Whether we're a licensed counselor or not, if we are seeking to serve others in a way that lovingly and selflessly bears their burdens, we will find ourselves listening to painful stories that are an inevitable part of this life. People all around us are looking for a safe place to unburden their hearts, a place where they will be met without negative judgment and censure. If loving others like Christ is our genuine desire, we will be given the opportunity to provide that place of safety even if we're not involved in any formal counseling or pastoral ministry.
Providing a safe place for others is a ministry that reaps joyful satisfaction. But it's a ministry that often comes with a cost, one that can easily blindside us with its expense and leave us gasping for air in a sea of confusion. I've spent enough time throwing lifelines to ministry friends to know that bearing the burden of the hurting can often result in unexpected pain, especially when the hot lava of anger or accusation is poured over well-meaning intention.
Hurting people hurt people. If we want to bear the suffering of others well, we have to learn to anticipate attack and accusation. The greatest opportunities to highlight the power of gospel grace often come through wounds inflicted upon our hearts when our intention is filled with good desire to serve. The Enemy loves nothing more than melting the passion that energizes us to invest our lives in service to others, so preparing ourselves for assault is part of ministering with wisdom.
Ministering to someone's heart in a way that keeps their interest in focus and our own at bay requires the love of Christ that is pure enough to bear their wounds without licking our own. Here are 3 reasons why ministry requires a tough skin, a tender heart, and a humble spirit:
1. Emotional Pain Causes Cognitive Distortion
Negative emotions have an inevitable effect on our perspective. Our minds have been designed for survival, and the presence of emotional pain is often accompanied by some form of cognitive distortion. It's a result of our brain's attempt to miniminze the reality of suffering. It's why the passionate and intentional saturating of our minds with God's Word is so crucial to our mental health. Cognitive distortion can tempt us to keep rewriting the narrative of our painful story in a way that has us swinging wildly between an exaggeration of truth and a minimalization of truth. It can have us rewriting the narrative in a way that has us identifying someone who mistreats us as having nothing but evil intention at one point in our story and nothing but good intention in the next. When we are drowning in a sea of negative emotion, we become masterful at writing and re-writing survival stories that are penned with the ink of distortion.
The emotional pain that exists within the hearts of those we are seeking to help will often have them wrapped in a blanket of communication that's woven with threads of distortion. It takes humble patience to help someone identify those threads and unravel them. The tiniest drop of pride in our hearts can result in our responding in defense to the tangled narrative that often stretches and shrinks the truth, sometimes even the truth about our counsel. Having our words misprepresented comes with the territory of ministering.
Cognitive distortion can easily have the very people we're trying to help lobbying unjust attack, but the presence of distortion never negates the fact that there are lessons for us to be learned. Prideful defense not only serves to fuel the very fire that is searing the heart of the person we're seeking to help, but it also keeps us from examining our own needy heart. Just because somebody feels a slight from us doesn't make us guilty, but I am convinced that focusing on that fact will only serve to have us missing a point that is of far greater significance. And that point is that humility and love should have our attention focused on addressing people's perceptions with compassion rather than on defending our personal positioning with contention.
2. Vulnerability Is Frightening
Our lives all come with layers of truth that we don't expose to everyone we meet. That doesn't necessarily mean we're not honest about the layers we choose to reveal, it just means that there are deeper layers that we tend to only share with those we know well enough to explicitly trust. Many people can't handle all the layers of our truth, and it's both unkind and unwise to assume that they can. When we trust someone enough to share the inner layers of our heart, a strong measure of vulnerability is brought to the relationship that can strike fear in us. We can be brave enough to unveil our heart to a trusted friend only to feel foolish and frighteningly vulnerable hours later.
When someone trusts us enough to expose the deeper layers of their heart, they can respond to the fear of this vulnerability in ways that can end up hurting us. Fear triggers a natural fight or flight reaction, with each of us possessing our own preferred response. When a person trusts us enough to reveal layers of truth that leave them feeling vulnerable, the subsequent fear distorts their perspective. They can imagine slights that don't exist, twist words into different meaning, and interpret counsel in ways not intended. If their fear response is to fight, they will communicate negatively with us in ways that will often leave us feeling defensive. If their fear response is to flee, they will distance themselves from us with walls of protection that will often leave us feeling rejected and confused. Understanding these responses to the fear of vulnerability goes a long way in patiently guidinf others through their suffering without fueling flames with our injured pride.
People who look the most together have the most to lose from vulnerability, so their fight or flight responses can be particualrly strong. More than once I've had someone reveal their heart to me only to turn around and deny the truth of what they've shared. When the fear of vulnerability overwhelms us it can lead us to cling to reputation more tightly than reality.
3. Families Come With Blind Loyalty
If you spend much time ministering to couples as they struggle through the hurt of a painful marriage, you'll quickly discover that behind each spouse there usually resides a family who cherishes them dearly. And if you seek to help a teen or single adult work through the difficulties of figuring out where they fit into this life of adventure, you'll discover that behind them often stand two parents who care for them beyond description. Our love for our family members tends to be so deeply carved into our heart that it comes with a loyalty that is blind to realities that can fall within the scope of more objective vision. It's imperative that we are patient with the family members circling those we are counseling just as we would wish for them to be patient with us. A tough skin, tender heart and humble spirit go a long way in not allowing any hurtful assumptions, expressions of disapproval, or articulations of frustration turn our focus inward.
With marriage counseling especially, our concentrated love and care for one spouse can easily give the impression to family members that we are biased and not listening to the entirety of the matter. I don't allow myself to get sucked into these accusations. I minister as the Spirit guides me, knowing my singular pupose is to point every person I counsel to Christ without making any assumptions about knowing what goes on behind closed doors. There are many situations where listening to the entire matter of one person is what is needed from us most. If there's something we need to know, God can place it on the heart of someone to tell us. Sometimes the wisest thing we can do is choose to simply concentrate on the person who has unveiled their pain to us first. In fact, grave danger has been done in abusive relationships because of victims being met with a refusal to be given counsel independent of their spouse. This is especially true for women who have often spent years crying for help without being heard. Part of their gaining a voice involves their being in the safety of someone removed from the person they believe has taken their voice.
Life hurts. Let's be that safe place of rest where the wounded are met with Christ and bandaged with grace. Let's genuinely love each other with a tough skin, a tender heart, and humble spirit.