How Do I Help a Hurting Friend?

Whether you like it or not, at some point in your life a friend is going to come to you with a problem. He will be feeling sad, or down. She will be struggling in a relationship. He will be angry with a coworker, and so on and so forth. As a Christian, how do you plan on responding to your friend—to help that person—practically? Sadly, many times the answers that Christians offer to the real emotional and psychological problems of our friends are no better than platitudes: we say to the depressed person, “You should pray more;” to the person with a dysfunctional family, “You should be free in Christ, why are you still living in the past?” and to the person who is grieving, “You should really be over this by now.” In fact, our often inept and unaware answers to the real problems of others have frequently done more damage than good. It is, primarily, to address this ineptitude and establish a biblical framework for Christian counseling ministry that Rod Wilson was written his book, How Do I Help a Hurting Friend?

Wilson’s book covers five extremely common areas of personal struggle: Self-Image, Grief, Depression, Burnout, and Dysfunctional Families. In each short chapter he outlines the problem, sets a biblical framework for understanding the issue, identifies common misconceptions about both the diagnosis and ‘treatment’ of these issues, and proposes proper steps to for practically helping these hurting friends. For a number of reasons, Wilson’s book is an excellent ministry resource. One reason is that it is a useful, practical, beginner’s guide to basic counseling ministry for Christians. It is readable, well-organized, and easy to apply, and since at some point you will need to help a hurting friend, having some basic knowledge of these common problems and helpful solutions is unarguably an asset. Another reason Wilson’s book is a solid resource is because, due to the nature of the material, it forces the reader into an initial process of self-examination. Seeing how these five common dysfunctions operate in your own life is a great benefit to your private spiritual growth; furthermore, it will increase the empathy with which you will minister to others who are hurting. A third reason why Wilson’s book is a solid ministry resource is due to the biblical perspective he brings to the counseling ministry. In this, Wilson is at pains to show that the Bible is not a book of perfect people, but of suffering, imperfect people who need God. That perspective alone might be worth the price of the book.

Wilson’s strength, however, is also a liability. I read this book recently with my church board, who are all laypeople, and we found, in the scheme of things, that the time spent addressing the biblical correction and defense of counseling ministry outweighed the time spent offering practical advice on helping hurting friends. Perhaps this is an understandable emphasis on Wilson’s part. Counseling ministry has not always enjoyed the favor of the church, and since so many common misconceptions reign when Christians help their hurting friends, this book serves as a much needed corrective. Even so, the time spent discussing the Bible, and the time spent offering practical help to the hurting, was noticeably disproportionate. My church board, who didn’t come to the book with deeply ingrained misconceptions about biblical counseling, found these sections tedious and craved more practical help. At one point I even began to feel that the book might be helpfully re-titled, “A Biblical Perspective on Counseling Ministry.”

There was, however, an unexpected benefit to reading this book as a leadership board—that we were able to apply the five common problems to our Church as if it were a person. Where are we, as a church, suffering from burnout, or grief, or self-image, or depression, or family dysfunction? Taking the discussion from our own struggles with these issues, then beginning to look at our congregation as a group struggling with these same issues, was a profound experience that helped us to know (and diagnose) our own church in far greater detail. It is the kind of reading that I would heartily recommend to any elder’s board.

Rod Wilson’s How Do I Help a Hurting Friend? is a solid, rewarding book in pastoral care that, despite its flaws, easily deserves a space on both the layperson’s bookshelf as well as the pastor’s ministry ‘toolbox.’

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