Don’t Admonish the Fainthearted

Some thoughts on listening well and responding wisely
by Thomas Dutton

When you boil it down, a large part of discipleship is hearing and speaking. Trying to listen compassionately, trying to say the right thing at the right time. For a long time, my general rule of thumb in one-on-one or small group settings had been to think what would I need to hear? and then offer my best answer to the person sharing. I thought of this as a sort of application of the Golden Rule. This approach was challenged when Emily Stiving drew my attention to a verse in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians that now haunts me: And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all (1 Thessalonians 5:14, ESV).

My own story involves a hearty share of idleness—I needed (and need regularly) to be admonished. But not the guy in front of me. Or at least, maybe not. What does he need? Well, before I admonish, encourage, or help, I’d better get an idea of whether this man is idle, fainthearted, or weak. What does that mean? For one, it means I need to learn a lot about this brother before I try to offer what I think he needs to hear. How do I do this? For starters, I heed the famous advice offered in another new testament letter: Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger (James 1:19, ESV).

Quick to hear. I should not jump on the chance to get a word in. I should jump on the chance to hear more about the person I’m caring for. I should jump on the chance to ask another question, to clarify what I’m hearing, to listen to more than words, considering tone and body language and volume. To affirm feelings of grief or hurt, to audibly encourage him and let him know that he can keep sharing, this is a safe place. To stop when something heavy is shared and let it sink in in silence.

Slow to speak. Not until all of this has been done should I consider speaking. And I shouldn’t ask myself the question what would I need to hear? but instead what does he need to hear? Is he idle, does he need admonishment? If so, how can I say it in a way that will land but not land in an open wound? Is he fainthearted, does he need encouraged? If so, how can I offer encouragement that is real, true, and honest? Is he weak, does he need help? If so, what can I offer right now and when will I follow up on this? If I can’t answer these questions, I need to be slower to speak. I need to listen more. I need to ask another question.

Be patient with them all. Paul gives one command that’s not dependent on who is sitting across from me: patience. I need to be patient when someone doesn’t know how to articulate his feelings, or doesn’t feel comfortable sharing about an experience, or says the same thing over and over, or doesn’t frame his spiritual life in the same way I do. I need to be patient when it takes weeks to get to what I wanted to get to in hours.

This shift in my thinking, while it has been enlightening and helpful, has also brought great fear. What if I, like Job’s friends, admonish the fainthearted? You can read it for yourself, cringe at how out of touch they are, and mourn that Job had to sit through it. I must seek to combat this fear, like we do with so many fears, with trust. I must remember that it is not my diagnosis and reaction to the person across from me that will be comforting or encouraging or helpful. It is God and God alone at work. So I have the freedom to seek to care and understand as best I can, yet in the midst of this I must hear and believe the wisdom of Solomon: Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding (Proverbs 3:5, ESV).

by Thomas Dutton