Counseling is a responsibility of pastors. Or so many would say. I have talked with friends who commonly meet with parishioners to listen to their struggles, whether they be emotional, spiritual, physical, relational, financial, or otherwise, and after listening they strive to then offer a word of wisdom, a bit of encouragement, or glimmer of hope. Maybe they just offer presence. One of my friends, Nicole, has sought to ask herself how she offers Christ to each person with whom she meets. There is much to be commended in this posture.
This week, during my time away at the Renvoare’ Conference, I heard from Chris Webb. Chris relayed a story of his time as an Anglican parish priest, in which a woman came to him to discuss the horrible end to her marriage–a terrible, ugly divorce. She described how the relationship had deteriorated, how she had been destroyed by the actions of her husband, and how she was angry. Before Chris could speak, she told him that she already knew what he was going to tell her to do. She surmised that he was going to tell her to forgive. She told him that she could not.
His reply surprised her. He said, “I wasn’t going to tell you that, though I can see why that might have been your supposition.” He continued, “I cannot help you to forgive,” he told her, “but as an Anglican priest I took vows to help you to pray.” He explained to his hearers, “I did not take vows to offer counseling, but to teach people to pray.”
His next word of pastoral advice took her further by surprise. He said, “Do you wish that your husband would die?” She said, “Yes.” He said, “pray that.” She said, “What?” He said, “Yes, I want you to pray that he should die.”
Chris then pointed to Psalm 55, a Psalm of David, a man after God’s own heart. Beginning in verse 12, the Psalm reads, “If an enemy were insulting me, I could endure it; if a foe were raising himself against me, I could hide from him. But it is you, a man like myself, my companion, my close friend, with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship as we walked with the throng at the house of my God. Let death take my enemies by surprise; let them go down alive to the grave, for evil finds their lodging among them.”
This surprises us, of course. But Chris challenged his hearers by saying that David was radically honest with God. He told the truth about himself. And God could handle it. After seeing the woman who had suffered so greatly at the hands of another once some time had passed, Chris asked her how things were going. She said she was still in prayer, but she doesn’t pray Psalm 55 anymore. God had been working on her heart. Those words no longer fit her emotions. God had been at work healing her in the midst of her honesty.
There is a lesson for us there, for our own prayer lives and for our ministries. Do we offer people counsel, or do we teach them to pray? May we be those, like David, who are radically honest in our conversations with God, even when what we find there is unattractive, ugly, repulsive. May we face our heartache, our pain, our hurt, our shortcomings, our sufferings, and be truthful to the one who is the Truth.