When I saw Gran Torino earlier this year there was a powerful scene that moved me deeply, although I wasn’t exactly sure why.  If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll remember the scene.  It’s when Clint Eastwood’s character, Walt Kowalski, takes the young boy, Thao, to the barber shop to show him…model for him how men interact.  Walt strolls in and speaks to the barber in very rough language and is greeted in return with the same gruff banter — all done with a surprising warmth between the two men.  He tells Thao to go out and do the same thing.  When he does, the barber acts  incensed and deeply offended and grabs a shotgun in feigned outrage.  So what was the difference?  Thao spoke in the same off-color language as Walt, but the response was the complete opposite.

I have found this same situation in my own life.  At times associates, friends, or family members’ “friendly” barbs and “funny” insults have been very hurtful and offensive to me.  However, there are those people in my life who are closer than a brother that could say the very same thing, and I would return the banter feeling a sense of camaraderie — not of outrage.  Why is my response so different for them.  Why do I feel so different?

In processing this, I’ve come to believe the difference lies in knowing the heart of people through the battles of life.  My closest brothers have walked beside me when the battles were raging the hardest.  They were there when I was wounded and helped carry me when I was completely disoriented and couldn’t make sense of anything.  I knew they had my back, which allowed me to pursue healing rather than spend all my energies defending myself and striving for justice, or medicating and anesthetizing the pain.  They reminded me of my true identity as a restored son of the Sovereign Lord.  These few had seen me at my worst but also saw what was deeper.  To me, these individuals have “earned” the right to speak to me anyway they want because I know their heart for me.  I know they love me deeply and that provides freedom from misinterpretation.  I know their jokes are simply jokes because they have showed up for me over and over again.  For those whose hearts remain hidden from me, who haven’t been in the valley with me, who don’t know my heart and my greatest wounds, I can get riled up when they hurl insults in  a “humorous” way.  I don’t know what’s behind that…and it makes all the difference.

Now I’m not suggesting that we begin speaking to our closest friends in course and off-color language, as done in the movie, but how can we nurture this depth of relationship in our small groups?  How can we begin to know others’ hearts more intimately?  I believe it begins with authenticity in our groups.  By leaving your false-self behind and bringing your true-self and offering it to the group.  Of course this is risky and we have all felt the sting of offering a piece of our hearts only to have it rejected, minimized, or in other ways mishandled.  But this is also the only way to really begin to come alive.

In Rick Howerton’s book on small-group community, he states there are seven principles groups must practice if they want to live authentically:

  1. There are mysteries found in the Bible – God is static but our understanding of Him should be dynamic as He continues to reveal Himself to us.
  2. The fact that life is messy – In sharing our messes, we become free to be ourselves and free to support one another as we continue the journey to be more like Jesus.
  3. Personal imperfections – We will judge ourselves, as well as those around us, until we accept our personal imperfections.
  4. That God is always present even when He feels distant – God sometimes uses what we perceive as distance to force us to reach out to other believers.
  5. Respecting others without having to agree with all they do or say – God created us as individuals, and no two of us are exactly alike physically, philosophically, or spiritually. Differences shouldn’t divide a group. Instead, they should bring it together as group members benefit from one another’s diverse perspectives and experiences.
  6. Confessing our failures at the right time with the right people – In most instances when our moral failures are confessed to others in the right setting at the right time (with those who have covenanted to keep confidences and care deeply about the confessor), the person confessing experiences healing.
  7. Satan is at work in the world – Christ-followers should be aware that Satan is more than a fictional character is an enemy on the attack, looking to destroy friendships, family members, and belief systems. Most importantly, he looks to kill hearts.

What kind of transformation would we experience if we knew those members of our small group so deeply that we never had to try to interpret what they really meant? What if we knew their heart for us and they knew our heart for them. Put these principles to action in your group and see how you experience change together.