923533_10101527428174600_2032972503_nI had a great conversation yesterday with a pastor friend who is trying to more deeply embody a Jesus-style discipleship in his church. I asked, “when you do discipleship, how do you practice accountability in a group without creating a controlling or toxic atmosphere?” I thought his response was pretty Jesus-like: hold people accountable by being honest about what you see in their lives while always communicating that you love them and that they have a choice in how to respond. And their choices don’t impact your care for them or their intrinsic worth.

Jesus wielded authority without a “position” and without apology. People just “sensed” that there was authority to his words. He could speak very strongly to his disciples, but continued to serve and relate to them in a way that communicated their value and loved-ness. He gave them multiple opportunities to “opt out”. But he never tried to convince, control, or manipulate them. He always pushed them, always spoke the truth to them, but never withdrew his love, or confused their actions/attitudes/beliefs with their identity or their human dignity.

There’s a growing sickness in America and most of us feel it. It’s not just in the church. It’s everywhere. We don’t really know people anymore. We have thousands of acquaintances but very few friends. In the age of social media, loneliness is pandemic and we have forgotten how to see the humanity of others. We are all emotionally malnourished and underdeveloped. Our disconnection from others makes it easy for us form caricatured opinions about who they are as people from the wounded silos of our private minds. So when we speak of our politics, our faith, our opinions, or our lifestyles, we feel it deeply—we can taste it in the air—that our right to be human is on the line. So we hide away or scream our heads off, building thick walls to demonize anyone who would oppose us.

Here’s where it plays out in the American church and in discipleship: It’s very difficult for most Americans to “speak the truth” to each other without also speaking a lie: that if you are defensive or disagree with me, I can and will simply “unfriend” you. Or I will bully you into submission. The lie is “you’re not worth my energy, my care, my respect.” Disengagement is dehumanizing. Shame-based control is dehumanizing. But hard truth spoken in genuine love can be the most honoring gift we can give. It says, “I trust you to hear me. I think you’re worth the effort. I believe in you enough to risk you rejecting me for what I’m saying.”

Sadly, most of us forgot how to love. We THINK we love someone when in fact the thing we love most is our relationship with that person, and how that relationship benefits US. (Trust me, I speak from experience.) Object relations theorists posit that the infant mind can only identify something by its function. So for many of us, our underdeveloped social selves draw cartoonish caricatures of people, mistaking them for “things” identifiable only by their function.

So when someone “speaks the truth” to me or holds me accountable for something, I’m not listening for “is this person right?” But rather I’m listening for “does this person care?” And if they don’t care, then their choice to “speak the truth” will always come with a lie: that if I don’t shape up, I can never have value, can never belong, can never be loved. In that way many of the zealous “advocates for truth” coming from churches, political causes, and activist groups are in fact propagating a more insidious lie than any truth they hope to offer: it’s the lie of shame.

So here’s a few tips for that “difficult conversation” you simply must have with a friend or family member or that incendiary comment you’re dying to make on your friend’s Facebook post:

  1. Ask yourself: do I REALLY care about this person? Do I care enough that I’m willing to feel the pain of losing them? Or do I just love the function they have in my life? Will I stick with them if they push back?
  2. It’s okay to be wrong, to realize you’ve misread someone. We’ve all done it. Know when to apologize.
  3. Don’t say things just to ease your mind. Believe it or not, your job isn’t to “clarify your position” or make sure people know what you think about a given topic. If your motivation is to feel better rather than to show love, then your “truth-telling” is intrinsically self-centered.
  4. Conversation, not prosecution. Try giving them the benefit of the doubt, believing them to be reasonable people who want to hear you out (even if they’re not). Don’t prepare lengthy arguments, lists of offenses, or ultimatums against them. That stuff comes MUCH later.
  5. Love is not an esoteric concept or philosophy. It’s a real feeling and involves real choices. If you can’t FEEL yourself in someone else’s shoes and deeply long for their wellbeing, don’t say you love them just before you slap them. That’s two-faced.

I tend to never ask for feedback (good or bad) because I’m afraid of the feedback I might get! But when someone lovingly speaks truth to me, I breathe a huge sigh of relief. It’s healing to hear painful truth from people who love me no matter what. It makes me feel seen. It makes me feel invested-in. It makes me feel human.