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“Sensitivity Training” for Counseling

Luke 10:41-42 "Martha , Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."

John 11:25-27 Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?" "Yes, Lord," Martha told Him, "I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world."

John 11:32-35 When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. "Where have you laid him?" he asked. "Come and see, Lord," they replied. Jesus wept.

Throughout the Gospel record we see the Lord Jesus relating to different people in different ways. He never used a "canned" approach, but was always sensitive to the different personalities and different needs of each individual. Unlike many counselors today, the Lord Jesus never exhibited a "professional" attitude toward His "clients." His complete honesty, His warmth, His empathy and His genuine caring were clearly displayed in every encounter. In fact, the way our Lord related to different people is a model of sensitivity in counseling as He gave advice, guidance, exhortation, and instruction. For a lesson in "sensitivity training," let's observe the approach that our Lord used in relating to Mary and Martha, the two sisters from Bethany. Could we ever have a better model for sensitivity in counseling than the "Wonderful Counselor" (Isaiah 9:6)?

We first observe the Lord Jesus counseling Martha and Mary in that well-known episode recorded in Luke 10:38-42. We read there that Mary was seated at the Lord's feet, listening to His Word. Probably Jesus was not speaking to Mary alone or directly, but she was included in a group of people in her home. Do you think the Lord just stated abstract theological truths to those gathered in the room? Did He just quote Scripture passages in a detached manner? Of course not! He took God's truth and made it practical for the exhortation and instruction of His listeners. The Lord knew all about Mary and was sensitive to all her concerns, and she was certainly being counseled as she listened and learned from what the Lord said.

The Word of the Lord is essential for Christian counseling. Second Timothy 3:16-17 states that Scripture is sufficient to meet the counseling needs of individuals--if they will "sit at the Lord's feet" and listen to His Word. If we're sensitive to the needs of people around us, and we know Scripture (more than just a few "rote" memory verses!), we'll find that the Bible is the most powerful tool for counseling.

Martha was quite different than her sister, Mary. It seems that Martha was a "Type A" (perfectionist, achiever, competitive) person. She was always one step ahead of Mary when it came to doing what had to be done. She officially welcomed the Lord intoher home (v38). And she was absorbed with the preparations for the Lord's visit (v40). Jesus, of course, knew all about Martha's character and personality type and was sensitive to her spiritual needs. And so when Martha complained to the Lord that Mary was just sitting around doing nothing and not lifting a finger to help with all the work, the Lord counseled her appropriately. From the Lord's comment that Martha was "worried and bothered about so many things," we can easily infer that Martha, the ultimate hostess, was making elaborate preparations to entertain the Lord. She was probably rushing around, frantically pulling out the best dishes, putting together her most special menu and baking a festive dessert as the grand finale! Perhaps it was not even a meal-time, but Martha's perfectionist priorities were fixed on presenting the best "afternoon tea" that Jesus had ever seen!

At first glance it may appear that the Lord was sternly reprimanding Martha for her distractions, counseling her to drop everything immediately and become just like Mary. But that was not our Lord's intention. Notice that He addressed her as "Martha, Martha." The double name implies endearment and earnestness. The Lord was not rebuking Martha for her service--He was counseling her about her priorities. He wasn't saying that there was no need to eat or drink at all, but He was saying that there was no need to go overboard with preparations, to worry about being the perfect hostess or serving the perfect meal! A dish of fruit with pita bread and an ordinary clay pitcher of water would require no preparation at all, and Martha could be freed up to fellowship with Jesus and enjoy things of eternal value along with everyone else. From Martha's conversation with Jesus in John 11, we know that she had a good grasp of theology and a strong faith in the Lord. Perhaps her frustration on this occasion was the impossible task of serving the perfect meal and getting in on the conversation with Jesus at the same time. So Jesus lovingly stated His priorities. In essence He said, "Martha, Martha, you are more important to Me than a meal--in fact, I'd much rather have you sitting here talking with Me than have any meal at all!"

In His counsel to Martha, the Lord mentioned Mary's good decision to sit listening to His Word, saying that Mary's priorities were more in line with God's value system. This should not be perceived as an insensitive put-down on Martha, or as a comment that would cause friction between the sisters. He knew Martha well. He knew that "Type A" people often need a straightforward, hard-line approach, since the "Marthas" are not usually as reflective and sensitive to tactful suggestion as the "Marys." Many times they don't hear counsel that is being offered to them unless it is given in bold and confrontational--but loving--terms. The Lord didn't tell Martha to become a "Mary clone," but rather that she shouldn't lose sight of the more important spiritual matters by being so consumed and uptight with temporal things.

Many pragmatic "Type A" Christians today need to hear this same counsel. Busy, practical, "go-getter," achiever Christians should not be encouraged to become "clones" of more quiet or reflective believers, but they may need to be confronted about theirpriorities. The root of many physical, emotional and personal problems in the lives of "Type A" people can be linked to mixed-up priorities. Getting our priorities in line with God's value system is essential. At times, counsel with 'Type A" people may need to be confrontational, but if we're working hard at sensitivity in our relationships, and "speaking the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15), our counsel will be heard.

We see the sisters of Bethany again in the eleventh chapter of John. On this occasion their brother, Lazarus, was very ill, so they sent word to Jesus, asking Him to come quickly. The Lord was ministering on the east side of the Jordan River at this time--only about a day's journey from Bethany. But we read that the Lord purposely stayed where He was for two days after He received their message, and during this time Lazarus died. Why would the Lord delay--especially since He had a special love for this family (v5)? The Scripture clearly tells us that the Lord waited for two days so the glory of God would be seen as Lazarus was raised from the dead. In the meantime, however, His delay meant that Mary and Martha suffered a time of great grief. Didn't the Lord realize this? Of course He did! Wasn't the Lord sensitive to their suffering and grief? Of course He was! In the same way today, the Lord may allow the people He loves to go through periods of suffering or grief--for reasons we may never understand in this lifetime. But the Lord comes alongside to counsel and comfort believers in their times of sorrow today, just as He counseled and comforted the two sisters of Bethany in their time of grief.

As the Lord approached Bethany, Martha went out to meet Him while He was still some distance away. Always the woman on the move, even in grief, Martha blurted out, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died" (v21). Her tone of voice may have conveyed that she thought the Lord should have been there sooner and why wasn't He? In any case, she showed great faith in her next statement: "But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask." At this point, the Lord began to counsel Martha by unfolding to her the doctrine of the resurrection of the believer. He didn't reveal to Martha that He was about to bring Lazarus back from the dead. Instead He reminded her of the truth that physical death is not the end. In the early stages of grief, many people cannot handle the level of theological discussion that Jesus had with Martha that day. But the Lord knew all about Martha's character and personality type, and He knew what she could handle and what kind of counsel was best for her. In fact, His counsel caused Martha to make one of the greatest statements of faith in the Gospels: "I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world" (v27). We, too, should not necessarily shy away from theological discussions at the time of death. The doctrine of the sovereignty of God, for example, when used with tact and sensitivity, can bring wonderful counsel and comfort to grieving believers. During a time of grief, some people are especially open and hungry for the truth and comfort that the Word of God can bring through theological discussion.

As we've already seen, Mary was a totally different person than her sister, Martha. In her grief, Mary did not go running out to meet the Lord, but sat in the house and wept. People are different, and they react differently to death. There is no "right" or correct "Christian reaction" when a loved one dies. Some of us are like Martha and grieve deeply, but don't shed a lot of tears. Others of us are like Mary and grieve openly, with many tears. The Lord knows that we're different--He made us the way we are! Sensitive counselors can be a great help to those who may feel a sense of guilt because they react like a "Martha" instead of a "Mary," or a "Mary" instead of a "Martha."

When Mary finally got up and went to the Lord she said the same thing her sister had said: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died" (v32). Although this was the same statement, it was probably said with a very different attitude and tone of voice. Mary said it through tears of grief as she fell at the Lord's feet. Now notice the kind of "counseling" that our Lord gave Mary on this occasion. He said nothing! But He wept with Mary as they walked to the grave site. There was no theological discussion with Mary, because Mary was a different person than her sister, Martha. She experienced and handled grief differently than Martha, and the Lord responded to her with empathy. There was no "trying to cheer her up" with "canned" phrases, or promises that "everything will work out right in the end." The Lord was not aloof to Mary's experience of grief even though He knew it would be turned to joy. He entered into her grief and wept with her--real caring tears. We need to do the same with certain people in their time of grief. Just being with them and weeping with them is the response they need at that time. The time for words will come later. Empathy in a time of suffering is an essential component of sensitive counseling.

Why was our Lord's style of counseling so warm, genuine and caring? Because He was keenly aware that people are different, and He was always sensitive to their different needs and problems, their different backgrounds and cultures, and their differences in personality and character. Martha was not the same as her sister Mary. Nicodemus, the Jewish scholar, who needed time to discuss his theological questions, was a very different person than the self-righteous "rich young ruler," who needed to be confronted and challenged with his materialism. (See John 3 and Mark 10.) The Phoenician woman, who sought healing for her sick daughter and clarification of her immature faith, had very different needs than the woman of Samaria, who was living in an adulterous relationship and carrying a heavy burden of guilt and rejection. (See Matthew 15 and John 4.) Jesus related to each individual differently, discerning the exact need of that person at that moment and handling it with tact and sensitivity. The more we develop a genuine interest and care for people and recognize that each individual is different and unique, the less our counseling will be pushy, tactless or "canned." Unfortunately, because of the ever-increasing threat of legal action, our counseling in church, ministry and Christian camp settings may sometimes, of necessity, appear more formal or "professional." Let's do our best, however, to follow the sensitivity training given in the Gospels by our Model, the Lord Jesus, as we reach out to those in need of counseling.

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