In Cross Talk: Where Life and Scripture Meet, Michael Emlet encourages pastors and church leaders to approach people as “saints, sufferers, and sinners.” This categorization helps the counselor know whether to turn to Scriptural passages that remind a person of their identity in Christ, console them in the dark day of suffering, or confront them for their unrepentant sins.

Emlet believes “each person we meet is wrestling in some way with two problems:

  1. First, the problem of identity and purpose: who am I and what in the world should I be doing? (This corresponds to God’s address to us as saints.)
  2. Second, the problem of evil: evil from ‘without’ (which corresponds to our experience as sufferers) and evil from ‘within’ (which corresponds to our experience as sinners)” (74).

These three categories correspond with the experience of the Christian. It could be that a seemingly unrelated symptom presents itself and leads the Christian to request counseling, but the underlying root cause will generally fall into one of these three categories.

A Word for Saints

As “saints,” we need to be reminded of our relationship with God. Our identities are not wrapped up in our jobs, our families, our wealth, or our hobbies. We are defined by our relationship to God.

The Word consistently reminds God’s people that they are set apart for His missional purposes in the world, to bring Him glory and to find their joy in Him. When doubt arises in our hearts, or temptation comes, or disillusionment takes hold, the Christian is commanded to remember the God whose image we bear and in whom we find forgiveness and restoration.

A Word for Sufferers

As “sufferers,” we need to be reminded of the fallen world we live in, and the evils from “outside ourselves” that confront us during our earthly existence. Suffering is not necessarily a sign that we have done something wrong. Instead, it is often the mark of God’s people. As Emlet writes:

“Scripture assumes that, since the fall, the people God has chosen are sufferers” (76).

He points to the slavery of God’s people in Egypt and other periods of foreign oppression described in the Old Testament.

In the New Testament, we are confronted with vivid images of suffering in the lives of Paul and Peter. The final book of the Bible (Revelation) gives hope to the people of God who are suffering for the faith.

There is no way to make sense of the biblical storyline if the suffering of God’s people is not taken into consideration. This suffering has a redemptive purpose: to conform us into the image of our Savior, the One who suffered prior to receiving glory.

A Word for Sinners

As “sinners,” we need to understand that we will continue to struggle against sin until the day Christ completes His work in us. It is true that Jesus has defeated sin and inaugurated His kingdom, and yet because the old age of sin and brokenness continues on until His return, our lives are characterized by consistent confrontation with sin as we grow in our faith.

Emlet points out the flaws we see in the apostles and New Testament writers themselves as evidence that God’s people will continue to struggle against sin (79). The Scriptures warn us away from sin and urge us to put it to death in our lives and live in light of the salvation we have received by grace through faith.

Why These Categories Matter for Counseling

All Scripture is God-breathed and is profitable for believers in different ways during different seasons. But an experienced counselor will use wisdom in determining what passages of Scripture are most appropriate for a person in need of God’s Word.

  • If the person is struggling with a problem that indicates a lack of understanding of their identity in Christ (perhaps lingering guilt or shame over past sins), the counselor will turn to passages of Scripture that confirm their identity as belonging to God’s forgiven people.
  • If the person is struggling to come to terms with suffering (perhaps social ostracism or failing health), the counselor will turn to passages that console and comfort them, reminding them of God’s promise to be present in times of suffering or the redemptive end of all our trials.
  • If the person is caught in sinful attitudes or actions, the counselor will turn to passages that confront the person and warn them about the consequences of ongoing, unrepentant sin.

One Caveat

Emlet’s threefold categorization of saint, sufferer, and sinner is a helpful way of looking at the people who come to us for counseling. Biblically speaking, however, there are only two kinds of people who seek help: those who are saints (believers in Christ) and those who are sinners (unbelievers in Christ).

Once we have established that the person seeking help is a believer (therefore a “saint,”) it is important to realize that we are all saints, sufferers, and sinners simultaneously. The counselor’s goal is to recognize which area to emphasize and what kind of medicine to give at the appropriate time. This categorization should not be misconstrued as a firm prescription for every situation, but as a helpful grid through which to view the people who seek care.

Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at what happens when these categories are ignored.