We use this passage often in counseling training. It’s a text that serves multiple purposes. On the one hand it demonstrates the need for case-sensitive counseling. No two people are exactly the same and each unique situation requires a relevant approach. It also a reminder, however, that regardless of the individual or the nature of their problems counselors are called to be patient with them. Change is hard and spiritual maturity requires that we be sensitive to this dynamic. This means that when someone is struggling to change, or resistant to counsel, we ought always to start with our own responses before we critique their response. When we become frustrated with a counselee we should always ask the question: what is keeping me from being patient with this person.
The relevance of this issue is obvious to anyone who has done counseling. Counseling is complicated, messy, and sometimes frustrating. It can be easy to surrender to the temptation of frustration when things aren’t moving quickly, when counselees relapse, or when individuals resist change. It’s tempting to assume that failure or frustration resides purely on the other person’s shoulders, but we should be careful to assume this and more honest about our own weaknesses and temptations.
Jesus commands that we make self-examination our starting place in issues of confrontation. He says:
“Judge not, that you be not judged. 2 For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. 3 Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:1-5)
Often confrontation should start with self-confrontation. We want to evaluate what I might be contributing to a situation of strained relationship, frustration, or disappointment. We are, after all, all of us both sufferers and sinners. Any given situation, then, may involve both components and therefore warrant some form of honest evaluation.
This is not to suggest that there are no scenarios where genuine critique of the other person is warranted. There are situations where distance should be created between people for safety sake, where relationships may even need to end in order to do the right thing (this is particularly true in abusive situations). Even in counseling there are times where counselees must be confronted with failures to follow through on, or for resistance. At times, perhaps, counseling must be terminated. Cornerstone Counseling has policies on these types of situations. Overall, however, we want to begin by looking at ourselves in frustrating dynamics. What is keeping me from being patient?
There are a number of ways that we might answer this question. Here are few places to begin our thinking and evaluating:
- Am I struggling to be patient because I have unrealistic expectations? In some cases we set o ourselves up for frustration by our expectations in counseling. There are some who have an expectation that progress should be noticeable within four to six weeks. Not all change moves that quickly, however, and so we may need to be flexible and more humble in our timetable. At other times we may expect that once we have given clear instruction and explained the problem then counselees should just “do what their told” and things will get better. Change, however, is often more than just information acquisition. Application and implementation of said information can be complicated by a host of obstacles and barriers. We must be humble in our expectations of implementation, giving time and attention to potential barriers to change in a person’s life. Without asking the question “what is keeping me from being patient with this person,” then we are likely to assume that this counselee just doesn’t want to change. But we if we start with our own heart we may be more honest about our expectations.
- Am I struggling to be patient because I think too highly of myself? At other times our impatience is a sign of arrogance. The time commitment required to be truly helpful can sometimes be significant and investment may require more from me than I was initially prepared to give. There are times where we think that we could accomplish more if we didn’t have this person to help. Or we hang our own success as a counselor, or our worth as a person on the counselee’s progress.
- Am I struggling to be patient because I don’t understand this person? Sometimes impatience is a result of a lack of empathy. We struggle to be patient because we just can’t relate. In such cases it’s not always our immediate fault. We recognize that people are different and their experiences and personalities are different. But if I lack understanding I need to work harder to relate to somebody, to develop and cultivate such empathy. Impatience may mean I am just unwilling to try and understand them. Ignorance is not necessarily sin, but willful ignorance is.
Counseling and care can be hard and discouraging at times. It is tempting to become quickly frustrated with someone, but good counselors want to move slowly. We ought to start by evaluating our own hearts and attitudes. What is keeping you from being patient with this person? Ask yourself that question and evaluate any potentially sinful motives that are pressing you to rush this person into change. There may be viable reasons for discontinuing counseling or for confrontation, but before you jump to that conclusion wrestle with your own heart.