Avoidance of truth is the number one obstacle to discipling friendships. Scripture is clear, we need authentic, burden-bearing, truth-telling, iron-sharpening-iron friends. We all say we want them. We say we want accountability, someone we can be real with and who will keep it real with us. But when it comes down to it, the truth is easier to avoid than address. As long as we avoid truth our friendships will be shallow, our spiritual growth will be stagnant, our sin will remain unaddressed (or worse, hidden), and the church will be a gathering of enablers rather than edifiers. There’s too much hanging in the balance!
When it comes to truth, a healthy friendship requires give and take. We must be willing to give and receive truth humbly. Both persons must give permission to be put under the magnifying glass. What follows are four principles that help this. Perhaps your friends, church, or small group should sit down together and take inventory on how you are doing at each.
Be vulnerable about the truth of your sins and struggles.
Are you? Vulnerable? Or is it just veneer? “How are you really doing?” a friend asks. “Good,” we answer, and the conversation moves on. And we avoid exposure for another day. Why do we do that? Is it because we actually believe we are “good”? Because Jesus’ cross proves we aren’t. The necessity of the cross proves there are two kinds of people, those who think they’re good and those who know they aren’t. Which are you?
We all agree, “Nobody is perfect!” So why do we try to deceive our closest friends? The ancient Greek word for hypocrite was used in theatre to describe one actor who would play multiple roles by switching masks. Sadly, that’s how some of us live . . . beneath the darkness of a mask. People outside the church often say, “All Christians are hypocrites.” But that’s not true. What they mean is, “No Christian lives what they say they believe.” And that is true! I’m a pastor and yet hour-by-hour I struggle. But that doesn’t make me a hypocrite. By definition a hypocrite is someone who lives beneath a mask, and I know many who choose that and many who don’t.
Some fear vulnerability because we live with the fear that “I am not _______ enough.” You fill in the blank: smart enough, kind enough, generous enough, disciplined enough, loving enough, committed enough, good enough, spiritual enough. But if there’s one place we should bare our souls without the fear of “not enough” it should be in our Christian friendships. In Christ, we are unconditionally loved, and the more we know we are loved without condition the more freely we can share without reservation.
Listen to truth about your sins and struggles.
Vulnerability is only half the sum to spiritual growth. The other half? Listen. You must swallow your pride, drop your defenses, and listen. Because if you have a friend who truly cares, what they say next regarding your struggles won’t feel good but it will do you good.
Listening to hard truths about yourself is a choice to do what is unnatural. Self-deception is more natural than self-reflection. Self-defense is our reflex, not self-critique. One thing that has helped me is remembering that love isn’t the same as tolerance. In our culture, love has become synonymous with tolerance. But while tolerance fits within the broad spectrum of responses love sometimes requires, that doesn’t mean tolerance is always love. They overlap but are not equal. Sometimes tolerance is the most unloving thing a friend could do. There’s nothing loving about tolerating something that is leading to self-destruction.
Perhaps I could say it like this: truth without love is self-righteous and will never be heard. But love without truth isn’t love at all; it’s enablement. And if you find a friend who chooses edification over enablement, hold on to them. That kind of friend is rare.
A healthy friendship involves give and take. The last two principles had you in the seat of “truth receiver.” Now let’s shift seats to “truth giver.”
Take the time to see the true needs.
This may sound obvious but in our culture of busyness this is the one we are perhaps worst at. A discipling friendship is an investment. It involves sacrifice, but for most us that is too time consuming. We want friends who don’t have problems that involve conversation, thought, prayer, hand-holding, accountability, failure, rinse, and repeat. But love is most transformative when sacrifice is most present. The life-change potential of your friendships will always be directly correlated to the intensity of your sacrifice.
The reason some Christians feel so lonely is that they’re not willing to sacrifice for their friends. We want perfect friends (just like us)! Newsflash! There are no perfect friends! But that’s all we have time for, so we make our friends perfect by keeping them at arm’s length. We never dig too deep. We never ask too much because if we find out what they need then we’ll have to serve. We want friends who don’t require too much love. Warning! As long as we are unwilling to sacrifice, those relationships will remain shallow. The need is there, but are we willing to take the time to see it?
Speak the last 10 percent of truth.
Question(s): Are we so committed to the well-being of our friends that we’re willing to hurt them a little to help them a lot? What’s the goal of a discipling friendship? To make someone happy or holy? To make someone happy in the short-term or healthy in the long-term?
There’s a difference between counseling and enabling. Enabling friends shy away from the last 10 percent and tell a friend what they want to hear. But that doesn’t help resolve the problem; it fuels it. That’s not being a good friend. Loving someone means seeking their best interest, even at the expense of yours. But far too often we don’t counsel toward what’s best, we counsel toward what’s comfortable. Speaking the last 10 percent of truth can be extremely uncomfortable for both parties involved, and we would rather avoid awkward and anger in favor of appeasement. Don’t.
Jesus, The Exemplar
What I love about Jesus is that he is the exemplar for this. A relationship with him offers both unconditional acceptance and unrelenting transformation. From the first moment, you are unconditionally accepted despite your sins and struggles. Yet you are also driven toward change, even if it’s gradual. Jesus always sees you as 100 percent loved and 100 percent a work in progress.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus sought unity with everyone while speaking truth to everyone. He didn’t just speak truth to the self-righteous. He spoke truth to the woman caught in adultery, to the tax-collector Zacchaeus, to the outcast Samaritan woman. Everyone was welcome in Jesus’ circle, but everyone was challenged too. He had soft edges and a hard core. So must we.
That’s why we trust Jesus! Because “greater love has no man than to lay down his life for a friend.” That’s a relationship you can always depend on. So his challenge to us would remain the same, even in our friendships. “Follow me.”
Tyler McKenzie is lead pastor of Northeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He and his wife, Lindsay, have two young children. NCC’s mission is to impact their community by meeting neighbors where they are and showing them Jesus’ love though service and support.