Several years ago, I had a leadership role at a Christian organization that involved setting up an informal, weekly “Bible study” for other young women. Leadership had separate weekly meetings for the purposes of accountability, encouragement, and prayer requests. To kick off the beginning of a session, a senior member of leadership (another peer) took us all on a weekend retreat to acquaint ourselves with one another and discuss the teaching theme for the coming weeks.
We arrived at a sweet, little vacation cottage on the water that belonged to someone’s older relative. Preparations for sleeping arrangements and dinner commenced immediately, and we enjoyed some light, getting-to-know one another chit-chat as we worked. We’d been on the team for maybe a week, and were still asking after one another’s taste in movies and what states we each grew up in.
Later that evening, we gathered for a time of worship while one of the girls played guitar. We enjoyed an atmosphere of sweet, light-hearted fellowship. Then, as we had been told to come prepared to give our testimonies, a senior member of staff led off by telling her own tempestuous story. And as we continued around the circle, the nature of the sharing changed. It was almost as if through peer pressure, each felt called to give up increasingly personal life details; the sort of heart-tellings you only share with your closest friends or with complete anonymity. I remember the crescendo of emotion, as one girl wept, confessing the details of how she had lost her virginity.
Let me pause to say, I freely admit that I’m an introvert and take a while to open up to people. And I’ve also seen situations where the Holy Spirit has worked marvelously to bring believers together in deep friendships over a short time. But this was not that. This was the sort of dramatized intimacy that crops up at summer camps and retreats, burning up in an instant, if tested. It was like we’d been asked to remove some of our clothes, with leadership offering to go first. And in order to normalize the nakedness (or appear as spiritual as the rest?), one after another we’d removed more layers until we all sat scantily clad (metaphorically speaking) and unsure what to do next, other than cry a bit and congratulate one another on our so-called “realness”.
By the time we got around to me – whose testimony is rather short and definitely not spectacular from a story-telling standpoint – it seemed wrong to leave it at something so comparatively impersonal. Consequently, I felt the need to add some inner struggles I was facing at the time (that were really nobody’s business), and ask for prayer. I recall feeling very uncomfortable at the time and embarrassed about it the next day, but put the matter out of my mind until a few days later when the senior staff member (again, a peer) asked me to lunch. At that meeting, she jumped into a slew of unsolicited direction and advice regarding some of the personal things I had shared, referring to some of it as sin. I was so shocked I couldn’t even be angry right away, but I remember thinking as I sat there, This is so inappropriate. You don’t know anything about my situation. You don’t know me.
I’m sad to say that I could cite at least half a dozen instance where one Christian circle or another has demanded that type of expenditure of me. And having spoken to both men and women with similar experiences, I know it’s not an issue that is limited to a particular gender or age group within the Church. It’s as if our Christian culture has decided that in addition to having drive-through-esque services where we consumers can get our double venti gospel to-go, we’d like to add “value” relationships to the menu. Can we get two prayer partners and a mentor with that? K, thanks.
Please don’t misunderstand; there should be intimacy between Christians. The outside world is supposed to know us by our love for one another. If you’ve been part of a fellowship for a significant length of time and have no life-giving friendships to show for it, you may want to consider that something’s amiss somewhere. But as for these artificial scenarios that call for much with little cost to anyone but you… where is the love in that? Where’s the investment? Where’s the time that builds trust, as you prove to one another that you’re reliable and worthy of trust? Where’s the growth together that should characterize the way onward?
I must ask, particularly if you’re a new believer, please guard your hearts carefully. Other Christians don’t need to know all the details of your history or current situation in order to lift you up in prayer. And if they’re demanding that of you, that should be a red flag. There are many well-meaning, true believers in the world that may jump the gun in the trust department with the intent of being helpful. But I would submit that even with good intentions, this can still be extremely damaging to the sharer if the recipient turns out to have little discretion or fails to follow up on the proffered friendship. And on the darker side, there are definitely folks belonging to the congregation (not the Church) that are predatory in nature. Either way, it is wise to wait and pray for the right friends in the right timeframe and God’s leading to steadily open your heart to others.
One of the many beautiful attributes of God is His desire for us to share our hearts with Him. “Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us.” (Psalm 62:8) We can – and should – fully confess our fears and failures, hopes and disappointments, to Him as part of the privilege of sweet fellowship we’re entitled to as sons and daughters of God. As the only One who will never fail or forsake us, He should be our greatest Confidant.
Don’t let the past failures of people put you off from Him; do take time to know people before you offer to share with them what first and foremost belongs to God.
5 thoughts on “When Emotional Intimacy Costs Nothing”
I truly appreciate your sentiments here. My husband and I have experienced this recently and felt that something was amiss believing, as you do, that intimacy and trust happen naturally over time and cannot be rushed. We’ve taken nearly eight years to “build” a group of close-knit, give-the-shirt-off-your-back kind of Christian friendships while a recent Bible study group we joined has jumped right into the “share your deepest struggles and feelings with us” approach from day one. He and I are the most reserved and guarded in the group and it’s going to stay that way for a while….. maybe quite a while.
It’s so hard, because I think most of those groups and the leadership truly do mean well and the issue can be difficult to address because those sorts of expectations aren’t explicitly stated. But that’s awesome that you’ve got close Christian friends to grow with. We’re still finding our footing in our current locale, as well as trying to maintain friendships from other seasons, and my hat goes off to you for putting in the time and effort! 🙂 Thanks for taking a moment to comment.
I recently went to a non-denominational 20’s something bible study, and the leader, knowing it was my first time there, kept pressuring me and another girl to confess our sins of the week. I thought it was wildly inappropriate to do at a non-denominational church, and especially to someone who was there for the first time. The point of the study was to tell everyone how we fell short for that week. What a terrible way to fellowship with each other. I tried being positive at one point, and the leader was visibly upset that I wasn’t being manipulated into shame. I think the biggest oversight in this approach is that some people who don’t have many troubles need to be challenged by others since life isn’t teaching them any lessons, but demanding for a list of shortcomings day one is intrusive. But for those of us that who are plagued with death and disease around us, we need encouragement, not a leader that only focuses on what we’re doing wrong. Once we’re saved, God doesn’t see the wrong in us, so I’m not sure why the church is searching for it.
Yes, there’s definitely a difference between “confessing sins one to another” for the purpose of prayer and healing, versus dwelling unnecessarily on what Christ has already covered! And if it’s confession without encouragement, it seems like it’s doing a poor job of “bearing one another’s burdens”; definitely not helpful when demanded of a newcomer in a group of strangers. I’m sorry you’ve also had that experience. I appreciate you taking the time to comment, though!
incredible Christian maturity