"He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:29-31)
There is a day coming when we will simply rest next to still waters and enjoy the wonder of a frictionless life, free from the tug and pull of our sin and the entangling currents inherent in the struggles of this world. We will finally have a complete experience of that brief moment when Peter’s feet glided upon the waves, and all that was wrong, broken, and impossible in Peter’s mind faded in the presence of Christ.
Until that day arrives, we dwell with Peter in the in-between, our attention constantly shifting between the face of Christ and the problems surrounding us and those dwelling within. At times, we tread above the turmoil in glorious fellowship with our Savior. At other times we look up as the waters seem bound to consume us, hoping that this sinking will not be the end. And, at other times, we find ourselves simply treading water, unable to see Christ in what surrounds us, but faithfully striving to remain afloat, believing against our present darkness that He is there and will provide what we need.
Seeing the Current Reality
Those we counsel and care for show up in various states of struggle and strength. One of the key features of proper care is the ability to assess where someone is at and to provide counsel that is fitting for their particular situation and current ability. The truths of the gospel will always remain unchangingly true and good. However, the timing of when to speak and apply those truths in a person’s unique circumstance will require love, wisdom, and patience. In other words, to rightly care for God’s children, we must learn to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). To that end, and sticking with our watery metaphor, let’s look at three different situations people in our care might be in and how we might counsel them in love and truth.
Those Who Are Drowning
This is a miserable state to be in, and I believe we all end up here at some point (or many points) during our lifetime. This is the individual who is on the brink of losing hope, flailing about for any stability and support that might be able to rescue them. Fear is the pervasive feeling in these times, mixed with a nauseating sense of utter impotence.
Take a moment and consider—what does a drowning person need? How would this apply to counseling people who are metaphorically drowning?
I think people in this situation might biblically be best described in 1 Thessalonians 5:14 as weak. What do weak people need? Help. We see this clearly pictured in Peter’s sinking moment. As his feet descend beneath the tumultuous waters, he cries out to Jesus. What does Jesus do? Does He encourage Peter to try harder? Does He rebuke Peter for doing it wrong? Does He offer Peter a Bible verse and tell him not to be afraid? No. Jesus reaches out and grabs ahold of Peter. He meets Peter where he is and provides what is most immediately necessary—help. Only after addressing Peter’s primary fear does He lovingly prod Peter with a soul-provoking question.
Counselers who are drowning need saving, not swimming lessons. No doubt swim lessons will be beneficial in time, but a moment of drowning is no time to shout out instructions on proper swimming technique. It is the time to jump in the water and help. However, we must keep in mind that helping a drowning person will carry its own risk. A person flailing about for fear of dying will often hit the very person who is attempting to help hold them above water. Similarly, counselees in desperate times will say and do things that are hurtful and unhelpful out of fear. It is a kindness in such moments to overlook these instances until we can help the individual move from drowning to treading water.
Those Who Are Treading Water
Treading water isn’t fun, but it is a more enjoyable experience than drowning. I believe most of the Christian life this side of heaven is lived in this state. We aren’t sinking, but we also aren’t able to get to where we want to go as quickly as we would like. We haven’t quit, but we are probably getting tired and are weary of being wet. In such a situation, we are likely to become fainthearted (1 Thess. 5:14).
Take a moment and consider—what does a person treading water need? How would this apply to counseling people who are metaphorically treading water?
What do the fainthearted need? Encouragement. They need to know that they are going somewhere, there is purpose in their striving, and they are not alone. This is the time for swim lessons. Through the counsel of God’s Word, we help them learn to stay afloat through the many means of grace and support God has given them. It is important to calibrate what we encourage them to do in this time, for if we give more than their current capacity can handle, our “encouragement” will become an added burden instead of relief. If we lovingly do this well, then we have hope to see them move from treading water to walking on the water.
Those Who Are Walking on the Water
Okay, let’s be honest here. Even Peter only walked on water for a brief moment, and he could literally see Jesus in front of him, modeling what it looks like to walk on water. So, maybe the metaphor breaks down a bit here, but I think it can still be helpful. Although it seems unlikely that we will find ourselves treading upon the surface of the ocean with our bare feet this side of heaven, faith still offers us the ability to look at the waves, wind, and storms of this life with peace instead of fear and panic. Though we still swim through the waters of this life, we do so knowing our God is with us, and He is greater than anything we will have to navigate.
Also, it is probably pretty rare that people in this state will show up at our office for counseling. However, in those cases in which they do, what counsel do they need?
I think the danger in arriving in this state is to become complacent and content and to forget there are others nearby who are drowning. In other words, it can be helpful to remind them not to grow weary in doing good while also calling them into the loving work of helping those around them. We encourage them to be like Christ and put themselves around those in need so that they can extend a hand of grace to the fainthearted and dive in to support those who are weak.
Questions for Reflection
- Take a moment and do an honest assessment. Where are you in this metaphor of drowning, treading water, and walking on the water? How is your current state affecting the way you counsel?
- How are you doing in appropriately assessing where those in your care are at and tailoring your counsel to fit what would be most helpful for them? What can you begin doing that would help you grow in this area?
- Take some time and dwell on Jesus’ response to Peter sinking. How would you feel if you were in Peter’s situation? How does Jesus’ response influence the way you counsel?