Monday, July 18, 2011

The Real Thing

Last week I shared the top three things I look for in a Walking Partner. I mentioned that authenticity was right up there among the foremost qualities I value in my friendships. Today I want to take a moment to share what I mean by authenticity and why I think it is so important in the relationships I treasure the most in my life. I do so because I hope we’ll all be challenged to go deeper and be more real with each other. It’s no easy thing but altogether worth it!

One dictionary defines authenticity as “undisputed credibility” and “the quality of being believable or trustworthy.” Interesting definitions, I’d say. The qualities I have usually associated with authenticity were integrity, transparency and vulnerability.

It was about 15 years ago when Larry and I first started talking about the preciousness of transparency and vulnerability in our friendships. We were in a small group Bible Study with six other couples at the time. Each couple had encountered a storm. Life-threatening encephalitis, serious depression, renewal after years in the grip of alcoholism, a financial crisis, the death of a child, infidelity — every family had stories of heartbreak and victory.

As those relationships were developing and everyone was gradually feeling safe to share about past and current challenges, Larry and I found ourselves facing a mountain in our own marriage. The group surrounded us with unconditional love, prayer, encouragement and accountability about staying grounded in God’s Word. We felt tremendously vulnerable sharing our weaknesses but doing so contributed to the group’s deepening intimacy. To this day, we all marvel at how God seared our hearts and lives together in such beautiful ways as we walked together through “muck and mire.”

Not every meeting was so real, however. On more than one occasion, as we would share prayer requests around the circle of someone’s living room, one of our friends would say “it’s been a good week for our family” or “we don’t really have any prayer requests this week” even though Larry or I knew from a private conversation with the husband or wife that their family was wrestling through something. In those kinds of situations, we felt conflicted and would come home frustrated and confused.

Despite the treasured depth and intimacy that developed over the 3 years we met together, there were still times when we weren’t always genuine with each other. Larry and I have been in several small groups since that time and our experiences have largely been the same. People struggle with how to be open and balanced with one another. Understandably, we all wrestle with balancing privacy and intimacy. We crave relationships that are genuine while needing to respect confidences, especially with our spouse.

Thankfully, God has provided some guidelines that help clarify this for us. The Apostle Paul gives one of my favorite models of what Biblical authenticity looks like.

“…in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.“ 1 Corinthians 12:7-10

These verses are familiar but usually because of the point about God’s strength in weakness or the question “What was Paul’s thorn?” Theologians have speculated about this for centuries and I often joined them. Then one day, I saw something that shed light on this issue of authenticity. It occurred to me that perhaps it was God’s design that Paul didn’t reveal details about his thorn. By admitting he struggled, Paul becomes relatable to us. We resonate with him even though we don’t know the specific nature of what his struggle was — maybe even because we don’t know exactly what it was. Paul is open about his weakness and his ongoing struggle but shows respect for himself and his audience by keeping things general at this point. There are other times when he seems to encourage depth, especially when the goal will be ministry from the Holy Spirit:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. …We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.” 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 and 8-9

Over the past several years, Larry and I have spent much time talking through this quandary — when to open up and how much? One thing is certain: God uses authentic intersections between people to reveal Himself and build people up. Very little good comes from keeping secrets or trying to hide weakness. When we are struggling and feeling alone, we need to know that there are others who struggle. When we are discouraged and losing hope, we need to know that someone else has been in our shoes and has come through the flood victoriously.

I could go on and on singing the praises of authenticity in relationships. For now, let me just say that LIFE and GOD have never felt more “real” to our family than in those times when things got messy (for us or for someone else) and God’s people rallied together. That kind of Christ-centered, life-giving, adventurous fellowship cannot happen unless we GET REAL with each other. We don’t have to share the gory details, but we can courageously give one another information that is trustworthy.

Lord Jesus, help us to live the real thing! Help us to share authentically while also being worthy of our friends’ trust. AMEN

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