“It takes courage to be transparent.”

I was teaching on spiritual friendship a few evenings ago when one of the participants made the above comment during the question-and-answer time. I appreciated the comment because it meant that he understood that spiritual friendship, indeed all friendship, is predicated on transparent sharing and empathetic listening.

Community is formed only by shared stories, not by monologues. Empathetic listening is followed in turn by reciprocal storytelling. I know I have a place in the community not only as I hear and accept its stories but as it hears and makes room for mine. (Daniel Taylor, The Healing Power of Stories [New York, NY: Doubleday, 1996], 120.)

Indeed Jesus models for us this commitment to transparency when, in the Garden of Gethsemane, He opens His heart to His friends.

They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.” (Mark 14:32–34 NIV)

This is no stoic heroic Jesus. Truly God, truly human, Jesus struggles to embrace what is before Him and shares His struggles with His closest friends. And He expects us to do the same.

But why is it so difficult to be open with each other, so difficult that courage is needed? I can think of a few reasons.

First is the lack of time. We are too busy to meet up. And when we do we are not relaxed and present. Intimacy cannot be rushed.

Then there is the problem of our culture, Chinese culture in particular. We are a private people and we learn from young that you shouldn’t burden others with your problems. We know we should bear our own burdens but we do not know how to bear one another’s burdens, especially allowing others to bear our burdens.

Third, is the fear that people may use their knowledge of us against us in some way. Indeed the big concern in our interconnected world is privacy and security. We are on the guard all the time. It is hard to let our guard down even with friends.

But I think the greatest hurdle to our being open to one another is sin. After Adam and Eve fell into sin, they hid. They tried to hide from God, avoiding Him when He sought them. And they hid from themselves and from one another, attempting to cover their brokenness with leaves.

Archibald D. Hart expands on this. He believes that we hide behind masks because we fear being rejected if people knew the real us.

Most of the time we deal with the outside world from behind phony facades. We wear masks. No one must know we aren’t real, nor who we really are. Why? Because we fear we won’t be liked or accepted. (Archibald D. Hart, Unlocking the Mystery of Your Emotions [Dallas, TX: Word, 1979],147.)

And because we find it hard to accept ourselves.

…[w]e are afraid of our real selves. We squirm, we conceal, we sweat, and we want to run away from…honesty. We resist being exposed to the real truth about ourselves, especially if it is not attractive or desirable. But if we can’t be real to ourselves, we certainly can’t allow ourselves to be real to others. (Hart, Unlocking the Mystery of Your Emotions, 146.)

So while I champion intimacy as a key component of spiritual friendship, I am less naïve about how difficult it is for many.

Still, we can’t run away from the need for transparent sharing and empathetic listening. It is an indispensable component of friendship. I challenge those who are serious about spiritual friendship to take the risk and “go first”. I suggest that, as they begin to share about the joys and especially about the struggles in their lives, they give permission and embolden others to do the same. Finally we are all part of a broken humanity in search of grace.

And I think we are freed to be transparent when we learn to accept the love and forgiveness that is ours in Christ. We accept one another as Christ has accepted us (Romans 15:7). We need to know, not just in our heads but in our hearts, that we are accepted by God. Secure in that knowledge we are more able to share our true selves with others.

A Christian who accepts the basic tenets of God’s love and forgiveness is better able to come to terms with himself and is better equipped to cope with the feelings of isolation which are so prevalent today. Authenticity, integrity, and adaptability are developed as we let God release us from our emotional prisons. (Hart, Unlocking the Mystery of Your Emotions, 158.)

Perhaps I should conclude my seminars on spiritual friendship with an altar call for people to come forward to be prayed for so that they can receive a fresh touch of God’s love. We can only love because He first loved us (1 John 4:19).