When You Don’t Know What To Say

I’ve always loved reading Mark’s account of the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-13) and in the midst of one of the most glorious supernatural encounters with the human Jesus to read one of the most silly natural encounters with the human Peter.  There go Peter, James, and John up the mountain with Jesus.  They see this guy they’d shared meals with now become radiantly white and full of glorious beauty right before their eyes.  He is having a conversation with a couple of the great dead guys of the Bible – Elijah and Moses.  And what happens next? Worship, fear, silence? No … Peter opens his mouth.  “Rabbi, it is good that we are here.  Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah” (9:5).  My sense of this? “This is so cool Jesus, thanks for bringing us with you so we could see you like this.  It’s neat to see Moses and Elijah too.  I’ve gotta do something to help here, how about we build you tents to rest in”.  Really? Peter had just witnessed glory face to face and the best he can come up with is tents? Like men of such glory need to rest, like they’d rather retreat to isolation that enjoy the fellowship they were having, like they needed help from Peter if they did want tents to rest in.  What was Peter thinking? Why did Peter say this? Well, Mark tells us – “For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified” (9:6). 

I know by now that one of the marks of proud people who have helping gifts is that they feel the great need to speak more than they should (Yes, I’m referring to me).  We (yes, now I’m including some of you too) think that people need our input, need our direction, need our truth-speaking … and in many cases they do.  But all to often, rather than taking time to pray, reflect, and formulate Godly counsel, we just speak because (1) We genuinely believe it will help, and (2) It genuinely makes us feel like we helped.  So here are a couple items to consider in our well-intentioned and often poorly-executed speaking:

Be Quicker to Listen 

Yes I know, I didn’t come up with that.  “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19).  Do everything you can to make sure that when you speak you are speaking to the right thing.  That requires listening, active listening.  But did you know that active listening requires speaking? More to the point, active listening requires asking questions.  When you ask questions you are forced to think about not only what is being said, but what isn’t being said.  You have to consider who this person is, where they are coming from, and what it is that they most are needing.  When you ask good questions you are forcing yourself to resist the urge to make assumptions, think you know what they are saying, and offer a quick remedy.  Asking good questions does more than just get at information, it actually in-and-of-itself says, “I care!”  You don’t see yourself as their savior, fixer, or teacher … you just see yourself as their friend.

Offer Observations not Answers

If Peter had taken in what was happening a bit longer, and even talked out loud about what he saw rather than offer a “to-do”, it might have helped him better understand the scenario he was in.  Perhaps rather than providing an answer he would have observed that falling on his face was a better response that looking for tent pegs.  We all process information differently.  Some of us are auditory processors and we think through situations as we talk them out.  Others of us need to write things out to see on paper pros and cons, possible solutions or fixes.  And others of us just need time to soak it in, the processing comes slowly over a period of time.  Whichever the case may be, processing the situation is needed prior to applying our “fix it skills” to those we are looking to be a help to.  As we make observations, we are forced to reckon with our own presuppositions, our own experiences and story.  It makes us reflect a little more on the silly things people have said to us that weren’t helpful in our need, and hopefully prevent us from repeating that mistake.

Think Long-Term over Quick-Fix

If we enter into conversations with the goal being that we want to actually walk with this person and not just quickly move them on their way, we will not feel as urgent about the right information getting passed on.  We will be quicker to identify with the suffering they are facing.  We will be more sympathetic to the complexity of the circumstances they are involved in.  We will be prayerful about the help coming from the Spirit of God.  Rarely does solid, Biblical, helpful counsel come out in a one-time, thirty-minute conversation.  Truth can be spoken and obedience commended, but they, like us, are people in process … and process takes time.  So think about how to ask questions and make observations today so that you get to do it with them again tomorrow.

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