If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know." (1 Corinthians 8:2 ESV)
Alex wasn’t getting better. After a month of counseling, the only thing that seemed to change was my level of frustration. Alex came to counseling with anxiety that was preventing him from sleeping. His lack of sleep was like an omnipresent weighted blanket suppressing and restraining every other endeavor in his life. He wanted to rest and be free from anxiety.
In our early sessions, Alex and I journeyed through Philippians 4:4-7 and Matthew 6:25-34. We identified the various and wonderful reasons why a child of God doesn’t need to bend toward anxiety. We practiced prayer and thanksgiving. Each session ended full of hope that change was possible and relief was coming. However, each week that hope slowly drained a little more, and despair began to take its place.
I didn’t know what else to do. I was beginning to feel like a broken record in each session, and I could feel the eyes of Alex’s heart rolling each time I gently repeated what he already knew. Instead of relieving Alex’s burden, I began to feel like I was adding to it.
Finally, exasperated and reaching out for anything to make the session feel less like a soul-draining visit to the dentist for an eternal root canal, I inquired about his bedtime routine. Alex stared blankly at the floor, shrugged his shoulders, and began, “Well, I usually start getting ready for bed whenever I feel a little tired, usually around 10:30 or 11 pm. I brush my teeth and get dressed for bed, and then once I’m in bed, I watch a scary movie until I fall asleep.” He stopped sharing, his gaze fixed on the floor as though nothing that he shared carried any connection to his current problem.
At this moment, I was deeply thankful that my counseling education included training on how to maintain a calm and welcoming demeanor when counselees share shocking information. Outside, my face said, “This is tough, and I am sorry we are having so much difficulty locating what might be helpful in alleviating your suffering.” Internally I was screaming, “ARE YOU KIDDING ME!?!?!!!”
Maintaining my gentle and kind counselor face, I offered to Alex, “Hey, I have an idea of something we might try if you are open to it. How would you feel about maybe skipping the scary movie and seeing if that might have an impact on your sleep?” Alex looked up and, for the first time in a while, seemed hopeful as he responded, “Sure, I can try that out.”
The next week Alex arrived smiling. He was energetic and lively, filled with new optimism. To his surprise, he had been able to sleep well all week, and his anxiety had shockingly disappeared.
Missing the Mark
"Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God." (1 Corinthians 4:5 ESV)
Shame. It’s generally what I feel when I recount this story. I can’t help but wonder how much toil and difficulty I could have saved Alex if I had simply done a more thorough assessment of the possible factors playing a role in his difficulty (not to mention saving myself a few sessions of frustration as well). No doubt I trust God’s plan and provision in it all, but I can’t help feeling a little bit nauseous every time I remember Alex and how long it took for me to accurately see the full picture of his problem.
I fell into a common trap for counselors. After just a few sessions with Alex, I believed that I had properly ascertained the nature and extent of his problem. I felt confident it was a relatively straightforward case of struggling to trust God in the midst of difficulty. Instead, the core of Alex’s problem was not a sinful doubt of God’s presence and provision, but rather an unhelpful habit that was affecting him in ways he could not perceive.
Labor to Understand
"Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger." (James 1:19 ESV)
This experience has ingrained in me the need and benefit of thoroughly assessing the factors that might be contributing to an individual’s problems. This takes intentional effort and patience. It is difficult not to jump ahead and make quick conclusions based on limited information. But as with most situations in life, shortcuts often cut out important and necessary parts of the journey.
If we need encouragement to skip the shortcut and patiently labor to understand the people in our care, we need to look no further than our Savior. Jesus didn’t take any shortcuts. Even when tempted by Satan to take any other path than the cross, Jesus remained steadfast. He became like us in every way that He might be our perfect, sympathetic High Priest. May we, in our own limited ways, seek to show this kind of love by patiently laboring to understand and care for the people God brings our way.
Questions for Reflection
- When you make a mistake in counseling, how does it affect you? How do you work through it? Are there shortcuts you are regularly tempted to take in the counseling process?
- Do you find yourself frustrated by people in your care? What do you think is the root of your frustration? Are there avenues of helpful information you could pursue to better understand them
- Take a moment and consider the truth of the incarnation of Christ. How does this affect you as a counselor? How does this inform the way you counsel?