What’s Love Got To Do With It?

Dr. Ab AbercrombieRed Heart

I do not often quote rock music icons to make a point, but Tina Turner’s heartfelt question is remarkably relevant for the ministry of biblical counseling: “What’s love got to do with it? According to the apostle Paul…everything!

If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing (1 Cor 13:1-3).

Paul provides a poignant reminder that the core of the Gospel is love. While knowledge of God’s holy and perfect nature, the severity of His justice, and the righteousness of His law, awakens and convicts the human heart of its depravity and need; it is the God’s love that draws and transforms the sinner. The Word exposes the counselee’s human plight (Rom 3:10-12, 23) but also provides the grace and sufficiency of Christ as our remedy. Paul wrote:

But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him (Rom 5:8-9).

As ministers of Christ we are endowed with gifts and callings that are powerful under His direction; but without love the aim of our ministry will prove futile. Biblical counseling is a hard process of diagnosing and exposing sin through the use of God’s Word (Heb 4:12). It also deals with the impact of living in this fallen world, including the often unjust suffering shared by unbelievers and Christians alike.

Showing counselees their biblical infractions is critical if they are to recognize and address matters of unbelief, idolatry, self-centeredness, and pride. Repentance is fundamental both to regeneration and restoration. But if counselors are not cautious, our presentation of truth can become harsh and condemning, leaving the counselee with a sense of hopelessness.

Helping with the hardships of life require a proper view of God’s sovereignty and grace, the necessity for endurance, and sensitivity to spiritual needs that are revealed in times of greatest trial. And while absolute truth is necessary both for sin issues and circumstantial sorrow, the Bible requires us to advance God’s truth in merger with God’s love. Paul wrote:

As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love (Eph 4:14-16).

Examine Paul’s direction carefully. Counselors must be mature and stable communicators of doctrine (truth) so that our counselees are not “carried about” by error and deception. Correct doctrine is not established through the examination of imperatives and admonitions only, but also by the thorough and contextual study of Scripture that answers not only what is required, but why.

God’s sovereignty is expressed not only through His mandates and law; it is central to His righteous, unbiased, and pure nature. God’s rule is not arbitrary. Rather His character is holy and fundamentally loving. Training in the attributes of God leaves little question of His right to establish standards, and to render judgment concerning all His creations. Obedience comes through the fuller understanding of God, knowing that His commandments are always and ultimately for our good, and His glory.

Biblicists speak “truth in love” helping counselees “grow up” into Christ-likeness. We are doing far more than providing injunctions to thwart behavioral sin; we are training the counselee’s heart toward God, so that the unbeliever may be saved and the fallen believer is restored. The process of biblical care essentially dismantling one’s human identity and self-reliance while aiding him/her toward surrender, repentance, and pursuit of God’s character.

Finally, when this transformation is underway, the growth of an individual impacts the entire Body of Christ. As fallen Christians are restored and the unregenerate come to Christ, marriages, families, churches, and communities are edified and enriched.

The difficulty of speaking truth in love lies at the base of the counselor’s physical nature. It is humanly impossible to convey this heavenly balance of instruction and affection outside the working of the Holy Spirit. Until and unless the counselor is tending carefully to his/her own spiritual life, he/she will be biased in the delivery of this biblical requirement (2 Tim 2:20-21).

Some biblical counselors are well versed in the truth and capable of exhorting their counselees repeatedly with the absolutes of the Bible. But without love, they quickly sound like a “noisy gong” or a “clanging cymbal” (1 Cor 13:1). Other counselors are filled with compassion and warmth, but shrink from declaring the “whole purpose of God” (Acts 20:27). Love without instruction can promote concession and compromise and the counselor can unwittingly endorse the very sin that is undermining the life of the counselee.

But in a Spirit-led counseling session, these seemingly disparate aspects of ministry become unified within the great mystery of the Gospel. Through the proper exercise of the Word, with a “spirit of gentleness” (Gal 6:1) the Master both exposes and mends the counselee’s heart instantaneously. The writer of Hebrews defined Scripture this way:

For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Heb 4:12).

As a “two-edged sword,” God’s Word cuts in two directions at once. Scripture opens and reveals the heart condition (unbelief, pride, idolatry and selfishness) while surgically healing its illness (sin) at the very same time. This dyad of “truth in love” is the very essence of the Bible, as the Word contrasts holiness with depravity, true worship with idolatry, godly authority with self-regulation, and obedience with rebellion.

No one is invulnerable to the view and reach of God. He is omnipresent (everywhere at once), omnipotent (all knowing), and immutable (unchanging). In the light of His countenance (Rev 1:16) the counselee’s heart is revealed. This truth shakes the counselee from slumber and begs the heart to proclaim: “…what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30).

And while the impact of Scripture may appear hard, one must understand that love without truth is the cruelest approach of all. What will a counselor achieve if he/she gives only affection, empathy, support, and resources while eternal life hangs in the balance. If counselors “feed the poor” without the love of the true Gospel, there is no profit (1 Cor 13:3).

Jesus instructed His disciples: “This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you” (Jn 15:12). But counselors can fail to ponder the scope of this teaching. We often view the Lord’s love within the context of His gentleness (Matt 11:29), service (Mk 10:45), touch (Matt 20:34), healing (Matt 4:23) and sacrifice (Jn 10:15). These are true and abiding elements of Christ and most certainly should be evident in our ministry.

But loving others is an expression of still more. Jesus was also centered upon the truth; unyielding and constant. Speaking of Jesus, John wrote: “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14). Jesus prayed for His disciples, “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth” (Jn 17:17). And Jesus was plain: “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (Jn 14:15).

Perhaps one of the dearest expressions of “truth in love” is found in the discourse between the Lord Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. It is a pattern worth studying that should both encourage and challenge the biblical counselor. The Scripture begins:

He left Judea and went away again into Galilee. And He had to pass through Samaria. So He came to a city of Samaria called Sychar, near the parcel of ground that Jacob gave to his son Joseph; and Jacob’s well was there. So Jesus, being wearied from His journey, was sitting thus by the well. It was about the sixth hour (Jn 4:3-6).

The first expression of Jesus’ love is seen in His obedience to the Father. Jesus “…had to pass through Samaria.” Samaria was reviled by the Jews and the people viewed as “dogs.” But acting in response to His Father, Jesus set His course for this forsaken territory because the Samaritan people were being called unto salvation. Jesus said:

“I can do nothing on My own initiative. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is just, because I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me” (Jn 5:30).

A counselor cannot love the counselee unless he/she loves God. We go, serve, counsel, teach, and endure for God’s sake and for the glory of His great name. The foremost commandment as stated by the Lord is to “love the Lord your God” with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Secondly, Jesus said, “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk 12:30-31). Our love for others can only flow from a correct orientation and worship of God. John 4 continues:

There came a woman of Samaria to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give Me a drink.” For His disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. Therefore the Samaritan woman said to Him, “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask me for a drink since I am a Samaritan woman?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water” (Jn 4:7-10).

Jesus engages the woman with an atypical request that provokes confusion. This woman is unaccustomed to kindness, especially from Jews. She would never presume to even speak to Jesus but for His initiation. Once conversation is established, Jesus begins quickly to teach the woman about God and eternal life. He gently and with patience (1 Cor 13:4, Gal 6:1-2), opens truth to her, even though she does not understand and cannot yet receive it. Jesus draws a contrast between physical relief that can be quenched by any source of water and the transforming impact of “living water” which, extends the eternal remedy of salvation.

Biblical counselors are often tempted to give relief rather than offer the fullness of the gospel. Counseling provides many urgent needs and desires that compete for attention and alleviation of suffering. But the biblical process must remain kind and empathetic while resisting the impulse provide a humanistic rescue. We must remember, as Jesus demonstrates, eternality and God’s glory is the goal of heart restoration and not the satisfaction of human need.

Much has been made of the woman coming to the well at noonday (the sixth hour). Some commentators suggest it is due to her immorality and her ostracized status in the community. If this is correct, a counselor might attempt to ease her shame or enhance her self-esteem. In doing so, the immediate pain could find temporary solace.

Others might quickly rebuke her immoral conduct citing the law of God that forbids fornication and adultery. Many counselors may feel divided from certain expressions of sin and fail to convey the compassion that flows from our common depraved plight. Self-righteousness is a temptation that is closer than many realize (Gal 6:2). While the Word of God is “the sword of the Spirit” (Eph 6:17), it is not to be used to stab and cut, but rather should be applied with surgical precision for the purpose of healing.

Jesus (our example), began to instruct the woman concerning the “gift of God” (salvation, restoration) and He drew a distinction between temporal relief and eternal security. The passage continues:

She said to Him, “Sir, You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep; where then do You get that living water? You are not greater than our father Jacob, are You, who gave us the well, and drank of it himself and his sons and his cattle?” Jesus answered and said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life” (Jn 4:11-14).

Quickly the woman’s theological ignorance is exposed (1 Cor 2:14). She not only fails to understand Jesus’ reference to “living water,” she questions the Lord’s authority. Then she wrongly attaches herself to the Jewish inheritance speaking of “our father Jacob.” She does not understand her lost status genealogically or spiritually.

But Jesus did not quarrel with her or reprove her error (2 Tim 2:24-26), but rather continued to teach the truth of the Gospel. Jesus speaks to the futility of earthly effort from which one will only “thirst again”; pointing a second time to God’s singular capacity to answer her eternal spiritual need. This well for physical hydration is in stark contrast to “water springing up to eternal life.”

How many of our counselees enter with theological deficits, distortions, and self-deception? Most are seeking relief from earthly circumstances, difficult histories, and the consequences of sin. Few come seeking biblical truth and eternal remedy. Not unlike the Samaritan woman, they relate their hope of salvation on family tradition, church membership, infant baptism, etc. They do not know the God of the Bible and therefore are dismissive of His authority. Counselees rely upon their own judgment of right and frequently reference the false information upon which they have placed their hope.

Like the Lord’s example, counselors must wait to deal with erroneous notions while patiently demonstrating biblical truth. Using the Word, we expose the counselee to additional information they need, but have not known. Other times it is information they know, but refuse to obey. But without salvation and the indwelling Spirit, obedience is not possible. Even believes divided from the Spirit by repetitive, willful sin, will find no internal capacity to obey until truth provokes repentance. The story continues:

The woman said to Him, “Sir, give me this water, so I will not be thirsty nor come all the way here to draw” (Jn 4:15).

The Samaritan woman may appear to understand, asking for “this water”; but in reality she is still far from the truth. Many counselors might take this opportunity to extend the “plan of salvation” before the fullness of godly sorrow has emerged. Others might encourage the woman to forgive herself for past transgressions; hoping to reduce the guilt that in fact, may be a necessary element of her burgeoning conviction. Frequently counselors speak of what God will do for the counselee, rather than help the counselee see the sin and repentance necessary to be saved or restored.

In contrast, Jesus is about to confront the woman’s greatest need. He is going to say something hard but necessary. He is going to acquaint her with God’s justice and His hope, all at once. But understand what has taken place before these difficult words are given:

God has called this woman to this encounter (Jn 6:44). God has sent His Servant to minister to her and to tell her the truth about her condition (Jn 5:17, Lk 5:32). Jesus has obeyed the Father (Jn 4:34) and loved this woman in spite of her immoral life (Jn 17:26). Jesus has been gentle (Gal 6:1), kind, patient (2 Tim 2:.24) and unbiased (Rom 2:11). This foundation was essential if the woman was to recognize truth, understand God, and submit to authority. Firmly in the grip of God’s intent, the Samaritan woman was brought into a loving and truthful relational encounter. Now the confrontation can come:

He said to her, “Go, call your husband and come here.” The woman answered and said, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You have correctly said, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; this you have said truly” (Jn 4:16-18).

In the context of their short relationship, Jesus has established Himself a resource of truth. As such He must call this hurt and broken woman to confess her sins, knowing that without repentance, salvation cannot come (Acts 2:38). It would be easy to have misplaced compassion that would allow the Samaritan woman to avoid this difficult path. But the counselor must go beyond the moment, beyond the behavior, and speak to the spiritual heart so that true healing can occur.

This confrontation so affected the woman she began to see and understand her plight along with the identification of Jesus as Lord. It began slowly when she said: ““Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet…” (Jn 4:19). But she was still confused. Jesus continued to instruct her regarding “true worship” that will extend beyond the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus said:

But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to Him, “I know that Messiah is coming (He who is called Christ); when that One comes, He will declare all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am He” (Jn 4:23-26).

The woman had met her Savior. The Messiah had come seeking her as a “true worshipper.” Her transformation was underway and she would never be the same. Because of His love, Jesus was able to extend His truth. The woman was so compelled, she became the first Samaritan evangelist:

So the woman left her waterpot, and went into the city and said to the men, “Come, see a man who told me all the things that I have done; this is not the Christ, is it?” They went out of the city, and were coming to Him (Jn 4:28-30).

This beautiful encounter should remind us how central the Gospel is to biblical counseling. How easy it would be to provide care, compassion, and even excuse for this suffering woman without addressing her most pressing spiritual needs. Counselors can quickly fall victim to the notion that life circumstances, and the painful realities of a fallen world, are the primary reasons for human pain. In response, counselors become humanistic, trying to soothe the consequences of these experiences rather than minister to the counselee’s heart. Love without truth can be eternally deadly.

But this encounter also awakens us to the danger of premature confrontation, harsh rebuke, and theological debate. How easy it would be to hurt the suffering by refusing to understand the progressive, terminal, reality of sin that affects each of us without exception. Empathy requires relatedness. An effective communicator of truth is one who is humble, thankful, and urgent in his/her plea. Otherwise, the self-righteous heart of the counselor may create a “stumbling block” for those who are perishing (Lk 17:1). Truth without love can be eternally deadly.

What’s love got to do with it? Paul concluded:

Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? (Rom 2:4).

Copyright © 2015, W.P. “Ab” Abercrombie and The Biblical Counseling Institute

1 thought on “What’s Love Got To Do With It?”

  1. Not only do the counselees enter into counseling with theological errors, it is a pre-condition when all Christians come to Christ from a non-believing baseline. Our error is demonstrated in our sinful behaviors. There is a maxim: A man’s theology dictates his morality (The Latin version is Docere, credere. As a man prays, so he believes). From the counselor’s perspective, if they are not able to convey correction to the counselee without compassion, then the correction will be perceived by the counselee as arrogance on the part of the counselor and rejected outright. For the counselor, a generous portion of personal humility applied while delivering the medicine of Biblical discipline will aid the counselee to swallow the medicine of truth.


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