Instincts for Spiritual Care1
My sermon text a couple weeks ago was, “We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone” (1 Thess 5:14). It’s a highly practical verse for local church ministry, and it teaches that appropriate spiritual care varies from situation to situation. Some people need direct, strong confrontation while others need gentle compassion. We must evaluate people, and we must tailor ministry to the need of the moment. Otherwise, we may do more harm than good.
The concept is easy to grasp, but actually applying it in real life situations is oftentimes incredibly difficult. Sometimes we jump to conclusions, or we don’t take the time to understand the unique complexities of each person and situation. We must learn to slow down, ask questions, listen, and deliberately evaluate. At other times, we don’t have much time to evaluate, or we lack the tools to accurately diagnosis the problem and to offer the best prescription. We try to comfort the unruly, and he wrongly interprets it as approval of sin. Or we admonish the fainthearted, and we crush his spirit. I’ve made these mistakes, and you probably have also. Thankfully, all of us can improve our ministry by building good instincts for spiritual care. By this I mean we can become increasingly adept at reading people and situations and at responding appropriately to them.
Building your instincts must begin with focused Bible study because God knows the heart better than any of us. You will never develop strong instincts without a firm grasp of biblical anchors such as depravity, human deceitfulness, the prevalence of pride, or the power of lust. These realities must radically shape how you understand people. You can also grow your instincts by studying Proverbs and by absorbing it’s incredible insight into the human heart. You may not remember every detail, but studying Proverbs will shape your understanding of people and your instinctual responses to them. As well, many biblical stories serve as inspired case studies in human behavior. Yes, we must not to read more into these stories than the author intended. The Bible was not written to be a psychology manual. However, God knows the heart, and he cares about the heart; therefore, biblical stories are a treasure trove of wisdom about human patterns of thinking, affection, and behavior. If you read them through a grid of biblical theology, they will serve your instincts well.
You can also build your instincts by closely watching your own heart through a sound theological grid. Many Christians rarely take time to evaluate what is happening in their hearts and why they do what they do. They are missing a valuable opportunity because you can observe your heart more closely than you can anyone else’s. Pay attention to your affections and values and to how your mind thinks. Work to understand why you are tempted with certain sins, and why they deceive you. Monitor how outside influences affect you. Watch how God’s Spirit uses guilt to grow you and how Satan turns it against you. Give thought to how God’s character and promises, the gospel, and other biblical truths transform your heart. These observations are invaluable for developing your instincts. Yes, you must not assume that everyone is exactly like you, but understanding yourself will teach you a lot about the human heart.
Finally, you can build your instincts for spiritual care by getting to know people and paying attention to situations. One of the blessings of pastoral ministry is that I am constantly engaged in deep conversations about people’s spiritual life. I’m learning how other people think and why they do what they do. Along the way I am adding perspective and nuance to my instincts. You can do the same. Build strong relationships where you discuss heart matters. Learn to recognize windows into the heart manifested in passion, pain, disappointment, etc. Beyond that listen well to stories of spiritual triumph and failure whether in your church, in a book, or in the broader culture. The opportunities are endless if you simply maintain a keen eye.
I could go on, but hopefully you get the point. People are complicated, and you will struggle to apply 1 Thessalonians 5:14 if you don’t understand them. Unfortunately, real life situations don’t always leave much time for careful, deliberate reflection about how to respond. In the heat of an emotional conversation, you need strong instincts that will enable you to quickly direct the conversation, discern the heart, and respond with appropriate care. How you respond in these moments can profoundly bless or damage a brother or sister. Therefore, let’s prepare to love one another well by building strong instincts for spiritual care. Then be proactive about using them. It’s not enough to recognize who is “unruly,” “fainthearted,” and “weak”; we must lovingly act on our instincts to give the care our brothers and sisters desperately need.
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