When the hope of a friendship extends beyond the fun and enjoyment of companionship into the realm of the soul, the process of self-disclosure often leads naturally to the places of greatest challenge: our areas of struggle. Some would say that women more naturally dwell in this relational territory, but I find that any relationship that truly begins to delve into our spiritual life will necessarily begin to touch on the reality of our struggles.
Whether we struggle with materialism, negativity, resentment, self-acceptance, prejudice, or irresponsibility, our friends become a safe place in which to talk about the challenge as well as the efforts we are making to turn these over to God’s care. Often, as we learn more about a friend’s personality style and family of origin, their areas of struggle begin to make more sense. “Of course,” we might say, “No wonder it is so difficult to trust again, or try again, or rest in God’s goodness.” And that kind of understanding can lead to transformation, as we’ll soon see.
Talking about our areas of struggle, as helpful as that can be, still falls short of one of the most important interpersonal conversations that directly contribute to transformation: confession. This term is loaded with all kinds of history or negativity for many of us, but the sooner we can make friends with the concept, the sooner we can get on with the business of living the kind of life Jesus makes possible.
We find the theme of confession throughout Scripture. James says it most clearly: “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (5:16). Is there really any kind of spiritual reality to a link between confession and healing—whether emotional healing, spiritual healing or even physical healing?
How do you respond to reading James 5:16? Is the idea of talking and praying in this way appealing? intimidating? Does the hope of healing James offers seem valid for your circumstances? Why or why not?
Interestingly, twelve-step recovery groups anchor much of their transformational path on this concept. Confession is recognized as a necessary step in the path of recovery. That is, you’ll never experience wholeness beyond your willingness to face the truth about yourself and expose it. Similarly, a theologian friend of mine once said, “The only real barrier to spiritual growth in our lives is unwillingness to face the truth about ourselves.” Bit of a chilling thought, isn’t it?
A helpful way for me to think about confession has been to recognize that it consists of three parts: (1) an acknowledgment of the wrong that was done, (2) a “confession” that I was the one who did it, (3) a willingness to go public with this fact. We say, in effect, “Here’s the line. Here’s where I crossed it. I need to be known in this.” As embarrassing and vulnerable as these conversations are, I am becoming willing to have them when needed, to ask a friend to hear my confession.
The phrase “I need to be known in this” is a powerful one. If you’re like me, this is not exactly what you’d call a “felt need.” Nothing in me wants to be known where and when I have failed. Instead, I want to hide. But at a deeper level, I know this: if I want to grow, if I want to heal, if I want to be free, then “I need to be known in this.” So I become willing to move toward confession.
Eventually, true soul friendships are characterized by this very gritty and honest freedom to acknowledge areas of brokenness and sin. There is a shared thirst for freedom, understanding of the spiritual power of confession and a “whatever it takes” mentality. And when you and a friend give it “whatever it takes,” you can be sure that freedom and transformation are not far behind.
02. So What’s A ”Soul Friend?”: A Conversation with Mindy Caliguire
Emilie Griffin: It’s obvious that friendship was very important to Jesus. How do you see “soul friendship” helping us to become like Jesus?
Mindy Caliguire: Soul friendships, while never perfect, have enormous potential for opening us up to transformation. As our friends get to know the nitty-gritty of our real lives, they help us both notice and turn to god more readily in times of challenge, decision-making, or failure. Sometimes they notice god’s fingerprints on a situation before I do—and that helps me to respond differently.
EG: What do you mean about “responding differently”?
MC: In addition to helping me notice god’s activity, they also help me see myself more accurately. A friend often notices my fear or anxiety on a topic before I do; sometimes a friend will observe my confusion or my strengths and gifts. Often, friends help me stay in a process of transformation during a time when I otherwise might be tempted to bail. We’re often advised in the scripture to “wait on the lord.” Honestly, that’s hard for me!
My friends help me listen to what god is saying to me in my life; they help me to respond in obedience. They urge me to stay in that place of waiting when appropriate. They remind me god is at work; they remind me of my tendency to forge ahead, and they remind me of my own desires to follow god’s way, not my own. As they do this—and we do this for each other—we are opening ourselves more and more to transforming into the character of Jesus, living as he did in relationship to god and others here on earth.
EG: You mention that twelve-step groups are good models for Christian friendship. Do you mean that non-addicts should admit their own failings more honestly? Should Christian groups be more confessional?
MC: Yes and yes! I do believe there would be a much higher degree of spiritual vitality and ultimately spiritual maturity if Christians would become, as you say, more “confessional.” While many of us take appropriate consolation in the assurance that god will directly hear our prayers of confession I do believe there is a tremendous loss in church life now that—at least in most of the church settings I’ve been in recently—interpersonal (human to human) confession is no longer directly embedded in our way of life.
In fact, one sociologist observed that many dysfunctions in our culture revolve around a lack of opportunities for individuals in a community to deal with shame and guilt, further noting that there were only two “places” where the opportunities for such restoration were embedded any longer in a community experience: the catholic church’s practice of confession, and twelve-step communities.
EG: Then how do we build the necessary trust for “telling our secrets”?
MC: How to build the necessary trust? Now that’s the trickier part. Certainly, we come up with scads of material each day which could or should be the subject of our confession—but to whom? First, we would need to build a relationship of mutual love and concern, one that is founded on the premise that none of us is perfect. When we start there, our eyebrows are less likely to be raised very high when we hear another person’s confession. Even still, it is never easy. But I imagine if Jesus were in our small group or family or Sunday school class or spiritual direction group, his eyebrows would be firmly placed in a stance of love. We can train our eyebrows to do the same, so that we respond with grace, hope, love, truth, and the right kinds of challenges when we—and others—confront the dark side.
03. Struggle & Freedom: Questions for a Reflection
- Write a few words about an area of your life that has been a perpetual struggle for you. What would freedom really look like in that area? How badly do you want to be free? Are you ready to let go of your image?
- This will be a difficult question to answer, and it doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone, but are there some secrets that have kept you sick for too long? If you feel comfortable doing so, write (in code if you have to) about these secrets, and then speak with God directly about the influence of those secrets on your life so far. Again, speak honestly, but be sure to listen for God’s response as well.
Taken from Spiritual Friendship by Mindy Caliguire. Copyright 2007 by Mindy Caliguire. Used by permission of Intervarsity Press, p.o.Box 1400, downers Grove, IL 60515, www.ivpress.com.
Mindy Caliguire is founder and president of Soul Care, a spiritual formation ministry, and serves as a frequent speaker and consultant for ministries and churches. She has authored several books, including Spiritual Friendship, as part of the Soul Care Series. She and her husband, Jeff, make their home in Algonquin, Illinois, and are active members at Willow Creek Community Church.