Michael Emlet has brought his biblical wisdom and counselling skills together to create this fantastic resource for those who want to pastorally care in a balanced and nuanced way (which hopefully means all of us). Whether we minister to others in our personal circles, our ministry, or in a more formal counselling space, Emlet provides a short yet comprehensive way to consider our approach to people and the complexity of their lives.
His first book CrossTalk introduced the idea of people as saints, sufferers and sinners, and this develops that concept in more depth.
He proposes that all people are fundamentally dealing with two main issues:
- They struggle with identity and are asking ‘what is my purpose?’
- They struggle with evil—both from without (suffering) and that from within (sin).
God comes to his people recognising all three:
Scripture reveals that God ministers to his people as:
- Saints who need confirmation of their identity as children of God,
- Sufferers who need comfort in the midst of their affliction, and
- Sinners who need a challenge to their sin in light of God’s redemptive mercies
And indeed Jesus is the ultimate saint, sufferer and ‘sinner’ (in that he took our place for sin).
While Emlet mainly applies this book to believers, he notes its relevance to unbelievers as well, requiring thought and skill on behalf of the counsellor to adapt it appropriately:
So, while the fundamental experiences of wrestling with one’s identity, enduring bodily, relational, and situational suffering, and struggling with sin are universal problems, the specific contours of ministry will differ between believers and unbelievers as we employ the biblical categories of saint, sufferer, and sinner.
Then he turns to each category—saint, sinner, sufferer—in detail, with the same chapter format for all three:
- Scripture speaks to saints / sufferers / sinners (s…)
- How God loves s… (a biblical example)
- Ministry priorities for loving s…
- How we love s… (everyday examples)
- How we love s… (counselling examples)
- Barriers to loving others as s…
In almost every case, Emlet encourages us to start with people as saints. Consider the good, consider how God is at work in them.
In almost every case, Emlet encourages us to start with people as saints. Consider the good; consider how God is at work in them. Our identity is shaped by our relationship with God, and so our designation as saint is more foundational than sufferer or sinner:
Ongoing struggle with suffering or with sin must be understood in this basic context of our new identity as children of the living God. We are saints who suffer. We are saints who sin. But we are saints nonetheless at our core.
It’s an issue of ministry priority—what does this person most need to hear right now? I find that many people—particularly those who are discouraged, anxious, and depressed—have trouble noting the good that God has been up to in their lives. In that sense, I am acting as a signpost for them that points out, ‘You are a beloved saint and I see God’s grace here!’
Counselling is hard work. It involves a deep dive into the particulars of suffering and sin in the context of a trusting relationship. In the midst of talking about all that is not right, it’s important to surface for air and gain fresh gospel perspective. Sometimes all the person (and the counsellor!) can see are the problems at hand. Because of this, I make it a priority in every session to highlight some evidence of God’s grace I see in my counsellees’ lives. They need that encouragement just as much as you and I need that regular encouragement.
With regard to sufferers, he directs us to our Saviour ‘with whom we are united, both in his suffering and his comfort.’ So we do not shy away from the reality of suffering, nor do we minimise it.
‘Groaning until glory’ is actually a biblical description of the Christian life. The suffering of God’s people is front and centre throughout Scripture. But also highlighted is God’s comfort to his people in the particular moments of their suffering, as well as his promise to bring an end to all suffering, ultimately through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Ministry to those who are suffering is difficult. It often taxes our own faith and emotional strength to listen to stories of great affliction and misery, particularly in the midst of our own trials. How can we console others when we are so often in need of consolation ourselves? We do share in the sufferings of Christ, but the apostle Paul makes it clear that we also share in Christ’s comfort.
Moving to the category of sinners, he acknowledges that we are saints who struggle with the ongoing presence of sin:
Even though the power of sin has been broken and the penalty for sin has been paid for us in Jesus Christ, continued wrestling with sin—war between flesh and Spirit—characterises our lives in the time between Jesus’s resurrection and his return.
We encourage sinners to see they are loved by a Holy God, who can enable change and growth:
In both the Old and New Testament, a clarion call for God’s people to live holy lives is always undergirded and motivated by the relational bond of love that exists between God and his people.
Celebrating the good you see in someone’s life and being honest about problems you observe are both essential because they keep God in the picture. But as you minister to believers, never forget that their baseline identity in Christ means that you expect to see the fruit of the Spirit in their lives.
These chapters were biblical, wise, logically structured, and easy to read and digest.
All of these chapters were biblical, wise, logically structured, and easy to read and digest. The list of barriers to loving others was particularly insightful for helping us consider why we might find it hard to encourage saints, recognise suffering, or challenge sin. My only issue was that I wanted more detail in some areas.
Emlet finishes with exploring what balance looks like as we hold the triad of saint, sufferer and sinner together. He explores the risks when we overemphasise one over the other. These were multi-faceted, including how we may minimise wrongdoing and responsibility, view ourselves primarily as victims and live without hope, or focus on rules and following laws rather than our relationship with God.
Ministering wisely means that we hold all three aspects of human experience together even if at a given point in time, we focus on one because that is most needful for the person in front of us.
He leaves the reader with the hope and promise of the day to come when we will only be saints, no longer sufferers or sinners.
This is an excellent book for anyone wanting to love and counsel others in a well-rounded, biblically grounded, caring way that desires growth and change in the context of a living relationship with our saviour God.