The "Men's Group": Sanctification through Spiritual Friendship

Feast of St Timothy the Apostle of the 70

Men_Square.jpegI JOINED a men’s group five or six years ago, and we’re still meeting. It’s a strange thing, the phenomenon of the “men’s group,” and it takes many forms. Ours is an amalgamation of accountability, study, therapy, and most of all friendship. The five of us who started the group (there are nine of us now) did so because we were all, to some extent, desperate.

We all had decent lives, good jobs, well-adjusted children, and loving wives. But every somewhat reflective person, I think, eventually bumps up against two interrelated facts: First, we’re badly broken, and we’re going to need help in order to find healing, whether that help is professional or simply in the loving embrace of family and friends; and second, modern Western culture is uniquely suited to pull us apart from one another. The men in my group found each other because we had all, however dimly, recognized that these two facts were operative in our own lives.

The genius of our group is that it manages to blend the professional and relational side of the “help” each of us sought. I mentioned therapy above because our group is led by a marriage and family therapist named Bob. It’s not therapy per se, but Bob certainly brings his therapy tools to our meetings. So as we come together to interrogate our lives, he manages to push us past the pat answers we have spent years refining in order to convince ourselves and others that we’re really fundamentally okay.

With the steady hand of a relational expert at the till, we didn’t need to veer away from really difficult subjects like childhood trauma, abuse, neglect, or manipulation. That level of honesty in a group of twenty-first-century men was unprecedented for all of us—and, to be frank, really hard and intense. But when you lay open all the variegated wounds of our society, you find a common set of infections festering underneath—guilt, shame, powerlessness, contempt, betrayal. Paradoxically, as we recognized all these alienating factors at work in each other, it brought a profound sense of recognition and acceptance.

But admitting that we’re broken is only step one. Because when I joined the group what I wanted was for Bob, or God, or my friends—anybody would have done, really—to fix me. Which Bob resolutely refused to do.

The answer, for Bob, to our alienation, addiction, anger, anxiety, superficiality—in short, the human condition played in the key of modernity—was not to get rid of it. I even thought at times that Bob was not much interested in my problems. I wanted them gone; he wanted me to be kind to my brother-in-law. I wanted solutions; he wanted me to ask a friend if I had ever hurt him, and to listen to his answer. I wanted ease; he wanted me, in sum, to complicate my friendships by acting as if they meant more to me than mere convenience.

These all seemed like non sequiturs at the time, but what he understood and I did not was that anger, addiction, self-protection are symptoms of disease, not the disease itself. The problem was with my compromised moral immune system. And no amount of ethical Whack-a-Mole was going to fix me.

The cure turns out to be a harder sell: slower, more gradual, more holistic. The cure, it turns out, is that we all became friends.

Spiritual friendship makes sin less likely to thrive because friends are better at telling which of the plants you’re cultivating in your spiritual garden are flowers and which are weeds. A true spiritual friend is willing to say to you, “You are being a complete ass.” And there! Your friend has helped you identify a weed—your sense of superiority, say, or your martyr complex—which maybe you were cultivating as a flower. The friend, however, will go on, “And I still love you.” In that moment the weed withers a little.

Somebody has seen you for who you are, has seen your own self-deception, and still loves you. Your friend is participating with Christ in your sanctification (and his own, though it’s probably better if he doesn’t figure that out).

Bob once described living in the shadow of my sins as being disabled. When I’m nursing my sense of guilt or submerged in shame, I’m hobbling myself relationally. We only have so much emotional bandwidth, and when we clog it up with guilt and shame, we can’t love others as we love ourselves. We are so busy licking our own wounds, we fail to tend to those of our friends (and possibly through neglect create a few new ones in the process).

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I use the word “cure” with caution, however. Do we still get angry at each other, or at our wives, or at our kids? Do we still have addictions? Do we still neglect those we love? Of course. Our sins, however, don’t so much go away as move from center to periphery. In the bright light of spiritual friendship, an addiction, for example, moves from obsession to preoccupation, and from preoccupation to simply nuisance. This diminution of sin recalls the poet Scott Cairns’s observation that “sin is not so bad / as it is a waste of time.” (Importantly, the poem is on repentance.) The goal of Christianity, realized through spiritual friendship, is not to stop sinning but to crowd out sin with love.

The theme of the 2018 Eighth Day Symposium, “Strangers and Society: Cultivating Friendship in a Fractured Age,” thus seems particularly apt given my recent experience. While the theme addresses more explicitly our polarized social and political discourse, I wonder if that’s not a symptom of a more fundamental fracturing. We are simply unable to relate to those we love (to say nothing of those we don’t). Do we have few or poor friendships because our age is fractured, or is our age fractured because we are in extreme poverty of friendship? In any case, our wounds will not bind themselves; we must tend to each other as friends. In no other way will the fractured bones of our society be set by the physician who has also called us friend.

Jeff Reimer is a freelance editor and writer based in Newton, Kansas.

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