When in the throes of discouragement over spiritual failure, nothing rings more hollow than the exhortation, “just shape up and try harder.” It sounds insensitive--oblivious to deeper struggles, like the words of a bystander yelling “just run faster!” to a dehydrated, crawling marathon runner at the twenty-fifth mile.
If you were struggling with a habitual sin about which you’re deeply discouraged, what if you came to me, asked me for words of comfort, and I said to you, “Shape up! You just need to start acting more like a Christian”?
How insensitive, you might say, Don’t you think I already know that? Such a statement in the midst of spiritual discouragement would indeed sound insensitive, but is it really bad advice? After all, when Ephesians 4:1 says, “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” isn't it basically saying, “start acting like a Christian”? The answer is 'yes' – if you are struggling with a habitual sin, you do, in fact, need to start acting more like a Christian. The question is, when do you need hear this truth? At what point in our interaction would it be appropriate for me to tell you “you need to start acting more like a Christian”? Is it possible that such advice is scripturally accurate in its content, but unscriptural when given in certain contexts?
Is it possible to use Scripture in an unscriptural way?
The placement of Ephesians 4:1 in the book of Ephesians is noteworthy. Paul didn’t tell them “walk worthy of your calling” until he spent three whole chapters painting a glorious picture of that calling. He expounds on the spiritual blessings we have in Christ (1:3-14), spends time thanking God and praying for his people (1:15-23), glories in the wondrous reality of the Gospel (2:1-10), rejoices in the unity of Jew and Gentile (2:11-22) and their partaking in the “unsearchable riches of Christ” (3:1-13), prays that “you may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (3:14-19), and finally, praises the One “who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work in us” (3:20-21).
THEN he tells them, “therefore,” act like Christians. Without the first three chapters packed full with glorious doctrine, the statement, “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called,” would not only be insensitive; it would be impossible. The “unsearchable riches of Christ” and “the power at work in us” is, after all, what enables us to act like Christians in the first place. So while telling your discouraged friend to “shape up” is technically accurate, it might be premature. Perhaps your discouraged friend needs a little Ephesians 1-3 before you give him some Ephesians 4-6. Perhaps he needs to rest in God so that he will have the strength to fight against sin. To offer rebuke divorced of gospel doctrine is to shove someone into battle without a weapon.
I’m not saying that you must expound the doctrine of the Gospel every time you want to give advice; I am simply encouraging the use of Scripture in a Scriptural way--to know which verses to use when; to allow the why to influence the what; to present God’s truth in the same order, context, and intention as God’s Word.
That crawling, dehydrated runner at the twenty-fifth mile doesn’t need your verbal proddings...yet. He needs you to offer him a drink of water, help him to his feet, lift his eyes to the finish line, and then tell him, “run.” The wonderful thing about God’s Word is that it is both our refreshing drink of water when we’re thirsty and our much-needed kick in the pants when we’re lazy.
The problem is, we tend to be reactionary by nature. When we hear the insensitive advice of other believers, we react by focusing solely on the comfort of the gospel without ever moving to the practical outworkings of it. Others react to this comfort-centered focus by overemphasizing the confrontational portions of Scripture. And back and forth it goes. This reactionism creates two extremes: the cup-of-water Christians and kick-in-the-pants Christians; Ephesians 1-3 Christians and Ephesians 4-6 Christians; “why” Christians and “what” Christians.
Both extremes are unscriptural. We must allow the whole counsel of God to inform our own thinking before we counsel others. Our advice should always be as balanced as the Bible. Be armed with both the comfort of God’s Word and the confrontation of God’s Word, know and when and how to use each, and ask God for understanding, discernment, and love as you seek to help your brothers and sisters in Christ.
Aaron Berry earned both his undergrad and MA in Bible at Bob Jones University and most recently completed his MDiv at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary in Allen Park, MI, where He and his wife Hanna, currently live with their two children, Brooklyn and Joshua. He also serves as the Director of Recruitment at DBTS and is a pastoral assistant at Inter-City Baptist Church.
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