involvement in taking the bait, for, the sinner’s rebellious nature finds the forbidden thing more attractive, not because it is inherently attractive, but because it furnishes an opportunity to assert one’s self-will. – John MacArthur
Seeing yourself in the light of truth requires Spiritual discernment (Obadiah 1:3), and a firm grasp of the Gospel to overcome the indwelling shame, fear, and guilt that is resident in your flesh, and which makes it so difficult to accept the truth about yourself (John 2:25).
The freedom of the Gospel only comes when your focus is building up your new identity in Christ and leaving fleshly-inspired identities behind (Philippians 3:13-14).
Many Christians never fully get to this point. Their souls are too tender, too sensitive from past evil or years of poor soul care. It is similar to providing care to a burn victim; any attention initially brings the pain. It is too excruciating to peel back the many layers of life’s self-centered solutions to allow a new identity (2 Corinthians 5:17) to take root. As a result, they stand firm in who they think they are, daily defending their self-reliant tendencies and self-righteous ways.
Enticement is the hidden danger of a false identity; it has no power or legitimacy and requires “self” to defend, justify, promote, refine, reinvent, and maintain. You could say it creates a heavy yoke (Matthew 11:30) and a propensity towards unbelief. Thus, when helping a hurting friend think correctly and biblically about their identity, the process must be executed with patience, gentleness, and love.
I believe it is important to state that a properly aligned, in Christ identity does not eliminate suffering from your life, but it does create a new type of freedom, as evidenced in the life of Apostle Paul. It is evident that his life was full of hardships (2 Corinthians 11:23-29), but he was able to respond positively. For instance, despite being in jail, Paul was able to see a gain (Philippians 1:12), but only because his identity was in the Gospel; his joy was Christ’s joy.
When evil enters your world, it only impacts your temporal life. Your identity in Christ is eternal and remains unchanged leading you to experience a peace that surpasses your understanding (Philippians 4:7).
To illustrate, I will borrow from Chicken Little’s demise. Some of life’s difficulties and challenges, represented by rocks of varying shapes and sizes, will fall from the sky and disrupt your existence. If your identity is in something other than Christ, that rock will deliver a crushing blow to yourself, leaving you dazed and confused.
If your identity is in Christ, these rocks will no longer have a crippling effect. Although they still have to be dealt with, you can navigate around the obstacle and address the disruption in a much calmer, Gospel-centered, liberating way–in a way that reminds you (and others) that you are living characters in God’s wonderful story of redemption.
This article is an introduction, discussing how your identity reveals your worship structures. Three additional articles will follow to help further your understanding and provide practical examples.
I hope this series will help equip you to minister to the souls God has placed in your path.