I’ve always enjoyed preaching. To proclaim God’s Word to people is a massive privilege. But there is another aspect of my role that I’ve started to appreciate more. To sit opposite somebody as they talk about personal issues- some of which they haven’t really discussed with anybody else- is also quite a humbling experience.

I’ve been well trained by others on what to do in that situation. I recall my year working in a church just outside Manchester. It was a great but challenging year- there was nobody else in the church within ten years of my age. The church set me up with an older couple (who were actually younger than I now am!) who would give me a meal fortnightly. They saw it as their role to listen to me as I poured out the various joys and frustrations of my role. They were model listeners and the fact that they showed interest in all aspects of my life took the edge off what could have been a lonely time. They really were a gift to me. When I joined UCCF, my boss was particularly able at asking perceptive questions. During our supervision sessions, she made it her aim to get me to use the phrase- “That’s a good question,” which was normally my way of playing for time when I couldn’t think of an answer. But I discovered that insightful questions were more useful than providing advice in getting me to change course. A third influence came was a seminar years back that Julian Hardyman led on pastoral care. He simply noted that in an hour long meeting he wouldn’t offer advice until the fifty minute mark- the rest of the time was asking questions and listening. Only after he did that could he be confident that he was addressing the real issue rather than the presenting one. In subsequent years I have been hugely grateful for informal time with friends and colleagues who have shown interest in my life and asked the odd perceptive question. 

I’ve tried to heed the lessons from those experiences and done more listening and question asking than advice offering. Doubtless there are times when I have failed to perceive underlying issues and been too quick to diagnose issues and provide solutions. But as I have sat opposite friends who have talked about loneliness, doubts, discouragement, battles with temptation, sins and so forth here are three questions and comments that I think have been helpful.

Who do you talk to?

Of course there are people who are permanently talking about their issues and problems such that others run in the opposite direction. But I would argue that most Christian men in particular don’t fall into that group. Often when I have listened to the particular issue facing my friend I have asked “Who else do you talk to?” and generally the answer is no-one. There are lots of men who live in their heads with revolving thoughts that never come out. That can be paralysing.

Secular organisations have spotted the problem. I’ve been travelling by train the past couple of days and noticed the repeated adverts calling men to talk in a bid to avoid suicides. It is good advice. The Christian should be able to heed this. After all we are commanded to carry each other’s burdens in Galatians 6 and confess our sins to one another in James 5. Now most of us are hesitant to talk about issues for fear that we will become a burden. But sometimes I’ve found it helpful to turn that around. Were I to discover that a friend of mine didn’t talk to me about a difficulty because they didn’t want to burden me I would be mildly cross. I’m gradually learning that my friends probably think the same about me. In other words it is good to talk and I spend a fair chunk of time encouraging people to talk regularly.

Many of us struggle to talk even to the Lord, at least in any way that is open and honest. The call of Psalm 62 to pour out our hearts to Him is a useful one. But for that to be effective a second question is necessary to ponder.

What does the Lord think of you?

Here is the second question I ask a lot. Now sometimes the person to whom I am talking is well enough trained to say something like “He sees me clothed in the righteousness of Christ” but asking the question is making a point. For the majority of people I know who are struggling with discouragement, doubt or sin they end up having a frowning God. And that becomes a vicious circle where discouragement is met by divine displeasure leading to further discouragement.

Asking the question above is simply a reminder that our Father is significantly more loving and compassionate than we think. Occasionally I will tell people to read Psalm 103 slowly, perhaps a verse a day. I want people to be reminded that his love really is as high as the heavens above the earth, that our sin really is banished as far as the east is from the west and that he is full of compassion because he hasn’t forgotten that we are just dust. Whatever problem we face it is much easier to do so under the smile of God. I sometimes will use the above question to try to remind friends of that.

The answer is almost always Jesus

At some point in the conversation we are going to need to talk about a way forward. And- of course- there are times when the answer is going to be practical. “You need a holiday!” is sometimes useful advice. My fear, though, is that we try to solve most dilemmas simply with practical tips or an appeal to somebody to use more will power. I am increasingly wary of that. I mentioned in a previous post on sexual ethics that, when it comes to temptation, we can increasingly fall into the Colossians 2 trap of good advice divorced from Christ that ends up being useless.

I well recall the best bit of pastoral care a friend gave me. We were talking through some of the trials and temptations we were facing. My friend said to me- “We know the answer to this don’t we Andy?” To be honest, I wasn’t convinced we did! But I’ll never forget what he said next- “Go hard after Christ.” This could be simplistic but my general experience is that challenges are much easier to face when I am excited about Jesus and know his love and sympathy; they are much harder to face when I have forgotten him or regard Him as less good than He actually is. Go hard after Christ.

I’ve made various pastoral mistakes and there are all kinds of situations that I can’t solve. But my sense is that trying to listen and ask good questions has proved moderately beneficial. My aim in writing this up is not to provide a great technique so much as to suggest this- perhaps the above are questions that might be useful for us to ask ourselves?