A World Waiting To Be Won Duncan Heaster email the author


Appendix 5: “To the Jew first”

5-1 Why We Should Preach To Israel || 5-2 Preaching To Israel In The Last Days || 5-3 The Preaching Commission Of Isaiah 40 || 5-3-1 John The Baptist's Style Of Preaching

Appendix 6: Tears In Heaven: A Missionary Obituary

Appendix 7: Capitalism And Welfare Policy In The Mission Field

Appendix 8-3: Some Psychology for Preachers

For those prayerfully intent on converting others to Christ, perhaps technique isn’t necessary to analyze. Some of the most successful preachers of all time, both Biblically and in our own experience, were not professional preachers. They were ordinary, often poorly educated people who simply shared their experience of God’s grace with all they met, and the evident intensity and integrity of their own experience was of itself enough to persuade men and women of the Gospel. On the other hand, we are to cast the net on the other side at the Lord’s command; Paul “so” preached that men believed. Technique and examination of technique isn’t, therefore, inappropriate.

The changes associated with conversion to Christ involve a radically changed state of thinking; and we are the human means used by the Father and Son to present, model and at times effect that psychological change within persons. We too need to appreciate that these changes are happening to us too, as we continue to experience the process of a new creation going on within our own minds. And it’s not enough to simply teach the Gospel to a person and baptize them; by doing these things, we become their spiritual parent, and our care for them is to continue. The problem is that those people often have a whole range of personal problems with which we may feel quite inadequate to engage. It’s all very well telling someone to “get professional help”, but in the reality of a late night conversation with a weeping friend, or an earnest appeal for advice over coffee together, we are the help at that time and in that place which God has sent that person. For God works through persons. And yet we feel so inadequate, for most of us are not professionals. We need to get over the idea that only a professional can help; there is nothing wrong with seeking professional help, but very often in the mission field it is simply not available or inaccessible. In our inadequacy is perhaps our strength in God’s sight, as we stand in His hand as David against the Goliath of human psychological problems.

For all these reasons, let’s take a look at basic psychology for Christians:

-          The psychology involved in teaching and converting others

-          Psychology relevant to ourselves

-          Psychology in a pastoral context.

The psychology involved in teaching and converting others

How People Perceive Things

In the same way as there are optical illusions, so it depends from which perspective we look at doctrines, Bible verses, ethical issues, judgment calls on various issues. Consider the picture of two men viewing some planks of wood.

The man on the left feels justified in insisting that there are four planks of wood. The man on the right is indignant that the other man can’t perceive that obviously there are only three planks of wood. And so it is with looking at something like the supposed existence of the Trinity. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one” (Dt. 6:4) may appear to me to be clear proof that God is one and not three. And yet this very same verse is beloved of some Trinitarians as proof that there is one God- but in trinity, whereby the unity of God means that the Son and the Holy Spirit must be one and the same as God the Father, because “God is one”. The fact there are optical illusions doesn’t mean that the illusion is reality; truth is not merely defined by our perceptions. There is an ultimate truth on many issues, which exists outside of ourselves, and is with God and is revealed to us in His word. My point is that we shouldn’t be surprised nor disappointed that people cannot see what appears to us to be Biblically obvious. When it comes to spiritual matters, humans aren’t rational. We assume we make rational decisions- we don’t drive over a red light, look before crossing the street and so forth. But the human heart can become so wicked that we even fail to perceive how wicked it has become (Jer. 17:9). In the same way as we ourselves have [hopefully] changed our worldviews, rejected ways of viewing issues which were wrong- so we must remember that the people to whom we witness are themselves likewise in various psychological binds which won’t be easily or quickly broken by the mere logical forcefulness of our arguments and reasoning.

Consider the picture. What do you see first? Some would see an old woman with a long nose covered in a shawl, looking downwards in mourning. Others would see an elegantly dressed young woman looking to her right; her nose is the left eye of the old woman. Older people tend to see the old woman first; younger people tend to see the young woman first. From this we learn that who we are, our position in life, influences how we perceive things and who we relate to. A young sister may relate strongly to the pregnant Mary of Luke’s Gospel; as she grows older she may relate better to Naomi with her family problems and desire to put right the poor judgments of youth. After you have been looking at the old woman for some time, it may be hard to again perceive the young woman, and vice versa. If you had not read above that the young woman’s nose is the left eye of the old woman, it may have taken you longer to perceive the two women presented. What these observations mean is that we as teachers and ‘preachers’ are really just giving information which will jog the audience to realize that there is another way of seeing a picture. We may, e.g., explain how Isaiah 14 refers to the King of Babylon rather than the traditional understanding of “Lucifer”, and this is like telling you that the young woman’s nose is the left eye of the old woman. It is a trigger, a jog, but the change in perception cannot be made for another person. As you thought “Ah! Now I see! There are two women portrayed!”, so the discovery of Bible truths is totally personal. All we can do is to provide triggers for it in our teaching. But the actual realization, the perception of the new picture, must be internal to the person. If we simply tell someone ahead of time “Now here’s a picture which is of both a young woman and an old woman”- it’s not as effective as the person looking at the picture for themselves, seeing the young woman, and then seeing the old woman. All we can do is to draw their attention to the old woman’s right eye and the young woman’s nose, and ask them to focus upon those points.  I have mentioned that younger people will tend to see the young woman first; we relate to the Bible according to our own background, undertaking the task of interpretation influenced by who we are and where we have come from.

With this in mind, which animal do you see in the picture of an animal? Some see a rabbit looking to the right, others a duck looking to the left. Which did you see first? I carried out this little experiment at a Bible school in China, and everyone without fail reported seeing a duck first. Because ducks are common in Chinese experience and culture. Urban Europeans tend to see the rabbit first- ducks don’t waddle around European cities, but you can see rabbits in some woods and parks; Europeans from rural areas sometimes see a duck first, sometimes a rabbit- probably depending upon their exposure to these two animals in their home area. Africans tend to see the duck, because rabbits aren’t so common in Africa. And so it is that people raised within a Trinitarian culture will tend to interpret “I and my Father are one” (Jn. 10:30) as proof that Jesus is God Himself, whereas those raised within a Moslem culture will never want to accept that God has any equal and will see the verse as simply stating that Jesus was a man who felt close to God. But the first picture we see isn’t the only picture- that’s the point. From our perspective as preachers, we must remember that our audience are initially seeing only one picture. Don’t be too frustrated by their inability to see the other picture. The duck’s bill can be so visually impressive that for some, it seems impossible to see it ever again as the ears of the rabbit. And likewise the details of some Bible verses lodge in the perceptions of people, indeed in our perceptions, making it difficult to see any other picture- until we are prodded by someone who’s seen the other picture.

We too as preachers and pastoral helpers will also see the world, and see people, through the spectacles of our own background and life experience. Let’s be aware that there are many different schools of psychology, just as there are many different ways of looking at the world. Our psychological worldview will influence how we approach people and seek to deal with them. If we see people as being basically evil, whose human side is worthy only of condemnation, who act in a way determined by their nature and environment, then we will see people as needing to be pressured into repentance and then pastored in a heavy handed way, with us forcing Divine truth down their throat. This was the way of many Calvinist missionaries from mainland Europe who went to the former French, Belgian and Portuguese colonies in Africa in the 19th Century. And the subsequent hard and bad treatment of local people by their colonizers led to the rebellions and internal fracture which is still seen in areas like Angola and Congo today. The British missionaries by contrast were theologically liberal, seeing people as basically good, free to choose, rational, and aware of themselves. They treated people better and with more respect than their French speaking counterparts, and the subsequent history in those areas was generally better.

We are heavily influenced in our views by the power of conformity and obedience. People sitting in a dark room were asked how much a point of light was moving. It was not moving at all, but people’s answers were influenced by what others reported. People were asked to choose which one of three
lines was the same length as a standard line. The majority chose an obviously incorrect line if it was the one chosen by others. Most people were willing to administer painful, and potentially dangerous electric shocks to research participants when ordered to do so by an “experimenter”. This is particularly true when it comes to religion; people accept the doctrines they are taught by others and assume that the majority must be correct. And within congregations of believers, the same is true; groupthink can occur with ease, despite our repeated emphasis upon “read the Bible for yourself”.

Different Points of View

How we understand people affects how we treat them- it’s as simple as that. The various schools of psychology each have something to contribute to our understanding of people in spiritual terms. The behavioural school, for example, considers that human behaviour is determined by external input or stimulus (in contrast to the Freudian school, which believes that behaviour is influenced by internal, unconscious factors, the id controlled by the ego). Behaviourists will argue for environmental determinism- put a person in a positive environment, and they will act positively. In the light of spiritual, pastoral experience and in Biblical perspective, there are elements in all the schools of psychological thought which have value and relevance. If someone from a bad background, always obsessed with the limitations of poverty, marries someone from a good spiritual background and the marriage exists without undue financial limitations, it’s possible that the good environment will influence the person for good. Some flourish within the good environment of a functional church, whereas without that environment they would spiritually wither and perish. But then the Biblical emphasis must be considered: that sinful behaviour comes from within (Mk. 7:15-23; James 1:13-15), our words are a result of our thinking (Mt. 12:34), the heart is a “treasure chest” out of which actions flow (Lk. 6:45), as a man thinks in his heart, so is he in practice (Prov. 23:7). Right behaviour isn’t solely determined by environment- it is a fruit of the Spirit, the result of response to God’s word. Put an unspiritual person in a wonderful Bible School environment, surrounded by love, grace, spirituality- and they will not necessarily change at all, because their heart is elsewhere. But then clearly enough, environment plays a part. Our actions are indeed influenced by our thoughts, and spiritual mindedness is truly the essence of Christianity; but we also have the ability to do good things when we are thinking otherwise, and a generally spiritually minded person is also capable of occasional bad behaviour, or bad behaviour in some specific area of life. The problem is, man on one hand is a well endowed animal, responding to environment and stimulus in a fairly predictable way; at the other end of the spectrum, he is made in God’s image and being transformed into the image of God’s Son. Frequently in our ministry to others, we can assume that if only we could change a person’s environment, then they would spiritually flourish. If we take that person out of poverty, out of an impossible marriage, out of a fundamentalist Islamic state which limits the expression of Christianity, out of a war zone, free them from a disease- that they will then be able to grow spiritually. But so often, spirituality is developed exactly by those experiences. God places us in situations like that because He knows they are for our spiritual good. It is He who brings trials and tribulations; and He places us each within the matrix of life situations which He knows is what we need to reach His Kingdom. So often it has happened that believers who spiritually shone under persecution have escaped to the West- and spiritually collapsed. But then it is also true that spiritual mindedness is indeed of the essence, and this can be achieved in any human situation.

Our view of human nature inter-relates with our view of our mission amongst men in this world. If we perceive, as I believe we should, the great spiritual possibilities implicit in being human, we will more positively approach our task of encouraging people to grow into the image of God and His Son. We will have a real message of hope and possibility for those we encounter who are struggling with addictions, or who are consumed by a depressive negative self-image. If we consider humanity to be basically evil, our emphasis will rather be on steel-willed self-control and the wretchedness of our position before God- about which, apparently, we can do very little. All the emphasis will be upon the future change of nature at Christ’s return, but this carrot of a future hope often fails to long term motivate people struggling with their humanity here and now.  It’s hard to make sense of the very positive New Testament passages which stress the experience of victory and spiritual growth right now- if we resign people to a belief that they are intrinsically wicked and shall continue their patterns of spiritual failure.

Each of us must decide what we really think the Bible teaches about human beings. Are we basically evil, sinners by nature as well as by thought and action? In this case, we are saved only by God’s grace and all we can do in this world is to try to limit the effects of our sinfulness and try to restrain ourselves. Or are we basically good by nature, as the humanistic school of psychology suggests, and our failures are a result of external pressures from our environment which lead us to act poorly only because we are making an inevitable response to the stimulus we receive? In this scenario, the son of an alcoholic father will become an alcoholic, alcoholism is declassified from a sin to being a disorder. We must each decide for ourselves what view of humanity we think the Bible teaches; remembering that whatever we postulate about human nature, we are saying about the Lord Jesus who fully shared our nature and yet was perfect. Personally I don’t view us as having a choice between “evil by nature” and “good by nature”; the Bible rarely uses the concept of “nature”. Rather do I suggest that we can view ourselves as human beings from various vantage points, and the view I see is a spectrum ranging from man as an animal, and man created in the image of God and in process of transformation [in the case of believers] into that image in fullness, with all that implies psychologically. The Bible seems to me to share this perspective, speaking in places of human evil, and in others of the great possibilities which there are for humans. The Lord Jesus shared our nature but was sinless and “one” with the Father; this is surely the profoundest essay in the potential which there is in being human. We are clearly not inevitable sinners; we cannot excuse our sin by simply saying that we are human. That is in essence the same as saying we are innocent of sin because a personal Satan is to blame. Nobody is doomed to sin- even those who appear to have come from and live within the worst imaginable spiritual environments. We must avoid the tendency “to make sinfulness the distinguishing characteristic of humanness”. If we consciously treat people as “sinners”, this will affect our relationship with them, indeed it affects our own self-understanding; and some people come to act and feel how we perceive them. Israel failed to inherit God’s Kingdom because “We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them” (Num. 13:31-33). Not only was their self-perception negative, paying no attention to the potential within them which God clearly recognized; but they went further and assumed that how they saw themselves was how others saw them. The account of Rahab shows how wrong they were- the Canaanite tribes perceived them to be mighty men with an invincible God behind them. Clearly enough, self-perception is important. And in any case, we aren’t to fear the possible perceptions which others may have of us. Jeremiah and Ezekiel were taught this at the start of their ministries- God told them that He had made them strong, and they were not to “fear their faces, lest I confound you before them” (Jer. 1:17). They weren’t to fear the possible perceptions [“faces”] of others, even amongst their own people; and if they did, then they would become like that perception they feared others had of them.


This fear of others and their perceptions of us is partly linked to pride, but also to lack of faith. Remember that their view of you is only a perception. When we try to summon the courage to raise spiritual things in conversation, be it with believers or unbelievers, we are facing our fears. When we see a believer going astray and it falls to us to say something, again we have the same fears. Dorothy Gish did a large survey of 970 missionaries, and asked what made them to feel stress as they
worked in other cultures. The word and idea which kept surfacing in the majority of responses was “confrontation”- with fellow missionaries, unbelievers, new converts etc. Her work was published in the Journal of Psychology and Theology for 1983, and is available online at
http://www.missionarycare.com/dbFullArticle.asp?articleid=94. In the course of our spiritual work with and for others, confrontation is going to be a major issue. If we are secure in Christ and in the knowledge of His love and acceptance of us, much of the fear is taken out of confrontation; and yet all the same, we need to remember that others’ perceptions are just that, merely perceptions, their seeing just one of many possible pictures of us. And if we are convinced of our experience of Christ’s positive perception of us, then we will not allow their possible perceptions of us to feedback into our own perceptions of ourselves. For the point of reference in our self-perception is not them but the Lord.


Guilt and fear have been understood as “negative reinforcers”- in that human beings change their behaviour patterns in return for reward [positive reinforcement], and also out of fear of negative experiences or feelings, just as physically we will keep away from something which gives us an electric shock or statics us. Human beings don’t like experiencing guilt and fear; and they will try to flee from them. A million false theologies have been built on this. The Bible faces both guilt and fear head on, and indeed seeks to convict sinners of their guilt through a healthy fear of God’s judgment. But we must be aware that people really don’t like guilt or fear; they will pay tithes, attend church meetings, even read the Bible daily, in order to avoid guilt. We need to recognize this and without being overly cynical, ask ourselves whether the groups we are developing are really as committed as they seem. Realizing this fear factor and the psychological dimension to spiritual acts [tithing, church attendance etc.] cushions the blow for us when apparently active believers suddenly turn round and quit. Their fear of guilt and fear was removed or replaced, and so they began to act differently. You may also experience the strong desire from someone you’re working with to confess sins to you, often accompanied with tears. Of course, they should be encouraged to confess sin to God through Christ, and not to us. It seems to me that this desire, which I have so often observed, is because of a desire to reduce guilt feelings. Often the failings confessed aren’t the real failing[s] which might be responsible for the guilt feeling. And the ‘confession’ often doesn’t reduce the actual guilt, all that happens is that the guilt feelings are temporarily reduced. The wonder of a real commitment to Christ in baptism is that the actual guilt is dealt with, not just the guilt feelings.

Some psychologists suggest that guilt is involved in the development of all disorders. Seeing that it is “the poor in spirit” who tend to respond to the Gospel, we find many fresh converts to Christ suffer various disorders. It is beyond us to seriously engage with their actual disorders; but we can usefully explore with them the issue of guilt, the way that baptism is a washing, a cleansing of the conscience (Heb. 10:22); and that the good news of the Gospel is that really, we should be able to say with confidence that if Christ returns at this moment, we will surely be saved into His Kingdom. If we are not making this point up front in our teaching, then all we are doing is teaching someone a form of theology, a set of doctrines, which make them responsible to judgment but give no guarantee of salvation in themselves. Our message can then become actually bad news rather than good news. The good news is not simply that the Kingdom of God shall come on earth at Christ’s soon return; but that we shall we there, by His grace.

There is of course false guilt. Many people suffer hugely because of this. Sources of guilt feelings can include:
• Falling short of others’ or your own expectations.

• Not forgiving yourself

• Being guilt tripped by others, who often unconsciously try to get others to join in their scheme- Martha guilt tripping Mary for not helping enough with the cooking, and seeking to get Jesus involved in the trip, is a classic.
• Oversensitive or dysfunctional conscience. Parts of our conscience are learnt within our upbringing or culture, leading us to feel guilty for some things which aren’t sinful.
• Survivor guilt- feeling guilty that you survived when others did not, or feeling guilty about what you had to do to survive.
 • The experience of temptation can make us feel guilty. But Jesus was perfect despite being tempted in all points like as we are (Heb. 4:15,16).

  • We may confuse guilt with shame. Shame is related to falling short of others’ expectations, that’s all. It may be that in early childhood we were shouted at by our mother one Summer for taking our clothes off and walking naked on the balcony. Perhaps she said: “Shame on you!”. And every time we take our clothes off outside in Summer- we may be tempted to feel shame.

We’ll now consider some specific issues which we’re likely to meet at some time in our ministry to people, both the baptized and unbaptized.

Inter-Personal Conflict

This is probably the most common reason why people leave churches or become merely passive members. The church is a calling together of “all men”- different nationalities, personality types etc. For them all to be together in one entity is really asking for a sociological disaster to happen. And because of human weakness, such disasters do indeed happen, and people end up belonging to a church which suits them, where there are people sufficiently like them for them to feel comfortable- rather than accepting the challenge of putting truth first, and fellowshipping with those who are truly “in Christ” regardless of whatever personality type or background the others have. Severed from the Christ vine, we can do nothing. Those who leave the church altogether because of personality issues typically wither and die spiritually, even though they will not admit this. The basic human social needs, for wantedness, being needed, love, involvement in a group, having a role and part to play, meaningfulness etc. are ideally met in the body of Christ. To refuse a believer a part in it in practice is to therefore sin deeply against them, but likewise to walk out of the body ourselves is to deny ourselves what we are in psychological need for.

On a more personal level, we as preachers and pastoral figures will also find that we instinctively are attracted to some, and suffer distinct dislike for others. We can easily feel guilty that this is the case, but there’s a degree to which this is just normal psychological and sociological process [which, incidentally, the Lord Jesus would’ve likewise experienced, being a man of our nature]. Pavlov wrote much about the ‘conditioning’ of human beings, beginning his work through observing how dogs begin to salivate at the sight or sound of their keeper coming with food.  He went further, to demonstrate that we will instinctively dislike someone who restimulates memories of someone who harmed us, and naturally like someone who appears like another who was good to us.

Dealing with the Past

Inter-personal conflict is related to conflicts within persons. Many of these hinge around lack of resolution of issues in the past. God doesn’t obliterate memory cells, granting amnesia in response to our requests. He Himself doesn’t ‘forget’ the past in this sense, because the Bible is in one sense a history of human sin. The following are some steps in dealing with the past:

1)Thank God for His gifts given. When Joseph told his brothers about how far God had advanced him in Egypt (Gen. 45), this wasn’t bragging, but rather a deep gratitude which had helped him deal with his past. Some are so focused on the damage done to them that they need our assistance in perceiving God’s gifts / grace to them.

2) Recognize that sometimes God doesn’t heal us. Other times, as with Joseph remaining in prison for another two years after he had interpreted the cupbearer’s dream, God delays the time of healing. He knows best.

3) Share the memory with God. This involves returning to the memory of the original event causing the problem. This will arouse the emotions, and they need to surface for them to be healed. Encourage the person to speak and write about the original memory.

4) Replace the hurt with love by forgiving those involved in the painful memory. This forgiveness has to be given unconditionally and irrespective of repentance. The focus then ceases to be on the hurt, but on change and growth.

5) Become thankful for the memory, believing that truly “all things work together for good”. Look for the “good” in the situation. Joseph clearly did this when he comforted his brothers that “You meant it for evil, but God intended it to save lives” (Gen. 50). In this way we can do as Paul said and modelled in 1 Thess. 5: “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus”.

There are many myths about suicide, and the following quotation from another writer should help debunk them:
“• People who talk about suicide never do it—they just want attention. False. Not everyone who talks about suicide actually does it, but most people who commit suicide do tell
someone before doing so—as a cry for help. Any serious statement about suicide is a real danger signal and should not be ignored.
• Adolescents are much more likely to commit suicide than adults. False. The adolescent suicide rate is about the same as adult rates. The people most at risk for suicide are older
males, someone such as the retiring teacher.
• People are more likely to commit suicide around the Christmas holidays, not in the spring of the year (when the school year is ending). False. The holidays have one of the lowest suicide rates, and spring has the highest.
• One should not mention suicide when talking to depressed people because it may give them ideas. False. Such people often have such thoughts already and should be encouraged to express them. In fact, talking about it may discourage people from doing it”.

Sadly many religious groups teach that suicide is sin. But the Bible never explicitly states this, despite having much to say about what constitutes sinful behaviour. That silence is significant. The Biblical examples of suicide (e.g. Judas) are mainly of people who did so as a result of unresolved sin. And that is true in some cases of suicide today- e.g. the immoral Christian businessman who can’t face the shame of his exposure. By teaching and reinforcing that baptism is a washing, a cleansing of the conscience (Heb. 10:22), that we are really saved by grace, we can deal ahead of time with some of the deeper seated reasons as to why some people take their own lives. But we need to accept that suicide can also be part of a wider spectrum of psychological illness, often undiagnosed and carefully hidden from view, both consciously and unconsciously. Job was clearly suicidal, as was Jeremiah, but there is no word of condemnation from God for their suicidal words; indeed, Job clearly has God’s utmost sympathy and acceptance all through his depression. Our view of human nature comes into play in this difficult question; those who are convinced that we are lumps of sin walking around on two legs will likely be more inclined to suicide than those who have been persuaded that we are made in the image of God, with so much spiritual possibility.

The common advice is to “get professional help” for the suicidal; and this is correct. But let us not assume that we have no part to play, and very often in our work there is no professional help available. We have to make a response, no matter how inadequate and unqualified we may be. For some reason, God put us in that person’s path. “Get professional help” can be an excuse for personal inaction in an awkward and demanding situation. On hearing that a person wishes to commit suicide, be careful not to act shocked. It’s important not to swear to secrecy. Be non-judgmental, talk plainly and directly about their suggested suicide, talk about how guilt has been removed in Christ, and how there really are alternatives. Pray with them, and maybe read Bible passages if that’s appropriate and you don’t come over as preaching at them.

The next step is to ask the person how they are going to do it, talk in as much detail as possible about the practicalities. We become fully conscious of our intentions only when we are explaining them to others. And one study claims that people who attempted unsuccessful suicides often report that at the last moment, as they plunged downwards or swallowed the tablets, there was the strong sense that “this is not a good idea”. Maybe share that fact with them. If they still appear set on their plan, then play for time, and try to make some kind of agreement with the person. You may think this is all just not worth the effort- but apart from your duty to follow God’s call to help the person, even from a more human motivation, realize that if the person does commit suicide, you will likely struggle with guilt issues if you’ve not done all you can for them. Remember that people harm themselves in ways other than suicide; if you manage to talk them out of it, it’s likely they may well engage in other self-damaging behaviours. They need help, and you have a part to play in providing it.

So try to get at the minimum a verbal commitment not to harm themselves; try to get them to see that their life is valuable to you, as well as to God. Ideally, try to get them to sign an agreement with you that they will not do it. After this, try to practically ensure that they aren’t left alone- and keep in contact. Even long afterwards, remember that whilst they haven’t committed suicide, they are likely to be involved in other forms of self-harm. Nothing happens by chance in our lives, no meeting, no encounter with any situation. You were there for a reason.


If you truly get involved with caring for people, sooner or later you will encounter people struggling with the loss of loved ones. There seem to be various stages to the bereavement process, and problems occur when a person gets caught up on one of the stages, even for years. The grieving process is wonderfully natural, and clearly designed by God- as natural as young single people falling in love and getting married. The problem is when that natural process isn’t followed by us, for whatever reason. The approximate stages of the process are as follows:

-          Initial shock

-          A period of anger and the need for support from others.

-          A more intense period of grieving, often involving despair, withdrawal and disorganization.

-          A period of recovery leading to the resumption of normal life.

When there is no support network- perhaps from physical isolation or the loss of family and friends due to conversion to Christ or other reasons- then the anger can remain, for years. At this point we ought to be able to provide at least a shoulder to cry on, perhaps over a period of time until this phase is finished. If there is aggression rather than support- e.g. “she died because she left the faith”- then the anger may continue. The anger isn’t simply because of hard words which were said- it’s the anger of the “anger” stage of grieving which hasn’t been passed through. Whilst Paul urges us not to grieve with the same grief as those who have no hope of resurrection (1 Thess. 4:13), this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t grieve. It can be that grief is felt to be a lack of faith; this is wrong. That belief can make the grieving process dysfunctional, and long term anger and withdrawal are the result. Our role for others is to try to ensure that the grieving process functions, and progressions are made between the stages; and where possible to try to arrange someone to keep an eye on the bereaved person if we are unable to. It may also need to be noted that grief is natural and there’s nothing wrong with it- Jesus Himself wept over the death of Lazarus, and there are many Biblical examples of grieving. Suppressing the grief emotion, maybe from pride or pressure from others, is unnatural and likely to cause major harm.

Bereavement and the Unbaptized

This is also a situation you’re likely to encounter, sooner or later. Because we have a heart for people and want to say the kindest thing, the temptation is to tell the grieving what they want to hear- that all will be eternally well for the unbaptized loved one whom they have lost. The same desire leads some churchmen to assure the grieving that the lost is now in Heaven in bliss- an idea totally foreign to the Scriptures. We are not the Saviour, and it’s not for us to say who outside of Christ may be saved. Salvation is “in Christ”, hence the connection between baptism and salvation. There are many things which we may wish God would do differently. Why did David and Bathsheba’s first child die, why... so many things. The fact God is God and we are mere men means that we will not ever get answers to these questions, nor should we have the arrogance to assume that we are on His level, and therefore could possibly understand. We are to live by faith, and faith involves faith in God’s ultimate rightness even if we do not perceive it. As the grieving process works through, the bereaved may well become angry that you tried to comfort them with a hope which isn’t Biblical. Admittedly each of us must come to our own understanding of the reference in 1 Cor. 7:14 to the children of believers being “holy” in the same way as an unbelieving partner is “holy”; but whatever it means, it can’t mean that some people get to salvation simply by reason of having the right partner or parent. The context appears to be talking about the nature of the relationship, rather than future salvation.

It’s better to admit to the bereaved in these cases that you struggle with God over it, you don’t have the answers, His ways are past finding out- and that you realize that you’re not coming out with any great words of comfort in the sense of a future hope. But our efforts at comfort are directed really at the feelings of the bereaved, seeing we cannot resurrect the dead; and sometimes simply demonstrating that you are feeling for them in the early stages of grief, maybe buying a simple present for them, and saying few words, is what’s most effective. More rational discussion about God’s ethics and possibilities is more appropriate for later in the grieving process.


About 1 in 5 women and 1 in 10 men experience clinical depression at some time in their lives. Clearly David, Job, Elijah and Jeremiah were seriously depressive people whom we meet in the Bible. Depression isn’t a sin, it’s a common feature of human life. Many of the famous 19th century missionaries to Africa and Asia were depressive. There is often the feeling amongst Christians that counselling is unnecessary and we should be able to get direct help from God if we believed strongly enough. But the Bible talks a lot about the need for fellowship, of having many counsellors or close spiritual friends (Prov. 11:14; 12:15; 13:10; 15:22; 20:18; 24:6). Our need to see counsellors is therefore normal and actually is assumed within Proverbs. It’s simply that our modern society has left many so lonely and unattached that they need to select a specific person called a “counsellor” to go visit.

Images of God

“Cognitive therapy” proposes that psychological problems come from faulty learning, drawing incorrect conclusions from too little or wrong information, and not distinguishing adequately between imagination and reality. Disorders can be treated by sharpening discriminations, correcting misconceptions, and learning more adaptive attitude. This very “intellectual” approach has had some success- e.g. in highly consciously focusing upon statements like “I’m afraid of dogs, they always bite me” or “I can no longer drive”. People who have “all or none” problems, assuming the house will flood because one tap is slightly leaking into the bath tub, are likely to be helped by this approach. These types ignore good events and focus on bad ones. It’s my suggestion that in spiritual terms, we tend to all be in this category. The New Testament on every page impresses upon us the reality of God’s grace and the certainty of ultimate salvation for those “in Christ”. But we tend to selectively perceive all that encouragement, focusing on the negatives of our present sinful experience rather than those positives. The Bible and the truth, the ultimate truth, of the Gospel surely provide the required “cognitive therapy”- if we allow God’s words their due weight.

Many Christians have incorrect images of God, and these lead to a poor relationship with Him. (The same is true for images of Jesus- see “Images of Jesus” in The Real Christ ). Some of the false images come from distortions of His attributes, while others are a matter of
thinking about God as people think about their parents. This was particularly emphasized by Freud. If the father figure in a family was absent and only indirectly involved with the children, then God tends to be seen the same way; hence many matriarchal families tend to be Roman Catholic, because exactly such a view of God is generally experienced in that religion. Those who see God as keeping a record of wrongs and seeking to punish them heavily will tend to have had father figures like that; the child of an angry father who went into a rage of beating with his children will likely believe in “hell” as a place of torment for sin, rather than simply as the grave. They will also tend to see every negative experience in life as God’s punishment, and will earnestly worry what sin they had committed which resulted in that suffering. All this takes time and patience to reprogram, and some people never “get it” emotionally, even if they do in theory.

Father figures who were sometimes absent and unpredictable in behaviour also have a strong influence upon how people perceive God. The most common wrong image seems to be that God is occasionally involved in our lives, but then indifferent; sometimes He doesn’t judge sin, other times He as it were lashes out for what seems a minor offence. Others with different parents see God as someone who will not punish any sin, and whom they expect to pamper us- just as their parents never punished them and pampered them. These types often tend to become universalists, believing God will save everyone and that sin is no big deal for Him. The justice of God becomes a minor issue, and thus the message of the cross is devalued.

Others feel that “God” isn’t a personal being, just a force or energy. They have depersonalized God in the same way as perhaps their parents weren’t functional, real persons to them, simply providers of what was required, the “energy” to get through their childhood.

We must ever be aware that we are made in God’s image. Our understanding of Him has implications for our self understanding. If we are truly in His personal image, then we will perceive the value and meaning of persons; not cursing men who are made in God’s image (James 3:9), whether believer or unbeliever. This understanding guards against a tendency in some to despise unbelievers and treat them as less than human.