A few years ago I was working as a group counselor in an intensive addiction program. Part of our program was to require participants to attend Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) and / or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meeting in addition to our sessions 3 times a week. If you know anything about the 12 steps of AA, you know that within the first 3 steps there is much in the way of allowing God to work in a person’s life.
And so it was that an atheist joined our group, and immediately had a problem with the requirement because of his belief system. To make this stand he would be going directly in violation of the rules of participation in the program and because of his connection with the local probation department this meant he was risking jail. That is true determination.
I had several choices here: I could refuse to accomadate his viewpoint and allow this issue to stand in his way of getting the help that he could certainly use and avoid jail time. I could also lie down and let him walk all over the rules and therefore open the door to even more problems from the rest of the group. Fortunately those were not the only options.
Instead I listened. We talked about his fears, his concerns, and the life that he had spent that crossed paths with unfeeling and judgemental people who called themselves Christian. He was let down by members of churches who claimed to be followers of Jesus. And hearing that, I couldn’t help but have compassion for him. With that level of respect that was developed and nurtured through my efforts to deeply and honestly listen to his story, we came to an agreement. He agreed to attend meetings for the duration of his time in the program to satisfy the requirement.
Most of the time addiction counselors never hear from clients again unless something bad happens. On a Friday several months later I left an all-staff meeting and the receptionist handed me a business card and told me that someone was looking for me and wanted me to call. Recognizing the name I was not especially eager to call, but did and left a voice mail. A few days later he appeared in my office, and the purpose of his visit changed my life.
“Aaron, I just want you to know that I would never have been able to beat this if it were not for you.” Obviously I wanted to know what I did, and his answer was crystal clear. “You paid attention to me and acknowledged me and my life. I have to say that I have never met another person who called themselves a Christian that actually took the time to listen. I am not going to AA anymore, but I am still clean and sober. And because of our relationship, I am starting to rethink my beliefs. Still not sure about God, but am certainly open to that possiblity, thanks to you.”
Okay, so he’s not a Christian. But listening, really listening and development of authentic and genuine relationship made all the difference.