By Jane Rubietta
The phone rang in the middle of Luann’s busy day. “Luann,” her friend whispered, tears tightening her voice, “I don’t know what to do about my son. He is using drugs.”
Luann delayed her next appointment and listened. She asked wise questions. She shared ideas when appropriate. And she prayed over the phone. Luann’s total availability and her own grief as she wept with her friend gave hope and direction—and much needed companionship in the often overwhelming wasteland of transition.
There is no greater privilege than being present to another person in pain. No greater gift than to know we do not traverse the desert alone. No greater joy than holding another in time of crisis, carrying that person to the Father and, with love, transferring our loved one to him. How God longs to love us through relationships with others.
When God summoned Moses back from his forty-year escape tending sheep, Moses’ final protest was, “Look, God, I know all about you, but I can’t talk well so just send someone else, OK?”
God’s anger showed up then: “What about your brother, Aaron the Levite? I know he can speak well. He is already on his way to meet you, and his heart will be glad when he sees you” (Exo. 4:14). Aaron found Moses and approached him. And even though he had plenty of reasons to be furious with Moses for disappearing and abandoning his strategic position within the king’s empire, Aaron’s “heart was glad” when he saw Moses.
And from two estranged brothers raised in entirely different households, God created a wilderness team that would endure forty years. Rarely can we survive the wilderness alone, though that is our proclivity.
Thankfully, God who created us knows our need for companionship and accountability, in spite of our protests. He formed a desert partnership that would rescue a nation from slavery, take them on a four-decade journey of faith and save them. He longs to create desert partnerships for us, as well. As with Moses and Aaron, spiritual friendships complete our weaknesses.
I hesitate to use the word fellowship here. The term itself conjures up images of potlucks in dank church basements, of flighty conversation and “I’m fine-ness” in the foyer and aisles of church. Perhaps less trivialized is the term spiritual friendship.
A Spiritual Friend
Spiritual friendships begin with companionship. Rather than trying to teach us, a desert friend comes alongside us in our sojourn. This sense of equality, of traveling in the same direction side by side, feeling the same anguish en route, is essential for true mutuality. Though our journeys through fire may differ, traveling together creates strength.
I will never forget the treasured times deepening friends have said, “I would like to tell you more of my story.” So often we withhold our history because we are afraid another will judge us, ignore our painful past, or shy away from acknowledging the ugliness and anguish there.
These friends look further than our superficialities and incomes and soapboxes and cleverly applied makeup and well-decorated homes. Spiritual friends fight for us to become the person God intended, reminding us where we are going. They see who we will be, not necessarily who we are now. “To truly love someone is to see them as God intended,” said Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Intense listening is one of God’s traits and a characteristic of a dear friend. We’ve all had—or been—acquaintances who did all the talking and none of the listening when we were together; we never offer one another the chance to be part of the relationship. Monologues prohibit true friendship. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:
It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear. So it is His work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him. Christians . . . so often think they must always “contribute” something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.
Knowing we were created for meaningful, completing relationships from the very beginning of time does not eliminate the difficulties inherent in finding those friends and sustaining them in our world today. Several factors mitigate against soul-level friendships.
We often fight against the very thing for which we most long. This shows up in our chock-full calendars, our harried conversations and shallow relationships; both society and lifestyle collaborate against trust, depth, and longevity. Friends take time. They require freedom, spontaneity, courage. We have to choose, deliberately, to listen to our good longings and refuse to stay in cahoots with the isolation of the enemy any longer. We cannot afford to live friendless.
Our transient society makes it harder to dive below the surface with others and stay there longer and longer. One Chicago suburb has an average residency rate of eighteen months! It’s easy, then, to just say, “Forget it, I’m not going to risk, to invest; I won’t be here that long.” But, the more profound our friendships, the more mutual our sharing, the easier it is to maintain relationships, even at a distance.
Nurturing as control.
Receiving love somehow obligates us thus, we have to give up some measure of control in order to receive. Some people refuse to be in that vulnerable, I-owe-you position and so do not allow themselves to accept nurture from others.
Fear of rejection.
Perhaps one of our greatest wrestlings is with our sense of worth. “Am I enough?” we ask. We question whether we deserve (need) healthy, deeply supportive relationships and whether we have something to offer in return. “Is there enough beauty and life within me to sustain and deepen a friendship? Inside us dwells a classic fear of being rejected if anyone really knew the depth of our internal depravity, how dark it gets inside us at times. Merton writes:
To love sincerely, and with simplicity, we must first of all overcome the fear of not being loved. And this cannot be done by forcing ourselves to believe in some illusion, saying that we are loved when we are not. We must first strip ourselves of our greatest illusions about ourselves, frankly recognize in how many ways we are unlovable, descend into the depths of our being until we come to the basic reality that in us, and learn to see that we are loveable after all, in spite of everything!
What a miracle: in spite of us, God loves us. Because of that unending grace, we can engage in spiritual friendships—without fear. This helps when we fear offending another with our honesty, our past, our besetting sins, the pain we have endured.
In order to be known, we must, as Benner suggested, be willing to know ourselves, first. Acknowledging our ache for what it is, loneliness, is a first step. Nouwen writes:
Here [in the monastery] I have the chance to convert my feelings of loneliness into solitude and allow God to enter into the emptiness of my heart. Here I can experience a little bit of the desert and realize that it is not only a dry place where people die of thirst, but also the vast empty space where the God of love reveals himself and offers his promise to those who are waiting in faithfulness.
In this place of acknowledgment, we are set free. When God camps in the midst of our loneliness, the desert begins its transforming work. We can give our longings to God, and even as we search the horizon ourselves, allow Him to bring us the people at the right time who will wait out our wilderness with us.
A Real Friend
With a real friend, I don’t have to be “fine.” I don’t have to be someone with all the answers and none of the problems of life. I can be a wreck. My heart can ache, and I can say, “I am not doing well. I want to quit. This is just too hard.” I am humbled by the number of friends who can hold me in my messiness, not feeling obliged to run the other way or to fix me up.
Nor do they judge my wreckage; I do not believe there is anything I could do to run them off—not my deepest secret or my darkest shame. I don’t need to entertain these women with compelling and meaningful talk (good thing). I can just be there with them.
I come away from spiritual friends challenged, longing to be more like Christ, to be a better woman, a present and alive wife, a loving mother, a steady friend—and to make a difference in the world. Chesterton was right: “There are no words to express the abyss between isolation and having one ally. It may be conceded to the mathematician that four is twice two. But two is not twice one; two is two thousand times one.”
My friends will not allow me to give up on God, on myself, on those I love, or my place in their life. Soul friends hold my heart and redirect my attention to God’s good heart for me and the goodness of my longings (rather than the way those longings are displayed—the messiness). They adjure me to hold on. And when I cannot hold on, they hold on for me.
A Closer Look at Your Friendships
- What holds you back from spiritual friendships? What excuses do you make? Where do you hide?
- How does your family of origin contribute to the way you “do” friendship?
- When has a friend held on to you when you could not hold on for yourself?
- When have your wilderness friends carried you to God? What happened? How did that make you feel about yourself? God?
- When are you most tempted to run to friends instead of to God? How do you combat that tendency?