Here is how I tend to counsel people in my church, especially students:
A student comes up to me and tells me about a decision they made at school–they want to know if they did the right thing. My response is to throw absolutely everything I know from Scripture about that issue on them. I ask every question that comes into my mind to try to force them to understand all the ins and outs of the issue. I share with them every story I can think of in my own life that relates to what they are going through. Its as if they came to me asking for a drink of water and I turn on a fire hydrant! The typical result is that the student feels overwhelmed and often not really helped.
I think I see things my students don’t. I don’t mean that to be arrogant, I just think that I live in a different world than they do. I am older but young enough to remember high school clearly (and I didn’t like it btw!). In addition, I live in the world of Bible Commentaries, Student Ministry books, Piper books, Biblical Counseling books, biblical worldview books, pastor’s conferences, Christian blogging, Neighborhood evangelism, and pastoring. My students don’t live in that world–they aren’t opposed to the world I live in, they just don’t know always know that much about it. They live in the world of high school or middle school–where there are all sorts of cliques and there are all sorts of unwritten rules about which cliques interact with each other. They live in a world where all around them other students are making decisions that they feel uncomfortable making. I am not saying one world is better than the other, just want to point out that we are wading through different waters in life. It was not too long ago that I was wading through the same waters and I need to remember that.
Again, I am not saying my world is better by any means. The world I live in carries with it all kinds of temptations to self-righteousness, pride, and hypocrisy. The temptations they tend to face in their world are typically a little more tangible. My point in this little post is simply that when you live in a different world from those you are seeking to counsel in the Lord, be wary of fire hydrant counseling. Fire hydrant counseling is where you throw everything you know at someone in an attempt to make them see things exactly how you do. You may be right in what you are saying and you may even be able to clearly back up what you are saying with Scripture, but you can be right in your position on an issue and wrong in the way that you present it at the same time.
If you don’t live in the world of those you counsel, take pains to enter their world. Try to see what they see. Don’t force them to drink from a fire hydrant because if you do, you will probably knock them over. Sometimes counseling people in the Lord involves speaking hard truths but make sure when you speak the truth, you speak it in love (Ephesians 4:15).
Beware of making a practice of answering questions those you counsel are not asking. Sometimes you will need to tell people hard things even when they are not asking to hear them, but before you tell someone something that you know is going to be hard for them to hear–ask yourself, is this the right time to speak this truth into this person’s life? Try to put yourself in their shoes and try to take notice of how the person you are counseling is trying to grow in the Lord. Don’t assume that just because someone isn’t where you are on a particular issue that they need to be rebuked. You can’t force sanctification on anyone. If you are in discipleship relationships, God will use you to help sanctify those you counsel but don’t make the mistake of trying to get those you are counseling to fix all the sin issues in their life all at once. The Lord doesn’t grow you that way so don’t try to force others to grow that way. Trust me, I know from experience, it doesn’t work.
Discipleship takes patience and time. Sometimes we grow in leaps and bounds, but more often in baby steps. Certainly I want to say that speaking the truth is always a good thing, but if you love people, you will want to speak truth in such a way that it is heard. That doesn’t mean you hold back, but just make sure you genuinely love the people you are counseling.
And check yourself before you check others. Take the plank out before you lovingly help your brothers and sisters in Christ take the spec out of their own (Matt. 7:3-5). Instead of always busting out the fire hydrant, how about leading people to the waters and inviting them to drink? There may come a time for hard words, but pray, be discerning, and don’t let hard words become your default counseling strategy. Let love be genuine (Romans 12:9).