Imagine you’re a church planter, pastor, or ministry leader in a context with limited resources (this may not be a stretch for some of you). You probably don’t have any staff members or volunteers with counseling experience or training. Now picture someone from your church coming to you for help working through a difficult situation. What do you do? Is your first impulse to dig in with them, or do you feel overwhelmed and under-equipped to help them process their emotions?
Processing emotions doesn’t always require professional help. While there is certainly a time to involve and utilize the resources professional help can provide, you don’t need an expert (or have to be an expert) to process something. I’ve met with many church members who knew they needed help but didn’t know where to start. Here are four questions to equip you in guiding someone through processing difficult situations and emotions.
1. What happened?
Taking the time to talk or write about what you’ve experienced is important. One common misconception goes like this: “I can’t change what happened, so why does it matter if I talk about it or not?” A basic understanding of anthropology reminds us that a distinguishing characteristic of being human is the ability to speak. I have seen many individuals think they need counseling to work through something difficult, only to discover they feel much better after one conversation. Why? Because they took the time to verbalize their experience.
Pastors and ministry leaders should never underestimate the power of being present, listening, and asking good questions. We manifest God’s presence as we sit with and listen to hurting people.
2. What are you feeling?
You may know people who wear their emotions on their sleeves. You never have to guess what’s going on with them because it’s written all over their faces. For others, this is a difficult part of the journey—many struggle to accurately describe what they feel. One of the reasons for this is the complicated nature of emotions. Grief often mixes with anger. Sadness can mix with hope. Psalm 13 starts with, “How long, O LORD,” and ends with, “I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.” Sorting out what we feel is important. Pastors and ministry leaders should never underestimate the power of being present, listening, and asking good questions. We manifest God’s presence as we sit with and listen to hurting people. Click To Tweet
When helping someone process emotions, you enter into their story by understanding what they are feeling. This builds a foundation for the next step.
3. Why do you feel that way?
I’ve found this step to be the most difficult for many people. It’s one thing to know what you feel; it’s quite another to understand why you feel it. “For it is not an enemy who taunts me—then I could bear it . . . But it is you, a man, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend” (Ps. 55:12–13). David isn’t hurting because he’s being taunted. He’s hurting because the taunts were from a “familiar friend.” Understanding the “why” behind hurt is critical because it draws out the depths of our hearts. “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out” (Prov. 20:5).
Our emotions aren’t simply a product of what has happened but a result of how we think, what we’ve previously experienced, and what we believe. What do feelings or emotions reveal about what we hold dear, value, or treasure? This will be unique for each person. Two people could witness a car accident and have two different responses. One could be saddened to see others injured. The other could be saddened to see people injured but also have a wave of grief overtake them because they lost a loved one to an accident years ago. As we work to understand the “why” of what we feel, we gain a better understanding of how to respond in healthy ways.
4. How have you responded?
Processing difficult experiences involves more than talking. Healthy processing requires healthy responding. “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you” (Ps. 56:3). David shows us what it looks like to respond when fear comes near. Perhaps you’ve experienced relational hurt and fear having additional conversations with the one who hurt you. Fear might tell you to avoid that person, that you will only be emotionally safe when you keep your distance. But listening to the voice of fear isn’t healthy when it doesn’t produce faithful, God-honoring responses. Additionally, trusting the voice of fear won’t produce the deep and lasting safety your heart desires. Trust becomes a tool for healthy processing as we respond by listening to the voice of the Lord instead of the voice of fear. Click To Tweet
The Lord is the source of our peace and comfort. Trust becomes a tool for healthy processing as we respond by listening to the voice of the Lord instead of the voice of fear. “Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us” (Ps. 62:8). When we respond to difficult emotions in God-centered ways, we position ourselves to experience his healing mercy and grace.
As church planters, pastors, and ministry leaders, using these questions as a guide will hopefully bring clarity and encouragement for you and those you’re serving. Resist the urge to move too fast. Each question might take several conversations. The goal is not speed but patience and clarity. Above all else, use these questions to lead people to the Lord—he is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble (Ps. 46:1).