How to feed the kind of relationships where people feel secure enough to be vulnerable
I'm a blogger, a Facebook-er. I spill my guts for the online world, for friends I haven't seen since Sowers Elementary. Still, I see how one can be "authentic" in a status update and still have lots of wiggle room for intimate, challenging face-to-face relationships.
Most of us understand how Christians can be an intimidating bunch. Even for Christians.
Sure, words like real and vulnerable are ascending into buzzwords in our land of community groups and posts about subjects that would take a lot of warming up in actual conversation. But it's worth asking whether we, too, are graduating into deeper relationships. We may be slathering on another layer of language that sounds more revealing, while our hearts remain submerged in insecurity, pride, painful experiences or atrophy.
Where I live, near Africa's savannahs, the lone, lame members of a herd get picked off first by an enemy. I feel that acutely, with fewer creature comforts, more cultural strain. If I'm not allowing people to pray for me, to "bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2), the effects can be swift and devastating. Conversely, I can flourish in the security of being known, accepted, nurtured and supported by my "herd."
Honest relationships relay nothing short of the Gospel: Come exactly as you are. You will find rest for your soul; you will be enveloped by grace. Your burden, no matter what it looks like or where it's been — or where it's at this very minute — can be redeemed. We are equal at the cross. And we need a Savior.
If you long to deeply love and be loved — well, let's get the conversation started.
1. Get aware of your own sin. Soul-baring conversation begins with a truckload of humility. Little is more off-putting than someone who can't ever see themselves in the other person's shoes or understand, "There, but by the grace of God, go I." Self-righteous, lofty positions (even subconsciously) don't create intimacy, courage or grace. Just timidity and inferiority.
A realization of our own sin — whether it's the same struggle as someone else or not — lies at the crux of comprehending our need for God and His people.
When a "woman of the city, who was a sinner" washed Jesus' feet, He intimated, "her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little." Did the Pharisees sitting aghast around her sin less? Debatable. But there seems a distinct correlation between the grasp of our need for God and the well of our love for God. Keen acknowledgement of what's really in our hearts swells our compassion. And it grows a hunger for Him and others to walk with us.
2. Acceptance started back there. People who are bruised have been aware of your responses to others' failures. How do your friends witness you react to those who aren't present, or who've offended or disagreed with you? What if a friend struggling with homosexual urges heard you railing on a gay co-worker — or proffering an outspoken opinion on a less-sensitive gray area, like alcohol? He might think, If they're convinced people who drink must be sinning — when even some mature Christians do that — I can imagine what they'd say to temptations of my caliber.
Obviously, God's opposed to diluting truth. But Ephesians 4:29 applies to venting, too: "Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear" (emphasis added). Our words can cause others to struggle — when we slip into defaming someone's character or a group of people, or choose a snap judgment about someone's motives. Our flippant creation of us/them categories can have long-reaching tentacles. Words have power.
A fear of misinterpretations can't keep us from pursuing interactions about our real responses to life. But failure to speak truth in loveEphesians 4:15 when we're seeking a soothing agreement from like minds can reveal what we really think about the grace others deserve. That said…
3. Show your cards. For real. Not just struggles that are no longer, or are Clorox-ed and polished to a shine with Scripture, or are rationally defendable in the court of friends.
Too often, I've shared just enough to create the impression of vulnerability. Or maintain my respectable position. Or avoid being judged. But not allow the body of Christ to probe the source of the burning pain in my gut. Not intentionally truthful. Not how I'd like them to be with me: "Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another" (v. 25, emphasis mine).
As weird as it sounds, try letting people in on how you'd like them to help: I'm hurting, and I need someone to just listen. Or I'm struggling with some ideas, and I need someone to explore with me what I'm missing. Even, I'm scared. I need to know that someone can relate to this fear and not judge me for it. (This can work in reverse, too, asking hurting friends what they most need.)
Still unnerved? Keep trying, if only to fulfill God's command to be a fully-functioning member of His body. No matter how often I've been rejected or failed by friends, I'm accepted by God — who knows rejection.1 Peter 2:4-5
4. Make time. Great relationships are the result of a whole lotta seed-planting, breeze-shooting, small-talking, quality-timing — bridge-building. Peacemakers, an organization devoted to helping the church approach conflict biblically, often refers to gaining passport into someone's life. It's when we "earn" the right to ask questions of people's hearts, to share their griefs and triumphs, to journey with them. It's when people hear a "yes" to three crucial questions: Can I trust you? Do you really care about me? Can you actually help me?
Meaningful time is something a lot of people can't spare. I, for one, am guilty of being so intentional in using my schedule for ministry, acts of love toward people, that I lose margin to simply connect — to be available. It doesn't take long for people to realize, "Hey, I'd love to talk … but it seems you're headed somewhere." (Again.)
5. Listen up. Proverbs counsels, "A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver." From a friend's warmth at the prime time, a moving passage changes us. But as most of us have seen, Scripture can also be wielded like a medieval truncheon. When we speak before listening, we can batter the delicate china of people's struggles to smithereens.
Peacemakers refers to people's exposure of their own hearts as "holy ground." Yes, it's where we hold our most sacred idols. On occasion, like Jesus, we must care enough to confront rather than cower.
But our hearts are also the center of our inmost desires, the motivators for aching or dancing. It's not the kind of place to pop in with a misplaced cliché, a pat answer tying everything with a bow, or words of wisdom before people sense they're more important than the problem we hope to help attack.
Take it from a talker. Sometimes my lack of true listening is clear from my desire to interrupt or finish someone's sentences. Wait an extra five seconds to see what else your friend might say. Meanwhile, pray for the grace to speak as one speaking the very words of God.1 Peter 4:11 Pray He'll set a guard on your lips and help give your friend the grace he or she needs.
Other quick tips for listening:
- Repeat back what you think they're saying: "Am I getting you?"
- Compassion doesn't mean getting sucked in. Don't further perpetuate anger or hurt. Hear your friend, then ask gentle questions to help your friend see more of a 360-degrees: "Are there any other reasons that __? That sounds incredibly tough. How do you think God's leading you to respond?"
- If 70 percent of conversation is nonverbal, what are their tone and body voicing? When do they clam up?
- Avoid one-upmanship: some form of "Oh, that happened to me, but it was much worse/better."
- Anger is a secondary emotion. Is it proceeding from hurt? Embarrassment? Rejection? Fear?
6. Ask great questions. I find myself fascinated with God's encounters with various pilgrims in their spiritual journey. His potent, all-seeing questions mine their hearts, revealing His intimate passion for their challenges, wonderings, aches — their holes.
To Hagar in the desert: "Where have you come from and where are you going?" In Elijah's intense discouragement, an opportunity to be heard: "What are you doing here?" To the woman at the well, the accepting, give-and-take, "Will you give me a drink?" — with an unruffled response to her wounded theological challenges, seeing through to her real concerns.
Personally, when friends lead me to my own answers, tacking on a few potent insights, it's 100 percent more effective than their own two cents. Collect a list of poignant questions that gently, respectfully help friends isolate the real issues their hearts are slamming up against: "What was that like? What are you afraid will happen? What do you want most to protect, or just avoid? I'm hearing that ___ is really important to you. Do you think it's become too important? What do you feel like doing? What do you think you need?"
Ask God for His generous wisdom and insight — not so that you can save the day, but so that He can.
Copyright 2013 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.