I made it all the way through my CCEF internship but only partway through my first day as a full-fledged counselor before I had that dreaded counseling experience: the “one and done.” I was not surprised to get the news that he wasn’t returning. I knew I had blundered around in the session, but I still got that hot, embarrassed feeling as my cheeks went red when our scheduler told me. It was immediately confirmed in my mind: I said too much too fast, and I tried to soothe his fears by the sheer volume of my hopeful words. He was a man dying of thirst who needed sips of water, and I brought out the fire hose.

So what do you do when you lose your chance to help someone? This is the question I’ve been pondering since it happened. Here are a few reflections of what God is graciously teaching me in the wake of this disappointment.

I can thankfully say that it has not caused me to lose sleep. Yes, I have kicked myself a few times for not showing more patience and trust that God is the Savior and not me. Yet he has graciously reminded me that my counseling failures, like my successes, do not define who I am or how he sees me. He has protected me from self-recrimination, for which I am immensely grateful.

What’s more, I’ve learned a great deal from my mistakes already. Aaron Sironi, a resident counselor at CCEF, encouraged me to see that simply asking good questions is in itself an incarnation of hope. If my questions show I am not utterly lost or overwhelmed by what he’s telling me, it demonstrates concretely that I have hope for him. Tone of voice alone can tell a counselee that I really care for him. Sometimes being asked a question from a different perspective opens up a whole new vista that reorients everything about the present suffering. Yes, I do want to be able to speak about hope in Christ even the first time I talk with someone, but not as a substitute for listening. I actually display faith in Christ when I have the patience to hear someone out before jumping in to reassure them (and in all honesty I am mostly reassuring myself) that Christ can actually help! Living out hope in Christ through greater patience was probably the difference between the cup of cold water he needed and the torrent of generic sounding (and thus seemingly inapplicable) hope he got.

Yet at the same time, I see how I am tempted to make it all about me. If I had just been better, he’d be getting help now. How arrogant. I am realizing that I actually insult him when I make his decision dependent on my skill, as if he were merely a machine I was operating. Who knows what reasons he has for not coming back? It may have nothing to do with me at all. Maybe he saw that running to the Lord in a time of darkness would mean he wasn’t in control and he chose to cope on his own. Maybe he thought I was taking his problems too lightly because I talked about God’s comfort in suffering—not getting him out of suffering. I don’t know, but the Lord does, and he has moved my heart to continue praying for this man even though I’ll likely never see him again. This in turn has revealed much about my own struggle to trust that God really is the one changing people and not me! It seems I’d much rather supervise God’s work, keeping him where I can see what he’s doing and making sure he’s getting it right.

I know I have more to process here, but I have seen God using this event to remind me that this is his ministry, not mine, for his glory, not mine, by his power, not mine. And I’ve been blessed with greater peace and patience with subsequent counselees as a result.