From Faith Pulpit, Winter 2016-2017. Used with permission.
In the July/August issue of The Baptist Bulletin, Dr. Jeff Newman published an article titled “Dependence in the Wilderness.” In that article, Dr. Newman explored Psalm 63 and its implications for growth during difficult circumstances. This article builds on this previous work by applying the Biblical concepts to discipleship ministries. For a more thorough study of these concepts, refer to his book, Dependence in the Wilderness (Regular Baptist Press, 2015).
This side of glory all of us will walk together with brothers and sisters who face arid regions of this life’s wilderness. In the eighth grade, Mary faces constant pressure from her unbelieving friends to turn her back on her faith. Now her friend, Sue, who in the past had encouraged Mary in her walk with the Lord, offers Mary a joint and scorns her when she refuses. Mary sits crying in your office, struggling to believe that God is truly a friend when He allows her other friends to forsake her.
Tom, a high school senior, loses his girlfriend, Joanne—a new Christian—to a drunk driver. You stand with Tom and Joanne’s unbelieving family at the head of the casket. You see the why? questions in their eyes.
John and Kim hold the lifeless body of their first son, born just hours earlier. You look on the scene with tears in your eyes.
Jane faces chronic pain. Every day of her life is an uncertainty. Will the intensity of the pain control life’s agenda today, or will good days lead to a false hope that perhaps the intense pain will go away and never return?
Dan watches, waits, and tries to comfort his father who is dying of cancer. He looks at you and says, “My dad is the strongest Christian I know. He never wavered in his trust in God. Why would God allow him to suffer such a slow and difficult death? He always wanted to die quietly in his sleep just like Mom did last year.”
Chuck cares for his wife day after day for eight years as Alzheimer’s slowly takes her away from him. He tells you he never really knew loneliness until now, as he describes how it feels to remind his wife of 50 years of his name several times each day.
With fear in his voice, Jim calls to tell you he was laid off from his job. “What will I do?” he cries. “This is the only job I have known for 15 years. How will I keep the kids in college? Who wants to hire a fifty-five-year-old accountant?”
During these times, God’s people need brothers and sisters in Christ to walk with them and with care and compassion point them to their God. During these times, we who are called upon to point others to Christ need to know how to help them turn in faith to God.
How do we evaluate the wilderness walk of fellow believers when so much seems to happen to them so quickly, or when their burdens seem to weigh heavily day after day with no end in sight? How do we encourage them to depend on God in the midst of the deep difficulties of life? How do we ourselves continue to turn in dependence on God as our own and others’ trials merge together to challenge our confidence in God?
In Psalm 63 we discover that David purposed in his heart (1) to seek after his God; (2) to meditate on his God; and (3) to bring praise to his God. These three pursuits, the themes of dependence on God in Psalm 63, lead us to focus on what is important in times when so much screams for our attention. These pursuits assist us as we evaluate our fellow believers’ dependence on God. These pursuits also provide structure for us as we seek to identify and develop key themes with those who are walking through life’s arid regions.
Seek God Earnestly
As we walk beside fellow believers through times of startling crises, we must first and foremost encourage them to seek after God—to trust Him and live for His glory. Why? Because when crisis comes, people are vividly reminded that they need someone or something outside themselves in which to trust. A crisis reminds us of our finiteness. We cannot go it alone.
In contrast to the often surprising, breathtaking intensity of a crisis, some sufferings settle down and make themselves at home, unwelcome guests in the lives of those to whom we minister. During these times we must also encourage our brothers and sisters in Christ to cling to God, to seek after Him as a starving animal foraging for food, and to thirst for Him when no other thirsts of their souls are, or can be, satisfied.
Lives change in the crucible of suffering and crisis. In these times, God graciously reveals to His people the objects of their trust that have subtly replaced their complete trust in Him. God wants His people to see Him alone as worthy of all their trust, all their love, and all their allegiance. God wants to use those of us who walk through crises with His children to encourage lovingly and vigilantly our suffering brothers and sisters to a sustained trust in Him.
Listening. In times of sorrow and grief, we must move into the lives of our brothers and sisters with a quiet confidence in God and with thoughtful, Christlike concern. We must begin by listening. All of us know Proverbs 18:13, “He who answers a matter before he hears it, It is folly and shame to him.” Yet, in the midst of crisis and suffering, all of us need to be reminded that we are serving people, not solving problems. As a result, we must listen to people and strive to know them from the perspective of God’s Word.
If we fail to spend time with people, listening and observing in the midst of sorrow, we will fail to represent God accurately. When we fail to represent God accurately, we will unwittingly encourage fellow believers to turn from God rather than to turn to Him. Loving people with God’s love demands that we love them enough to listen to them. If we are to serve as God’s mouthpiece, we must learn to listen with God’s ears.
As we listen, we must seek to know this person in this experience. We listen for his anxieties. To what fears is she tempted to surrender? Where do we hear him express anger at God, others, or himself? We must resist the immediate temptation to address each individual fear, anxiety, or point of anger.
The key is to listen and observe, watching for themes and patterns. In the disorientation of a crisis, as well as in the moments where ongoing suffering overwhelms, anxieties, fears, and anger come and go like leaves tossed in the wind. We must focus our attention on those fears, anxieties, and frustrations that begin to settle down and take root in the lives of those to whom we minister.
As we listen, we must not only look for problems, but we must also look for areas where our brothers and sisters evidence submission to God’s work in their lives. We must rejoice in God’s work as they turn from their moments of fear, anxiety, and anger, demonstrating trust in God. We should be quick to speak words of encouragement to them. We must tell them where we see God at work. We should be careful to rejoice not only in the momentary relief from or even resolution of the crisis or suffering, but we also should always rejoice in God’s work of sanctification in those who face continued suffering.
Discerning Patterns. As we listen and rejoice, we will also learn. As we begin to see patterns of anxiety, fear, or anger, we will hear themes of trust. We will hear whom or what our brothers and sisters are tempted to seek after more than, or in the place of, seeking God. Anger, anxiety, and fear reveal desires that vie for the allegiance of our hearts—desires that compete against our trust in God.
When do our fellow believers crave relief more than they crave God? When do they demand others’ support more than they rest in God’s care, thanking Him for others’ care and concern? Where do they thirst for control over their problems more than when they drink from the living water freely given by the One Who suffered before them and for them? We need to pray and ask God to help us understand our brothers and sisters from His perspective so we can, in turn, minister His grace to them in a way that will help draw their hearts to Him.
Asking Questions. As we listen, we should also ask wise, heart-focused questions. As we walk beside God’s children in the midst of sorrow, we must take the opportunity to sharpen our abilities to understand people in biblical ways. We must learn to ask questions that allow us both to learn about and also to help others to reflect on their hearts before God.
As we learn by listening and asking wise questions, the far-sighted shepherding ministry of counseling takes place. We begin to formulate answers to some serious questions. How do we help our brothers and sisters grow in their dependence on God? How do we help them cling to the goal of judging the success of their wilderness journey on the basis of their ability to reflect God’s glory—becoming like Him in the midst of their sorrow and suffering? We answer these questions in the moments we spend with fellow believers and by what we encourage them to do in the moments we are apart from them.
As we learn the themes of our brothers’ and sisters’ temptations to shift their trust from God and to seek after the false gods of comfort, control, security, affirmation, happiness, and many others, we then seek to direct their attention to the God Who alone is worthy of all their love and devotion. When we find our brothers and sisters wavering in their trust in God’s faithfulness, we must demonstrate Him to be faithful. When they waver in their belief in His goodness, we must direct them to God Who did not withhold His Son but freely gave Him up on their behalf. When they are tempted to believe that God has dozed off or deserted them, we must point them to God Who is always attentive to His children’s cries. Once again, we look for patterns and themes of doubts and combat them with patterns and themes of truth about God’s character and works.
Praying. We present the truth about God to fellow believers through prayer. In prayer, we talk to God about the burdens of their hearts and ours. In prayer, we express our trust in God. In prayer, we direct our brothers and sisters seeking after false refuges to take refuge instead in the one true God—seeking only Him, longing for Him, thirsting for Him alone. In prayer, we remind each other of God’s presence and concern.
Prayer should be a natural part of our personal ministry in crisis and suffering. We ought to pray with and for our fellow believers as they face the arid wilderness. We ought to encourage our fellow believers to cry out to God in the midst of their pain and suffering. When they do, we must listen attentively to their cries and learn about their view of God. In turn, as we talk to God in their presence, we can emphasize key aspects of God’s character and works. We can learn how to pray this way by reading the Psalms. Psalm 63, of course, provides an entry point for this type of prayer. Psalms 61 and 62 follow a similar pattern. We should consider Psalms 54–56 when suffering is inflicted upon our brothers and sisters by others. We can also learn from the prayers of the apostle Paul in his epistles. For example, consider Ephesians 1:15–23, 3:14–21, Philippians 1:8-11, and Colossians 1:3-29.
Living Christ. As we encourage people to seek after God, we should not overlook the importance of who we are as we minister in the lives of others. The ways we live our lives before our brothers and sisters in the midst of their suffering will influence them either to move in faith toward God or to move in doubt away from Him. We should always be asking ourselves, “How can we model God’s moral attributes before our brothers and sisters in Christ and in so doing direct their attention to Him?”
Jim simply sat with his friend Barry as they waited to hear of the outcome of Barry’s wife’s emergency surgery. Later Barry testified, “Jim’s presence with me reminded me that God is always present.” Amy organized her Sunday school class to provide snacks for a soon-to-be-mom confined to a hospital bed for several weeks due to complications. In this, Amy reminded her friend of her God Who always provides. Sherry sends a note to her friend, Alison, every year on the anniversary of the death of Alison’s daughter. This simple note of remembrance points Alison to her God Who always remembers her pain and sorrow—the God Who feels her every heartache. Every morning during his first month back at work, Don is greeted by a quick e-mail from his pastor expressing concern for Don after the death of his wife. Don is reminded that his God cares because he sees his pastor care. Do you see it? As we move into people’s lives in the midst of their sorrow, we have the wonderful privilege of helping people draw close to God as we reflect Him to them.
Reading and Studying the Scriptures Together. In addition to prayer, we can direct the hearts of our brothers and sisters to trust in and seek after God by reading and studying the Scriptures with them. As we listen and learn about their struggles to cling to God and to seek after Him in the midst of the suffering, we must work to connect their experiences to the truth of the Scriptures. We must always ask ourselves, “What Scriptures brightly shine God’s character and works into this person’s life, dispelling fears, calming anxieties, and turning him or her from sinful anger to patient trust?”
One of the best places to begin is to seek to discover what passages of Scripture have brought help and comfort to our brothers and sisters in the past. We should encourage them to share with us how God has comforted and directed them and then led them to return to the places in Scripture where they have grown in their worship and love for Him. Not only will this direct their hearts to God now, but it will also remind them and us of God’s past faithfulness, building hope in God’s continued faithfulness. Another beginning point could be the ways God has used the Scriptures to bring us comfort. Here, we can draw upon the comfort God has provided for us and share it with our fellow believers, encouraging them to entrust themselves fully to our good God. As we spend time with them in the midst of their sorrow, we dare not neglect the simple reading of and reflection on the Scriptures. We should share our hearts as we unite with them around God’s Word.
Encouraging a Dependent Walk with God. We should look for ways to encourage our brothers and sisters to turn to God on a daily, even moment-by-moment, basis. Here are some suggestions of ways we can encourage them to seek God. Each one could provide a rich basis for pointing our fellow believers to a fuller faith in God. Add your own ideas to the list. Personalize the list for those people God has entrusted to you in your ministry.
- Read one psalm each day, and look for statements about God’s character and work. Keep a journal. Record your list with references. For each statement about God, write a statement that connects that particular characteristic or work of God to some aspect of your life.
- Read Ephesians 1–3. Record statements of who you are in Christ. Record statements of the character of your God. Record statements of God’s work on your behalf. For each one, write a sentence answering the question, “How should this capture my heart with the love of my God for me?”
- Read the Gospels. Record what you learn of the character of your Savior. Record answers to the question, “How can I live my life today, seeking after Christ and living like Him in His presence and in the presence of others?”
- Read Psalm 73. Write your own psalm to God following the pattern of Psalm 73 (or any of the other psalms that are special to you). Cry out to God in humility. Share your heart with Him. Remind yourself of Who He is and how He works. Connect this to your own life. What should you desire? What should you think? What should you do?
(Part 1: Seek God Earnestly. Part 2: Reflect on God continually. Part 3: Praise God Submissively.)
Jeff Newman, (D. Min., Westminster Theological Seminary) is a professor of Biblical Counseling at Faith Baptist Bible College. He and his family live in Ankeny and are active members of Altoona Regular Baptist Church in Altoona.