No Life Without The Spirit
Most of us assume that we understand the human condition pretty well. We like to think that we are insightful and capable of truly emphasizing with others. I’ve spent the majority of my working years dealing with people either in the sales environment or as a pastor and counselor and it’s easy for me to think that I have a handle on the human psyche. I sometimes fall into the trap of believing that because of my exceptional insight I’m able to help the hurting where other less skillful practitioners have failed. I think a lot of us feel this way. We are often dismayed at the lack of insight others display when they offer us advice and we fail to realize that we are just as likely to miss the mark when seeking to help another.
Proverbs 14:10 tells us that "the heart knows its own bitterness and a stranger does not share its joy." Hence it is difficult for Jones to put himself in Smith’s place and truly understand what it is that Smith experiences while taking a Sunday drive in the country let alone to grasp how Smith feels when he hasn’t got the money to pay his monthly bills. Yet Jones is put out by the fact that Smith cannot seem to appreciate the trials that he faces on a daily basis. Part of this is just plain old fashioned self centeredness. Another part is the fact that it really is impossible for Jones to understand Smith as Smith understands him. Only Smith knows his own bitterness and Jones can never really appreciate Smith’s joy.
The only person who fully understands Smith apart from Smith (and Smith really doesn’t understand himself anyway), is the Lord Jesus Christ. He has the advantage of omnipotence - combined with having been there Himself. "For we do not have a High Priest who cannot empathize1 with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin" (Heb. 4:15). Moreover, He created Smith; and just as the potter knows every seam and fissure of his creation, so does our Lord know the frailties of His creatures.
Frankly it’s self centered to think otherwise - either as a counselor or as one seeking counsel. Now, I’m not saying that giving or receiving counsel is a waste of time; I am saying that we need to recognize the inherent limitations we face as human beings. I’m also saying that it is imperative that we give or receive counsel in the context of a relationship under the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ (pastor or other mature Christian working with the one in need). It is only then that both parties involved in the process can expect the illumination of the Holy Spirit - illumination which is necessary to see a successful finish to the counseling effort.2
Due to my own experience as a counselor I’ve come to the conclusion that it is impossible to effect any real change in the life of someone who is not submitted to the Lord Jesus Christ. I used to believe that the principles of the Word of God would bring forth fruit in any situation no matter the spiritual condition of the parties involved. That’s not true. In fact, that point of view is a form of idolatry. It’s a belief that borders on witchery. The word, without the Spirit, does not - cannot - bring life. If that was possible, there wouldn’t have been a need for the work of Jesus Christ.
I imagine that some of you are shaking your head in disagreement right now. You’re thinking of the example of Smith, the former drunk, who, although not a Christian, somewhere learned the principles of proper husbandry and now lives happily ever after with his wife and family. Not so. There may be the appearance of a successful family at Smith’s house, but in reality it’s hollow. There is nothing there. The Pharisees looked great on the outside too, but inside they were full of filth and corruption - they were whitewashed tombs.
Now, I understand the role of the Law in restraining wickedness and there is nothing wrong with teaching the unregenerate the principles of right living (there’s certainly a market for it - self help books always sell well). But if we expect mere education to change society (no matter how wholesome the curriculum), then we are mistaken. This is akin to the arrogance of believing that we are capable of understanding another’s heart. We cannot understand the heart of another nor can we hope to effect change in the life of another by educating them in the principles of right living. Again: without the illumination of the Spirit of God and His application of the Word to Smith’s life, there will be no fruit. We may see superficial change - we may see superficial change that lasts for years. But the corrosive influence of sin will continue unabated and Smith’s life and relationships will reflect that fact. Perhaps not to the outside observers, but rest assured that Smith will know his own bitterness.
Thus the need for Jesus. Once a life has been submitted to the Counselor, the Mighty God (Is. 9:6), true change may take place through the process of discipleship and counseling. What was once hollow is filled with the presence of God and what was once corrupt becomes pure.
1. Although the Greek sumpaqhsai is transliterated as sympathize, I think "sympathize" is too weak a translation here. The point is that Christ did "walk a mile in our shoes" - He is one of us. More than that He truly has "the capacity to participate in our feelings" [Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary], which is a definition that agrees with the Greek [see: Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary Of The New Testament, trans. Geoffrey Bromily, 9 vols., (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1967), V:935-936]. Sympathy, as it is commonly used in modern speech, is merely feeling bad for another when he feels bad or feeling happy for another when he feels happy. Empathy is the ability to get under the skin, so to speak, of another and feel what he feels in the same fashion he feels it not just how he feels.
2. By "counseling" I am referring to the activity of one listening to another, judging the situation according to Scripture, offering advice based on the Bible and holding the other accountable (actually this is just part of the process of discipleship). The counselor will do more than simply listen of course (such as dig for more information where necessary etc.), but he will not pretend to truly know the mind of the other. As humans we judge by outward appearances and it is the Bible that tells us what the inward causes are for those outward symptoms. The action of the Holy Spirit involves illumination that enables us to understand the biblical principles we hope to apply in each case. For instance, Jones may be beating his wife on a regular basis. Obviously we bring the authority of the Bible to bear on the situation and tell Jones to stop; but it requires the illumination of the Holy Spirit to understand what the Bible has to say about the root causes (the sin issues buried deep in Jones’ heart), which manifest themselves as violence toward his wife. We can’t fool ourselves into thinking that we are capable of reading Jones’ mind.
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