I am a pastor, counselor, and college professor. This basically means that my life is all about trying to answer questions people ask me. One of the questions I am asked most often is, “What do I do?” Christians want to know what to do to grow in their faith. Married couples want to know how to fix their marriages. Students want to know how to get an A.
There’s nothing wrong with this question if you are changing a tire, or starting a workout routine, or traveling to Las Vegas. But in religious life, married life, and student life, the question misses the mark. In fact, simply asking the question often reveals the problem the questioner has to begin with, which is actually a mindset problem.
When someone comes to see me in my counseling office with a problem, and wants to know what to do, I usually feel like it’s a bad idea to try to answer that. For in front of me sits a husband who has probably already tried everything. He has tried kindness. He has tried meanness. He has tried silence. He has tried threats. He has tried romance. He has tried ignoring the problem. He has tried confronting it. He now sits in my office not because he needed someplace to drop $40, and not because he would love to know how I am doing, but because he doesn’t know how to fix his marriage. What he desperately wants is to give me $40 in return for a bulleted list of things to do that he hasn’t already tried. Then he wants to go home, try them, and find that his problems are solved.
But I just sit and listen. Then I sigh, and maybe shrug my shoulders. He sees that clearly no list is forthcoming. Why? Because if I give him a list of things to try, he will try them as the same person he is now. Because of that, he will fail. He will probably even make things worse. What he needs to know is not what to do, but how to be. If you’re having a chronic problem in your life right now, chances are good that what you need to know is not what to do, but how to be. Doing comes out of being.
Jesus had a name for what is nearly always needed when we are stuck. He called it “repentance,” which literally means turning around and going in a different direction. Clients come into my office wanting me to give them a list of tools they can use to fix their problems without having to actually change directions. They are willing to change what they are doing, but they are not willing to change who they are. But doing comes out of being. They cannot make substantial changes to what they are doing without changing who they are.
This means that this husband in front of me will have to stop searching for things he can do to fix his marriage (which nearly always means acting in ways that will get HER to change), and take a few minutes to get quiet and do a massive mea culpa. He must look at his wife and consider all the pain she is in because of him. He must do this without excuses, without self-justification, without thoughts of his own pain. He must accept responsibility for much of her suffering. If he really does this, he will increasingly come to see her not as someone to be resisted and opposed but as someone who, like him, is locked in patterns of pain, fear, and failure. He will feel himself starting to have compassion for her, rather than looking on her as a means of meeting his own needs. Her pain – the pain he has caused her – will begin to cause him pain. When the pain he has caused his wife is now causing him pain, he has come to understand that every wound he inflicts on her he inflicts on himself.
He is now a very different human being than he was before. Before, techniques were tried as a way of getting her to change, done without compassion for her (and thus without love), in the expectation that she would change if he did. Now he approaches her with compassion, sees her as part of himself, and aches not only over the pain he has caused her, but over his inability to get through to her. Now his deepest desire is not simply that she won’t be mad at him, not simply that he’ll get credit for taking out the garbage yesterday, and not simply to win an argument. His deepest desire is for her. When a man’s deepest desire is fundamentally for his wife, she knows it. And she knows when it isn’t.
So it is not methods and techniques that are needed. It is repentance. It is changing one’s mind, going another direction, cultivating compassion for the other, putting an end to blaming and excuses, accepting full responsibility for one’s own failures and the pain one has inflicted on the other, and thereby coming to see one’s self in a brand new way – more honest, less glossy, and with more humility.