Sometimes what I want more than full-contact, potentially-messy friendships, is a thin veneer of friendliness—that periodic friendship high that gives me the feeling of being known without exposing any of my weaknesses or insecurities.
I want to share dinner and conversation with a friend, going deep, but not deep enough for her to see my fear that I am not worth other people’s time. I want a fulfilling small group, discussing how the Gospel transforms our parenting, ending with true-but-tired platitudes—even when I am at the end of my rope with myself for my critical nature with my children.
I want the high that comes from these times—a high that will sustain me until the next planned fellowship encounter, one that will push back the feelings of loneliness that press on all of us. Sometimes it starts to sink in again that humanity is lonely, even we who are children of God, who are blessed with loving family and friends, because the scourge of sin still isolates us. At those times I want to refill my tank of good relational feelings so I can deny the loneliness. And then I want to go back to the simple life of living independently and safely.
My husband always says that if someone has never felt wronged by him, it is because they do not know him well enough. We are all sinners, and we do hurt people. We do not excuse sin, but we can value the relational closeness that permits the vulnerability that allows the hurt. Most of all, we can be soberly glad at the chance to humble ourselves, repent, and be reconciled. We are sanctified through this process, in a way that nothing else will do.
We can and should pray in our quiet times for the Lord to make us holy, to free us from our hot-headedness, and to fill us with His compassion. We can and should study and memorize Scripture to fill our minds with truth concerning our areas of sin and weakness. Nevertheless, some changes simply will not happen outside of community.
How do we learn to love difficult people (knowing that we also can fit that description), aside from experiencing their awkwardness or brusqueness and cherishing them through it? How do we learn to forgive fully, aside from continually directing our energy toward the good of the other person, knowing how much we have been forgiven? How do we grow in patience, aside from being tried with frustration and calling out to God for mercy and help in the midst of it?
These things cannot be learned in isolation. They do not become the rhythm of our hearts merely in sterile contemplation. We grow into holiness as we bump into other sinners and depend more deeply on our grace-giving God.
My fleshly instinct when deeply hurt is to walk away from the relationship. On the field, however, we cannot always afford to do that. Our circles are too small and our relationships are too multi-purpose—and that is a good thing. It is a mercy that we cannot wave off a difficult relationship and start over somewhere else. This forces us to slog into the muddy puddles of working out the conflict. It is dirty and messy, but it is good for us.
The truth is, conflict just means we are close enough to people to crash into them. We know that an intimate, flourishing marriage involves working through healthy conflict; a complete lack of conflict is not actually a good sign. In the same way, a friendship or community with no conflict (at the very least the kind that can be quietly forgiven) is one that is not close enough to experience each other’s faults.
So what is the alternative? What is real friendship? It is scary. Relationships where I am truly seen leave me with no pretense about my goodness and greatness. My sins and my insecurities are revealed, and I lose the support I have come to expect from my self-protective façades.
As global workers, we face transition, loss, newness, and uncertainty. People move on, or else we do, and not everyone will be steadfast with us. Deep relationships may seem impossible, terrifying, or not worth the time and trouble.
What do we lose if we refuse these relationships? What do we gain if we welcome them?
It is rough to say yes. It is even rough sometimes with my husband, whom I love and trust more than anyone in the world. Sometimes, for him to see me as I truly am is alarming. I want to run and hide. I want to cover myself with metaphorical makeup and costumes so he will not see the warts and scars. Then he gently pulls my hands away from covering my face, looks me in the eye, and tells me I am precious to him.
How much more so does God do this? He uncovers our shame and heals it. He sees our ultimate reality, the slimy depths that no one on earth can fathom, and yet He calls us righteous and lovely. He does the unthinkable: He knows us truly and loves us completely.
Is it not our greatest fear that someone should know us to the core? What shocking delight we feel when God does precisely that, with tenderness that cares for our wounds and sicknesses instead of shrinking from them in horror.
The security we have in God’s love, not merited but given freely because of His Son’s death and resurrection, is the basis for our bravery in earthly friendships. We can pursue real relationship because we know we are ultimately safe in Him and wanted by Him.
Question to consider: What have you gained by welcoming real friendships?