December 01, 2006

The Art of Peeling Onions by Elsie Montgomery

Ever examine an onion? An arduous art. You peel back layers. Your eyes water. Soon tears blur your vision.

Ever examine a soul? An arduous art. You peel back layers. Your eyes water. Soon tears blur your vision.

At least mine do. So I cannot . . . no, I refuse to be a counselor. Good counseling is the arduous art of peeling layers of the soul.

“Clients” seldom expect that. They come initially because relationships are breaking down. What worked for them no longer works. They want me to help them make it work again. They have no thought to change, only return to what once worked, they think. This failure must be another onion’s fault, they say.

Probing, I first discover that they have a thin skin, but hardened by exposure to dirt and little sunshine. Objective sympathy gains their confidence. Soon they tell me about themselves, about what the other person did, then what other people did. Together, we peel the layers.

Finally, without warning, somewhere deep inside under the layers, a lump appears. Is it a hard stone? Or a blob of clay? It sprays out foul odors. I realize this gave the onion its odd external shape, made it deformed on the outside. The onion rocks back and forth. It is small now, exposed and in pain.

The lump begs expression. The onion tells me this foul wound is from someone they thought loved them. They trusted this one, but trust was betrayed. This important person hurt them at the deepest place, under their layers. Both I and the onion fight tears.

At this point, clients begin resistance. I have peeled too deep. My counsel will now remind them of their pain only. I assure them it can be healed. They pull back, unsure, afraid of false promises?

I want to tell them this painful place can become a source of life. That is not what they resist. Is it change? Do they want to be a lumpy onion, with many layers and a tough skin?

They make an appointment for more counseling but they never keep it. Instead, they flee leaving the dry, transparent parchment of their layers—and me—crying.

How can the church help its members as they counsel one another? Assuming that a congregation is relating well and loving one another, this mutual sharing and caring will happen. Getting through the layers to the pain buried deep inside is difficult, yet once there, counseling often ends because the only solution to their pain is forgiveness, and forgiveness is often misunderstood.

The biblical concept of forgiveness is far from the world’s idea of “forgive and forget.” Of course God removes our sin as far as the east is from the west. He put them on Christ and refuses to hold them against us. He never brings them up even though He may allow their consequences. But He does not forget. Instead He bore the pain.

Sally cannot do that. Her church did something she considers unforgivable. She left it, but hasn’t stopped talking about it; what they did, how awful it was, how justified she is to be deeply and profoundly angry. The church apologized, asked her forgiveness. She would not grant it. What more could they do? They moved on. Sally sits and sours. Her pain and anger slowly becomes bitterness. Her friends, at least those who share her faith, now avoid her. The others add one more reason to their excuses why they are not interested in church or Christianity.

While bearing pain can be expressed as a callous ‘suck it up’ we still need that exhortation. God’s goal for us is to be like His Son, yet becoming like Jesus includes the cross. While we cannot atone for the sins of others (nor need to), when someone sins against us, He feels the pain. When Saul persecuted Christians, Jesus said, “Why are you persecuting me?” He knows. He is with us in it.

Jesus did not retaliate, fight back, point fingers. Instead, He “submitted to the Father who judges righteously” and let God take care of those who drove the nails. He suffered rather than retaliate.

Jesus did not internalize His pain either. He felt the awful sting of betrayal to its full measure, saying, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.”

The pain of those we counsel may not be so noble. Perhaps they have fought back. Perhaps they inflicted retaliation against their tormenter, fully realizing that the person who hurt them knew very well what they were doing. Human conflict is seldom tidy or the problem totally one-sided. No matter. The answer, though not easy, is still the same.

The pain of conflict between members of the church does require counseling, but it also requires a deep understanding of what it is that Jesus has done for us. When I peel onions, I better be thinking of how Jesus gently works with me, how He knows when to ease up, when to prob more deeply. I must also remember that while those in pain need someone to cry with them, they also need someone to challenge them. God’s solution to abuse, betrayal, abandonment, and any other pain afflicted by someone else, is eventually and always forgiveness.

© Elsie Montgomery


  1. Hi Elsie. I agree forgiveness is key, and that it's misunderstood. Somewhere recently I read (perhaps in John & Stasi Eldredge's Captivating)that forgiveness doesn't mean saying what happened was okay. It just means choosing to release it and not be bound by it. As you point out, usually when we're hurt we respond in a less-than-Christlike way. We need to admit that to God without further blaming the instigator, and we need to confess and ask forgiveness. Praise God He's faithful to forgive and cleanse!

    Something that's helped me with my own little bumps in the onion is to visualize Jesus gently reaching to touch the wound, to clean it like a parent with a child. Despite the instinct to shrink away, if I hold still, His touch is gentle and healing.

  2. Jesus is always the answer, isnt' He! Seeing Him as He is, knowing what He is like. I took one course at Bible college on counseling, only because I had to. There I found out why it is so difficult. I still feel this is the toughest task, and am in awe of those who do it well. I know that no one can get to the heart successfully without being close to the Counselor and filled with His grace.


  3. Hi Elsie,

    What a thought provoking piece. I learned early in my Christian walk, I had to ask forgiveness for my sins and also forgive all who had hurt me. I struggled as memories of certain persons popped into my mind; especially the woman who my husband left me for. But I was able to hug this woman at my daughter's wedding a few years ago, and completely forgive, as Jesus forgave me.

    Within the family of God it is sad when we cannot grasp what Jesus did for us and to know the ultimate is always forgiveness.

  4. Yes, yes. Forgiveness is key. How many psychological problems and relationships would be healed with that type of counselling! Like James Dobson says, "Love must be tough". But you've also shown tenderness. Thanks Elsie!


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