Counseling the Fainthearted

John Street | May 5, 2015

A look at the greatness of our Savior God provides a necessary perspective for biblical help for fainthearted Christians (cf. Isaiah 9:6; 11:1; 28:29; 40:10–11).

If you are going to be a pastor who practices caring, loving counsel, you need to be like your Savior. You are not going to just preach from the pulpit. You are going to work with people; you are going to exposit the Word of God on a one-on-one basis and help them with serious problems.

Of course, pastoral counseling is more than just confronting sin; you must also be proficient in comforting those who suffer physically and emotionally—those with substantial difficulties like the lonely widow in your congregation who deeply grieves the loss of her beloved husband; the brutalized wife who was beaten, punched, and battered by her drunken husband; the girl in your youth group who was raped by a gang of boys at her school; the Christian man in your church who fears being fired for uncovering dishonest practices in the company; the middle-aged single mom who suffers from severe depression and has to hold down two jobs and raise three teenagers because her husband ran off with another woman; or the Christian couple who fears their unsaved parents will report them to the authorities for spanking their children.

These are true-to-life scenarios that will require an undershepherd who is willing to tenderly counsel his flock. As a minister of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, you too will be called upon to shepherd God’s people through similar life experiences.

It is precisely here that well-learned theology and biblical languages become most valuable assets as you seek to minister the Word to the downtrodden and fainthearted. I remember when I was in seminary getting really excited about what I was learning in classes, the books I was reading, and papers I was writing. I would come home to my wife and say, “Hey, I’ve just got to share this with you. Listen to this!” She very patiently listened as I read to her, and at the end of it she would always smile and say, “That is really good, John, but what does that mean in terms of everyday life?” “Uh … I don’t know; let me work on that a little bit.” How does that change my practical walk with Christ? Good question!

The focus of our study is 1 Thess 5:12–15. Here the apostle Paul mentions the importance of ministry to the “fainthearted”:

But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Live in peace with one another. We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone. See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people.

Notice three imperative clauses (verse 14); especially the middle clause, “encourage the fainthearted.” Two specific questions will help us understand how we are to fulfill Paul’s command toward those who are fainthearted.

Who Are the Fainthearted?

The etymological root idea of the word for “fainthearted” means to be little or puny of soul (oligopsuchos), when a person is little-souled or puny-souled. There is something constricting the soul that is causing it to be small.

Such a person has only a small amount of room for faith, or trust, and as a result, they lack courage. They lack fortitude of soul. This is a characteristic of a melancholy heart. Historically, what is today typically labeled “depression,” Christians of earlier times referred to as sloth; in the Middle Ages it became called melancholia.

The word translated “fainthearted” describes the person who has a limited, or a severely limited or diminished, motivation or capacity to achieve a particular goal. Now that diminished motivation can be caused by fear; it could be caused by overwhelming grief due to a loss, significant despondency or depression. A small-souled Christian will give up easily because they have a severely limited capacity to handle the hardships of life and will need the careful, caring help of another believer.

The three descriptions of people in verse 14 (“unruly,” “fainthearted,” “weak”) should not be thought of as merely categorizing three distinct types of people. A more comprehensive and potentially helpful analysis views this text as descriptive of one of three possible ways any one individual can be at any particular time in their life. At one point a person can be unruly, at another fainthearted, another weak.

During the counseling process there are points at which your counselee will need admonition if they are unruly; they may need encouragement if they are fainthearted; sometimes they will need help if they are weak. So to be a good counselor you must do more than exegete the Scripture well; you have to exegete people well. You must be wise with people, understanding where they are coming from.

That was one of the areas that I was most weak in when I graduated from seminary. I think that I was fairly well trained in biblical languages and theology and historical theology. But when it came to working with people with real problems I was sorely deficient.

The term that is used for “fainthearted” is a general term that resists the narrow definition of modern psychiatric labels, but it does describe a person with a low motivation in fulfilling certain God-given responsibilities due to laziness or fear. That is the reason some Bible versions translate this word as “timid.”

For example, a Christian wife may say to you, “I don’t want to go home to my husband. He is so angry with me all the time!” You may have a man in your congregation say, “I don’t want to be married to her any longer. She is such a controlling and critical person. I am tired of it! Do you realize what I have to put up with?”

Little-souled Christians lack motivation to move forward. It is much like training your child to ride a two-wheeled bike. The child is really afraid to ride without training wheels, or without you holding onto the back of the bike. Such a person is fainthearted. They are tentative. They are fearful. They find it hard to move forward because there is not a lot of room in their soul to trust God, not a lot of room for faith. Further, this person feels or even fears that their physical resources are insufficient to complete the task or face the trouble, which in and of itself from a theological standpoint is a lie that they believe.

Because of this false assumption, their reluctance forces them to play it safe and sometimes to actually withdraw into a protective shell. They don’t want to take any risks. They believe that if they did, there would be a miserable consequence and they are not willing to risk that. They are timid or fainthearted.

This could also include people who may have lost heart, are discouraged, despondent, depressed, fearful, anxious, and cowardly. Maybe they have already suffered some type of physical or emotional pain or a loss for a sustained period of time that has resulted in some kind of physiological downturn of severe depression or despondency.

What is the Counsel?

Ministry to the fainthearted should come in the form of encouraging, cheering up, refreshing up, and consoling them with the Word and the gospel.

Paramathuomi is the term that is used here in 1 Thess 5:14, and it carries the idea to cheer up, to refresh, to console. It really has a very broad semantic range as well. It involves giving another person motivation to move on, to fulfill a goal. In fact it is used in John 11:19 and 31 as well to speak of the Jews who sought to comfort Mary and Martha after the death of their brother. So it is obvious in the first century that this particular term is used to speak of those who are especially grieving.

You will encounter this many, many times in your ministry as you stand by the bed of a loved one in your church who is slipping into eternity. You will have the distinct privilege to walk them into heaven—that is a good thing. But then you have to help the family, friends, and extended relatives that are present, grieving their loss. That is our word—paramathomi.

In 1 Thess 2:11 this word describes the Apostle Paul as one exhorting, encouraging, and imploring. In other words, Paul set himself as an example to follow in terms of this encouragement for the elders and the members of the church. In essence he said, “I did this when I was among you. It’s up to you do the same thing.” A very practical meaning of this term is to come close to someone’s side and speak in a friendly manner; to speak in a way to come around someone to do what ought to be done, to encourage them, to strengthen them, to comfort them.

This is what the believers should have been doing in terms of fulfilling their responsibility that they currently had very little motivation to do. Paul was encouraging them to be faithful, to get back in the fight, to not withdraw. They were to trust Christ even more. And this is what you will do as well—encourage faithfulness and help the down-trodden.

Counseling Conclusions

When a member is experiencing severe grief or depression they will describe themselves as numb and without feeling. They do not feel anything that would be sufficient to motivate them to do anything worthwhile. In other words, they are describing the fact that their soul feels dead. I know some of men have talked with me about their own lives—talked about the struggles they had with depression in the past. They feel totally numb. Their soul feels dead, lifeless.

The question always comes up: “How do you know if this problem is biological? How do you know?” Maybe there is a physiological problem going on that really caused this. I am compelled to address this question here because it always comes up in my classes. If you are working with someone in your congregation who persists in depression, you need to counsel them to have a medical checkup.

They may need a checkup for these reasons: if there is rapid onset of severe or fearful panics of depression, then they need a medical checkup. If there is a lack of significant loss or traumatic event and yet they are still slipping into smallness of soul. If there is extreme fluctuation of emotion—when moodiness, fear or depression is not typical, and yet the complaints persist. If there are sensory accusatory hallucinations or inexplicable delusions. If the person is of advanced age, or perhaps there is consistency in trying to follow a biblical lifestyle but symptoms still persist. If there is a use of prescription or over-the-counter drugs that have depressive side effects, then this person needs to see a medical doctor. Not a psychiatrist—a medical doctor. The real problems, not supposed psychological problems, need to be treated.

The Grace of the Gospel

Strengthen the fainthearted in the faith by recalling the grace of the gospel that both saves and sustains the Christian through the worst of times. It is the gospel that both saves them and sustains them. When you have people living at the foot of the cross they are able to look up and remember the Savior hanging there, and they say to themselves, “I should be hanging there but I am not.” This changes their whole perspective on life, no matter what it is they are going through.

The Mercy and Love of Christ

Show them the mercy and the love of Christ and as you do, seek to understand their suffering and pain. Paul did that and he was able to do that with tears. Encourage their faith with the sovereign care of the Lord for His people. Paul does that again in 1 Thess 4:13–18. In fact he talks about the second coming in vivid terms and in verse 18 he entreats them to comfort one another with those words. And in 5:11 he further appeals to them to “encourage one another and build one another up just as you are always doing.” So, men, encourage their faith in the sovereign care of our Lord for His people. He will come again, and He will set every injustice right, every one.

Persevere in Your Pastoral Care

You must not give up on the fainthearted. I implore you, as Paul did, to persevere in your pastoral care. Be patient with everyone (5:14). One pastoral counselor said this, “The typical pattern for those who help is that they begin with the spurt of loving and encouraging energy almost as if their enthusiasm and comfort will revive the person who is depressed; but when they see that their words and deeds go underappreciated or at least are ineffective, they begin to back away.”

Sometimes those who try to comfort others notice that the depression becomes contagious. They begin to feel depressed after spending the afternoon with the fainthearted! Paul no doubt experienced some of that in his ministry, because he charged the believers to be patient with everybody, and especially the fainthearted who try to convince you there is no hope.

But it’s not true! Praise God—there is help for the fainthearted

This article is adapted from Dr. Street’s TMS Journal article entitled “Counseling the Fainthearted.”

John Street avatar
John Street is a Faculty Associate in the Pastoral Ministries Department at TMS. He teaches biblical counseling at TMU and is the chair of their MABC. He also serves as the pastor of Joint Heirs, a fellowship group at Grace Community Church.

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