Delores is a young woman in trouble. At 31 she presents the outward marks of success. She is a Christian and belongs to a large evangelical church. Despite her accomplishments, however, she is miserable. Past sorrow and present loneliness create great emotional weight for her. She does not believe she could go to her pastor with her problems because she sees herself as a living example of his sermons, an illustration of how far short of the mark believers fall. Her two attempts to talk with others in the congregation have prompted (1) an injunction to be less self-centered, and (2) a hasty suggestion to read a popular Christian author.
Delores’s story is not rare. My counseling work often brings me into contact with struggling saints who are frustrated and alienated from their brothers and sisters in Christ. Such experiences prompt me to share some thoughts about our need to rediscover intimacy among Christians.
The intimacy I refer to means close association with another person in such a way that we are motivated to change or subordinate our own immediate wants for the privilege of getting to know the other better. This definition applies not only to relationships with one another, but with the Lord Jesus Christ as well.
Our Need For Intimacy
God created us, I believe, with a deep, instinctive need for intimacy. Infants and children thrive in the context of human warmth and physical affection. Studies have shown that when these things are absent, the result is arrested development, even death. Adults are no different. Reports from concentration and prisoner-of-war camps indicate that people who had had meaningful relationships with even one other person stood a far better chance of survival than those who shut others out. The Bible is clear that God invites, even commands, us to fulfill our deep needs for intimacy, first with himself (e.g., Jer. 31:31–34; John 15:14–15), and second, with others (John 15:12; 1 John 2:10). God would neither invite nor command something to which he has not given us the capacity to respond. We can conclude, therefore, that we do not need to acquire the capacity for intimate friendship; it is something we already have.
When I was in college I heard the idea that God had created humankind as a sort of “younger sibling,” a protoplasmic little brother with which to amuse himself in order to take the edge off his loneliness. The God of Christianity, however, created not out of need but out of fullness of joy (Heb. 12:2; Prov. 8:30–31), though Christians affirm that the biblical God could have enjoyed complete fellowship among the three persons of the Godhead for eternity without creating another thing. Such is the depth of intimacy in relationships among the Trinity. We are created in that image (Gen. 1:26). My observation of clients who develop intimate relationships with others is that they are continually surprised at the depth of joy they experience in the context of their Christian friendships. Those friendships often heighten their productivity and creativity. They have discovered a quality of relationship that derives from the very God head.
We Must Seek Intimacy
But why, if we have such a great capacity for intimacy, do we need to be encouraged to seek it? I believe the roots of the problem are recorded in Genesis 3: the grasp of the fruit was the first willful rupture in intimate relations between humanity and God. The rift was deepened as Adam spoke with God (Gen. 3:12): “The woman whom thou gavest me … gave me … and I ate” (NASB). With this statement, Adam effectively walled himself off from both God and his mate. Each of us is prone to isolationism of this sort.
We know that as Christians we continue to struggle against our individual manifestations of the “old man,” the “first Adam.” When we gather in groups we are collectively susceptible to the problems that plague us individually. Our American culture produces people who more closely identify with characters on a weekly TV series than with their next-door neighbors. It is this context that the church must assume a role of leadership and example in fostering and maintaining truly intimate relationships among its members. What I often find is that the church has been sidetracked by society. The wedding of personal faith with societal “rugged individualism” seems to prompt a “Jesus and me” approach to Christian experience. At a congregational level, this approach can sanctify isolation and lock people into casual acquaintances with one another that are barely satisfying. When these acquaintances fail to meet deep needs for intimacy, a more emphatic scramble for personal experience may intensify the isolation.
Three Fallacies About Intimacy
There are three fallacies I believe have inadvertently developed in many congregations. Left unchecked, these fallacies seem to have simultaneous and systematic abrasive effects upon the development of intimate relations.
First, there is a tendency for Christians to mistake frequency for intimacy. Many of our weekly calendars include Sunday morning and evening church, choir rehearsal, Wednesday service, Thursday small group Bible study, and volleyball league on Monday. While these involvements are probably good, the fallacy comes in believing that we are intimately involved in the church because we are frequently involved in it. But frequency is not an indicator of growing, deepening relationships with God and fellow believers. It may, in fact, create static, superficial relationships.
The second fallacy is based on an assumption that the marital relationship is the only intimate human relationship deserving of full attention for development. This belief may arise from our rightful astonishment at the decline and breakup of the family. It has produced a veritable mountain of literature on marriage enrichment. Much of this is solid material, and it is needed. But it fills the shelves of our bookstores, and by its sheer volume, it overemphasizes the marital relationship as a sole fulfillment of all human intimate needs. This can create unrealistic expectations for the people of the relationship, for when it fails to fulfill all needs, they begin to wonder what ails their marriage. While the marital relationship is of central importance, it must not be overloaded with the burden of fulfilling all a person’s needs for intimate relations. The experiences of Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan, Paul and Timothy, Jesus and John suggest that friendships can be a vital means for fulfilling the needs for intimacy. Recent research by Daniel Levinson of Yale indicates that difficult adjustment periods—such as midlife—are more successfully negotiated by those who have strong same-sex relationships that supplement their marriages.
Singleness also affords a great potential for the development of same-sex friendships. As I talk with unmarried people, however, I often find they are oblivious to their need to develop present-day relationships in church, at work, and elsewhere. Their emphasis seems rather to be on fun than on depth of relationships. Many expect the “deep” part of themselves to “come out” only when they find a suitable marriage partner. But some may never many, and even for those who do, intimate friendships can provide a training ground in which to knock off selfish, rough edges.
Whether a person marries or not, the hard work of an intimate relationship can make an individual more tolerant, more sacrificial—in short, more Christlike. Singleness is more than just a “great void between Mom and Dad and marriage.”
A third fallacy, I believe, is more subtle. It is that intimacy and sexuality are somehow inevitably intertwined. I find this idea to be a concern more frequently among men, who seem to fear that a deepening sense of attachment for another male may suggest homosexual tendencies. Such beliefs seem to be perpetuated by the current societal mindset that equates intimacy with sexuality. Sexual contact is indeed intimate contact. But sexuality is only one aspect of intimacy. Society equates the two because sexuality is the most accessible, least time consuming, and least emotionally risky aspect of intimacy. Healthy adults who have a biblical understanding of love need not fall prey to the fallacy of thinking that any degree of intimacy between persons must culminate in a sexual relationship.
Marks Of An Intimate Relationship
I have had the privilege in my work of observing and talking with many people who had, or were developing, intimate same-sex relationships. With their helpful input, I have established the following eight marks of an intimate relationship.
1. Intimate friends can share openly about themselves. Both can listen, and there is no need to impress one another. In my premarital counseling, I check the quality of same-sex friendships that each one of the couple has had. Such friendships have not had the “guy-girl” factor that often includes a need to impress someone with sensitivity, wittiness, strength, and so on.
2. Intimates feel a sense of acceptance by one another in a variety of situations and moods (Prov. 17:17).
3. Intimate friends feel a sense of reciprocity in the relationship. They know their relationship is not all give or all take. They have grown past being worried about who is giving more in the relationship (Prov. 27:17).
4. Intimates have times of sharing about past events in their lives. This may take on a quality of mutual confession. It often gives meaning to the present relationship as it builds trust. It can also give meaning to the pain of the past as a person feels known and understood (Prov. 18:15, 19).
5. Intimate relationships seem to include the freedom of not worrying about making sense all the time. It allows its participants to show some of the “craziness” (quirks and fears) we all have, and still be accepted.
6. Every truly intimate relationship seems to include accountability of the participants to one another. This is willful accountability to report progress in spiritual growth, in battles against pervasive sins, and so on (Prov. 28:13).
7. An intimate relationship allows people to disagree and get hurting angry, with the expectation that when the smoke clears, the other person will still be there (Prov. 27:6; cf. Eph. 4:26–27).
8. True intimacy results in a willingness to share the other person with others. It results in nonpossessive caring. The ultimate model of such caring is our God “who spared not his Son …” (Rom. 8:32). Many relationships that are thought to be intimate break down here. The result is two persons isolated from others, instead of only one.
The choice to pursue intimate relationships is decidedly an individual one, but the church can encourage such choices. Preaching that emphasizes community, and church projects that underscore service and caring within the context of a small group can help. Also, developing cross-generational small groups for the purpose of mutual support and encouragement can increase the likelihood of people drawing on their capacities for intimacy in relationships. By so doing, they gain a spiritual perspective that deepens their desire and potential for intimacy, first with God (Phil. 3:8), then in meaningful relationships with each other (1 John 4:7–8).
Delores’s problems are repeated many times over in my office and others like it. Will the church lead the way in the quest for intimacy? Will our Lord’s words, which begin, “A new commandment I give unto you …” (John 13:34) be enacted in relationships that reflect the One in whose image we are made? God is willing and able; we have only ourselves to ask.
Steven A. Hamon directs the Peoria, Illinois, office of Michael Campion and Associates, a group practice in psychology.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.