How To Build Sustaining Friendships: Jump Into Black Holes

Jump Into Black Holes
Photo Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Creative Commons

Guest Post by Ed Underwood
[This post is Part 5 of a 5 Part series, Sustaining Friendships]

Years ago, before I started thinking about the difference between a sustaining relationship and mere acquaintances, a man I thought was my friend walked out of my life. He was an invaluable member of a church team I was leading. I began to notice that he was becoming more and more chippy. I wanted to help him work more effectively with the other leaders and grow with us. We spent dozens of long, hard hours talking with him about his unhappiness, trying to resolve conflicts, and giving him a vision for what Christ was doing through him in our community. But after only a few minutes all conversations came back to the ways we had failed him and what we should do about it to make things right. Don’t get me wrong, we had made many mistakes and he had some good points, but I realized this strategy was a dead end. So I changed the direction of the process.

“Friend,” I said, “there’s no doubt we all have some sin in this equation. You tell me what you’d like us to own, and then we’ll tell you how we feel you could work on trying to resolve this.” I took notes for almost 20 minutes as he checked off the reasons he was unhappy. Then, when I told him that I only wanted him to consider one problem I felt the Holy Spirit was identifying in his own life, he frowned a little and said, “I’m listening.” I was blunt: “You need to treat people better, beginning with your wife.” Before I had a chance to explain he stood, told us he didn’t need this and stormed out of the room.

I was devastated. Judy and I asked a Christian therapist friend what just happened, and I’ll never forget her answer: “Ed, you forced this man to look into a black hole that terrifies him. You were asking him to jump into that black hole of what he intuitively knows is wrong with his marriage. But the most important part of it is that you offered to take his hand and jump in there with him. Now that’s friendship!”

I’ve learned in the decades since then that this general principle applies to sustaining relationships: True friends jump into the black hole of one another’s messy lives together. Could it be that the deep relationships you long for are already there, but you refused to jump? Could it be that what you labeled as nosiness or lack of understanding was really your opportunity to enter into a friendship that God was asking you to embrace?

Sustaining relationships do not declare the black holes of pathologies, addictions, hiddenness, and secrets off limits. For those few precious friendships, God will use to protect us from ourselves and guide us toward His best there can be no “I don’t need this right now” fences. When will you know someone is offering their hand to jump into your black holes?

Here are a few lies your self-protective and isolating flesh will scream at the threshold of your black hole:

  • “That’s none of your business!” For many people, you’re right. It’s none of their business. But if you want to have sustaining relationships, you are going to have to let them make you–all of you–their business.
  • “Hey, you have problems too!” Sustaining relationships aren’t preoccupied with who’s most right or the least messed up. The goal of this type of friendship isn’t winning but healing.
  • “Where did that come from?” This is a sustaining relationship killer. It ascribes motive as it tries to run. Where did that come from? It came from a friend who loves you enough to tell you what others won’t.

A sustaining relationship is that “look-into-the-black-hole-of-your-life-take-my-hand-and-I’ll-jump-with-you” type of friendship. These are the friends who have the courage to wade through the muck of your life with you.

That’s the fourth characteristic you want to look for in a sustaining relationship–invitations to the black holes of life. But before you go looking, be that type of friend.

Questions: What am I missing? Does the ”look-into-the-black-hole-of-your-life-take-my-hand-and-I’ll-jump-with-you” characteristic of a sustaining friendship make sense to you?

Ed Underwood



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