Some time ago I ended up meeting with someone who was in very dark circumstances. I was introduced to her by someone else who clearly believed that I was going to be able to help her. In reality, I felt almost completely out of my depth. I had a desperate desire to palm her off onto someone who had a lot more expertise in the kinds of things she was facing than I had. I tried to be honest with her, ‘I’m not a counsellor or a psychologist, but I’ve been in church work for more than twenty years and I guess I have met people in a few different situations. All I can offer is regular meetings where we talk, read the Bible and pray. Would you be up for that?’ And to my amazement, she said yes.
So we agreed to meet fortnightly. Each time we read a section of Ephesians together. We tried to read it carefully, to understand what Paul was saying to those first-century readers and why. We tried to work out the implications for ourselves, to grasp hold of and pray through the big ideas, to understand what it meant in Paul’s world and what it might mean for us personally. We tried to take other practical steps as well; each time we would chat about how her week had gone. We talked about possible ways forward for her particular situation, and we agreed one or two specific questions I would ask her the next time we met.
And then we had a conversation where everything changed for me. We had been meeting for some time by this point and I remember my friend saying to me that she didn’t want to spend all her time focusing on her problems, but wanted instead to focus on being and growing as a Christian. And it struck me that I had been in danger of being much too negative in my approach. When I thought about her, I mostly saw the tough issues she was facing. I should have seen her as a sister in Christ and a child of God, and seen her dark situation as an opportunity for growth.
Showing people Jesus
In thinking through all of this, it seems to me that in the area of pastoral care we can focus so much on problems to be dealt with or repented of, and patterns to be changed, that we forget to show people Jesus. I am sure that there is a place for medical and practical help. The person in a crisis might well need to see a doctor or have someone to cook a meal or take the kids out. They will certainly need compassion and to be listened to and not preached at. They might need to be encouraged to lament. I am sure too that there is a place for understanding underlying sin in our behaviour and thinking, then repenting of it, but this whole experience has convinced me that we need to give people something more. Just as it happened for John in Revelation chapter one, or Isaiah in chapter six, we need to help the people that we meet with to be overwhelmed by a vision of Jesus so that they see themselves and their circumstances in a completely new light.
As far as my friend and I went, our meetings didn’t change dramatically. We still kept reading Ephesians together, but she began to write lists of things to be thankful to God for and prayed through them at home. Separately, and in an entirely unplanned way, she heard a talk from someone with expertise in an area she struggled with and became confident that change was possible. When we met, we didn’t always focus on the big issues she was facing, but she told me that she started to pray specifically on her own about the things she was struggling with, confident of God’s power to change.
Transformation through the word
And over time, miraculously, through all of this, there has been wonderful transformation, which humbles me every time I think of it. Because in my heart of hearts when we first started meeting, I didn’t think it would happen. Although of course there have been other things and people involved too, it is undoubtedly true that part of that change has been to do with the simple, seemingly foolish process of sitting down with an open Bible and reading it together as we seek to encounter Jesus.
All of this has to be driven by conviction of course. Conviction that reading the Bible with others is God’s work, God’s way. Because change doesn’t happen very often in such dramatic ways. It’s been my practice for years to read the Bible one to one with all sorts of people – those who are going well and who can be encouraged to minister to others, those who are not yet Christian or very new to belief, those who are struggling, or those who are just Christian friends. Occasionally the results are dramatic. Mostly they are not. But in this area, as in many in the Christian life, we walk by faith, not sight. Trusting that God’s word works, that this is part of how the word of Christ dwells richly in our lives and that over time it will produce deep roots, stability, life and growth — for those in crisis and for those who are not.