An Agonizing Mercy

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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"This teacher asked me questions because he wanted to know me and he wanted me to know myself," writes Lucille Zimmerman for our series The Power of Good Questions. She notes that Jesus, too, asked questions; he went beyond the surface in order to bring healing.

On a whim I sent my professor a note asking, "How can I stop chewing my fingernails?"

I was ticked when he responded to my email with a question of his own: “Do you think it might be connected to the same reasons you sign your name with a lower case l?”

I was a new student in the master of arts in counseling program at Colorado Christian University, scared and unsure about whether I had the academic qualifications to complete a master's degree. I knew I wanted to help others, so I’d taken the risk to go back to school.

It didn't occur to me that while studying the art of counseling, I might have to address my own story—a story that included loss, trauma, and boundary violations I'd spent thirty-seven years trying to bury. I didn't realize some pain doesn't stay buried. The more we try to compact it down with the busyness of life, the more the toxic juices leak out in the form of depression, anxiety, phobias, substance abuse, eating disorders, and more.

It makes me laugh now to think my professor might have responded with an easy method for eradicating a symptom that signaled wounds much deeper than sore fingers.

Instead, his question about my name irritated me. "How dare he?" I thought. "He knows nothing about why I sign my name lucille. It's the way I humble myself and point others towards God."

Healing Questions

I was mad that he didn't give me an answer. Madder still that he'd answered my question with a question.

Jesus did that, too. We know from the Gospels that Jesus taught and commanded, but he also asked nearly three hundred questions. Most of us understand that questions cause us to grapple and reflect. But have you ever thought about questions as a path to deeper intimacy?

If my teacher had responded with a Yahoo article on how to stop chewing my fingernails, or even if he had made a statement such as, "Lucille, I think you have some anxiety," my growth may have stalled and so would the intimacy process.

This teacher asked me questions because he wanted to know me and he wanted me to know myself. His question stirred the deep recesses of my psyche. The stirring caused memories to come to the surface, where I was forced to address them.

Over the next two years, I would routinely stop by his office where the questions continued:

"That was a huge assault against you, wasn't it?"

"Lucille, what is that person telling you about himself?" (Not about you!)

"Where are you?" (Like God asked Adam, when he'd hidden in the garden.)

"What if you don't need your protective shell?"

"Can you think of how that behavior served you in the past?"

An Agonizing Mercy

This professor brought me into a world where I had to feel instead of numb the pain. Naming my pain was an agonizing mercy. His questions pushed me into a space that involved risk and speaking up, a place that initially immersed me in shame but later rescued me from it.

The more I talked, the more my teacher cheered me on and poured out love. He was the essence of Christ to me. Through his questions I had the experience of being seen, heard, and understood.

Now that I’m a counselor, the tables have turned. I ask my clients questions as I learned by example to do.

Sometimes a client gazes at me in astonishment and can't answer, and that’s okay. I remember the feeling and still feel it myself from time to time. But I trust that if I ask and wait and truly listen with my heart, the answers will almost always speak for themselves.