At all of my women’s retreats, I invite the attendees to write a brief reflection and prayer request after the first (usually Friday evening) session. For my “Fear Not!” retreat, they share with me about the burdens tied to their worst anxieties and worries. “Titus 2 in a 21st Century World” encourages older women to reflect on their vision for the theological and philosophical strengths of their younger women. And when we begin to face our “Disordered Affections,” I often hear about habitual sins and destructive patterns that even godly and mature Christian women have faced for years—often alone, because they are ashamed to let anyone see the real person hiding behind their façade.
I started speaking at women’s events in 2001 and I have saved every single little prayer card that the women have given me over the years. I have boxes of them. Tens of thousands of cards, millions of words, often revealing the most crushing burdens that these dear women are facing:
- A seventy-year old missionary confesses to an affair she had 50+ years ago. I am the first person she has ever told. And then she asks, “Should I tell my husband?”
- Young women enslaved to habitual masturbation, who don’t understand why all of the teachings and prayer groups that their churches ever hold on this topic are focused solely on men, cry out: “What should I do? Who can help me? I feel completely alone in this struggle.”
- A deacon’s family publicly encourages wise stewardship, while privately trying to hide mounting, destructive debt. The wife asks, “How can we reach out for help in our own church? We will be so judged!”
- Countless women have told me about families touched by mental illness and the ravaging effects of addiction on their lives. “I was put on an involuntary psych hold.” “My mom was in and out of detox centers my entire childhood.” “This is the first Sunday I’ve been at church sober in over ten years.”
Over and over, no matter the diversity of the struggles, there is often one unifying refrain:
“No one knows. The people in my church would judge me. I’ve never heard a Christian teacher talk so openly about these topics.”
Oh, my dear friends. If we had even a glimpse or glimmer of the suffering happening right around us as we worship on Sunday morning, I strongly believe that we would not only be moved with compassion, we would also be encouraged to be brave in our vulnerabilities. Yes, our theology would be rigorous and sound. But the application of that theology in real life would be compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness—just like the Triune God we love and serve (see Exodus 34:6-7).
Consider again the relationships in your local church. Would the people I quoted above be able to speak with your church members and leaders about their struggles? Can you be honest about what you are facing—or do you feel compelled to stuff things down, avoid uncomfortable conversations, and plaster on a smile?
When we make baptismal and membership vows to one another and to the Lord, we are covenanting to live together as a church family. How can we persevere with authenticity if we are constantly afraid that we will be judged and criticized by the very people who are supposed to be our strongest allies?
The answer, as always, is to look to Jesus, the “founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1-3).
- Think of Jesus, the perfect Son of God, incarnate by the power of the Holy Spirit, being abandoned by his sleeping friends at the moment of his greatest agony (Matthew 26:40).
- Consider Jesus, loving his disciples with a love that would take him to the cross—hearing their vows of devotion (Matthew 26:35) and then, hours later, seeing them actively deny him (Luke 22:54-62).
Sometimes, when we reach out to others, we will be abandoned by our “sleeping” friends. At other times, we will be vulnerable and then have to bear the sting of betrayal.
- Keep risking. Keep loving. Remember that Jesus knows your sorrows (Isaiah 53:3-5) and he cares (1 Peter 5:7).
- Trust God and love people. Perfect love really does “cast out all fear” (1 John 4:18) as we remember that God is working together all things for his glory and our good.
And sometimes? Oh, sometimes! We will find that true friend who “sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24). When we are honest about our most paralyzing insecurities, they neither recoil in judgment nor splatter us with hasty words of advice or paper-thin theology. Instead, they come alongside of us; remind us that we have more in common than we might otherwise imagine; listen compassionately; speak wisely; and always point us to our True Home in Heaven to come.
One day, there will be no more tears. No more judgment and abandonment by “friends who only pretend to be friends” (Proverbs 18:24). One day, our relationships will be just as they ought to be. Maranatha! Come quickly, Lord Jesus.