Side by Side: Walking With Others in Wisdom and Love, Edward T. Welch. Wheaton: Crossway, 2015. Softcover, 171 pages, $14.99.
“Mensen kennis” is a Dutch expression that sprung to mind while reading this book. Literally it translates to “people knowledge,” but the closest in English would be “social skills.” It’s about knowing how to relate well to people and, in the case of this book, how to relate well to people who need help. Some people seem naturally good at this, but others of us could really use some pointers. The book’s subtitle speaks of coming alongside others wisely and lovingly, and the back cover promises “practical guidance for loving others well.” Does Side by Side deliver?
The author hardly needs any introduction. Ed Welch has written several well-received books, including When People are Big and God is Small. He’s an experienced Christian counselor affiliated with the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation. He has a reputation for providing biblical direction through winsome and compassionate writing and speaking.
Side by Side contains two parts. In the first part, “We Are Needy,” Welch explains why and how we should share our burdens with others. We need to humbly recognize our own weaknesses and be able to say “Help!” to God and other Christians. In the second part, “We Are Needed,” we’re told the why and how of helping to carry the burdens of others around us. Believers were not created or redeemed to exist in isolation and we have to learn to look out for one another.
Two chapters especially stood out for me and both of them were in the second part. Chapter 9, “Have Thoughtful Conversations,” is a short, practical look at getting beyond small talk. Here’s Welch explaining how to start getting to more meaty matters:
We hope to learn what is important to the person we’re talking to, which is another way of saying that we hope to hear what is on his or her heart. The way in is to listen for what is dear, what is loved, what is feared, what is hard – we listen for how someone feels. For example, we certainly want to know the age and names of someone’s children, but we also want to hear stories about the children that reveal parental affection, hopes, or griefs. (pp.81-82).
Sometimes getting past the superficial can be challenging. People put up walls and they can have a hard time trusting. Welch suggests following up your “How are you?” with a “How are you, really?” That might work. Unfortunately, in my experience, such a move is not always received very well. People might answer the “How are you?” with an honest positive answer and there’s really nothing more to say. At other times, your relationship with them is not at a point where a forthright answer feels possible. The walls remain up or even go higher.
Chapter 12 was the other helpful chapter, “Have Compassion During Trouble.” I found this a great primer on how to come alongside hurting people, again not something that comes easily to everybody. What does compassion look like? What does it sound like? What does it say and not say?
Welch’s approach is biblical and Christ-centered. He points us to the Saviour as the one who had and has a tender and compassionate heart for the broken. Jesus reflects the Father, and looking to him in faith, following him by the Spirit, we will reflect God’s love for those who need help too.
While my overall assessment of Side by Side is positive, there are some spots in the book which are open to misunderstanding. It’s a simple book – not written with any lofty theological presumptions. On page 26, this becomes potentially problematic when Welch writes, “There is good in every human being.” Yes, even a Reformed theologian can agree with that statement as long as it is properly qualified. But somehow the traditional distinction between civic good and saving good/righteousness needs to be communicated. Without that clarification, it can sound like Welch is contradicting Paul in passages like Romans 3:9-18.
A similar problem occurs on page 27, “Although we prefer to keep this reality under wraps, there is little disagreement about the badness resident in every heart.” This could be taken as saying that Pelagius and his followers are either a small minority or a complete myth. The reality is that there is and has been much disagreement about the evil residing in human hearts. Biblical Christianity insists that unregenerated hearts are dark places – and this position has no shortage of antagonists. Once again, the author might have better anticipated how a statement like that would be taken and provided some qualification or clarification.
To whom might I recommend Side by Side? First, any Christian who wants to better reflect their union with a compassionate Savior. Any believer who wants to grow in encouraging others will benefit from Welch’s efforts. But I would especially recommend this book to pastors, elders, and deacons. Different office bearers have different gifts and strengths and not all of us are immediately skilled at what this book lays out. I know I’m going to keep coming back to it.