The Arrogance of Diagnosis

diagnosisOne of the sobering things I’ve learned in my years of coaching is that I’m not nearly as good as I thought I was at diagnosis: identifying God’s agenda in a person’s life. I discovered how poor I was at diagnosis when I began to really listen to people. Oh, I listened before when someone came to me for help: for a few minutes. But I was never very far into the conversation before I began to formulate a diagnosis of what the problem was and what needed to be done about it. While the other person was talking, I’d be engineering strategies in my head to fix the problem. Once I had a diagnosis, my listening became less and less about hearing the person’s heart, and more and more about looking for confirmation of my pre-existing conclusions—and for an opening to direct the conversation toward my answers.

In ministry we’ve gotten the idea that our discernment allows us to rapidly pinpoint another person’s difficulties and prescribe an ideal solution. In this way of thinking, the more mature or “spiritual” we are, the more quickly and accurately we can intervene. If people would only follow our godly counsel and focus on the important issues we’ve confronted them with, they’d be able to live victoriously. While we certainly should aspire to grow in wisdom and discernment, is this the way we should employ it?

I struggled with a sleep disorder ever since my teenage daughter was born. For years, I could never seem to get a really good night’s sleep. I tried stress reduction, diet, exercise, doctors, herbal remedies, earplugs, prayer, quoting Scripture, medication, a chiropractor, buying a $1000 mattress—the works. After years of asking God to heal me, it began to dawn on me that much of the power of my ministry came out of my struggle with always being tired. I understand what it is like to try to change when all you have the energy to do is collapse on the couch and watch TV. Ironically, being unable to sleep has turned out to be one of God’s greatest gifts to me. I’ve wondered if Paul had a similar experience with his thorn in the flesh. When he came to see his weakness as a gift, he began to understand that when he was most inadequate the power of God was most fully revealed in him.

I often shared about my sleep problem in public settings to catalyze authenticity. I wasn’t really looking for help—I was simply sharing the reality of my life. But inevitably someone would come up to me with their diagnosis; tell me that if I would only take this vitamin or pray this special prayer or count sheep—if I’d justdo the thing that worked for them, my problems would be a thing of the past. I wish the solution was that easy!

There is arrogance in diagnosing a problem a person has lived with for 10 years in two minutes. Are we saying that the person is too passive and apathetic to have even tried to come up with a solution? Or is it that we are so much more spiritually mature that we can see in an instant what they’ve missed for years? This form of spiritual one-upmanship is endemic in ministry. One of the things I love about coaching is that it’s a way to work with others that honors their ability to hear God for themselves. Coaching is totally different than most of what we do in ministry, in that it is directed by the discernment of the client. It looks to the client to set the agenda and solve the problems, not the coach. The coach doesn’t need a diagnosis because coaching isclient-centered.

Tony Stoltzfus is a best-selling author, leadership coach, master coach trainer and director of Leadership Metaformation Institute. Check out additional coaching resources at