Self-restraint and bearing witness

You are my witnesses.

What does that mean?

For many years I thought it meant being prepared at the drop of a hat to share the gospel with any and everyone who might look lost.

Then I started volunteering as a care group leader with an organization called Changing Lives Ministries. The leader was a dynamic and complicated woman who had a zeal for God and a talent for working with wounded people. My first care group was in my home. Men, all men, came once a week to work at something most men have difficulty doing - opening themselves up to other men, examining their lives, concerns, issues, and insecurities. There existed in this group an intimacy and levels of conversation that I found amazing. Later, when I went to work for Changing Lives as the Associate Director, I had another men's group. Like the first group, men came on a weekly basis to share their lives with other men. They dynamic in the second group was even more amazing than the first, with men displaying courage and vulnerability to such a degree that the group bonded almost immediately. The group met for almost two years and in that time, I discovered what it meant to be a witness - to bear witness. This discovery had a profound impact on my understanding of healing partnerships and ultimately taught me the role self-restraint plays in listening and responding.

It was 11 years from my first care group until the day I closed the doors on my own counseling practice. In that 11 years I bore witness to hundreds of men and couples in individual and group counseling settings. People often ask me if I left because I got tired of hearing people talk about their problems. This question always amazes me because I never thought of myself as merely listening to problems.

Each person I saw was like a book. Between the covers were pages of narrative embedded in unique settings, energized with compelling dialogue, and imbued with lifelike characters. Imagine sitting down on any given day with Tolstoy, Tolkein, Steinbeck, and Uris. Imagine entering into 5-10 worlds on any given day.

Imagine becoming so familiar with those worlds, their characters, and their complex stories that you see yourself as a soul traveler - someone who is transported through space and time to past, present and future all in the space of 90 minutes or so.

Imagine stepping on the virgin ground of someone's heart - seeing with them for the first time what they have never seen.

Imagine meeting someone else's most plaguing demon at the moment that person learns to bring truth's light to his darkest secrets.

If you can imagine these things, then you can how difficult it might be not to want to turn the pages of someone's life faster than they want them to be turned. I can't tell you the number of times someone led me deep into their personal story only to close the book at the most interesting part.

I could, and have, filled books with things I learned being a counselor but for this entry I want to say something about the important and positive role self-restraint plays in healing partnerships. Imagine being in a relationship where every time you ran into self-doubt, fear, or uncertainty - you got rescued. Imagine that your rescuer never left your side - never let you get hurt. Imagine this constant protector had answers to all of your questions and solutions for all of your problems. Imagine yourself never knowing what it is like to be alone. What do you suppose would be the outcome? How would you be different today and what would your relationships look like?

As nice as this probably sounds (we often imagine God in the most ideal sense as being this kind of presence in our lives) how long do you think it would be before you started to feel confined, suffocated, micromanaged, even violated?

I'm not proposing that one should never benefit from intervention - and God knows there are times in each of our lives where being rescued in a true moment of crisis is damn wonderful! To be left to our own resources always and in every situation is cruel abandonment.

But in many situations when we are given time, support, space to sort things out, and helpful feedback, we appreciate the self-restraint that others exercise to keep a proper distance between their impulse to rescue and our impulse to grab the first flotsam that floats our way.

While working with many people in many ages and stages of life, I discovered that my measured self-restraint was as powerful as my empathy. When applied in concert, restraint and empathy work like a lighthouse beacon - a flash and a pause - helping the lost traveler avoid danger while steering his soul's ship through treacherous seas. I learned that people trusted me as much for what I did not do as for what I did. "You didn't jump into my mess and tell me to clean it up right away - you gave me time to sort through my own piles."

The seeds of thought for why God might exercise restraint in situations where we might think He should rush in were planted during my years of working as a counselor. Over time, I began to ask myself if God's self-restraint wasn't His most misunderstood and even least written about attribute. For me, self-restraint in the face of another person's suffering can be agonizing. It has led to deep soul-searching and troubling questions about justice, fairness, and "there but by the Grace of God go I." It becomes clear that the question is not, "Will I suffer like this person or that person?" but when I do suffer, "How will I view God's restraint and what will my faith tell me His lack of rescuing intervention means?"

Since I am not God and less skilled at knowing when and when not to rescue, I have adopted the policy, "When in doubt, pull someone out!" But I admit, in hindsight, that my rushing in (while doing wonders for my own anxiety and guilt) did not do great favors for the person I so valiently rescued. So...I am learning about restraint and understanding (still dimly) that if I am going to learn to love the way God loves, I must learn a lot more about the power of self-restraint.

To bear witness is to be burdened with watching someone's story unfold. We know what will happen on the next page given what we see on the current page. We see the sacred opportunity to rescue or to hold back. We care so much it keeps us up at night. We feel so great an affinity that we lose ourselves. And we wonder if God isn't cruel to hold back as much as he does. And we grow less superhuman, more simply human. And we find that there is nothing harder, more wonderful, more challenging in life than being His witness.

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