Every women’s retreat at which I serve invariably brings two specific feedback responses:
1. Tara! You are a total wreck—just like me! I wish you lived here and we could be friends because you really GET IT. I struggle with (fill in the blank here)—resenting my husband; secret spending and credit card debt; overindulging in food, alcohol, prescription drugs, sexual fantasies; depression, anxiety, anger, bitterness, etc.
2. All of these perfectly “together” women in my church could never relate to my struggle. They are all so godly. There is just no way that I could ever let them see the real me or tell them about the habitual sins or ruling lusts that I face (and that my children and my husband—especially my church leader husband—face). Not only would they judge me, they would reject me. So here I am, surrounded by people, but desperately alone. No one sees, knows, and loves, the real me.
Sadly, in my experience, it’s not usually just one lone woman bravely venturing forth to speak those words—there are always multiple women at that very event expressing similar feelings. This means that I know with absolute certainty that these specific women want to overcome their loneliness and experience genuine friendship, but something is getting in the way.
All too often, this feedback is not only true at women’s retreats. It also aptly describes the relationships—or lack of relationships—in our churches. Jesus may have taught that everyone will know we are his disciples “by our love for one another” (John 13:35); the apostle Paul may have taught that we are to strive like a gladiator—as though our very lives depended on it—to keep “the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3); and even our own PCA Book of Church Order may state that “One of the most powerful ways that we can encourage reconciliation with God is to model reconciliation among people” (BCO Appendix I) … but for many of us, relationships in our local churches are the polar opposite of these teachings.
There are a myriad of reasons for our lack of loving, loyal, and unified relationships, but let me highlight just two:
1. All too often, we fake niceness. Psalm 28:3 describes this as “speaking cordially with our neighbors while harboring malice in our hearts” (NIV). Have you ever done this to someone? Or have you been the recipient of this particular wickedness? (I do not use that term lightly—both the NIV and ESV use the term “wicked” to describe people who do this.) Think about the last time you smiled and acted friendly to someone’s face and then went behind their backs to laugh at them, criticize them, and gang up against them like a pack of rabid junior high alpha girls. When you claim to love God and neighbor but, actually, you fail to love and you cannot control your tongue, the Bible calls you a liar (1 John 4:20) and says that your religion is worthless (James 1:26).
2. We envy. Rather than celebrating and enjoying someone else’s success, beauty, gifting, or happiness, sometimes we envy them. Envy goes beyond mere jealousy (wanting the good thing they have) to actually desiring ill for them—we want their good thing and we want them to no longer have it. Cornelius Plantinga teaches that the fruits of envy include discontentment, ungratefulness, irritability, resentment, and backbiting—and “wherever we find envy, we find the wreckage of human and Christian community.” I urge you to please think about this seriously. How do you, and the people in your church, respond when something good happens to someone in your church? Do you all jump up with authentic happiness and celebrate with selfless glee? If so, you are loving one another because “love does not envy” (1 Corinthians 13:4). But if you have to hide not only your weaknesses and sins from the people around you—but also your successes; if you are unable to celebrate unselfishly the blessings in others’ lives, then your relationships are marked by envy, not genuine love.
Proverbs 18:24 says that there are friends who only “pretend to be friends” (RSV). If your relationships are marked by fake niceness and envy, then your friendships are only pretending to be friendships. Such living leads to desperate loneliness because it follows after “the one who divides”—the diabolos—the devil himself.
There is a better way!
The Scriptures teach us how to develop sincere affection, faithful loyalty, and lasting unity in our relationships, all because of what God has already accomplished for us in the Person and work of Jesus Christ. The next blogs that I write for enCourage will be on these very topics. I pray that they will help us all to banish forever the shallow, performance-oriented, graceless relationships that all too often poison our churches, women’s ministries, and lives—for the glory of the Triune God whose very character reflects the love and unity that we are to have as Christians (John 17:20-23).