As a pastor, I have the privilege (and burden) of helping people work through all kinds of issues. Sometimes, the issue they want to address is really the issue that needs to be addressed. But often, what people think is the issue really isn’t the issue. There is usually something deeper going on in their soul that needs to be addressed.
The challenge for me as a pastor and counselor is to discern what issue really needs to be addressed. That challenge is magnified by my desire to shepherd someone into greater spiritual maturity. I genuinely want to help others in ways that are actually helpful! If you are a pastor, counselor, discipler, or a spiritual friend, you can probably relate to that desire.
So, the question I must ask is: what do people need most?
Transformed in His Presence
I have come to a liberating, and maybe obvious, conclusion. What people need most is not something I can teach them or give to them. When a fellow believer comes to me with an issue, what he needs most is to be transformed in God’s presence. In fact, it is only in God’s presence that real transformation takes place.
Isaiah 6:1-7 gives us a picture of what it looks like to be transformed in God’s presence. In this passage, Isaiah is confronted with three things that provide a biblical framework for transformation: A proper vision of God, a proper vision of sin, and a proper vision of grace.
A Proper Vision of God
“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple” (Isaiah 6:1). Uzziah had been king for fifty-two long and prosperous years. But now the king is dead.
The question that must have been looming for Isaiah’s audience is this: Who is the king? Who is really in charge?
Well, Isaiah helps us. “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord,” and in verse 5, “My eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” The point is that even though Uzziah is dead, God lives on. This dramatic introduction reminds us that God is infinitely greater than any earthly leader or power. He has no beginning or end, and He depends on no one for His existence. He alone is the King.
When I am counseling, I want to help someone get a glimpse of the God that has been and always will be in charge. I want them to get a glimpse of our God who never changes.
Isaiah continues by telling us that the Lord was seated on a high and exalted throne. This signifies His authoritative and sovereign control. He is majestic in His greatness. In fact, God’s glory is so great that the train of His robe filled the temple. It seems like words are beginning to fail Isaiah. He is doing the best he can, but it is hard to describe a kind of greatness that is beyond human understanding.
And all the while, there are angels declaring their worship of God saying, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6:3). God’s holiness is the core of His being. It is His essence. His holiness is His total and unique moral purity and majesty. Referring to God as holy is a description of how set apart, supreme, transcendent, and beyond our understanding He is. And it is this vision of God’s holiness that makes Isaiah come undone. He is overwhelmed by the greatness and weightiness of God’s holiness.
The Importance of Knowing God’s Holiness
If anyone is going to be transformed in God’s presence, they need a proper vision of God. They need to know what He is like. Many people whom I counsel have an inaccurate view of God’s character. They don’t understand what God is like. Unless my counselee is brought to a greater understanding of God, they cannot be transformed in His presence. If a person is dealing with a pornography issue, he needs to understand that God’s holiness cannot tolerate such an idol of the heart. If someone is dealing with control issues, she needs to understand that God alone is the all-controlling one.
It was A.W. Tozer who said:
The low view of God entertained almost universally among Christians is the cause of a hundred lesser evils everywhere among us… The decline of the knowledge of the holy has brought on our troubles. A rediscovery of the majesty of God will go a long way toward curing them.
What people need from me as a counselor is help moving towards a proper view of God. They need to see God as He is revealed in Scripture because anyone who has ever encountered the living God has never been the same again. If you need more examples, consider Moses, or Jacob, or Job, or Paul.
A deeper knowledge of God’s majestic holiness will absolutely transform a person. But, not without a cost. Encountering God always involves a cost.
A Proper Vision of Sin
After seeing the Lord in His holiness, Isaiah is ruined. He cries out in verse 5, “Woe to me… I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”
In the presence of a holy God, it becomes painfully obvious to Isaiah that he is an unholy man. And he finds himself in utter grief over the offensiveness of his sin. R. C. Sproul has said, “Every sin is an act of cosmic treason, a futile attempt to dethrone God in his sovereign authority.”
What my counselees need in dealing with their “issues” is a keen awareness of their own sin. Frankly, what I need in dealing with my “issues” is a keen awareness of my own sin. I might consider how aware my counselee is of his own sin. I might push beyond awareness and consider how my counselee is responding to his sin. I might ask myself these questions as I am counseling: Does his sin break his heart? How can I tell? If not, why not? Does it bring her to tears?
A Proper Vision of Grace
After being undone by the realization of his own sin in light of God’s holiness, Isaiah experiences something radical and amazing. In verse 6, an angel took a live coal from the altar and touched his lips. And in verse 7 the angel says, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”
This single act is how God meets Isaiah in his moment of confessed need. Immediately, the guilt of his sin is taken away and the punishment of his sin paid. It is gone. This is a wonderful picture of grace.
God didn’t have to do this and Isaiah didn’t deserve for him to do this. But, that’s what makes grace so amazing. It meets us at our point of deepest need and gives us what we could never achieve ourselves. And the brokenness that was brought on by a proper vision of sin is now healed through a proper vision of grace.
For my counselee (and for all of us), God’s grace is fully on display in the person and work of Jesus Christ. I want to help my counselee savor the truth that instead of giving her what she deserves because of the offensiveness of her sin, God gives her what she doesn’t deserve because of the extravagance of His grace.
And until we recognize that God did not have to do this for us, we cheapen God’s grace. It’s inappropriate to think that it is God’s job to forgive us. It’s not His job. It is an unimaginable, unexpected, and undeserved gift to us. That’s grace. That’s the gospel.
When my counselee gets a proper vision of grace, transformation is already happening.
While transformation cannot be manufactured, I am convinced it involves a proper vision of God, a proper vision of our sin, and a proper vision of grace. This kind of transformation can only be done in God’s presence.
Join the Conversation
Which of the three “visions” do you think would be most helpful to apply in your ministry? What do you think is the most important element in helping someone experience God’s transformation?
 A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (New York: HarperCollins, 1961), pp. vii-viii.