Telling the Truth in Our Relationships

Have you ever sincerely asked someone, “How are you doing?” and had them answer “fine” when you knew they weren’t fine? Have you ever had someone ask you how you were, but you knew they weren’t sincere? Irritating isn’t it?

I suppose we should pause for a moment and define those as lies: Answering “Fine” when I am not fine is clearly an untruth. Acting, by my inquiry, as though I care how you are when in fact, I do not, is equally a lie.

I understand that some of this truthless communication is part of a larger body of socially acceptable lies, part of a formal communications ritual that our culture has evolved – rather like the mating rituals of wild geese – though perhaps for less noble purposes than the continuation of the species. There are some times when they – the salesman, the political lobbyist, the person you’re talking with that you don’t have any real relationship with – there are times when they are asking “howyadoin” and they don’t want an answer: they are making a formal noise, a greeting to which the formal answer is “fineanyou” or the like. A genuine answer in that environment would throw them off, derail the traditions.

I’m not talking about these communications: they’re meaningless apart from that formal, meaningless function, and they need to be treated that way.

I’m talking about the times where the same words are used in genuine communication, a genuine inquiry after one’s wellbeing, and they are misinterpreted as the content-free ritual described above. They do use the same vocabulary, or nearly the same, and it’s easy to misunderstand. I am of the opinion, however, that much of the misunderstanding is more strategic than genuine: we make the assumption that the question is formal, empty, because that is the more convenient interpretation.

The most disturbing aspect is that the church, the people with “The Truth,” seems to be an equal participant in this untruth-telling. “Brethren, this ought not be this way.”

I’ve seen grown men, men who grew up with the English language, miss this one in the church fellowship hall: a friend who knows something of the challenges he’s been facing asks how he’s doing in the face of those trials, and the answer is embarrassingly often, “I’m fine, thanks. How are you?” Or worse: “Bless God, Brother! Isn’t God good?” Well, yes, He is good, but that’s not actually the question. The question is “How are you doing with those trials?” not “Is God still good?”

I’m more concerned about the reasons behind such truthlessness. Somehow, we’ve convinced ourselves that there are real reasons not to be genuine with each other. I can think of a few reasons:

1) Lousy theology: We’re convinced that if we appear more “together”, that this will somehow make God look better. Or the reverse: if a Christian is known to have problems, then somehow it will make God look less God-like. This often incorporates the brilliant assumption that when we trust in Jesus to forgive our sins, that somehow this erases all of our character flaws while simultaneously eradicating tribulation from our lives. Its like we believe the advertising. Bad idea.

2) PUFF: Pure Unadulterated Fear Factor: We don’t know how people will react to us, or we think we do know based on how someone has reacted to us in the past. Perhaps we remember someone who hurt us, and whether truthfully or not, we associate that hurt with our own vulnerability, and we swear that we’ll never put ourselves through that particular ordeal again. There are a thousand variations on this one.

3) Ignorance: We don’t open ourselves to others simply because we’ve been taught known that we should or even that we could. Our leaders don’t model vulnerability in any way that we can see (that’s a subject for another session!), and nobody has taught us how to be vulnerable in an appropriate way, with the right people, in the right settings. We’ve never seen someone else do it well, so we have no role model.

4) Lack of opportunity: There are in my observation, millions of believers that are actually willing to develop genuine, caring relationships, but they don’t have people around them that are similarly open to genuine relationships. There may be others in the next pew, but there is no mechanism in their culture to broach the subject of “Can I tell you my secrets? Will I be safe when I do?” We need an environment where honest relationships are appropriate.

The Bible models intimate in-home gatherings of the Church (Acts 2:42), and it was such a gathering (a large one) in a house that first received the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:2). One of those groups was characterized by prayer and the other by supper, eating with gladness: these don’t sound like formal, content-based gatherings. They sure sound to me like they’re based on genuine relationships instead.

The Bible doesn’t just model ministry built on relationships, it also teaches it. “So, affectionately longing for you, we were well pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God, but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us.” (1 Thessalonians 2:8, NKJV) The teaching is clear: when I am “ministering”, I’m doing two things: I’m imparting the gospel, and I’m also giving you my own life. There is a correlation: my imparting of the good news will be more complete if I am also imparting my life. Content is incomplete without relationship.

We could also point out that Jesus’ ministry followed the model of relational ministry: sure, he taught the masses and did miracles among them, but it was they guys he lived with that he touched the most. There were times that He saw the needs of the multitudes, and turned to the twelve to teach them, to send them, or to involve them in the solution.

If we are wanting to see a change in the way we do church, we’re going to need to do church differently. I propose that we change ourselves first: let’s find settings where we can be genuine; let’s create them ourselves if we need to. If we can find or build these relational gatherings within the structure of our churches, let’s do that, but if we need to, let’s be willing to put people ahead of religion: let’s gather informally “from house to house” as they did in the early church.

And, when it’s appropriate, let’s learn how to answer the “how are you doing?” question honestly.

1 comment:

Dave said...

We know one of the requirements for open disclosure in counseling is an atmosphere of safety. People won’t open up if they’re afraid of betrayal, gossip, criticism, or such things. Particularly with men, the sharing must be safe. I believe men are more emotionally vulnerable than women and they’re reluctant to disclose deep secrets that might be exploited. Men talk about very superficial things in general - the weather, sports, traffic, etc. Women tend to get very personal in conversation. Women tend to complain when their husbands don’t talk about their private thoughts. I’m not trying to bash women, but few wives provide a safe enough platform for the discussion. Many guys are afraid their problems will become a public issue around the neighborhood or within the family. Worse yet, many wives are far too critical of their husbands. I stopped sharing anything with my ex-wife after years of constant criticism.

What about the church?

Does this reflect the church’s environment? Are we a safe group to disclose our weakness, habits, flaws, and sins to? Many people would say ‘no’. Many of us in the church have been burned by gossip. I was asked not to return to my church because of the things my ex-wife said about me to the pastors. Many people are justifiably scared to death that their church will find out about their private life. We must find a way to become ‘safe’ without enabling or condoning the flaws of our brothers.

You’re right of course - the key lies in building stronger relationships. Only when we’ve demonstrated a loving, compassionate heart and have convinced our friend that we have their best interest in mind, will they disclose the deepest parts of their life and accept our counsel. Perhaps some of us haven’t developed the love and compassion yet, and shouldn’t be trusted. That might be the first thing to fix.

The effectiveness of pastoral counseling (or any ministry) is limited by the depth of the relationship between the individuals involved. Trust and respect come first. That requires time and proximity. The most natural place to develop the relationship is in the shared proximity spaces of home and work. These are the untapped reservoirs of ministry that wait for be explored.