What I wanted was a sofa. What I got was a tale of woe. As I stood in awkward silence, listening to her talk about everything but sofas, I realized she was illustrating a lesson I need to learn as much as she does. I mentioned a couple of days ago that I have been struggling with this ongoing medical issue and the pain that comes along with it. I do not intend to make this a regular theme on the blog, but so often the Lord uses our real-world circumstances to teach us important truths, and this seems to be one of those times.
I need a new sofa. I need something I can sit on or lounge in and be comfortable. That sofa will need to have at least one key feature—it will need to have a high back that offers adjustable neck support. As we walked into the nearby furniture store, and as the saleswoman approached, I thought it would make sense to get that one feature on the table right away. Why look at all the couches when only a few could fit the bill?
But then it happened. The moment she heard “neck support,” a look came over her face, and I could tell she had something she wanted to talk about. And, sure enough, for the next several minutes, she told me how to fix my condition. Because she has experienced neck pain in the past, she knew what was going on with me, she knew all I had done wrong in my attempts to treat it, she knew why the doctors had failed in their attempts to treat it, and she knew exactly the solution—hydrotherapy, a course of true Eastern-style acupuncture, and a diet free from all gluten and processed sugars. I stood and listened patiently like a polite Canadian ought to do. Then another potential customer caught her eye, so she waved us in the vague direction of the few sofas that would meet our criteria, and hustled off to help someone else. We meandered for a few minutes then slipped away and went elsewhere.
It’s just a silly and harmless situation, but it’s one I understood as God’s helpful way of illustrating where I can go just as wrong. After all, I am often asked to provide counsel to friends, family, and fellow church members, and know I am prone to making many of the same mistakes.
The first is the most obvious: She did not ask any questions. The sum total of her data was “neck support,” but from that starting point, and without knowing the least detail of my condition, she talked for a solid few minutes. She assumed so much, but knew so little. And it reminds me that in order to speak helpfully, I need to diagnose accurately. And in order to diagnose accurately, I need to ask good questions. There’s not only one kind of neck pain. There is not only one kind of emotional trauma. There is not only one kind of spiritual pain. I need to patiently and carefully draw people out before attempting to recommend even the least action. To quote Solomon, “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.”
The second thing that stands out is she somehow made my problem all about her. She herself had experienced neck pain, and the great majority of what she said in our brief interaction was a description of all she had endured. Her problem was of a completely different nature than mine, but she didn’t know that because, as I said, she asked no questions. And I know this is a temptation in any interaction—to make a subtle switch from listening to speaking, from attentively listening to someone else to proudly speaking about myself. It’s too easy to make any conversation all about me.
And then there’s this: She failed to offer the help she could uniquely offer. I did not need a doctor or a counselor. I needed a sofa salesperson. What she had the unique ability to do for me, she failed to do. Instead of solving the problem she could solve, she attempted to solve a problem she could not solve. She missed the opportunity to sell a sofa and earn a commission, but even more so, she missed the opportunity to put her unique knowledge and ability to work. And I know I’ve too often done the same—instead of being who God has called me to be (and, therefore, admitting the many limitations of my knowledge and abilities) I’ve tried to be something else. Where God has gifted me, I can and should offer those gifts for the benefit of others. But I serve best when I serve within my gifts and abilities, not outside them.
It’s not that difficult, is it? Listen. Draw out. Empathize. Listen some more. Then take action or make recommendations only as I am equipped and in a way consistent with my vocation.