Do you have friends with whom you have no secrets, people you love being with because, somehow, they stir your appetite for God no matter what’s going on in your life, people that make you feel as if you can be yourself, with no pretense or effort, people that respond more with curiosity than solutions when you share your struggles?
Ask a hundred people to indicate if they have friends, and ninety-five will likely raise their hands. Some will do so with a casual indignation that says, “Of course I have friends.”
Then ask the same group a follow-up question. “Okay, now raise your hands only if you have really good friends, you know, a few special people with whom you can be yourself, folks with whom you feel meaningfully and comfortably close.” Facial expressions throughout the room will shift from casually indignant to thoughtful.
Some folks, maybe a dozen, will smile and lift their hands with grateful confidence. Another forty or fifty will lift theirs with a tentative slowness that says, “I think so.” The rest will keep their hands on their laps, with either a sad or an angry face.
Press things a bit further and ask a third question. “Raise your hands this time if you are certain that you have at least one soul friend, one person whom you trust so deeply that their betrayal would devastate you, someone who knows you well enough to speak with life-arousing power into your inmost being, and someone who would say both these things about you.”
If question one—“Do you have friends?”—is met with a shoulder shrugging “Of course!” and if question two—“Do you have good friends?”—provokes thoughtful reflection that leads to mixed reactions, then question three—“Do you have soul friends?”—will most probably furrow brows and generate confusion. “What do you mean? Can you ask the question a different way?”
So you respond, “Do you have friends with whom you have no secrets, people you love being with because somehow they stir your appetite for God no matter what’s going on in your life, people that make you feel as if you can be yourself, with no pretense or effort, people that respond more with curiosity than solutions when you share your struggles?”
By this time, most folks in the room will be quiet, quieted by a yearning for something they can’t fully understand or articulate, but something they know they want. A few would slip their hands into the air to indicate, “I’m not sure how it happened, but yes, I have a soul friend, and I’m grateful beyond words. Just thinking about that person makes me feel safely alive; my heart is warmed, and a hope is deepened that someday I’ll enjoy all that I was created for.”
I am among the favored few whose hand would rise. When I ask the third question of myself, one of the folks who comes immediately to mind is Trip Moore. Over the twenty-five years we have known each other, he has let me see through his persona to his person. And I have done the same with him.
I am fully authentic with no one.
I don’t know how to be, partly because I’ve not yet trusted anyone’s love enough to cast out all my fear, partly because I never, even after all these years, know exactly who I am at any given moment.
But I come close with Trip, and he with me. It gets awkward sometimes; occasionally we feel tension between us; a couple times the tension has erupted into intense conflict—we once yelled at each other for ten minutes on a downtown Chicago street on our way back to the hotel. And yet we sense little need to play it safe.
We don’t posture or pontificate when we’re together, and we feel no neurotic need to please or take care of each other.
Who I am meets who he is.
Our true selves, who we really are because of Jesus, connect, never fully, but substantially, not always, but often.
Soul friends, what David Benner calls “sacred companions,” meet each other at the level of their souls, their inmost being, what is most real and alive within them. Foibles, weaknesses, craziness, inexcusable selfishness and pride—they are all visible.
But not central. What’s central is the center. Trip and I take the considerable risk (that I take with only a handful of people) of nearly authentic relating. I think it’s because we actually believe the gospel. We believe that our truest selves are not foibled, weak, crazy, or bad.
Thanks to Christ’s blood and his Spirit, we literally believe that each other’s center is indestructibly alive, spotlessly clean, and in sync with the Spirit’s rhythm. I can’t destroy him, and he can’t destroy me—so we’re not afraid of each other. When we have a conversation, one agenda swallows up all others—we long to speak from our center and to access and feed the center of the other.
It requires concentration and intentionality. But it’s not work.
When it happens, when our centers meet, it feels more like release than a reward for discipline.
I’m learning that it takes a lifetime to discover our true selves, a lifetime of discovering God’s heart, of seeing Jesus and what he’s up to more clearly, of surrendering to a divine love the Spirit helps us believe is real. And it takes a lifetime of relating with increasing authenticity and hope-driven brokenness to a few soul friends.
When Gary, David, and I decided to devote this issue of Conversations to the theme of false self/true self, I thought it might be good if I interviewed Trip. In keeping with the passion behind this journal, what I’ve come up with is more of a conversation than an interview, a dialogue between two soul friends.
I do not hold up our relationship as a model to imitate—art cannot be imitated, only create—but I do offer this conversation as one example of what nearly three decades of risky relating can produce between two floundering pilgrims who take Jesus seriously as we move into each other’s lives.
LC: Maybe a little history would be a good place to start. For the sake of our readers, tell how we first got acquainted.
TM: We first met back in the fall of 1979, when Judy and I flew from Canada to Florida for a week of counseling. At that point, we had been married for a year and a half and separated for the last six months. We had read your book, Effective Biblical Counseling, and in a last-ditch effort, we had contacted you to see if you could meet with us.
Our marriage had been tense from day one. Starting on the honeymoon, I had shut down internally toward Judy; my internal struggles had gone from bad to worse with each passing month. And when Judy started reacting to my distance, the tension turned into hostility, until we came to a point where we figured that separating until we could find some help would be the best idea.
In those days, “Christian counseling” was a new thought and most people doing it were into the “point to the Bible verse and exhort change” method. God knows how much I tried to change—I even saw a Freudian psychiatrist weekly for a year, but all to no avail.
By the time Judy and I went to see you in Florida, both of us were pretty convinced there was no hope for our marriage, but as Christians who really didn’t want a divorce, we figured one last effort couldn’t hurt. We saw you for a total of four hours that week in Florida, and God used that time to begin a major transformation in me especially and in our marriage.
Upon returning home, we rented a new apartment together, and, in many ways, the marriage finally really began. A few months later, we adopted our first daughter.
Apart from two more one-week visits to Florida for counseling over the next two years, you and I didn’t see each other again until I showed up for the M.A. program in counseling at Grace Seminary in 1984. I remember your surprise at seeing us when we first ran into you at church one Sunday, just before classes began.
LC: I guess I was surprised our time had made a real difference. So much for my confidence, at least then, in the power of the Spirit. I like to think I’ve grown since then. Whatever growth has been happening in me has something to do with our friendship.
Since that first week, when I counseled you, our relationship has clearly moved from counselor-client to a friendship of mutuality. I’ve said more than once that I receive as much spiritual direction from you as from anyone else. In your mind, how important is mutuality in the development of our friendship, and how has it happened?
TM: Until mutuality became a reality in our relationship, I don’t think either one of us would have referred to the other as a friend. And I don’t believe that began to happen until the last half of my second year in the counseling program. You had certainly been very instrumental in my growth up to that point, but it was all very one way.
I’m not really too sure what happened that allowed me to start “being there” for you on occasions. I know there was a real intimidation factor for most of us students that kept us at a certain distance. After all, how could any of us ever be helpful to you? You did come across then as pretty darned self-sufficient.
There was one particular moment that I remember very clearly when, during a supervision time, you used my way of relating to you as an example of what you saw me doing with the client. I think I felt a little of your loneliness. That event led to my becoming deeply gripped by how I was failing you in our relationship, and led, ironically, to my being able to be not just a receiver with you, but also a giver.
I say “ironically” because I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that most real soul friendships begin by one person moving into the life of the other in life-changing ways, which, in turn, frees the other person to relate differently. The result is the potential for a real friendship. I believe that’s what happened with us.
LC: I sometimes wish I still felt self-sufficient. Intimidation is a great protective device. And you walked right through it. Thanks, I guess. When I think of your impact on me, two things come quickly to mind: your relentless self-awareness that has taken you into the pits, and your sense of inner buoyancy, your realization that you are indestructibly alive, even when you feel dead. What do you see as the relationship (causal? correlational?) between self-awareness and a sense of spiritual life?
TM: It’s kind of nice when something that positively impacts a friend is something you haven’t had to work hard to make happen. If I am “self-aware” I truly see it as a fruit of God’s having peeled away my best efforts to avoid facing the reality of life. Facing pain has a way of revealing the futility of the false self—it just isn’t providing real answers.
To answer your question, I do believe there is a correlation between my self-awareness and the inner buoyancy you talk about. I don’t believe I ever would have begun to discover a spiritual life that is “indestructible” had I not been forced down a difficult path by the struggles that my self-awareness has required me to face. Some people talk as if “self-awareness” is liberating. For me, it is quite the opposite. I find myself in a world I have no idea how to handle or fix. I find myself with a heart that is easily wayward and hard. Self-awareness is necessary and good, but it feels more like death than liberation.
LC: And you recommend it? Do you see it as a predictable route to finding your true self? Does resurrection reliably follow death?
TM: To be quite honest, the discovery of the true buoyancy of my relationship with God has always come as a surprise to me, as opposed to some predictable next step in the Christian walk, perhaps because it has almost always followed moments and events that had forced me to cry out, “Alas, all is lost!” When you think you’re going down under the water, and something suddenly pulls you back up to the surface, you’re surprised. The fact that a life-preserver truly functions doesn’t really excite you until you find yourself floating miles from shore in very deep water. That somewhat describes my discovery of buoyancy.
I find myself asking, “why is it always such a surprise to me when God finally does what he’s said he will do over and over again in the Scriptures?” I think maybe it’s because I’ve become so familiar with the “truth” of who he is and what he says he does, that I’m somewhat content just with the idea. But to do that, I’ve had to learn to be comfortable with the dichotomy between the truth I read and the life I live. It’s as if I’ve learned to survive on the idea, without there being much practical experience of the reality, and then calling it “living by faith.”
So when God, in the middle of the insurmountable turmoil of life, touches me in a way that lets me see his presence as life-giving, and rekindles my heart for him and those around me, it is one glorious surprise, over and over. The experience feels a lot like what I read in Psalm 116:7: “Be at rest once more, O my soul, for the Lord has been good to you” (NIV).
LC: I think I’m getting the picture that the process of coming alive is mysterious. But you’re not saying it’s completely beyond description. How does the Spirit remind you that you’re alive when you’re down?
TM: Sometimes it’s through a friend who hasn’t become blind to who I really am in Christ, even when I’ve totally lost sight of that reality. That’s one of the things that I’ve learned from our friendship and that get me really excited. We can truly be used of God to see each others’ hearts stirred and rekindled. There have been so many times when I felt like I was floating aimlessly at sea, and you have said a few sentences that resulted in my putting my foot down and touching the solid bottom.
I know it’s possible to play a similar role in another’s life. Part of my frustration is that I don’t feel like I do that very often with my friends. But I’m trusting the Lord desires to see me become freer and freer, to represent him in that way in people’s lives.
The other way the Spirit reminds me I’m alive requires a little more from me. It happens when I’m brought to a point where I realize I’m only going to sink lower and lower if I don’t do what I’ve spent a good part of my life avoiding doing (even as a Christian), and that is approaching the throne of grace to find help in my time of need.
I’m baffled by the fact that I’ve known the verse in Hebrews that talks about this opportunity for thirty-odd years, yet I’ve somehow found a way to get around having to do it. Sure, I would often pray, but I’m talking about something different from what I used to call prayer. Somehow, I had learned to pray without its being relational. It was like e-mailing a list of needs to someone as opposed to walking in and sitting down in the presence of another person and pouring out my heart and experiencing his.
Several years ago, I began noticing how terrified I was to look to another person for something I needed, how I had learned to survive on my own and avoid all the dangers of depending on others. And God’s name was at the top of my list of people not to depend on.
It has taken my getting totally cornered to start thinking in terms of actually counting on God for something I can’t live without. And now, rather than being a scary experience, the desperateness my self-awareness provokes stirs an excitement deep within me, because I’m a little more familiar with where it can lead me, and I know refreshment and perspective await me there.
Also, your PAPA prayer has become a tool that I’ve really grown to appreciate in this regard. It helps me move into the presence of God in a way that feels very alive and real.
LC: Thanks for the plug. Let me shamelessly seize it by mentioning that I describe what I call the PAPA prayer in my book, The Pressure’s Off:
P— present yourself honestly before God;
A— attend to where you experience his presence or absence;
P— purge yourself through confession of whatever you become aware is blocking the Spirit’s access to your soul;
A— approach him with the willingness of full surrender, anticipating a joy in fellowship with the Father that exceeds all other joys.
Now, let me keep on my self-serving roll. I’ve heard you say that God has used me to move you to good places you otherwise might not have gone. I don’t think it’s my degrees or cleverness that God has used. What has he used in our relationship to impact your soul?
TM: It used to be your cleverness, back in the days of the M.A. program, when I was still looking for someone who was going to be able to help get my act together. Today, it’s very different.
There are many things I could say in response to your question. Let me mention two.
First, there is something about your brutal honesty that has robbed me of being able to use the accoutrements of the Christian life to stay above the real fray. I have seen you refuse to pretend, and as a result, discover God in ways that make my mouth water.
In a sense, you’ve stolen the glossy image of a victorious Christian life and replaced it with a much more demanding mandate, one that requires me to discover a God who is truly there and truly cares, or I simply won’t survive.
I have to admit that at one level, I really don’t like that definition of the Christian life, but deep down inside, it stirs and thrills me because it’s a perspective that seems to fit so much better with what it took for us to be able to walk with God down here—a bloody cross. I watch you walk that path that requires you to lose your life, and I’ve seen you find real life as a result.
There is a quote by G.K. Chesterton that says well what I’m trying to communicate here: “The Christian life has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” You are a person who has truly “tried” the Christian life, and you have indeed found it difficult. But you’ve also found the One who not only makes living it possible, but makes following that path worth the effort. Otherwise, why would anyone do it? Without you, I doubt very seriously I would be on that path.
The second aspect is related. More recently, I have been struck by how you are caught up with the glory of God. It’s sad that such a phrase can actually become another easily repeated mantra that holds very little gripping meaning for most of us Christians.
Because, for some reason, you are deeply gripped by the importance of God being truly glorified, not just in our creeds and doctrines but also in our conversations and relationships, I sense God is again taking me into territory I would not have discovered had you not been my friend.
What excites me most is that I’m starting to get a glimpse of how important this theme really is—the most important! Not just one more doctrine among others, but the very cornerstone of all the rest.
God’s pleasure is what it is all about.
I’m not sure where this new discovery is going to take me, but I do know one thing: it won’t be superficial. Just a statement I’ve heard you repeat several times in the last year or so expresses what I mean: “God’s goal in our lives is to stir up a desire for him that surpasses any other desire.” I’m starting to believe that is how radical it must be if I truly want to live in a way that pleases and honors God.
LC: We recently sat on stools in front of four hundred people at a SoulCare conference to have this kind of conversation live. You said then that you were more in touch with a pervasive emptiness in your soul than ever before. And you called that emptiness a gift. What did you mean?
TM: I have a difficult time understanding how God can truly mean very much to me if my perception of life is that it pretty much supplies me with what I need to be happy. Sure, when things are going along fairly well, I’m glad God’s around, and I “praise” him for doing such a good job, but he never becomes what I call “vitally necessary,” in the sense that I really can’t make it without knowing him better.
If that is true, then any involvement on his part is an amazing gift if it results in my discovery that my heart needs much more than a life that is working fairly well. That’s why I see my growing emptiness as one of the best things he can do for me.
As he continues his renewing work in my life, the survival strategies I learned to use as a kid in order to make it, to maintain the illusion that life was going fairly well, have become less and less effective. As a result, I am increasingly aware of the unpleasant aspects of life, both in the world around me and the world inside me. Consequently, my life has become much more difficult to live. I’m more and more conscious of how God intended things to be, in contrast with how they really are… not just in relationships with others, but in myself. And this raises some really hard questions about what life is all about, and the role God is supposed to play in all of it.
Most people seem to think that the reality I’m talking about here sounds terrible, like it’s something to avoid, something to get rid of, but to be honest, this reality has become one of my best friends.
I also see my emptiness as a gift since I really want to be used as someone who can walk along the path of life with other people in ways that can bring them into more of what God truly has for them. If my own happiness is based on my life working well, then I won’t offer people much more than help to make their lives work better, or maybe to mask their reality with religion or psychological adjustment.
Only people who are truly hungry are driven to seek food passionately. I love the verse in Hosea where God says, “I will lead her [my people] into the desert and speak tenderly to her.” That is a gift.
LC: Someone came to you after that conference with tips on overcoming your emptiness. You weren’t drawn to talk further with that person. Why?
TM: It’s funny, because when I spoke of my struggle with emptiness that day, I wasn’t seeing it as an obstacle to be gotten rid of, but rather as the result of God’s faithful involvement in my life. But most Christians don’t seem to see it that way. That’s really not what we want and expect God to do in our lives. So when a person starts talking about something that might be “painful,” we instantly see it as a problem, and try to help the person get past it.
I remember your saying years ago, during a course in the counseling program, that Christians are the only people who can really afford to be truly honest in life, in the sense of facing reality as it truly is—no denial, no blinders, no positive spin to make it look better than it is. Not only do I now believe that we, as Christians, can afford to live that way; I don’t think we’ll really become the people God wants us to be or discover what he has for us if we don’t.
It’s only as I see things as they really are that the depth of my need for God can become a living, vital reality, as opposed to a nice theory. God forbid that anyone should take that away from me!
LC: How have our conflicts impacted our friendship (beyond my praying more that you’d admit they were all your fault)?
TM: I’ll never forget our screaming match as we walked along a street in downtown Chicago a few years ago. I look back on that event with fondness, because it was the proof, for me, that our relationship was strong and stable. Through the whole thing, I never once felt any fear that our relationship was somehow in jeopardy.
Our first real conflict, which took place at Glen Eyre in 1984, several years before Chicago, was different. It was the first time I felt that in order really to love you, I was going to have to present myself in ways that would be very uncomfortable. I remember tossing and turning the night before, knowing I was going talk to you the next morning. I think, at that point, I was aware that the morning’s conversation could be the beginning of the end of our relationship.
What is ironic is that this particular event became a sort of turning point in our relationship, in that it drew us closer together as friends. Your willingness to face humbly and honestly the impact you had had on me turned a painful episode into one of my first tastes of seeing conflict lead to a deeper relationship.
I also tend to think that the fact I was willing actually to confront you, at that point, became a key factor in your respecting me. Not too many people were willing to risk challenging the head of the program. That was among the first steps, on my part, toward mutuality.
LC: Have they had any impact on the degree to which you feel a need to hide behind a false self in our relationship?
TM: Quite to the contrary. I believe the fact that true conflicts have been a part of our friendship has freed me to feel more at ease to be who I really am with you (and I hope you’d say the same from your side). Because, in one sense, we’ve faced the worst together and survived, I feel more at rest and free as a result. It’s as if our relationship has faced the test of conflict and has come out stronger for having done so.
LC: We’ve both experienced close friendships that have ended in conflict. Any fears ours might come to a sad ending?
TM: As you ask that, a wave of dread passes through me, which seems to imply that the answer to the question has to be “Yes,” at least at some level.
Yet I think the fear has less to do with anything about our particular relationship and more to do with my own history. When you have a mom who was married five times, you come to the conclusion that conflicts result in separation. And more recent losses of good friends have had even more impact on me today, I think, than the family history.
When so few things work out the way God intended in this fallen world, you can never say it can’t or won’t happen. However, because of the way you and I have lived the friendship up to now, I would be very surprised if some event or difference could result in our friendship ending. At least I want very much to believe that, and I know you’d say the same thing.
LC: Speak for a minute to people without a soul friend. Any thoughts?
TM: Having learned to survive in life without significant relationships, I didn’t feel much pain over the fact I didn’t have close friends. In view of that fact, I think I’d start by saying, “Let your loneliness become a present, painful reality.” Or, at least, (because I’m not sure how one goes about doing that), ask God to help you get in touch with that part of your soul, the part that was designed to enjoy this kind of relationship.
Then, as you begin to get a passionate sense of what you desire and what you are missing, find someone to whom you can offer that very thing. Like my friendship with Larry, the relationship began when Larry simply moved into my life and loved me well. So ask God to teach you how to move into some person’s life in a way that will awaken their deepest thirst for relationship.
Sometimes, the result will be two individuals becoming true friends. Sometimes not. But in any case, no one will be able to rob you of the joy of having loved another.
And maybe the soul you have awakened will, by the very fact it is more thirsty, be more likely to be driven to God to find the only true Living Water that can satisfy. As a result, I think God will be glorified. In other words, I think that will make him very happy.