Recently, I complimented two different men in separate conversations, encouraging them to consider mentoring younger guys. They both had the same response: “You wouldn’t say that if you really knew me.”
It mildly startled me to hear this fearful, knee-jerk response from both of these two, respectable men. Of course, I wondered, “So, if don’t really know you, then what are you really like?” I could be wrong, but I seriously doubt that either of these men are privately peddling child pornography or cheating on their wives or embezzling money from their workplaces.
Instead, as I considered what these two men would be like if I “really knew” them, it occurred to me that whatever they’re hiding probably wouldn’t be that shocking. In fact, if I really knew them, I would likely discover that, to the degree they’re off-kilter, it’s not that different from me. The only difference between us is that I’m pretty brazen about sharing my brokenness with both my wife and with healthy, faithful guys I know well and trust.
I didn’t get there on my own though.
I suppose my habitual tendency towards healthy transparency started in college, and it had a lot to do with a young couple from church named Shon and Beth. Beth, the spokesperson for the couple, came up to me one day, earnestly looked me in the eyes, and said, “Joshua, Shon and I have been talking about it, and we want to invite you into our lives. We’ve given it a lot of thought, and it would mean so much if you would let us get to know you better.”
To fully appreciate the magnitude of this invitation to an awkward, 18-year-old, you need to understand that Shon and Beth were, to me, what Jesus would look like if He took on the form of a married couple. While they had a reckless, wild faith, they weren’t cooky and religious, and they both looked like they had just walked out of a JC Penney catalog. And, for some reason, they wanted to get to know me.
“Yeah,” I said, involuntarily smiling. “That would be good. I’ll start coming by. Thank you.”
And I did start coming by their house quite a lot and inviting them into my life as well. Even so, I wasn’t completely comfortable being myself around them, partly because I think that deep, down inside I wondered whether they would still want to be around me if they knew what I was really like. Yet as they spent more time with me and were exposed to my nutty, legalistic theology and obnoxious sense of humor, they remarkably didn’t show any signs of backing off.
I had been invited.
In an environment like that, it’s hard not to get comfortable, and get comfortable I did. Beth looked out for me like I was her little brother, doing her best to nudge me away from being a total, religious goober, and Shon and I got to know each other while doing stuff like clearing land or running together.
While hanging out with Shon, I would bloviate about my latest and greatest revelation from God, enjoying the sound of confidence in my own voice. But occasionally, I would carefully test the waters of our friendship by revealing bits of information about the other me – the real me that was wracked with brokenness, self-doubt, and fear that God was going to haul off and beat me into a holy coma with a giant, shepherd’s staff.
Shon would ask questions, and then he would really listen to my answers, rarely giving advice. He was actually taking the time to get to know me, to let me ramble on long enough to share a little more of what was really going on inside my head.
I was being understood.
One day during a conversation with Shon, I had a spontaneous fit of guilt and said, “Shon, look, I kind of feel guilty when I think about our friendship. I mean, if you put it on a graph, on my side of it, it would probably show that I do 85% of the talking. So, anyway, sorry about that.”
“Oh, that’s okay,” he said, “it’s part of my life’s purpose.”
“What? To listen to people?” I asked.
“No,” he said with nonchalant seriousness, “to listen to you.”
Inwardly, I staggered under the weight of his kindness. I considered this guy to be one of the all-time giants of the faith (albeit a quiet, flawed, and unassuming giant), and part of his entire life purpose was to listen to me – for free?!? I felt like I’d just won the therapy lottery.
His words, though, were really a picture of the open arms I had always found with Shon and Beth – a place where I was welcome to eat the leftovers, guided with gentle correction, and given a lot of needed grace.
I knew I was loved.
I wonder what would happen if the two men I mentioned above had long-term friendships like the one I’ve described here. If it looked anything like my experience, it would give them a place where they could hang out and not have to say anything profound at all; however, it would also give them a place where they could barf out their issues to a trusted friend, when needed. And I firmly believe we all regularly need it.
We’ve all got inner turmoil that needs to be confronted on a regular basis. Otherwise, we hide our junk inside and start believing that it’s actually who we are. Before you know it, instead of just doubting God’s love, we see ourselves as the closet agnostic; instead of struggling with sexual temptation, we see ourselves as a pervert; instead of wrestling with loving our spouses, we see ourselves as being on the brink of divorce. That’s not who we are in Christ, and it’s critical to have someone around to correct us and lead us back to the truth, through the intimacy of friendship (John 15:13, 2 Corinthians 5:17, James 5:16).
Jesus said that if we “even give a cup of cold water” to one of His little ones, it will come with a great reward (Matthew 10:42). Serving little cups of cold water through individual relationships is counter-intuitive in Christian culture, where we seem more focused on recruiting people to help us construct massive water towers for Jesus, which come in the form of big buildings, big ministries, or religious celebrity. Yet, if Shon and Beth’s love in my life is any indicator, letting someone be truly known to us and loved nonetheless might make an unspeakable difference. It might open doors in their life (not to mention ours) that would have otherwise remain locked.
For me, knowing that they could love me in spite of my weaknesses helped me believe that God could do the same; and, even better, being able to receive that from Him has made me want to love others in the same way. Starting and maintaining these types of friendships is not always easy or pleasant; but when we are invited, understood, and loved, we can finally be known – and yet unafraid.