As I sat amidst my biological family for Thanksgiving, the usual routines all took place; people gathered on the couches in the living room around the tv to watch the football game, various comments ensued about who is doing well and why, what’s wrong with the refs, etc. The casual questions like “how’s work?” were asked and answered with no real conversation of any depth ever emerging. As in so many years past, I once again found myself with this nagging sense: I don’t really fit in here.
Not too long before this, I read my friend Nanette’s blog post (which you can find here) and one of the things she talked about was this idea of asking God to give you one word that would be key in guiding your upcoming year.
When I read that section, it resonated with me and I knew it was something God was nudging me to do.
So I sat, stilled myself, asked God, and then listened. Within moments he spoke one word to me with great clarity: intimacy.
At first, it didn’t really mean a lot to me. However, once I started doing some research into it, that quickly changed. When placed into the infinitive verb form, “to intimate”, it means “to make known”. The more I thought about it the more I realized that a deep sense of knowing others and being known is actually what is at the core of human connection.
Think about it, is there any person that you have a deep relationship with where you don’t know them deeply and in turn have them know you deeply?
Take for example when you received a very meaningful gift from someone you’re close to. The reason it affected you so much is because it showed that this person knows you – knows your likes, dislikes, preferences, things that are special to you, what’s been happening in your life currently, or details from your past that few others remember. It’s that sense of being deeply known by that person that makes the gift so special.
Contrast that with when you receive a gift from someone you’re close to and it’s something that you have no connection with at all. The reason that’s painful is because the gift shows that this person doesn’t know you; or perhaps doesn’t know you as well as you had hoped.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that so much of the relational pain we all experience comes from when we want intimacy with people but it’s not there.
Maybe there’s a friendship where you used to be close with someone but then something happened and no matter how many times you apologize, that person won’t let you be close anymore. Maybe there’s a parent that you’ve always wanted to have that deep connection with but no matter how hard you try, it’s not there. Things may even be cordial and polite, but there’s no depth. Maybe you have a child that you want to be close to but no matter how many questions you ask, they just won’t open up to you. Maybe you’re married to someone who feels like a stranger now. You all have a routine; the kids get taken care of, the dishes get done, the bills get paid, but you all don’t deeply know each other anymore. Conversations are a myriad of cliches, facts and opinions. In other words, in all these cases there is a profound lack of intimacy which often leaves this feeling: disconnection.
There are several facets required to really have intimacy. First, it takes time invested. It is impossible to actually really know someone without spending time with them. Second, it takes transparency. You can’t really know someone unless they let you into their world sharing what they think, what they feel, what they hope for, what disappoints them, what they like, what they dislike, etc so forth. Third, it takes suspending all judgement. When someone shares something vulnerable if the first thing said is “well that’s stupid” or “that’s not important” then it makes the person feel that it’s not safe to share what they’re really feeling/thinking (think about how many teenagers feel this when trying to share something with their parents and hence the timeless teen refrain “my parents don’t understand me”). Fourth, it takes understanding. If you think about many of the times you felt most connected with others, it probably was because someone understood your perspective, your opinion, your experience, your reasoning, your hurt, or your heart around something. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it requires valuing the other person. You don’t have to agree with everything someone says when they share; rather, you can simply value what they said because you value the person.
Due to the above factors, it takes two willing parties to have intimacy. One person could offer the time to spend on the relationship but if the other doesn’t, then intimacy doesn’t happen. One person could be transparent, but if the other isn’t intimacy doesn’t happen. One person could try to share everything they can, but if the other person doesn’t understand intimacy doesn’t happen.
This one word finally allowed me to understand why I have for so many years not really wanted to go to family gatherings: because they are such a poignant reminder of the profound lack of intimacy. Not that I have not tried to build intimacy as those of you who know me well know that I absolutely love connecting with people. However, my attempts at having deeper conversation (especially about my relationship with God) are at best met with blank stares as if I’m speaking some foreign language or at worst with outright judgement despite the fact that most of them are believers. At such gatherings I often feel like a stranger; which makes sense because a stranger is someone you don’t know.
In processing through the pain of this, I had another profound realization: that God often feels the same way about us. God so deeply desires intimacy with us. John 17:3 says “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” That’s a pretty huge statement, that eternal life is totally summed up in one thing: knowing God. Or in other words, having intimacy with God. However, God also knows that intimacy is a two way street and requires both parties engaging for it to happen. So what does he do? Everything he can to convey what his heart is for you so that you might know him. God says that you’re worth him giving his son for you (John 3:16), that he wants to be your father and take care of you (Matthew 7:9-11), that he delights in you (Psalm 18:19), that his plan for changing you is not through judgement or punishment but rather through showing you kindness (Romans 2:4).
However, even if one party does everything in their power to convey their heart and create intimacy, it can still be blocked by the other party. Oftentimes this is because they are operating under the worst possible substitute for intimacy: religion. Do you you know what religion does? It makes things functional instead of relational. So then the relationship becomes about keeping a check list. Things like:
- Go to church – check
- Read your Bible – check
- Here’s the list of things you’re not supposed to do – check check check
- If you do sin, just confess it to God – check (and if you’re Catholic make sure to throw in some Hail Mary’s with that)
However, there’s no real relationship. There’s no openness and vulnerability to tell God what you’re really feeling even if it’s frustration pain or disappointment. There’s no “God I just want to listen to you, what do you want to say to me?” There’s no sense of “God I just want to sit in your presence and be rather than try to do“.
On a side note, reading your Bible isn’t necessarily bad. However, reading your Bible is supposed to be a means to end: to know God. If on the other hand you read your Bible to complete a checklist, or learn all this theology so that you can feel spiritually superior to others, or use it as a tool to advance your own agendas; then you’ve missed the point.
In my family the checklist looks something like this:
- Show up to family gatherings – check
- Share in some casual small talk – check
- Don’t share anything too deep or too personal because that will make some people uncomfortable – check
- Don’t share about experiences with God that don’t fit in our theological belief structure. There’s a right set of ideas about God and a wrong set and any experience you have that doesn’t fit in our belief structure must clearly be wrong or invalid. – check
This makes things very functional, but not relational. Everyone shows up, everyone gets fed, some casual small talk is had, but no real depth, connection, or intimacy occurs.
In the days of Jesus, the group who championed religion over intimacy were the Pharisees. They created elaborate systems of rules (i.e. checklists) and made adherence to the rules everything. Rules were valued more than people as they were quick to condemn anyone not keeping them. Listen to what Jesus says about them in John 16:1-3 “I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away. They (the Pharisees) will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me.” Absolutely incredible. Jesus says that the reason they became so deluded that they thought killing Christians was actually doing God a service is because they have not known the Father nor me“. Notice what he doesn’t say: he doesn’t say it’s because they haven’t tithed enough. He doesn’t say it’s because they haven’t read their Bible enough (the Pharisees actually had the entire Old Testament memorized). He doesn’t say it’s because they haven’t followed the rules well enough. Rather, he says it’s because they haven’t known him. In other words, a total failure of intimacy.
Maybe you’ve long felt distant and disconnected from God. However, maybe the reason for that is because you don’t actually know him. You don’t know his heart towards you, and perhaps, much like my family, you’ve fallen into the trap of relating based on religion and checklists rather than intimacy. Things are functional, but so distant.
Maybe there are some relationships in your life where you feel so disconnected from those people. Maybe it’s a teenage son, maybe an estranged parent or sibling. Maybe the reason there’s so much distance is because you don’t know them. You don’t know their heart, their passions, their desires, what excites them, what they’re interested in. Maybe it’s not that you don’t want to know those things but maybe they don’t feel safe telling them to you because you’ve passed judgement on them in the past.
Or maybe you’re like me and you have tried to build intimacy with certain people or family members but you’ve run into the wall of religious relating again and again. You feel so disconnected but haven’t been able to articulate why.
Over the years I’ve often found myself not wanting to go to family gatherings. I instead would frequently think “I would so much rather spend this holiday with my close friends.” At the time, I did not know why I felt this and would often feel guilty about it. However, now I know why: because with my close friends I actually have intimacy – they know me and I know them. I have often felt that they are much more my family than my biological family.
Interestingly enough, Jesus doesn’t seem to hold onto the biological distinction for family either. In Matthew 12:46-50 it says “While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.””
I have felt a tremendous amount of pain and sense of loss in coming to these realizations as of late. However, despite that, I still find I’m thankful. I’m thankful that God has brought people into my life who despite having no blood relation, I would still call family.