Dr. Gregory Jones joins The Redeemed Man podcast. Dr. Gregory Jones is the dean of the Duke University Divinity School. Dr. Jones will introduce the concept of “holy friends”—people perceptive and compassionate enough to see through the fictions we’ve constructed around ourselves and help us reach the truth in ways that can change our lives. As he describes it, holy friends are “the people who around us who challenge the sins we’ve come to love, affirm the gifts we’re afraid to claim, and dream dreams we otherwise wouldn’t have dreamed.” And if we can just break free of our isolation and shame long enough to connect with them, they can help us build a closer relationship with God than we might have ever thought possible.
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Welcome and Speaker Introduction
Good afternoon and welcome. My name is Paul Amos, and I’m the founder of The Redeemed. The Redeemed is an organization that was built to allow men of all backgrounds to come together and to have a judgment free zone to talk about not only life difficulties, but also about the triumphs over those difficulties.
We’re here today with another webinar in our Pursuing Restoration series. Today we’re very happy to have a very special guest friend of mine, Dr. Greg Jones. Dr. Jones is the head of the Duke Divinity School and has been a long-time leader in the Christian world.
Created for Relationship
When we think that we can live by ourselves, make it on our own, do it by ourselves, do it yourself. The reality is that we are created for a relationship. We’ve had a problem in the United States over the last 60 years, particularly for men, where we’ve told ourselves that we can be focused just on what’s in it for me. There’s been a decline in a sense of the we, the connection that we have.
We’re created for a relationship with God and with one another. At a pivotal point in John’s gospel, Jesus says to the disciples, “No longer do I call you servants, I call you friends.” We’re invited into that intimacy of friendship. We’re created for a relationship. We are at our best when we’re connected to other people.
Often we get ourselves into messes and problems when we are focused just on ourselves and doing it on our own and rejecting the challenges and possibilities of relationships. We’re created for that, from young children all the way through our lives we are created to be held and to hold others, to have those connections in relationships.
The problem is that when we reject those relationships with God and others, we find ourselves in difficult troubles. When we find ourselves then afflicted with shame and guilt, which causes us to hide from ourselves and from others. We get that sense of being called into relationship often leaves us in a game of hide and seek, where we’re hiding from others, where we’re running away. Yet like a game of high and seek, we put our foot out because we really do want to be found. We really do want to be redeemed. We really do want to find a future that is not bound by the brokenness of the past.
One of the things I’ve discovered is that that message from Jesus about friendship is really important. We’re created for friendship with God and for friendship with others. Often, it’s in relationships with other men that we can find ways to of break free of the shame and guilt our past and find new life for the future. It’s what I call holy friends.
Three Key Phrases of ‘Holy Friends’
There are three key phrases that holy friends do for us:
1. Challenge the Sins
The first things holy friends do for us is challenge the sins that we’ve come to love.
It’s one thing to have somebody around the challenges since we already hate. It’s kind of like piling on in football, it’s fun, but it’s not really all that important. We don’t really need someone around because we already hate it, we already despise it. The sins we love, that becomes particularly challenging because they become part of our addiction in one way or another. We often tend to re-describe them to rationalize to ourselves, to make them sound pretty. ‘I’m not a workaholic, I just do the Lord’s work.’ ‘I don’t have an anger problem, I’m just passionate.’ ‘I don’t have a problem with pornography or sex, I just need a good release.’
We tell ourselves stories, we rationalize to ourselves, we end up self-deceived. The trouble is those sins we come to love, that we deceive ourselves about, often become addictions. They become problems that grab hold of us and become part of those principalities and powers that exceed our ability to manage even when we think we can. Because we’re telling ourselves stories, we remain in their grips.
Saint Augustine actually refers to those habits of sin as being like chains that drag us down, and no matter how often we try to break three of them, we find difficult to do on our own. We need that transcendent redemption that comes from Christ, and we need other people around us who know us well. Well enough that they know how to challenge those sins.
They can say to us things like:
They know us well enough to know the games we play, the rationalization we develop, and they can challenge us on and help us find new possibilities. They have to know as well enough to be able to do that. They challenge the sins that we’ve come to love. But if that’s all they did, we might need them around, but we wouldn’t want them around
2. Affirm Gifts
The second thing that holy friends do is they affirm gifts we’re afraid to claim. Often when we find ourselves broken, when we find ourselves with shame and guilt. We are hiding from ourselves and from others, and even from God. We often get into a place where we throw a pity party for ourselves. We start thinking that all we are is our brokenness. We get discouraged and we find ourselves in cycles of downward movement and despair. It can even lead us to wonder if there’s any possibility of hope for the future.
What holy friends can do is affirm gifts, we’re afraid to claim. If they affirm a gift we already know we have, it’s not much of a big deal. If they say ‘You’re a really good cook!’ and you know you are, it’s nice to hear, but that’s old news.
The real contribution comes when a friend affirms a gift that you’re afraid to claim. They say, ‘You know you have a real talent for working with other people who’ve gone through what you’ve gone through, maybe you should mentor some teenagers.’ ‘You have a gift for relating to children maybe you should volunteer at a Boys Club.’ ‘You have a gift for entrepreneurial thinking, maybe you should see a new opportunity and venture into that.’
Usually, even when it’s a gift we’re afraid to claim we are hesitant. Most of us are unsure about trying something new, even if it’s just wearing different clothes or getting a different kind of haircut. Imagine what it is when it’s actually leaning into something others are calling us to and affirming about gifts we have.
I remember talking to a guy, he’d been through really rough times. He was divorced twice, was estranged from his children, dropped out of high school, and was working the night shift as a welder. Then he’d come and visited a church once and found a group of men who surrounded him with love and affirmed gifts. They told him, ‘You know, you have extraordinary gifts with your hands. Why don’t you volunteer around the church?’
Pretty soon I began joking that he was the biggest donor to the church. Not in cash, he didn’t have much money, but he would give me the boiler to make it work. He cut the lawn for the church on his own. He did all the repairs and the maintenance. The in-kind contributions were extraordinary.
Affirming that gift gave him away into new relationships with these men in this church. Pretty soon they started encouraging him in his relationships. They supported him as he reached out to one of these kids to see if he could rebuild that relationship. They started affirming gifts that he had a difficult time claiming, and it began to offer him hope for new life in the future.
3. Dream Dreams
Holy friends challenge the sins we’ve come to love. They affirm the gifts were afraid to claim. Then they do a third thing. They help us dream dreams we otherwise wouldn’t have dreamed.
Brokenness causes us to shrink and shrivel. Shame and guilt cause us to hide. Longing for something new, we find our world’s contracting. We get discouraged. We feel like we are defined by the worst things we’ve done in the past. We forget about the good news of redemption, of discovering new life for the future.
What holy friends can do is help us dream dreams we otherwise wouldn’t have dreamed, to expand our imagination, to see the possibilities that we otherwise would have left alone on our own.
There’s a passage at the end of Ephesians 3 that I like so much. It goes like this,
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, To Him be praise and glory forever. Amen.
I’d be satisfied if it said that God could accomplish all we could ask or imagine, but then it says more than all we could ask or imagine, far more than all we could ask or imagine. Take your biggest imagination and expand it and expand it further.
Abundantly, far more than that. That’s what God wants for your life and my life in our life. That’s what God wants. No matter what your past has been, no matter what the brokenness has been, no matter what your addiction might be, God wants you to break free of them and to dream dreams of abundantly far more than all you could possibly imagine, to discover that new life and hope for the future.
But doing so, it takes friends around us. Friends who help us dream those dreams, who help us see possibilities where we otherwise couldn’t have seen them.
Story from South Africa
There is a story from South Africa, back in the days of the divisions of apartheid and the struggles. There was a young black teenager who struggled with a sense of brokenness. As a black teenager, he’d been told he was nobody. He had to carry around a card that identified him. He wasn’t able to travel lots of places. He thought he didn’t have much worth.
He was a part of a small group of Christian holy friends. They started saying, ‘You are somebody. You’ve got to give up that sin of thinking you’re nobody. You are somebody.’ To help him affirm a gift, they said, ‘You know you have charisma, you have leadership skills, and you want to lean into those leadership skills, people want to follow you.’
Then they asked, ‘What’s your biggest dream?’ And he said, ‘I don’t dream because there’s just too much brokenness, my life is a mess and it’s chaotic.’
Then they asked ‘What would you dream?’ And he said, ‘Well, actually, I dream that we might have a free and equal South Africa in the future.’
This was in 1975. They encouraged him to give up that sin, they challenged the sin, they affirmed the gift that they helped him dream a dream of a free South Africa.
A few months later, he became a part of the planning group of what became known as The March in Soweto. The march was difficult, but it unleashed a movement that was striving for a freedom in a new South Africa. That day in June of 1976 that this young man had participated in, is now South Africa’s national Independence Day. And it all started through a group of holy friends, challenging sins, affirming gifts and dreaming dreams.
What About your Dreams?
Now, maybe the dreams that you’ll have aren’t that kind of transformation scale. Maybe it’ll be dreams of a healed family and relationships. Maybe it’ll be dreams of a new entrepreneurial venture that you undertake with others. Maybe it’s dreams of service you can provide in your community to help bridge divides or enable now people to find jobs or to offer new possibilities for healthcare. Whatever the possibilities, we need to be dreaming God-sized dreams.
We often find those dreams through our relationships with our holy friends. The kinds of people who will challenge us, affirm us, and encourage us to dream dreams.
Holy friends do that in lots of different ways. I know a group of them in Texas where what binds them together is that they were all successful businessman whose lives have been derailed in one way or another by alcohol or drug problems. They came together to support, challenge, encourage, and affirm one another. And they got their lives back together. They discovered hope and new life, not by denying the past, by having it redeemed. Seeing a really bright future ahead of them.
You see, hope is different than optimism. The trouble isn’t like knocks back. Hope is what enables us to deal with the past and focus on the future. It’s because of who God is, that we can be a people of hope, that can acknowledge the brokenness of the past, and be set free from it, to discover to life in the future.
Gift of Holy Friends
That’s the gift of Holy friends. When I think about the people who’ve been most transformational in my life and helping me deal with my ongoing struggles, it’s several people, who know me well enough to challenge me, to affirm me and to help me dream. From time to time, they recognize that I’m already beating myself up enough and they really need to lean into the dreams and the affirmation.
Other times they see me getting a little too big for my britches again, and they know it’s time to focus in on the challenge. It’s those rhythms of holding all that together in friendship.
How to Nurture Relationships
How do we nurture that sort of relationship? If we’re committed to those sorts of things, what are the conditions that might make it possible?
Develop a way of nurturing the relationship with regularity. You need to see each other, whether in person or on Zoom. Whatever the conditions are, it needs to be done with enough regularity that you have the time together to spend chit chatting as well as going deep. It needs to be regular. Whether it’s weekly or maybe at particular times, it might be twice weekly or three times a week. Perhaps not less frequent than every other week, but enough time spent together that you really know each other and care for each other.
The second thing I would say is to pay attention to the environment. Whether you can do it over a meal or over a drink. Create a moment that has space, that gives margins. Don’t cram it into a fixed period of time where you’ve got to rush through things and get anxious.
Sometimes deeper conversations take time to develop. Allow those conversations to move in their directions, sometimes surprising directions. Create margins both before and after.
In the same way that the only way we can read a newspaper or read a screen or a book is because of the white spaces, the margins. We need to be sure we have margins in our time and in the environment that we set up for those relationships of holy friendships to exist.
3. Bath the Relationship in Prayer
The third way to nurture a relationship is to bath the relationship in prayer. Spend some time just quietly, attentively at the beginning and at the end, to listen to God, to take deep breaths, to re-center, to refocus.
Most of the time that I do some of my worst behavior is what I’m not allowing for margins, and I’m forgetting about prayer. I’m forgetting about those quiet times that opened me up, it’s when I’m impatient and in a hurry and in a rush, that I get myself into trouble.
Tertullian said in the second century, ‘Patience is the Mother of Mercy.’ If we want others to be merciful to us, we need to have patience, and that’s nurtured by prayer, by the environment, by that regularity.
4. Develop Trust
The fourth way to nurture a relationship to let the trust develop. When you first start meeting as holy friends, you’re probably not going to acknowledge your greatest struggle. You’re probably not going to risk anything that’s particularly vulnerable, because it’s hard to know whether I can trust you and you can trust me.
We are likely to test, peeling back to the onion one layer at a time. Maybe saying something that I struggle with, but not tremendously so. It’s something that opens me up, but also tests. Can I really find a judgment-free zone with you? And can you find a judgement-free zone with me? Maybe I’ll start by talking about just the fact that I lose my temper occasionally, and then I slowly will say, ‘Oh, it’s actually gotten to be a deeper problem’. Or maybe I begin by just saying, ‘every now and again, I have an extra drink that I probably shouldn’t have.’
Whatever the circumstances, whatever the conditions, trust is a key element. It’s way harder to rebuild trust after it’s broken than to preserve it and develop it across time. We need to give ourselves the space and time to allow that trust to develop. It’s extraordinarily important that it be a confidential space, where if I share something with you and you share something with me, it stays among us. That’s the way in which I’ll find myself willing to trust that you actually have my best interests, that you want me to see new life in the future, that you want me to grow.
Importance of Holy Friends
Part of the regularity that I talked about is the first step is because it’s going to be a struggle, it’s not just linear. We’re going to have back sliding. We’re going to have issues where despite our best intentions, we continue to struggle.
As Paul put it in Romans 7, ‘The good I would do I do not the evil, I would not do I do.’ Particularly when we’re trying to challenge our own self-deception, whether it’s about our brokenness or self-deception, we don’t really have any gifts to offer, dreams to dream. We’re going to need people with some regularity to hold us, to embrace us and to help us keep going.
It’s in those relationships, they we will find the twists and turns and the possibilities. Growth happens day by day, through new habits, through new friendships, through relationships of trust. And that’s what holy friends do for us.
What Can I Do?
One of the questions that I now think about a lot is not just who are my holy friends who help shape my life, but who can I be a holy friend too? And how can I reach out to support, encourage, challenge, and enable those dreams to happen? It’s not just what I need, it’s what I can offer to a friend, and to be intentional about that regularity, about that environment about prayer and about trust.
Holy friends challenge the sins we’ve come to law of the firm, the gifts were afraid to claim and help us dream dreams, we otherwise wouldn’t have dreamed. When those relationships are strong, regular, there’s a healthy casual environment, bathed in prayer, they nurture and sustain trust.
Holy friends are crucial to how God works in our lives. I think we’ll discover that the deeper our holy friendships with others are the more intimate we will also become with God. The more powerful we’ll see the possibilities of transformation and hope and love and new life for the future.
Importance of Prayer
There’s a woman who I admire very much from Africa, in the country of Burundi. she’s been through a lot of brokenness and suffering. She was made to watch as 70 members of her family and friends were killed in the midst of Burundi civil war.
She was an amazing social entrepreneur who dreamed dreams and seen them come to reality. She’s just an extraordinary example of new life in future and friends. When I was with her one time, I was talking to her and I said, ‘Maggie, you said to me that you pray for an hour every afternoon. Can you tell me what it is that you pray?’ And she said, ‘Well, I mostly listen to God.’
And I thought dog on, I was hoping to get some help with my prayer life. She’s a lot closer to God, a lot more into it, with God than I am. I just kind of hung my head hoping that she had offered me some advice, and then she said, ‘Well… There is one prayer I pray every morning.’
‘Lord, let your miracles break forth every day and let me not be an obstacle in any way.’
That would be my hope for you in the development of holy friendships. That belief that the Lord can break miracles forth every day. In your life. In my life. I OUR lives. That whatever’s been the case in the past, we have been redeemed, and so there’s new life for the future.
Holy friends could help us see that new life and recognize the Lord’s miracles breaking forth every day. Our friends can also help us with that journey to say, let me not be an obstacle in any way. Lord, let your miracles break forth every day, and let me not be an obstacle in any way.
In one of my key sets of holy friendships, we say that to each other as a reminder to pray for each other, and a reminder of the power of God to offer new life and the importance of opening ourselves up to see that the brokenness, shame, and guilt need not be the end of our story. It can be just one chapter. There’s a much better chapter remaining to be written as we live into the future, by the grace of God.
Q & A