A few weeks ago I wrote about the importance of emotional connection in marriage. Now I’d like to discuss how deep friendships and a wider support network are also an essential element to personal growth and spiritual wellness.
I feel extremely blessed to have many friends who help me grow in various ways. People who are willing to share their passions and talents and help me expand my horizons in so many areas….from fashion to faith, homeschool, writing, healing from grief, forming better habits and growing in virtue, self-care, intellectual openness and more. All of these people help provide the “atmosphere of growth” author Gretchen Rubin claims is an essential part of happiness. They encourage and support me to become a better me, in ways I certainly couldn’t become alone. And I think it’s meant to be this way…that the company of kindred spirits helps one’s unique talents and beauty shine.
In their insightful book, “How People Grow: What the Bible Reveals about Personal Growth,” authors of the popular “Boundaries” series, Drs Cloud and Townsend, strongly emphasize the need for vulnerable, authentic connection with others. Rather than promoting an individualistic faith that is between God and the person alone, they present the love of other people as the lifeline between our hearts and God’s. Thus healing from deep wounds requires not only intellectual knowledge of God’s grace and forgiveness, but real experiences of the heart. We need to feel His love, and the way we can is through the support and love of other people.
To connect with God’s love, however, we need not only people, but also need our hearts to be available to those people. We have to be open and vulnerable for the grace and acceptance to do any good. Many people “fellowship” with others, but they share so little as they fellowship that nothing happens at the heart level. As Paul told the Corinthians, “We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians, and opened wide our hearts to you. We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding your affection from us. As a fair exchange–I speak to you as my children–open wide your hearts to us also” (2 Cor. 6:11-13). So for growth to occur, it must include experiences where hearts are open with each other. Otherwise, it is just known in someone’s head and never experienced at the levels God has designed. (How People Grow, p.128)
I think we can all relate to the power of a really good “heart to heart” chat with a close friend. Such closeness and sharing can make the unbearable seem possible and restore hope. The loving mercy of a friend who encourages us gives us the strength to not give up and the inspiration to try better, while knowing we are already loved exactly as we are. Receiving this kind of grace requires vulnerability and courage, and can’t be had by hiding and pretending we have it all together.
The point here is that grace can be available to us, but we might not be available to grace. We can be around a lot of acceptance and grace, but until the hurt and guilty places of our heart are exposed, we do not experience grace, and the gap between our head and heart continues.
To confess one’s greatest failures and sins, and then still be embraced with love and encouragement, is to experience the unconditional nature of God’s love. This kind of mercy has the power to be transformative. Deep suffering can break one’s heart open, but if we allow it be be exposed it to the healing love of trustworthy people who will comfort us, it can enable us to grow.
When we lost our baby Josephine, we were immensely supported. We could feel ourselves being held up by the prayers of friends, loved ones, and even strangers who heard our story. We experienced the emotional equivalent of a train wreck, but we got up and kept walking. This is not because of our strength, but because of our acceptance of our weakness…we weren’t afraid to lean hard on others so they could help us up again. To me this was a kind of miracle–a sign of God’s love–lavished on us by so many of His children, all participating in one way or another in the communion of the saints. By this I mean not a club for the ‘saintly’ but a vast family of imperfect people struggling to live with hope and love even in the midst of tragedy.
We experienced this all grace because we were open to it…when in pain my natural tendency is to reach out. Some people shut down and hide. It is hard for the warmth of affection to reach them. Recovery can be much slower, and on top of that, hidden wounds are very lonely.
A dear friend told me once she thought I was brave to be so vulnerable at Josephine’s funeral, letting tears fall as we carried her tiny coffin out of the packed church. Honestly, though, I simply couldn’t help it, but exposing my raw grief enabled others to reach out and comfort me. I could receive their love, and my heart could start to be healed, even as it lay broken and shattered.
I hadn’t really meant to go into all this, but I guess my point is, whatever your suffering, don’t try to do it alone. Let God love you by letting others wrap their arms around you so you can feel His nearness. Stop hiding your face under a protective veneer of pretense, as if huddling under a dark umbrella. Throw it aside and let the rain of grace pour over you and wash away your tears. And with your hands now free, reach out and hold the hands reaching towards you.