When Our Theology Stifles Our Compassion

Yesterday, I received a disturbing phone call. A young woman I had been counseling attempted suicide over the weekend. In God’s mercy, He intervened before the overdose could do its lethal damage. But in the aftermath, “Mary’s” soul remains raw and bleeding. She doesn’t have the strength to fill in a “Discovering Problem Patterns” worksheet or memorize verses right now. Mary needs to grasp the biblical reality that she is precious to the Savior Who will not let her go. The promises of Scripture—which are just words to her right now—need to be real in her life.

And I realized anew that I am utterly powerless.  

The training in systematic theology and hermeneutics we have is valuable, in terms of ministering the Scriptures to people who seek answers. Yet, there are times, if we are not careful, when our “sound doctrine” may sound like a clanging cymbal and push hurting believers away. This can happen both in the counseling room and in our friendships.

Does this sound like a false dichotomy? It isn’t. One of the things God is teaching me lately is that while our words may be true, and biblical, and spoken in love, there is a depth of understanding and compassion that cannot always be expressed verbally … yet is crucially important.

Sometimes, when faced with another’s pain, one simply doesn’t know what to say. I have the opposite problem—I always know exactly what to say (and usually which verses to cite).

It’s knowing when to shut up that poses the problem for me.

Being Grace-Oriented Before Solutions-Oriented

The plumb line for all counsel is, of course, the Bible. Scripture dictates what we do; not culture. Sound doctrine matters. I want those words engraved on my tombstone! However, a sticky truth is that people are not formulaic, like computers: We cannot simply reprogram them with a “string code” of certain verses and expect that their hearts will be automatically transformed. Unwittingly, the homework we give to help counselees think biblically may even add “performance pressure,” leading to additional condemnation.

As biblical counselors, trained to identify the problem and then apply the biblical solution, this can be frustrating. “Faith is not determined by feelings,” we want to protest. We think, “Empathizing with someone is not going to help them—the Word of God is what will fix their problems!” However, Christ-like compassion never pits Truth against Love.

We want to help. We love our friends, our family, our counselees. In our desire to help, we need to understand that it is perfectly “theological” to minister to someone who is hurting just by moving toward them in their pain, without preaching. A phone call or email can simply communicate that we care, are praying and, above all, that we are there for them.

There is a time to give a theology lecture; and there is a time to give silent hugs.

Different situations call for different approaches, as Jesus demonstrated in His ministry. Of course, He is the only Counselor with perfect insight into a hurting heart, yet we can and must still learn from His example. In John 11, after the death of Lazarus, Jesus comforts Martha with the promises of God and bolsters her faith. Mary, however, threw herself at His feet weeping. The Lord, far from remaining emotionally detached, cried with her (John 11:32-35).

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Marie Notcheva
Marie Notcheva (B.A., Print Journalism, Syracuse University) is a writer and biblical counselor from Massachusetts who specializes in eating disorders. She is a graduate of Jay Adams' Institute for Nouthetic Studies, and counsels at her home church, Heritage Bible Chapel, in Princeton, MA. She and her husband Ivaylo are the parents of four children. Following a 17-year battle with anorexia and bulimia, Marie began studying biblical counseling and realized the principles she had learned during her own recovery could be used to help others.