-This week on the Grace blog, James Zilenziger is guest posting about his experiences as a volunteer peer counselor at Lighthouse Pregnancy Resource Center.
I sat across from Nick* and Jackie* in our private counseling room and muttered a prayer in my head as our session began: “Please God, give me the ears to listen and words to say, and please don’t let me make anything worse.”
It was my first counseling session with a young couple at Lighthouse Pregnancy Resource Center, and I could feel my anxiety rise as my mind raced with thoughts about messing up or saying something that could be taken poorly. I had never before worked with a teenage unmarried couple with a new baby, and what seemed like an overwhelming path ahead of them. Heck, I was only two years into marriage and did not have any kids at this point. Yet, for a couple years, I had felt a nudge to work with young men in tough circumstances, and I had come across Lighthouse Pregnancy Resource Center while searching for a place to serve. Lighthouse is a pregnancy resource center in Northern New Jersey and serves women and men facing unplanned pregnancies. It caught my immediate attention with its mission that promoted life for the unborn, while walking alongside the individual or couple throughout the pregnancy and afterwards.
So here I was, after a couple months of peer-counseling training, sitting with a couple in need. And just like the disciples in Mark 4, I sat in the counseling room with Nick and Jackie asking Jesus, “Teacher, don’t you care if I drown?”(Mark 4: 38). Thankfully, it didn’t take long for Jesus to quiet the storm in my mind. Nick and Jackie started passing their newborn back and forth, and before I knew it, the conversation began to flow. After several more sessions with Nick and Jackie, as well as other couples, here are the three things I’ve learned from volunteering as a peer counselor:
1). Listening, rather than speaking, is one of the most important tools when providing counsel:
“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” (James 1:19)
Our current culture is not one of listening. It is one of sharing your opinion, retweeting another’s opinion, or liking and commenting. In other words, our mouths are often active while our ears are passive. While there is a place for speaking God’s Truth into another’s life, I have found that it is often most successfully done by not speaking at first, but rather listening intentionally early on, and meeting each person in their current place of struggle.
With my first counseling session, my natural inclination was to try to share a solution for every problem Nick and Jackie presented. Yet how could I possibly do that without knowing where they came from or earning their respect and trust? More importantly, how was Jesus supposed to help reveal and heal their hearts if I was more interested in presenting my own solutions? I learned early on that good questions reveal the struggles of the heart with more success than quick answers. Yes, listening requires time and patience, and can often be frustrating because of the pace progress will occur, but it is a lasting progress and one that multiplies.
2). I am not the solution. You are not the solution. Jesus is the solution and Savior:
“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” (John 14:6)
As John wrote above, Jesus is the only one who can save and provide the solution to our heart’s tendency to replace God with other idols. Often, these idols are the needs of me, myself, and I. Sounds simple? It’s not. There is a natural tendency throughout history for man (regardless of ethnicity or culture) to seek the glory that only belongs to God, and I consistently battled the temptation to own that glory while volunteering as a peer counselor. It is simple to write out a three-step plan; it is difficult to go deeper and realize that without Jesus in the picture, any “solution” is a temporary Band-Aid.
It is also more nerve-wracking to connect on a personal level with someone who does not yet know Jesus and express that we all struggle with issues of the heart. Yet most importantly, no one, except for Jesus, is capable of bearing the weight of being a savior – and that is great news! You and I are messengers who are not ultimately responsible for saving another, and that gives us the freedom to share Jesus’ Gospel without the weight of the outcome.
3). Stop worrying about messing up and ask Jesus for guidance:
“So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6: 31-33)
As you may have guessed from the first paragraph, this was not an early-on strength of mine. I worried over saying something offensive, not saying something with enough emphasis, and simply saying something that didn’t make sense. Yet Jesus calls us to stop worrying…over everything! When we worry, we crowd out Jesus and His power. I’ve found worry to often be the greatest impediment to sharing the Gospel as I am more controlled with the expectations of the current culture rather than the expectations of our Savior. How much more would you share the Gospel if you were not worried about how the other person might take it? Bring those worries to Jesus. Ask for guidance, for as Jesus says, when we seek His kingdom, all things will be given to us. And if you feel you messed up, trust that an all-powerful God, who is in total control, can make all things new.
*Names were changed for confidentiality purposes