The Faith of Your Friends

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For a number of years, psychologist Henry Cloud led a support group for inpatients at a hospital who were struggling with addictions and other vexing life issues.

In his book How People Grow, Cloud specifically recalls one of the group members whom we’ll call Joe. 

Joe was a pastor tormented by a sex addiction.  He preached passionately about God’s grace.  But he secretly believed he had disqualified himself from such mercy.  He earnestly prayed, struggled, and resolved to do better, only to succumb to temptation and plunge back into despair.

In desperation he checked himself into the hospital – cherishing the hope that a structured program might help shatter the power of his secret life.   

Attending Henry Cloud’s support group was a required component of his treatment.

One morning Henry got word that Joe would not be attending the group meeting that day.  When Henry dropped in on his patient to find out why, he learned that Joe had relapsed the night before.  He was too ashamed to face the group.  Cloud gently talked him into going anyways. 

Noting that he seemed stricken, the others asked Joe if he was OK.  Yes, he was just fine, he answered – words that convinced no one.      

Slowly, painfully, he raised the curtain on his life – his real life, the one he had tried to hide for so many years.  Joe recounted his fear of standing in the pulpit, wondering if anyone in his congregation had seen him in the wrong place at the wrong time the previous week.  He was the ultimate hypocrite.  He felt powerless and undeserving of the grace he proclaimed.

As he bared his soul, Joe kept his gaze fixed on the floor.  He could not face the others. 

“Look up at the group,” Henry told him. 

“I can’t.  I’m too ashamed.”

“Look up at the group.  I want you to look into the eyes of the people listening to you.  You must do this.”

Burdened with fear and shame, Joe looked up and then around the circle.  Every pair of eyes looking back at him was filled with tears.  There was no condemnation.  Just compassion.   

John Ortberg, who recounts Joe’s story in his book Everybody’s Normal Til You Get to Know Them, writes, “For the first time in his life, Joe was not alone with the brokenness that had paralyzed and crippled his soul for so long.  Finally, a few people saw his deformity, yet still chose to be his friends… In that moment a man who had taught on grace for so long finally tasted it, and it broke him.  He wept like a child.  He began to hear the words that were spoken [by Jesus] to another crippled soul so long ago: ‘Child, your sins are forgiven.’”

Henry Cloud notes that the stronghold of Joe’s addiction was broken that day. 

He still had miles to go in the healing of his emotions.  New habits would need to be strengthened.  Heartfelt confessions would need to be spoken.  But the die had been cast.  The critical element was the presence of a few people who had heard his story and hadn’t turned away – who mediated God’s compassion and forgiveness at the moment of his greatest vulnerability.

Much is made, and appropriately so, of every individual’s need to stand alone before God.

But then we read of the four men who lowered their paralyzed friend through the thatched roof of a Palestinian house so he could be in the presence of Jesus.  The gospel writer Mark, in relating this story, includes a single powerful word:  “When Jesus saw their faith…” (Mark 2:5)

That is, the faith of his friends.  The trust of those who did what he could never have done by himself – carry him to the place where he could hear Jesus’ words and receive Jesus’ healing touch. 

May we all be blessed to have such friends.

Even more, may we all choose today to be such a friend to someone like Joe who has lived too long in the paralysis of sorrow, fear, or shame.