When Sarah’s mother passed away it stirred up in her all kinds of fear and anxiety. She had been living with her mom now for almost thirty years and depended on her for a lot of things. Suddenly she was going to have to be responsible for her whole life. I could have pointed out her failures to be prepared for this moment, I could have indicated that she needed to grow up a long time ago, but none of that really seemed helpful at the time. She was anxious, but her anxiety seemed more related to suffering and sorrow than blatant sin. She was a sinner and there were aspects of sin involved in her responses, no doubt, but in order to really be helpful I needed to take into consideration her context. A failure to consider context means we will misunderstand the counselee and we will misapply counsel.
“The heart was designed to be influenced by everything around it,” says Jeremy Pierre, “and understanding that fact is vital to helping people understand their experience” (The Dynamic Heart in Daily Life, 89). While our cultural contexts, upbringing, and life situations are not determinative of our responses, they are influential. I can’t blame my situation for my sin, but neither can I ignore it. In Sarah’s case, the shock of losing her mother had presented her with all kinds of scenarios where anxiety was a real temptation. Damian had similar contributing factors to his anxiety. He worked a high stress job, with lots of responsibilities, and for a boss who was an extreme micromanager. His anxiety was, of course, related to his choices and desires, but to ignore his context as if it has no bearing on his emotional struggle would be to naïve at best. Our context does play a role in influencing our hearts and tempting us to respond in certain ways. Good counselors want to consider carefully those contexts as we seek to give real help. Apart from this we will misapply our counsel.
Simplistic or trite answers fail to consider the whole picture. Kelsey, for example, lives with an unbelieving spouse. The way he views the world and the values he upholds are sometimes polar opposite of her views and values. Helping her with parenting issues meant taking into consideration the limitations of being married to an ungodly husband. Often we spoke with her about implementing specific disciplines with her kids that would be undermined by her husband at home. She was feeling defeated and discouraged. We realized that we were going to have to shift our counsel because her context was different. She still needed to strive to be a godly parent and help her kids learn obedience and godliness, but she was going to have to do that in ways that didn’t outright disrespect her husband and which admitted the limitations of her influence at home. If we had not considered her context she would have felt increasingly like a failure, like a bad parent, like a bad Christian even. Her context meant offering more nuanced help.
Misguided counsel will emphasize one part of the picture over the other parts. So, in Kelsey’s case we could have continued to emphasize the need for her to raise up her children in the fear and admonition of the Lord. That is something she is called to do. But if we had not considered the context we would have routinely been pointing to this failure and missing the opportunity to give her guidance in her struggle with an unbelieving spouse. In Sarah’s case we could have focused on how anxiety is sinful, and urged her to trust God more, but failed to help her make a strategic plan for her life. Our answers would have emphasized sin, but ignored suffering. We are all, at one and the same time, both sufferers and sinners, but often one or the other theme needs to be emphasized. Context can help a good counselor know which theme to emphasize in approaching the situation. In many of these sample cases suffering was the emphasis, not sin. In other cases sin will need to be emphasized.
Our external conditions are a given, they are beyond our control. Yet, we must recognize how these conditions influence us and affect us, impressing upon us a certain view of the world, and cultivating certain beliefs, values, and assumptions in us. Good counselors will want to pay attention to contexts in order to help people see how these contexts are contributing to their struggles or tempting them to adopt false beliefs and values about them. In other words, contexts help us understand our counselees and help them understand themselves. Dr. Pierre notes:
The second part of the trajectory of influence is passive dynamic effects: the imprint that external conditions make on the heart’s beliefs, values, and intentions. They are passive in that the external influence exerts itself onto people, shaping their perception of the world imperceptibly and often without voluntary reception. A child growing up in poverty, for instance, will function from a different set of assumptions about the world than one born into wealth. These different assumptions are given, not voluntarily constructed. (90)
The words and behaviors of others, and the conditions in which we live, do influence us. They tempt us to adopt certain values, beliefs, and assumptions. If counselors do not take into consideration these influences, these contexts, then we will miss major contributing factors to the struggles of those we are seeking to help. Context matters.
Context matters because it shapes our understanding of the counselee and the counsel we give. As I consider context I can begin to see more clearly how context has influenced the person I want to help. I can see some of what they believe and value, and why they may believe and value those things. I can also give counsel that fits the occasion. Paul teaches us to speak words for the “building up” of others, and that means words that “fit the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29). Knowledge of context helps us fit our words to the counselee and to the occasion of their need.