Younger and Older: Counseling Women

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One morning last week, after tossing and turning and unsuccessfully trying to fall back to sleep, I rose out of bed early and came out to the kitchen with my journal to pray. I wrote, “I feel like I’m too much for people right now. I’m so needy for love and wisdom and healing- desperate to bear my soul and hear words of truth and love. But, I feel like that is just too much- the layers are too deep, too much to burden anyone with. It would just suck the life out of friendships.”

Am I the only one who feels this way sometimes? Or maybe this why we have such a booming counseling business in our country?  Somehow, we know that in order to overcome what is inside it needs to be exposed to someone else. We need to reveal the reality of who we are and we desperately want to find grace and understanding. But we don’t want to risk hurting our friendships by exposing too much neediness or vulnerability. So, we pay to have someone on our side and if we give them money, and make it a professional service, we don’t have to feel guilty about the burden we also hand them.

I think there is a good place and a need for professional counselors, along with their training and skills that give them insight and the ability to teach helpful ways of coping with difficult things. But, I’m becoming more and more passionate about the kind of counseling that I have seen continually transform my darkest days of life into fruit-bearing and light shining seasons.

When I was in college I read a book about spiritual mothering. I don’t remember a lot about it, other than it left me longing for a mature Christian woman to take me under her wing. I wanted someone who would be committed to helping me grow, be invested in my life and a resource to come to with all my questions and needs.  She would of course be wise, and would have likely homeschooled her own large brood of children, could clean, cook, garden, organize and decorate, and she would check in on me frequently and offer her jewels of wisdom and practical assistance at just the right times. As a young wife, realizing that marriage, even to your best friend, was more complicated than I thought, and then as a young, exhausted mother, this longing turned into an idol in my heart. If only I had that ‘spiritual mother’, someone with all the answers and able to devote time to teaching me how to be a wife and mother, then I would be a better Christian. I would grow. I would be healthy.

It’s a misplaced hope to think that one person could swoop in and meet all of our emotional and practical needs. That spiritual mother I was looking for didn’t exist. I felt like God was withholding something good from me for a long time, when really, he had provided something much better that I just didn’t recognize. He made me a part of a diverse, beautiful, growing church. Last week, I once again overcame that fear of revealing my mess and leaned hard into relationship. And, once again, I was left in awe of the wisdom of God in placing us in community. I came away with a better understanding of what was at the heart of my problem, and a deeper appreciation for the friends God has placed in my path as counselors, along with a deeper love of the gospel, which gives insight into human nature, and helps us to not be surprised by sin and brokenness. Not to mention, my friends make me laugh. What a gift from a happy God.

In the book of Titus in the Bible, the church is given a model for how the older women are to teach, or counsel, the younger women. I find that I’m both that older and younger woman now… somewhere in the middle and so blessed to be both walking with women in seasons that I’ve already experienced, while also learning from the wisdom and experience of women a step, or a few steps, ahead. I have something I would love to say to both…

To the younger women:

First, please be brave. As hard and as intimidating as it is, you need to reach out to more mature women you respect. You need to ignore the thoughts in your head that tell you that they are too busy, you are too insignificant, or that you would be a bother. If you are living in a season we’ve already been through, your problems don’t scare us. But, you need to take the initiative and the risk in reaching out. Too often, we as older women don’t assume you need or want our counsel because we don’t always recognize either your need or our insight.

Also, please be open-handed. Don’t let your need for counsel develop into a utilitarian view of women with some experience and insight that you want to learn from. Remember that they are your sisters in Christ, in need of the encouragement and friendship you can offer as well. Look for ways to bless them, especially through your prayers for them. And, as you pray, God will mature your heart at the same time. You will take their burdens, some that you haven’t faced yet– like an empty nest or the care of an aging parent– and your heart will wrestle with these issues on their behalf. You will be more ready to face them yourself someday because of your faithful prayers for older women. Look for ways to bless and care for them even as you let them know how much you need their love and counsel.

And that is so important… let it be known. Be honest. Go beyond the point of comfort. Peel back a layer beyond the one that feels safe and experience grace and love entering into a deeper place.  Even if you feel like you are taking more than you’re giving, keep asking. It will bear fruit and before you know it you will be that older woman yourself, pouring out what you have received.  Be brave.

To the older women:

Please be kind. Please notice the younger women around you and ask them how you can be praying for them. They want to tell you and they need your prayers coming from a place of understanding.

If you understand the gospel, and it is the hope you cling to for all of life, then you are both qualified and needed to give counsel to younger women. The gospel allows you to step in with the truth about hope: that hope comes from God loving us in the midst of the messes. You have no idea how much just the fact that you have survived the season we’re in means to us younger women. There’s hope for us. And, if you’re honest about your failings along the way, that’s even better and gives us even more hope… we aren’t alone in our failures.

Please be careful of how you speak about others. We’re listening, and if we hear you divulging personal information about others or speaking disparagingly, we won’t feel safe coming to you with the things that are closest to our hearts. But, if you let us see your heart for others, and it’s one of grace, and your words communicate your care and concern, we will want to be added to those you know and love. 

Maybe sometimes we try your patience with our immaturity. Please keep being patient. In seasons to come, there will likely be the most fruit hanging from the branches that need the most growth now. Those are the areas the gospel still needs to penetrate and transform. Speak truth into our lives gently but boldly. We younger women don’t want to think we are right all the time about what we are thinking or feeling; we want to know the truth that brings hope- the truth that we are sometimes wrong and messed up but that we’re still loved and that God will keep working in those areas.

Remember, we don’t need perfection. We just really need your presence and availability. Take us seriously when we send you an email or make a phone call to tell you we are struggling and need counsel.  It means the perceived need is significant because it is so intimidating to take that step. Please be kind.

So, those are the things burdening my heart for both younger and older Christian women. They are coming from a passion that continues to grow and longs to see the church –the community of God’s people– thriving as a place where life-transforming counseling takes place in natural relationships being strengthened with His supernatural love.

But, even with that passion growing, I know that these relationships are imperfect. That morning, while I was sitting in the quiet kitchen, afraid to burden my friends, as I prayed I was reminded of another Counselor. One we don’t reveal ourselves to, but One who reveals us to ourselves.

In the sixteenth chapter of John’s summary of the life of Christ, the words of Jesus are recorded for us. He told his disciples that he had to leave, but that it was for their benefit that He would no longer be physically present with them. Shortly after this, Jesus died on the cross, paying with death the cost of sin and breaking its power to separate us from God. His sacrifice and life dramatically changed how God’s people would commune with Him. It was a turning point in all of history. There was a reconciliation so deep that not only can our sins be forgiven, but the Holy Spirit can draw so close that He abides in us and teaches us truth. He is our ultimate Counselor.

When I am feeling lost or puzzled, broken or hopeless, tired or frustrated, insecure or anxious, or any of the other countless emotions we as humans will experience, the first and perfect Counselor I need is God who has made his abode right here with me; He is here, always available, always wise, always pouring out truth and grace and always coming with life transforming, undeserved love. All because Jesus paid my counseling fee in full. I don’t have to worry about burdening Him beyond what He can handle, because He held the burden of the sin of the world on the cross. I don’t have to worry about Him growing weary with me, or giving up on me, because He chose to make me His when I was repulsively stuck in self-centered sin. He says He will stay with me and carry me through to completion. He knew me before I took my first breath, and he knows who I will be after my last breath is exhaled. Isn’t that encouraging truth? We are known and we are loved by the only one who knows us completely and can love us perfectly. That is transforming truth and that is the message of our deepest counsel to one another.

You have searched me, Lord,

and you know me.

You know when I sit and when I rise;

you perceive my thoughts from afar.

You discern my going out and my lying down;

you are familiar with all my ways.

Before a word is on my tongue

you, Lord, know it completely.

You hem me in behind and before,

and you lay your hand upon me.

Psalm 139:1-5

The Path Home

I’m sure I first fell in love with my husband on a walk in the woods. Which walk I can’t say because there were so many that first summer. We’d pull on long sleeves and pants over our shorts before climbing on his motorcycle (no need to mention the motorcycle part to our kids!) and then be off. Most often our trip would partly consist of being jarred uncomfortably along a dirt road leading to a far part of the woods in northern Maine (north of Bangor anyway). There was the memorable ‘appliance graveyard’ hike where we wound ourselves through a plot of old refrigerators, ovens and other remnants left to rust in the woods and ended up on a boulder in the wilderness as the sun set and darkness settled. Then, the coyotes started howling and we howled back in a conversation only they understood.

Often on our adventures we would look for a mountain to climb and then sit victorious at the top, looking west as the sun set and watching the stars come out. We’d see the distant glow of light from a town far away and feel like we were somehow separate from the rest of breathing, drudging humanity; closer somehow to the coyotes and stars. Maybe it was the effect of sitting with someone who was gently being revealed as the man I would be united with for life, or the stillness in the cooling air, but those moments after the sun set seemed to stand still. They were miniature eternities where time seemed peeled away and I felt that all that had come before in my life and all that would follow, even for generations, was surrounding us as we sat together. They were moments when we would speak in whispers even though there were miles stretched between us and any other listening ear.

But then, a breeze would break through with an extra chill, or a mosquito would bite and one of us would have to look at our watch and time came back.  We would have to make our way back down the mountain.  Always without a flashlight we’d start back down the rocky, often unfamiliar trail.  He always led the way and I remember being thankful for his white t-shirt reflecting the little bit of moonlight on a particularly dark night.  Ours was an unordinary falling in love.  He didn’t hold my hand until the following winter when he placed a diamond on one of my fingers.  So instead of a finger grip, my eyes stayed fixed on this man as we made our way down.  With the night closed in around us, in a far and unfamiliar wood, I just kept moving one foot in front of the other.  There were stumbles, branch scratches and the occasional fearful shiver when I thought about the dark trail behind me. But my eyes kept searching and fixing themselves on the man I trusted leading me home.

Years have gone by, babies born, boxes packed and unpacked and here I find I’ve followed him into the woods once more. The trees surround our cabin-house and we can watch the sun set over distant hills in the west. Instead of just two adventurers there are nine of us now and someone often speaks the words, “Let’s go for a walk in the woods.”

This is a sweet, happy, busy life we’ve been blessed with. But this isn’t all.   I have unwrapped countless gifts in this life.  I have been blessed with the fulfillment of nearly all the dreams I had as a young girl.  But strangely I’ve found them wanting.  The greatest joy in this life is dulled by the brokenness of living in a world where sin and death have entered in.  Its the pain of holding a great treasure in your hand only to watch it fading slowly away.

This life, with all its blessing, is being used up.  We can grasp it only to have it slip through our fingers. My hope isn’t found by looking at the great gifts in my life though I am deeply thankful, beyond words, for each one.  My hope comes from remembering that I’m not really home yet.  I’m on a path where even my dearest, most beloved friend can’t blaze the way. 

Ultimately, the journey my soul makes through this life is not one I make as a wife or a mother or a sister or a friend, but I am journeying on this path as a follower of Jesus.  He said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”   His road home isn’t always what I would naturally choose for myself or for those I love.  Sometimes I think there must be some other way.  I start looking for hope in some other place but always there is emptiness and a darkness when I turn my face away from Him.  Its like trying to satisfy my thirst by eating sand.  I get more parched and long again for the life giving water.

I can’t escape that I am a believer.  A questioning, praying, stumbling, fumbling in the dark, believer.

But he keeps calling and there is grace.  “Light is sown for the righteous and joy for the upright in heart.” (Psalm 97:11)  He calls me, covers me with his own righteousness and lights my way.  This gospel is simple and hard and so often I feel like I can only see a glimmer.  It’s a bit of light springing up along the path like a seed that was sown.  It’s the encouragement to keep following.  It’s the seed of light that grows into faith and blossoms into joy.

So, here I am, just starting to share my journey, hoping that those little seeds of light in my life might send a glimmer of hope to another soul like me, in a far wood but on the path leading Home.