By Larry Short
At the article’s core, Peterson addresses the issue of incongruence in the Christian life. “Incongruence” is the gap between what we say we believe and what we act like we believe. A pastor for a number of years before he became a theologian and author, Peterson was shaken by the incongruence he saw in himself (as a preacher) and those who sat under his sermons each Sunday, so much so that he considered himself a failure as a preacher.
I would encourage you to read the article for yourself, and I won’t lengthen this blog by summarizing it. But I did want to present a couple of ideas that really jumped out at me, that resonated with my heart.
One is that the solutions to most of our problems really are quite simple. They aren’t necessarily easy, but they are simple. Peterson talks a lot about the importance of faithfulness, about which he coined the phrase “a long obedience in the same direction” in a book by the same name he wrote over 20 years ago. We have problems that may seem intractable, but the solutions are usually quite simple: disciplined financial management, thinking and praying before we speak or act, seeking to focus on the needs of others before our own, etc. Simple . . . but not easy.
A second thing that he said that really jumped out at me was that authentic Christian friendships are our best weapon against incongruence. I know many of us struggle with a sense that we don’t have many, or possibly even any, authentic, honest Christian friendships. In our culture, in particular, this feeling of loneliness, a lack of true friends, seems epidemic. We don’t stay planted in one place for very long. (I’ve read that the average American moves every three years.) And when we do have a place to call home, we usually hunker down inside it and hardly spend any time out-of-doors, getting to know our neighbors. (Darlene and I walk around our neighborhood daily, and we always marvel how rarely we actually see any of our neighbors out-of-doors.)
When EFCA missions director Nubako Selenga was visiting the United States for the first time, I asked him (while driving him to our church) what struck him as the strangest thing about America. “It’s so empty,” he replied without hesitation. “There are all these beautiful homes, but I don’t see people around them. When you drive down a road in Africa, everyone is outside their home, visiting with their neighbors.”
That was convicting. How well do I know my neighbors? How many do I consider friends?
And it seems, to me, to be getting worse in the younger generations. I’m always astonished when I see at a restaurant a table full of young people, and everyone is engaged deeply . . . in their smartphones or personal devices. A whole table full of silent people who are doing God-alone-knows-what on social media, but are barely even talking to one other.
Does it surprise us to learn that friendship is an extremely high value to our Lord? “No longer do I call you servants,” Jesus said, “. . . but I have called you friends.” Exodus 33 tells us that the Lord would speak with Moses “face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” Job said he was “in [his] prime, when the friendship of God was upon [his] tent.” Jonathan and David had “sworn friendship with each other in the name of the Lord,” and the power and poignancy of that particular relationship rings down to us through the ages.
Solomon told us that “faithful are the wounds of a friend,” but “profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” Herein, perhaps, lies the secret to the power of Christian friendship to create spiritual congruence (people who live like who they really are, adopted sons and daughters of the Most High God): people willing to tell each other hard truth, even if it hurts, because their love and friendship makes such truth both necessary and beneficial.
Sounds great, right? But how? What if you are reading this and frustrated and tired of feeling alone? You wish you had intimate and authentic Christian friendships, but they just don’t seem to be happening?
I can’t think of how to say this without sounding trite, but this, once again, is something that I think is both simple and hard. It’s a “long obedience in the same direction.”
First of all, Scripture advises us to choose our friends carefully. “Be not unequally yoked,” we are admonished. I can’t tell you, however, how many times I see young people willing to enter into dating relationships and even become engaged and married to someone who does not share their faith. I understand that loneliness can drive us to make poor choices. But that’s one poor choice that has little chance of doing anything other than later enhancing and ensuring continuing loneliness.
One of God’s richest blessings on my life I am celebrating today, on the 38th anniversary of my marriage to my best friend. Actually, Darlene and I probably became the best of friends some six years before we were married, so that makes it 44 years and counting. She models to me what it truly means to be a Christian friend: she is unafraid to tell me hard truth, when I need to hear it, and I know that she is 100% committed to me and my best, no matter what lies ahead. A friend like that is worth more than all the money in the world.
Young people: please, please, please, hold out for God’s best for you! Don’t give in to the temptation to date people who do not share your faith. Could they become a believer? Sure, we pray so. But don’t take the chance that their interest in you lies in places that will eclipse their interest in Jesus.
Dating and marriage aside, my other “simple but hard” point is that any friendship requires risky investment: time, effort, love, whatever. Time is probably the big one we struggle with. But you can’t really expect to develop meaningful friendships if you aren’t willing to invest the time.
And I say “risky” because I know it doesn’t always work out. I’ve had people I invested in that I hoped I would be lifelong friends with, who for whatever reason didn’t reciprocate, and we drifted apart.
But true friendship is worth the risk! So get started today. Enroll in a community group at Elim and get to know others who love Jesus. If you make the investment but don’t find any solid friends there, move on to another group. Sooner or later, you’ll hit pay dirt!
And then, allow those friends to speak truth into your life! Each of us has a congruence problem—and part of the answer is finding good Christian friends.