Where are the Safe People?
Last week we described what safe relationships look like. Now the big question remains—where do you find safe people?
A client lamented with me about how she had tried the “safe relationship” stuff, sharing her heart, being honest, etc. and concluded that it just didn’t work. She felt judged and condemned. It seemed that those she opened her soul to were simply not safe people.
She assumed since they were people in her church that they would automatically be safe. She had discovered a sad but real truth: the church is not a perfectly safe place. How can this be? If anyplace should be safe, the church should be.
As much as we would like for it to be true, the church does not consist of only safe people. If we are going to have a biblical view of relationships and people, we must see the church as God describes it. Our faith must be able to square with the reality of life as we find it and with the reality the Bible describes to us. Let’s look at those two realities.
Reality as People Find It
Even in the body of Christ, we find some harsh realities: judgment, pride, self-centeredness, manipulation, abandonment, abuse, control, perfectionism, domination, and every kind of relational sin know to humankind. The walls of the church do not make it safe from sin. In fact, the church by definition is composed of sinners.
To further complicate matters, the church by its very nature as a family of God activates our most primitive and dependent longings because we want a perfect family. God designed the church to be our second family, and we often take into the church our longing for security and love that we take into our families of origin. And for some, as in their original family, the wish is not only disappointed—it can be crushed altogether. What are we to do with that reality?
The one difference is that, as adults entering into the family of God, we have choices about who we are going to trust and get close to. David said in Psalm 101:6 that we can pick the “ones who will minister to [us].” But we are not by nature so discerning. We come into the church feeling and wishing, “Take care of me. I need you. I shouldn’t have to first figure out who is safe and who is not. You should be good and trustworthy.” We want things to be right and often they are not.
On the other hand, many of us have felt that the body of Christ has nurtured, loved, and taught us in ways that have radically healed us. Through the acceptance and love of other believers our character has changed, and we have slowly let go of the things that shackle us.
The church can be a healing place where lives are transformed and where powerful love and healing can take place. The body of Christ is still God’s instrument for our healing and restoration (1 Peter 4:10; Ephesians 4:16). So, the question rings in our needy hearts: Is the church safe, or is it dangerous? The answer is, “It is both.” Sometimes we are fortunate to find good relationships, and other times we run into disaster.
Reality as the Bible Describes It
The sad thing is that our ideals for the church do not reflect biblical reality, either. We think that the Bible promises a church where we find only safe people. But the Bible says that the church is full of wolves as well as sheep. In the church, we will find both healing and hurt. If we are going to find healing and minimize hurt we need to make sure that we see the church as God describes it to us. We need to operate according to biblical reality instead of our fantasized wishes.
In describing reality of the kingdom of God, Jesus told a story:
“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a farmer who planted good seed in his field. But that night as everyone slept, his enemy came and planted weeds among the wheat. When the crop began to grow and produce grain, the weeds also grew. The farmer’s servants came and told him, `Sir, the field where you planted that good seed is full of weeds!’ “`An enemy has done it!’ the farmer exclaimed.” `Shall we pull out the weeds?’ they asked. “He replied, `No, you’ll hurt the wheat if you do. Let both grow together until the harvest. Then I will tell the harvesters to sort out the weeds and burn them and to put the wheat in the barn.’” (Matthew 13:14-30, italics mine)
As this story shows, God allows unsafe people to be in the church. They are wolves in sheep’s clothing, and they are dangerous. While they may seem religious, they may not even be true believers. While they do many things in his name, they are not his sheep. (Matthew 7:22-23)
Another reality is that even with believers, we get a mixed bag as well. Listen to the parable of the sower:
The seed that fell on the hard path represents those who hear the Good News about the Kingdom and don’t understand it. Then the evil one comes and snatches the seed away from their hearts.
The rocky soil represents those who hear the message and receive it with joy. But like young plants in such soil, their roots don’t go very deep. At first they get along fine, but they wilt as soon as they have problems or are persecuted because they believe the word.
The thorny ground represents those who hear and accept the Good News, but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the cares of this life and the lure of wealth, so no crop is produced.
The good soil represents the hearts of those who truly accept God’s message and produce a huge harvest–thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times as much as had been planted.” (Matthew 13:19-23)
Within the church some people are never really born again; the kingdom never takes hold in them. Others are joyful in the faith, but they do not have the reality of the life of God within them. Both of these groups can be very destructive.
But it is the third group, where we can get really confused. The seed has taken hold, they are in the faith, but they are so self-centered and caught up in temporal concerns that they are not producing loving fruit in their relationships. This kind of well-intentioned, but growth-stagnant, person can be very hurtful as well.
Finally, Jesus describes the fruitful person. This person, although not perfect, is involved in the process of growth with God. Love, confession, humility, truth and grace are present and increasing. This is the kind of person is the one that brings about healing in other people’s lives.
Wisdom and Character
Our experience and the Bible affirm the same thing. The church is full of safe people, unsafe people, and hurtful lingerers. There is no perfect family short of heaven. The Bible’s message is that we need to be discerning. We need to make informed choices, and we need to be careful. But we also need to avoid becoming pessimistic and learn to recognize the goodness that abounds within the family of God.
The long and the short of it is that we have to work to find safe people, using our wisdom, discernment and character.
Where to look
Within the body of Christ, God has gifted people to heal each other. We have found these people in a variety of settings and structures, from informal to formal. Here are some of them.
Look for churches where relationship is preached and community is formed. While churches have different personalities and cultures it is possible to find churches that have the following qualities:
- Grace is preached from the pulpit and is the foundation for how people are treated.
- Truth is preached without compromise, but also without a spirit of law and judgment.
- Church leaders are aware of their own weaknesses and need to grow. They are open about their hurt, pain, failings, and humanity. Instead of “having it all together” and being insulated from confrontation and change, they are in a process of healing and opening up to their own safe people for support and accountability.
- The church uses small groups to touch people’s lives, and sermons focus on community in the body of Christ as well as doctrine.
- The culture is one of forgiven sinners, not self-righteous religious Pharisees.
- The church, instead of being a self-contained unit and thinking it has all the answers, is networked into the community, utilizing input from other sources such as churches, professionals and organizations.
- The teaching has a relational emphasis as well as a vertical one. Relationship between people is seen as part of spirituality as well as relationship to God.
- The teaching sees brokenness, struggle, and inability as normal parts of the sanctification process.
- There are opportunities to serve others through a variety of ministries.
We (John and I) value friendship. We believe that friendship is one of the most powerful tools God uses to change and heal character. In relationships with others we are healed, our character is changed and sanctification happens.
Friends give us what we need in the areas of acceptance, support, discipline, modeling, and a host of other relational ingredients that produce change. Good friendships are an absolute must for our spiritual growth to happen. In picking good friendships that produce growth, several qualities are important:
- Acceptance and grace.
- Mutual struggles, although they do not have to be the same ones.
- Loving confrontation.
- Both parties need other support systems as well to avoid the same kind of toxic dependency on each other that led to the problems.
- Familiarity with the growth process where both parties have “entered in” and have some knowledge of the process so as to avoid the blind leading the blind.
- Mutual interest and chemistry, a genuine liking.
- An absence of “one-up and one-down” dynamics.
- Both parties in a relationship with God.
- Honesty and reality instead of “over spiritualizing.”
- An absence of controlling behavior.
Groups are an extremely powerful tool for spiritual and emotional growth. A dynamic occurs in a group that is absent in one-on-one relationships. Members realize the universality of pain and suffering, and they are not as tempted to condemn themselves.
Support groups come in many styles, from therapy groups to twelve-step groups, to prayer groups, to groups that form around a particular issue, such as grief or sexual abuse.
One caution needs to be mentioned, however. Groups are powerful and need leadership by people who know what they are doing. They need to know the issues that will arise and how to deal with them. That is why groups have trained leaders, or leaders who have experience in the growth process. We generally discourage informal groups of hurting people who get together with no trained or experienced leader. These groups can re-create all the problems that someone is there to get help with. Unless you are far along in the process, try to find groups that are structured, have an expressed purpose, and have experienced leadership.
Sometimes people are so hurt and have so much to deal with that they need specialized one-on-one attention. Individual therapy is a powerful, proven method of dealing with deep issues and developmental impasses.
In choosing a therapist, remember that you are a consumer and have a right to know that you are getting good care. Check out her credentials first, and make sure that you check around with people who are familiar with her work. Pastors can be a good referral resource.
Be Careful and Go for It
There are many good people out there. To find them, use discernment, wisdom, and information, and trust your experience with people. Keep looking, praying, and seeking until you find safe people-people who will give you all the benefits that God has planned for you.
Taken from Safe People, © Drs. Henry Cloud & John Townsend, Zondervan 1995
Safe People will help you restructure your approach to relationships. Put an end to getting burned—and start enjoying the healthy, balanced relationships everyone wants and needs.
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