In my last article I wrote of our learning to listen to God. I encouraged us to get alone, with our Bible open, a journal and pen in hand, and sit in silence, listening to the voice of God, that still small voice. God almost never shouts, but is tender and quiet in His tones toward us. Turning prayer into a conversation with God is the real trick to come to understand. God is not silent. He just refuses to talk over the top of you. But how does this divine listening inform how we are to form spiritual friendships with other believers?
In an earlier article I reflected on how our honesty with God translated into honesty with our brothers and sisters we live closest to in the Kingdom. We need to be frank, open, and transparent with God and each other. In 2 Corinthians 3:18, the level of change one under goes is correspondent to the level of unveiled-ness one comes to God. It is sitting before the Lord unveiled, staring at His divine beauty, which causes us to under go real spiritual transformation. We are transformed into the image we are beholding and that by God’s Spirit. Yet, only with the veil of our self-righteousness peeled back does that work actually take place. There is something to be said about the difficulty we have is coming to that place alone. Alone we must come, however, I have never seen the process happen without the intervention of godly men. Let me tell a story to illustrate.
All my Christian life, literally from day one, I felt called to be a pastor. Several years into that pursuit I had a group of godly Christian men, elders at the church I was attending say to me, “Jeremy, we love you and we see some real strong spiritual gifts in you that some day God may use to shepherd His Church. But, we are afraid if we sent you into that role now you would burn some poor church to the ground.” I was devastated, most of these guys were real close friends. We spent time together with our families, we spent time together in worship, we ate lunch together often as well. I was crushed. But I stuck it out another two years at the church, and only left that body when I relocated back to Nashville. In the mean time I had packed up all my theological books and gave up on entering the pastorate, ever. But, I have to add one caveat, I listened to them, although begrudgingly, I did hear what they said, and I was determined not to run away. I am still friends with every one of those men today.
Divine Listening is a two edged sword. The first edge falls when you begin to speak plainly, honestly, and openly to another believer or group of believers about who you really are, living transparently before them over a stretch of time. Until then all your spiritual speaking is just pretend. Divine Listening takes you granting other people permission to listen. The group of men that spoke frankly to me were elders in the church I attended with my family. They listened intently to me over a period of years with the understanding that they may have to do the brave thing one day and tell me just what they heard. Divine Listening comes with an agreement, an understanding that you want the other person to listen and that you are giving them permission to listen beyond the surface of your words.
The second edge of Divine Listening comes when you are granted the same honor that you have afforded another. It comes when you yourself become a listener. It takes time and focused attention. It means setting aside pieces of your life to spend that time in the pursuit of God with another person. It means actually caring about what the other person is saying and not showing up for lunch just to get stuff off of your chest and talk about you. It takes selflessness, not forming your opinion while the other person is speaking, but actually listening to them and their story. It means sitting quietly for long periods intently interested in what another person is saying. It means committing to pray about what you have heard from their words and their actions, asking God how you can help and encourage them.
I chose the term the “art of spiritual friendship” for a reason. The reason is, like art, spiritual friendship is a craft, it is something that you have to work at constantly. As God builds spiritual friendship with me I am changed by opening my heart up and sitting before Him. I build spiritual friendship with other men the same way, by opening my heart up to them and giving them permission to tinker around in it. I must speak honestly and they must listen intently to me. They must speak honestly and I must listen intently to them.
In the monastic tradition, young men who wanted to join the monastery were placed in what was called the novitiate, a place for novices, and assigned a spiritual father to guide them in their walk until such time as they were fit to join the monastery as one of the brothers. They were encouraged to confess their every weakness to their spiritual father and then do whatever he said. Much of what was done in the monastic tradition was misplaced for sure, but I can see great value in developing this type of spiritual friendship. I didn’t need a monastic abbot but I did need a spiritual father and I did need to confess my weaknesses and frailties to a friend that was further down the “narrow path” than me. I have been extraordinarily gifted with the men that God has surrounded me with through out my walk with Him, which brings me back to my little story.
I relocated in 2007, moving back to the plot of dirt that I grew on. I found myself back at the church I once left because of theological differences. I had become a Christian there in 1994 and had left in spiritual pride in 1999. The elders in the story spoke those ever so frank words to me in 2005. In 2008 my spiritual dream of becoming a pastor, a dream I had given up on, came true. The church I had once left in spiritual pride extended a call to me to pastor their children and their youth. That could have never happened had I not granted permission to those brave men to listen to my words and my life over the years I was with them. It also could not have happened if those men had not willingly and carefully listened to me. I am thankful for all those divine listeners in my life. I am also thankful for all those that have granted me the honor of divinely listening to the cries of their souls as well.
What are some other disciplines that we can use to become better practioners of the Art of Spiritual Friendship? Look for the next article in the coming days entitled Serving and Spiritual Friendship.