Ed and I had been meeting weekly for six weeks. Increasing anxiety had made work all but impossible and had driven him to seek help. Over the weeks I’d got to know Ed well, we’d explored something of his experience and story of anxiety, and we’d thought about his faith and how it related to his struggle. We’d talked about how the truths and story of the Bible had been helpful in the past and had considered what was different this time round. But where should we go next? What are we aiming for?
The trajectory of my conversation with Ed isn’t unusual. I’ve spoken with many people starting out in pastoral care or biblical counseling, and the sense of going round in circles or not being sure where to head is common. Often, it’s the point where we reach for the platitude, or the practical solutions, or an arbitrary verse plucked from the concordance. Sometimes the circling and wandering is because we don’t understand the person or their story well enough, but sometimes it’s because we’ve lost sight of the core things God calls us to be doing now. Reading Titus helped me see that amid all the very different circumstances, temptations and struggles we face, there is a common goal we can always move towards.
In Titus 2, Paul recognizes we are all different and we all do different things. Yet we share the same core history and future. The grace of God (in Jesus) has appeared bringing us all salvation (Titus 2:11), and Jesus is going to come back in glory to restore this broken world (Titus 2:13). But as well as the same past and future, we also share a core purpose in the present. Listen to what Paul says:
iFor the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ. (Titus 2:11–13, ESV)
There is one thing this passage calls on us to do, to say no to (renounce) ungodliness and instead to live a godly life in the present. This goal is profoundly different to so many other forms of counseling; the aim is to live faithfully amid our circumstances. Notice that it is God’s grace coming in the person of Jesus which trains us in doing this – he showed us the way to reject ungodliness and to live a godly life (Matt. 4:1-11, for example), and he continues to work in our lives by his Spirit. This change looks backwards to what Jesus did in rescuing us and looks forward to when he comes again. But the present is a time of training – because of who God has made us to be now, we should want to become more and more like who we will be when Jesus returns.
This perspective can be helpful for working out where we are trying to get to when we’re walking with someone like Ed. It would be wonderful for his symptoms of anxiety to lessen; it would be helpful for him to have clarity on where his struggle with anxiety began. However, it’s more important for him to turn to and follow Jesus, responding faithfully to God’s call upon his life and trusting the Lord to equip him with the courage to walk amid the pressures he faces. What that looks like may be different for each person (see the list in Titus 2:1-10), but the direction of travel should be the same.
This doesn’t tell us how to help someone like Ed move towards godliness, but it gives us lots of questions to ask. From the past, has Ed forgotten or lost sight of the salvation that is already his? Do we need to help him see more clearly how God’s Spirit is at work in his life? From the future, does Ed still have a hope for Jesus’s return? Is he looking forward to that day? Or in the present, has Ed lost sight of the call to follow Jesus and become overwhelmed with the pressures and demands of the world around? These are all crucial questions if we are going to help someone each day turn from ungodliness to godliness. We turn towards Jesus because of what he has done, continues to do, and will do, not simply because of our own volition and intent.
Counseling and pastoral care can be complex, but having a clear sense of what God has called us to in this period between Jesus’s first coming and when he returns is incredibly helpful. It gives us a sense of direction that is in line with how God is working in someone’s life. It also gives us a different definition of “success” than we might naturally tend towards.
Ed still struggles with anxiety, but his focus has changed. He’s no longer consumed with overcoming it, and it doesn’t dominate his work or family life in the same way. A lifestyle of anxiety has shifted towards a lifestyle of trust in God. Ed can increasingly focus on today and trust God with what tomorrow holds. Ed has realized that his anxiety presents him with a chance to choose to follow and trust Jesus, and we’ve been able to rejoice together every time that’s happened.
Kenny Larsen is the associate pastor at Christ Church Walkley, Sheffield, UK, with a focus on pastoral care and discipleship. This post first appeared on the Biblical Counselling UK website.