"First Principles of Soul Care"
September 5, 1999
Our gospel text is so worn with familiarity that we are in danger of assuming that we already know all that can be known from this passage. Because Scripture is a living word, we should guard our hearts against such presumption—we can come to Scripture open, and each time we can received a powerful, revelatory word. So today, we are to focus on the problem of the "expert in the law" who (v. 29) "wanted to justify himself." There was nothing wrong with his head knowledge (he knew what the Law stated about loving the Lord your God and about loving your neighbor). He also saw quickly the point of Jesus’ parable about the connection between mercy and neighborliness. However, in his heart, this man struggled with self-justification. He is not alone in that.
Martin Luther commenting on the verses from our text (Romans 15:1-7), exclaimed, "Take care if you only desire to worthy, perfect and sensible folk." Every rock in this stream whether it be the desire to be worthy, perfect, or sensible is a slippery one! And many are those who fall off one or the other. The theme of self-justification is contained in the word "only." If you only desire to look after your own spiritual condition, you will be derelict in the matter of soul care—you will be lacking in love. "We then who are strong ought to bear with the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves." We are not here to please ourselves. (If you would care to examine our statement of purpose on the bulletin, you would find it significantly other directed—towards God, fellow believers, and outsiders.) Luther brings this point home forcefully: "If your mother had not loved you, in your stench, enough to clean you up—you would have died in your mess." Soul care, particularly when it involves new believers and/or immature believers, frequently is a stinky business and, frankly, the messiness of life is not limited to just the new and immature. This is the first principle of soul care. Sometimes the mess involves those who should know better who have fallen into sin through carelessness, weakness and/or deliberate rebellion. Yes, mature Christians should know better but we would not have been taught to pray regularly about temptation ("lead us not into temptation") and about deliverance from the Evil One ("but deliver us from evil") if these were not the pilgrim’s perennial concern.
Love demands that we bear with one another’s mess. Those who are on shore should extend help to those still in the river! The strong, the spiritually balanced at any given moment, are to reach out and to assist those who have lost their balance, or their bearings. As Paul wrote in Romans 14:7: "No one lives to oneself." Again, Luther comments powerfully on this writing, "Woe to those who, although steeped in filth (themselves) inveigh against (or, sit in judgment over, condemning) others for what one (that is, a third party) has done to them." What Luther is touching on here is the second principle of soul care—when loving others, especially those in spiritual distress, remember that they have a history, and that they, like us, have a vicious adversary. The man, who fell among thieves, was the victim of crime and violence. Unless he is a saint, there is a strong probability that he will be wracked with anger, resentment and bitterness on his road to recovery. The unexpected kindness of a stranger, who also happened to a Samaritan, and who proved a better neighbor than those you might have expected to be kind to him (i.e. the priest and the Levite), that mercy is also a part of the man’s history. Will anger, or forgiveness prevail in that man’s life? We don’t know. Appropriate soul care will, however, increase the odds that forgiveness might prevail. Those who acknowledge that they are sinners, indeed that they have sinned in their lives sometimes as a consequence, or as a response to having been sinned against, will not hesitate to get involved with their neighbors distress because it is messy, or dangerous. It may sound harsh, but the man who nearly died, nearly died because he fell into the hands of several bands robbers—the first wanted his money, the second band consisted of religious folk who robbed him of mercy, compassion and care. They were more concerned to be "worthy, perfect and sensible folk."
How we take the parables of Jesus depends somewhat upon whom we identify with in the parable. This is a weaker principle of interpretation than, say, seeking to understand what the parable has to say as a whole, and in context, but before we move on, it may be important to note that most of us are more comfortable seeing ourselves as victims, or as rescuers. Few of us are comfortable with the discomforting thought that we might better see ourselves as the avoiders, or, worse, as those caught up in self-justification like the expert in the law. However, there are still deeper levels of disclosure available to us if we are willing to humble ourselves like…
One who in Proverbs 30:2—3 exclaims:
Surely I am more stupid than any man,
And do not have the understanding of a man.
I neither have learned wisdom
Nor have knowledge of the Holy One.
Or the psalmist (Psalm 73.22):
I was so foolish and ignorant,
I was like a beast before You.
And the prophet Jeremiah (10:14--15):
Everyone is dull-hearted, without knowledge
Every metalsmith is put to shame by an image;
For his molded image is falsehood,
There is no breath in them.
They are futile, a work of errors;
In the time of their punishment they shall perish.
The application of these verses from Jeremiah is as follows: we are like metal smiths in that we construct a self-image, a sense of who we are, which can function very much as the idols that Jeremiah has directly in mind. Our self-concept is like a little metal icon (our "ideal" self), fabricated in falsehood (in the presumption of self-knowledge) which has no breath-it is lifeless. Furthermore, such maneuvering (I’m a rescuer, a victim, a good person) is futile. We are not who we think we are, rather we are who we are in relationship to God. It is our interpersonal interaction with God that gives us a sense of personhood, identity and direction—we are spiritual beings in the making, our trajectory is heaven. What we leave behind is nothing to us, rather we focus on what lies ahead. The soul work we engage in now is preparation for that eternity!
The third principle of soul care is this: the practitioner of soul care needs humility! Yes, soul care is stinky business. Yes, we need to remember that everyone comes to us with a history. And we need to openly acknowledge that we are utterly dependent upon God for the wisdom He provides regarding who we are, and who they are. We must guard against the tendency of self-justification to wrap itself up in our personal identity. The antidote is humility and a readiness to turn to God for guidance, insight, wisdom.
Having said this, I should probably state the obvious: church is the locus of soul care in the life of a Christian. Here is where we are to practice soul care under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It is painful and cost work.
We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and
not to please ourselves. Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For even Christ did not please Himself . . .(vv. 1—3)
Moses was great intercessor with God, who owned the sins of the people he served as his own. To be sure, he was tempted at times to let them face the music they so richly deserved. However, he so highly revered the reputation of his God that he dared to take on himself God’s wrath lest the nations mock God saying that he delivered them out of bondage in order to destroy them. Of course, we now see how truly that people actually destroyed themselves. But the sin and rebellion of that people would be glossed over by god-haters who want to portray God as fickle, unpredictable—not merciful, patient and long-suffering. Similarly, Paul (2 Cor. 11: 28—29) bears with the weaknesses of church people:
Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the
churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?
Paul elevates the pain of his "deep concern for all the churches"—their weaknesses and sins—above all his other afflictions. At least that is the import of his placing that concern at the climax of a passage regarding his sufferings. He places pastoral concern above beatings, a stoning, three ship wrecks and being adrift for over 24 hours as a source of suffering.
The Apostle Paul also brackets church discipline with "bearing each others’ burdens" in Galatians 6:1-3:
Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you may also be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.
That "law of Christ" is the law of love. And love is to govern the rules of engagement. Friends, there can be no walking by, pretending not to notice. Nor is this a matter of pride, or of holding others in contempt, rather soul care is loving engagement—meeting the sinning party in his/her mess in the hopes of recovery. We are servants of one another. We are concerned for those who are overwhelmed, or incapacitated. If we happen to be more stable, if we happen to be more respectable, or spiritual, or whole—it is all by the grace of God and for the sake of others! So we are to lovingly extend our respectability to cover those who, for whatever reason, are unable at this time to hide their shame over marital struggles, excessive drinking, a driving violation, mental illness, out of control children—or any other difficult, dishonoring struggle. And when we do, love covering a multitude of sins, the whole body is respectable. And that, rather than personal respectability, should be our compelling concern. The danger here is that Christians may become too self-satisfied, too inwardly focused and individualistic, smug and indifferent and so like the expert in the law who was aloof, unloving and seeking to justify himself.
Okay, so the church is the place where Christians practice soul care. It is a painful and costly business.
ü That we be determined not to look after just our own spiritual condition
ü That we remind ourselves regularly of the histories of opposition we all have
ü That we cultivate humility regarding self-knowledge and reliance on God for wisdom
ü That we imitate Moses and Paul as strong examples of intercessors at work5.
ü That we engage rather than detach as the Christian way of life
Is there anything other than the command of Christ to convince us that we should practice soul care? Admittedly, the command of Christ is sufficient ground to compel obedience. Yes. There is the matter of personal and spiritual fulfillment. Many, many things that fill our days happily slip into the seas of oblivion. But what we do in the arena of soul care will provide the stuff of our best memories! This is real food, and real drink. This is what makes life worthwhile, satisfying, fulfilling. Risky, yes. But isn’t it wonderful to know what we’re for? Isn’t it even more wonderful to show others where the real stuff is?! Let’s get to it.