Failure in Friendship
Failure in friendships of all kinds is a frequent occurrence. In particular, sexual failure takes us by surprise and dresses us down to size. A student friend of mine whom I quoted in the Preface of this book put the situation well in a letter to me once: 'How do we keep God at the centre? I vividly remember when I started going out with Carole. My eyes were open. I knew all the pitfalls! (I'd read about them). God was going to stay firmly at the centre. We talked about it, even prayed about it, but in retrospect it didn't happen. The trouble was that Eros, those human feelings which are most like God's love and God's voice, seemed so much stronger, more imminent and infinitely less demanding than God and were always imperceptibly edging him out.'
This couple, like many before them and just as many since their relationship disintegrated, went further physically than either of them ever intended. Like many, many others they became riddled with guilt.
Or I think of Pamela. Pamela had been married for several years when, to her great surprise, she 'fell in love' with Joy, a woman slightly older than herself. Although neither Pamela nor Joy would have called themselves lesbians before this encounter, they both experienced comfort from the tenderness of touch and excitement from the erotic nature of their friendship. When, on one occasion, Pamela and Joy actually went to bed together and were sorely tempted to bring one another to orgasm, Pamela realized the situation was serious and reached out for help.
Again, my mind goes back to a student who asked for help
at a conference once, 'I'm always making a mess of my life and blokes' lives by going too far physically. I don't understand what makes me do it when I know I'll regret it afterwards.'
In this chapter we must address ourselves to two pressing problems. What should Christians do when they fail in friendship? What should Christians do when they fail sexually? In order to answer these questions succinctly, I propose outlining ten procedures which provide possible ways out of the guilt and oppression which plague us in the aftermath of sexual failure.
The first thing to do is confess. Failure in friendship, painful though it is, is not the unforgivable sin. Even sexual sin is not the unforgivable sin. Whenever we become aware of failure of any kind, therefore, we must confess.
Confession is telling God the whole sordid story as we perceive it, tipping all the debris of our lives at the foot of the cross, withholding nothing from our merciful God.
For some people, it seems quite sufficient to pour out the whole sad story to God on their own, receive his forgiveness and then to bask in that forgiveness. Because sexual sin scars the mind, the memory, the imagination and the body, many of us need the therapy James describes when sexual failure has caught us off our guard: 'Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed' (James 5:16).
I am not suggesting that you unveil your innermost secrets before the assembled fellowship group or Bible study group. But I am seriously suggesting that, if you have confessed on your own and still feel confused, weighed down by the burden of past misdemeanors, or lack peace with God, you seek out an adult whom you trust, who is discerning, wise, prayerful, and who is capable of keeping confidences. I am also suggesting that in the presence of this trusted person you pour your pain into the lap of God remembering that God is well able to interpret all our methods of communication: words, sighs, groans, tears and silence. Indeed, as Paul reminds us: 'The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not
know what we ought to pray, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit' ( Romans 8:26-27).
When you have acknowledged and expressed your culpability, regret and penitence in this way, the biggest blockage obstructing the path between you and God is removed. You now have an amazing privilege: to stand on the authority of Jesus and declare, in his Name, that you are 'Not guilty'. This astounding truth may trickle from your head into your heart only very slowly, but you must try to grasp the truth that God no longer looks on your sin but on the crucified form of his Son, hanging on Calvary's tree in your place. God concentrates, therefore, not on the sordidness of the confession you have made, but on the fact that the account has been settled, the price paid by the sacrifice of his Son's life. God therefore declares you 'Not guilty'. God sets you free from the death penalty and from the attending guilt. You must therefore go free even if your feelings persuade you that you are not yet free.
The second stage is to believe that the above facts about God are true; to believe 1 John 1:9: 'If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.'
Confidence that God has forgiven us sometimes comes only gradually, over a period of weeks or months after the confession. You know when it has become a reality when you can look back on the activity which grieved God and, instead of wallowing in self-pity or self-loathing, give thanks that this activity became a trophy of his grace rather than primarily a sign of your disgrace. Give yourself time while God etches these facts on your mind and on your heart.
When you have confessed and believed, you are free to rejoice in God's free-flowing forgiveness. I sometimes think
of God's forgiveness as a giant waterfall which cascades down the face of a cliff in a hot and weary desert. I watched children bathe in such a waterfall in Israel once. They splashed in the rock-pools and refreshed themselves in the foaming spray. God delights to pour out forgiveness for us. In gratitude to him, as well as from need and in relief, take full advantage of this ever-available, renewing and renewable refreshment.
When you have confessed, believed and received God's generous but undeserved forgiveness, you are ready to receive another love gift: the gift of healing. The sequence is not always clear cut as this, but all the elements need to be present.
Whenever a person fails sexually, wounds are inflicted. There is the indescribable abyss of abandonment you may have fallen into, the assault on your self-worth, the searing of the conscience, the scarring of the mind. It is no accident that the Holy Spirit is often described as oil. Oil is a soothing ointment, and it contains healing properties. The prayer of healing includes the prayer that the Holy Spirit would touch and soothe and heal over the sexual sores that weep within. This healing balm is available, yet what so often happens when we feel grazed from failure is that we hide our hurts from God and try to pretend that nothing has happened. We project to the world a capable, efficient, coping image and wonder why we feel fragmented; why the hidden parts of us fall apart even though outwardly all seems well. The reason, of course, is that we are walking around with an emotional brokenness which restricts our life just as much as a broken arm or a fractured thigh.
What we must do, instead, is to expose our brokenness to the healing hand of God. Some people prefer to do this on their own. Others invite a friend or counsellor or pastor as I mentioned earlier, not simply to pray for their cleansing, but for their healing. Many would use a derivation of the following prayer.
'Lord Jesus. You see where I am hurting inside. Thank you that my brokenness is not hidden from you but that you care about it. You care about me. Just as the Good Samaritan came to the wounded traveller and bound up his wounds, I ask that, by the gentle anointing of your Spirit, you would come to my inner hurts like that. Cleanse the sores. Anoint them. Bind them up. Then, would you pick me up so that I can begin living again, not in my own strength, but buoyed up with yours. I ask these things for my healing and for the glory of Jesus. Amen.'
Whenever we pray for such healing something good happens because God both hears and honours such prayer.
The healing and renewing of the mind
But healing is bigger and broader than the canvas I have spread before you so far. It includes the healing and the renewing of the mind. Whenever we fail, Satan hovers around the scene of the crash and whispers subtle, condemnatory lies. 'What a hypocrite you are. You can't be forgiven for that. It's too late now. You've forfeited God's love but it doesn't matter because his love is a strait-jacket, restrictive love anyway. You've failed so many times, it's no good confessing again go out and enjoy yourself.' And our tired brain believes this voice; even confuses it with the voice of the Holy Spirit.
We must remind ourselves at such times that the Holy Spirit convicts. He never condemns. Learn to recognize the source of these condemnatory voices, therefore: Satan. Stand against him and stand against his lies, refusing to believe them. The friend praying for you can do this with you. Tune out the lying tongue. Tune into the truth by asking, 'What does Jesus say about me?' Read his Word, the Bible, to rediscover there the consoling assurance that your failure does not erase his love. Read Psalm 51, for example and make it your personal prayer.
The healing of the memories
Even so, God's healing work may not yet be completed. At
the beginning of this chapter I gave a thumbnail sketch of Pam's story. When Pamela came to me for help we talked about her childhood. As we did, it became apparent that she had never really felt loved by her mother. She could rationalize and conclude, 'She must have loved me she sacrificed so much for me.' But she could not recall ever feeling the full warmth of the mother-love she had pined for.
We decided, therefore, to bring this lack of love to God and to ask him to fill up some of the love-gaps which yawned inside Pam.
As we prayed, Pam seemed to see a picture of herself as though she were watching a replay of her life on videocassette. She was a baby sucking her mother's breasts. But the breasts were empty. Pamela experienced again the pain and frustration of sucking in air when she needed and expected milk. That picture seemed to symbolize the entire mother-Pamela relationship.
But as we continued to pray and to expose this deep emptiness to God, Pam seemed to see a picture of Jesus coming to her, the vulnerable infant. He held her. She snuggled into him. She gripped his big but loving finger. He bottle-fed her with warm, nourishing milk and his holding of her was tender, like the motherly love Pamela had always longed for. And Pamela sensed an inner harmony dislodge the turmoil which had once wracked her emotions.
That day, Pamela realized that, even though the relationship with her mother had lacked certain ingredients of the emotional and physical sustenance every child needs, nevertheless Jesus, the source of all true love and sustenance, was attending to every deep-seated need of hers. Indeed, the love of Jesus seemed to fill the gaps inside her in an almost physical way. This is how she described it. 'One minute my life seemed to be like an empty well. The next minute I watched the water-level rising. I knew, as I watched, that this was the rising level of God's love. It was wonderful to feel full rather than empty.'
I have related this account of Pamela's healing in detail to demonstrate and underline the fact that God's Spirit and love can seep into the crevices of our being; can even touch
and heal those places where we have been wounded or neglected in the past.
This good news is of great importance to the person with the homosexual orientation, because it means that through the prayer of inner healing, the Holy Spirit can begin to meet and compensate for some of the lack of love in the past which forms the major blockage to full sexual, emotional and spiritual maturation. This good news is of importance to the heterosexual also: to the girl who, despite all her good intentions, lived promiscuously; to the young man who admitted that he turned to sex entertainment (by which he meant blue movies, strip shows and girlie magazines), in an attempt to buy an intimacy he had never had. It is good news because it means that there is a love which can reach right down to the forlorn and loveless child who dwells within such persons, and provide the necessary love, a love that can even be felt. I have not only witnessed these quiet miracles taking place, I have also seen the effects such healing has on relationships. Take Pamela, whom I mentioned earlier, for example. Her relationship with Joy was transformed. In a gradual way, it became healing and wholesome, and mutually supportive.
Healing is gradual
'In a gradual way....' The healing I have described is effective, but its long-term consequences unfold only gradually. When you think about the nature of such healing, this is hardly surprising. Through it, the person whose growth was stunted through deprivation in the past is touched in the place of hurt. If, like Pamela, that hurt stems back to infancy, it follows that a great deal of learning has yet to take place: the learning we all have to absorb through the natural maturing process. That is why change in many of us is so slow. It is not that God is inactive but rather that he allows us the luxury of slow learning. Instead of waving a magic wand, like a divine Mary Poppins, and watching everything leap into place immediately, God respects our privacy and individuality and simply provides us with the ingredients for the growth which will result, eventually, in full maturity.
When we have received such prayer, therefore, we should
look for every sign of change but not become despondent when such changes seem slow and when, at times, we seem to take three steps forwards and four backwards. Neither should we feel embarrassed about asking for prayer for such hurts more than once. There is great value in what Francis McNutt calls 'soaking prayer': praying for someone regularly until the healing work is complete.
But I do not want to give the impression that God does all the work. Some needy people seem to present themselves and their problem to God, wait for his prescription and the medicine and expect the magic of healing. God's healing is not like that. It always involves our co-operation. And one of the ways we can co-operate with the Holy Spirit of God is to forgive.
The reason I mention this is because, whenever a person has been deprived of love in the past in the way I have described, a certain amount of resentment, bitterness and anger collects, like pockets of poison, in that person's life. As the young man whose inner hurts prompted him to seek intimacy through pornography admitted, 'Hate would not be too strong a word. At times I really hate my mother.'
Forgiveness for such people involves setting the parent figure free with a deliberate act of the will. Take this same young man, for example. We encouraged him to recall, to the full, his parents' failure in their loving of him, then to visualize them standing at the foot of the cross with him and the dying Jesus, and to pray a derivation of the prayer Jesus prayed from that same cross: 'Father, forgive them. They don't know what they're doing.'
Such a prayer is wonderfully liberating both for the injured person who prays it and for the person who inflicted the pain in the first place. They are both set free from the bondage such negatives place people in; free to make more effective and healing relationships.
Such prayer for forgiveness does not only apply to those who
know they have been wounded in the past. It applies equally to those who have failed in friendship in the present, and to those who have failed sexually. They too, must co-operate with the transforming Holy Spirit.
Let me explain what I mean by this. It often happens that when friendships flounder or when we have compromised our own sex standards, we either condemn ourselves or blame the other person involved. We have already noted the vital part confession plays, and that honest confession is always followed by God's freely given forgiveness. What we now have to do is to forgive ourselves and the person who has wronged or hurt us.
'How do you do that?' The girl who asked me that question had been raped after putting herself in a compromising situation. The process is simple but costly. It involves remembering the guilt and recalling the pain. Without ever denying that what actually happened did in fact take place, you ask two far-reaching questions: 'Will I forgive myself?' 'Will I forgive him/her?'
The temptation, when faced with those questions, is to bleat: 'I can't.' Gradually we learn that 'I can't' is not an adequate answer, it is an excuse. There are only two possible replies to the questions above: 'I will' or 'I won't'. When faced with them, therefore, we must struggle and strive, wait and pray for the will to embark on the most exhilarating part of the journey: to forgive. When our will has been marshalled into submission, we then recall the incident which still causes pain or shame and we pray our own version of Jesus' prayer on the cross: 'Father, forgive them, they didn't know what they were doing.' 'Father, forgive me, I didn't realize the full implication of what I was doing.'
This prayer is liberating because, when we utter it, God performs deep surgery on us. Just as we forgive the former friend who wronged us, so God forgive us. He comes to us. He lances the abscess where the pus and poison of resentment and bitterness have collected. He replaces these negatives with overflowing love: tenderness, compassion, understanding. By helping us to see the horrifying situation
from the other person's point of view, he encourages us to have true compassion for them.
Receive God's grace
But what if we fail frequently? What if, like the girl who wrote to me on one occasion, you have failed many partners? 'Each time I came to God for forgiveness and had known forgiveness by him. Yet each time it made a difference for a few weeks only... I really don't know what's going on in me. It's not my intentions that are wrong, just what I do.'
We must never become blase and take God's grace for granted. But neither must we despair. Rather, we will ask God to apply his blood to the weeds which ravage our lives. Let me explain what I mean.
For the past year, a huge weed has grown up next to the honeysuckle which I am trying to train to grow around my dining room window. When I asked my husband to cut it down, he looked at the girth of the trunk of the bush-like weed, and laughed. 'I couldn't possibly cut that down without damaging the wall.' Scornfully, I watched him water the offending weed with a liberal supply of ultra-strong weed killer. A week later, to my utter amazement, the once upstanding weed had withered. It has now shrivelled and died.
I am not implying that a magic solution can be applied to the soul which will eradicate our propensity to sin sexually or to fail in friendship. As I underlined in chapter six, we are not God's robots, nor God's puppets, but responsible adults capable of making choices. But neither do I want to suggest that we must grit our teeth and conquer alone. To learn to love, as we have noted all through this book, is to come to terms with a complex art form. As Walter Trobisch reminds us so aptly: 'Love is a feeling to be learned by grace.'1 Those of us who know we are weak, who have experienced the humiliation of failure, need a liberal sprinkling of the grace of God to saturate this area of our lives.
Confess. Believe in the generosity of God. Receive his forgiveness.
Accept his healing. Tune out, and drive out, satanic whispers. Then refocus.
It is easy to wallow in self-pity or remorse or in guilt feelings. This does no-one any good and is, in fact, piling one sin upon another. Turn your back on the past and drink in, instead, the sheer wonder of the love of God. Rejoice in it. Be awed by the sheer generosity of it. Wonder at the vitality of it as you do when energy returns to your body after an illness. This may take weeks, rather than minutes, but gradually refrain from wallowing in your own weakness and fill your horizon with the realization of God's overwhelming love, which eradicates sin.
Realize that God is bigger than your mistakes
Next, marvel at the miracle-working nature of God; at the realization that God is bigger than our mistakes. It often happens that the memories of our sexual misdemeanors crush us: 'I've scarred my girlfriend for life'; 'I should never have gone out with a non-Christian. What kind of witness have I been? How will he ever understand God's love after what I've done to him?'
Thanks be to God, this failure is not the end of the story. God is bigger than our mistakes. He does not have to unpick our lives, or go back to the dropped stitch. No. Instead, out of the greatness of his love for us, he weaves our mistakes into the fabric of our lives and even makes them beautiful. Our responsibility, therefore, is to acknowledge where we failed others; then, as though Jesus was in the room with us, to bring the messy situation, and particularly the wronged person, into his all-capable, all-loving hands and to leave them there.
It often helps, in this prayer of relinquishment, if someone else is present when the final handing-over happens. You can pray together that God will take full responsibility for the friend you failed. If ever you have occasion to doubt that you completed this task, your confidante can remind you that they witnessed the handing-over ceremony.
But all I have said so far will bear little fruit unless repentance reshapes our lives. Anthony Balcom says this of repentance: 'We should never lure ourselves into imagining that to lament one's past is an act of repentance. It is part of it, of course, but repentance remains unreal and barren so long as it had not led us into doing the will of the Father. We have a tendency to think that it should result in fine emotions and we are quite often satisfied with emotions instead of real, deep changes.'2
Jim Wallis puts it another way. 'Repentance is seeing our sin and turning from it: faith is seeing Jesus and turning towards him.'3 Just as on Easter Day, Mary was challenged to turn her back on the grave which once entombed Jesus and to fix her gaze on him, so we are called to turn our backs on all that once held us captive and to focus our love on him: to make him the pivot around which our world revolves. Until we have done this, until he is re-enthroned, all our weeping and wailing, confession and chastising will be of no avail. We have to be changed by Christ from the inside out.
But when that miracle called repentance does begin to reshape our lives, something astonishingly beautiful happens. It is as though God creates from the seeming ruin of our lives a priceless pearl. A pearl is the result of an accident. A pearl is the result of grit in the oyster. A pearl is one of nature's glorious 'mistakes'. A pearl is precious.
And such, by the grace of God, are we, not in spite of our misdemeanors but because of the overwhelming goodness which is God. As I have emphasized in my book, Growing into Love4, and as Walter Trobisch reminds us, 'There is no life so messed up that he cannot bring it into order. He can even make done things undone by his forgiveness. For this is what forgiveness means: to make done things undone.5
The last chapter of this book was almost completed when a student came to see me to talk over her seeming inability to make lasting relationships. As we talked, despair in her turned to hope. God seemed to remind us of the example Jesus set us. He seemed to remind us, too, of the encouraging picture of ourselves which is painted in Hebrew 12.
Since we have such a huge crowd of men of faith watching us from the grandstands, let us strip off anything that slows us down or holds us back, and especially those sins that wrap themselves so tightly around our feet and trip us up; and let us run with patience the particular race that God has set before us.
Keep your eyes on Jesus, our leader and instructor.... Look after each other so that not one of you will fail to find God's best blessings (Hebrews 12:1-2,15 LB).
These are favourite verses of mine. They remind me of the Olympic Games or of Wimbledon. They remind me that we are the players in the centre of the arena and that this huge crowd in the grandstands, which includes God, is on our side, willing us to win. Whenever we succeed, they roar their approval. Whenever we fail, they call out: 'Come on. You can do it. We believe in you.' And whenever we pluck up the courage to begin again, they show that they are on our side: 'Keep it up. We're willing you to make it.'
Making creative relationships is one of the biggest challenges that ever faces a human being. We never fully graduate. Nevertheless, human friendship is one of God's best blessings. However much we fail, therefore, we must never stop trying to make all sorts of Christlike friendships.
Notes for chapter twelve
1. Walter Trobisch, Love is a Feeling to be Learned (IVP, 1974), p. 32 (italics mine).
2. Anthony Bloom, Living Prayer (Libra, 1973), p. 66.
3. Jim Wallis, The Call to Conversion (Lion, 1981), p. 5.
4. See 'Treating the Indelible Stain' by Joyce Huggett in Growing into Love (IVP, 1982).
5. Walter Trobisch, Love is a feeling..., p. 31.
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