Counseling a Despairing Man

I think Scripture is loaded with great instruction for engaging with people in all seasons of life. This post focuses on engaging with a believer during a difficult season in their life.

1. Give them voice

Job 6:26 says, “Do you think you can reprove words, when the speech of a despairing man is wind?” Let the wind blow where it will. Healing comes, in part, through giving voice to the fullness of our pain. Metaphors that push the limits, passionate exaggeration, scandalous theological statements, expressions of doubt, and bold argumentation are the standard language of the man in despair. We see this in Job, Jeremiah, Moses, and the Psalmists. When we encounter a man in this place we often feel uncomfortable. Their statements alarm us. It appears to us that they are losing their grip on the truth. We are tempted to correct their statements and reprove their “unbelief.” Without knowing it we often compound the pain of the despairing man by silencing his voice. If we can understand that this type of expression is a natural and even biblical way of moving through darkness to the light it will help us walk with people in their pain. See this helpful article on the subject: John Piper- When Words Are Wind.
2. Give them time

Psalm 42 and 43 are one unified unit of Scripture. The refrain that runs through these psalms and ties them together is this expression: “why are you cast down o my soul.” It occurs three times throughout these two psalms. The first time it occurs is early on in Psalm 42. The next two occurrences come at the end of both psalms. The interesting thing about this refrain is that the Psalmist is striving to bring himself out of a place of despair. In fact, that is the point of the Psalm. He is calling himself out of the dark place he finds himself. He gives himself every reason to leave the pit and yet at the end of both Psalms he remains there. These two psalms together teach us that the journey out of despair can take time. The suffering man should not be put on our healing timetable.  As we walk with people in this place we will love them much better if we can remember this.
3. Give them grace

1 Thessalonians 5:14 says, “And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.” The term translated fainthearted here is literally “little souled.” The language communicates a soul shriveled and shrunk by some kind of difficulty or suffering. Those who are crushed and small in soul need an infusion of hope and encouragement. According to Paul, patience is a must as we engage with people in this place. Impatience will only exacerbate their pain. We must take our cues from the master comforter. Recall this word about Jesus, “a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench (Matt 12:20).”
 4. Trust the indwelling Spirit

Roland Allen was a missionary to China in the early 1900’s. He was also one of the foremost missions thinkers of his time. His work continues to impact missions practice to this day. One of the principles he emphasized in church planting was trust in the Holy Spirit. He believed that missionaries should place their confidence in the Spirit that indwelt new believers to lead, expand, and multiply the church. He understood the significance of the third person of the Trinity residing within a human being. He believed that the Spirit would accomplish what God promised he would in all believers. Like the apostle Paul, he was convinced of the Spirit’s faithfulness: “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6). I am certain that this principle can help us as we walk alongside hurting people. When we trust the Spirit in other people we can journey with them without anxiety when they are struggling and hurting.

12 thoughts on “Counseling a Despairing Man

      1. – This goes along with your first point: Validate that what they think and feel are real thoughts and feelings. I don’t think God requires man to be 100% accurate in their thoughts and feelings all the time. Validating the existence of the feeling is not validating the truth of the feeling.

        – Listen much, and say as little as possible. Simply the presence of a friend, and knowing there is an ear listening is helpful and comforting.

        – Sometimes it can be a helpful task as a friend to take the despairing man out to do an activity that helps him take his mind off the situation and experience enjoyment in something. The mental break can feel like rest to the soul.

        – Your second point is spot on and easily unconsidered by others who have not gone through a really difficult situation in life. There is no Biblical standard of “maximum time needed to get over it”. The despairing man may be scarred deeply with a wound that continuously gets reopened and doesn’t seem to want to heal. There certainly is potential for this to have negative and life/salvation threatening effects, however, it can also be incredibly positively life changing to the man who sticks with God through it all. It may look ugly from the outside, but it produces a unique aspect of maturity and wisdom, especially when given as much time as is needed to wrestle through the muck of the source of the despair. It may take far longer than many people would expect.

    1. Josh, thanks for the helpful thoughts. I especially appreciated your point that validating someone’s experience is not the same as validating the truth of the feeling. That is really true. It says a lot to me that God is willing to engage us with grace and patience in our every emotion and experience. Our theological accuracy or even perception of the truth or reality of our situation is not the ground upon which determines whether or not he will engage with us. The ground is always the cross, the grace of God. His has always been a movement toward us, in spite of us. For that I am really grateful.

      I also thought the insights on the ugliness of growth were constructive. I wonder how often this is true about sanctification and growth in the life of faith. Thanks man.

  1. Mason,
    As always, I appreciate your thoughts. I agree that words have limits. It seems that suffering, at times, has a way of rendering language meaningless. I’m looking forward to reading your new blog. For anyone else who would like to check out a personal blog on navigating the storms of grief and loss, check out:

  2. Since we can never seem to call each other at times where the other one can talk, I will engage you on here. I love the new look of the site. Especially the picture of the lamb. I also really liked you most recent post on dealing with a suffering friend.

    1. We have been playing a serious round of phone tag. We will catch up soon. In the meanwhile, I would love to engage with you here. Would you add anything else to that this post on helping a hurting friend?

      1. Give them (and yourself) boundaries. If the person is hurting bad enough, they may intentionally or unintentionally suck you into their pain. If you aren’t careful, they may come to depend on you and that is the beginning of a whole new set of issues.

  3. Good point. Healthy boundaries would serve them as well as us, if I am hearing you correctly. In your opinion, how much should we allow someone’s pain to affect and impact us? Where do we draw that line you are talking about? Being called to grieve with those who grieve and yet to maintain a healthy boundary—what do you think that looks like? It’s fun to be interacting with you on here.

  4. That is an excellent question. I think that when you notice it taking a toll on your life, such as loss of sleep, neglecting time with your family or other friends, or affecting your professional or academic life, it’s time to evaluate just how much you are taking on. I also think that after a while, if the friend hasn’t made any progress toward accepting the situation and working toward whatever closure is possible, it’s time to direct him to someone who can look at the situation with fresh eyes or is a professional.
    It’s been my experience that when that person no longer feels you are as miserable as they are and as devastated as they are, they can get angry and resentful.

    1. Good thoughts Jordan. What you’re saying reminds me of that interesting paradox we find in Galatians 6:15. We are each to carry our own burden and yet we are to carry the burdens of others. There seems to be a balancing act in what you are talking about.

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