What is the single most important component of any healthy relationship?
Maybe your initial answer to this question is something like love, trust, or selflessness. But let us suggest an answer that is even deeper and more foundational than any of those: truth.
Dinner-Friends_6-25-378x276Relationships simply cannot exist without honesty. As soon as I'm dishonest—untruthful—with you, I begin to unravel the sacred bonds of relationship. The starkest examples of mistrust are painfully clear to us: a cheating spouse, an embezzling CEO, a friend who betrays a confidence.
In comparison to these dire examples, we often convince ourselves that we're pretty truthful. But in reality, the fall has made us all liars. We don't want people to know us as we really are. We want to appear a certain way—to be known as a certain kind of person. So we put forth an image, a public face. Author Brennan Manning refers to this image as "the Impostor":
The impostor is the classic codependent. To gain acceptance and approval, the false self suppresses or camouflages feelings, making emotional honesty impossible. [We] present a perfect image to the public so that everybody will admire us and nobody will know us. . . . The impostor prompts us to attach importance to what has no importance, clothing with a false glitter what is least substantial and turning us away from what is real. The false self causes us to live in a world of delusion. The impostor is a liar.
Christians are skilled at playing the impostor. It's exactly what Adam and Eve did in the garden of Eden. When God created them, they were "naked and were not ashamed" (Genesis 2:25). But once they sinned, they began to hide. They became aware of their nakedness and "sewed fig leaves together" (Genesis 3:7). Rather than being fully transparent, they were ashamed and began to withhold things from each other and from God. And we've been doing the same thing ever since.
This is the reason Christian community is often shallow and stagnant. The apostle John calls it "walking in darkness." And his remedy is truth—or, as he puts it, "walking in the light:"
God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:5-9)
If we walk in the light, as God is in the light, we have fellowship with one another. We have true community. We have real relationship. We're finished pretending, hiding, covering up. You know the real me, and I know the real you. And that's a good recipe for true friendship.
Freedom for Honesty
But how can we consistently walk in the light? What gives us the freedom to live in honesty and truth with one another?
It's the gospel. It's faith working through love. It's "the blood of Jesus cleansing us from all sin." Only when we've really come to Jesus in repentance and faith will we experience the kind of honest community we long for. Because only in Jesus is our struggle for righteousness and identity resolved.
Pause and ask yourself another question: What's the worst thing someone could possibly know about you?
Now, what if everyone in your church community knew that thing? What would you stand to lose? What you'd probably lose is (1) their approval and (2) your sense of righteousness. They would know the real truth about you (and perhaps not approve of you). And you would have to admit the truth about yourself (you couldn't pretend to be "righteous" anymore). In other words: walking in the light would directly confront your thirst for approval and your unwarranted self-righteousness. You avoid honesty because you're still striving to maintain your own identity and construct your own righteousness.
Here's another way to say the same thing: Dishonesty is rooted in unbelief. It's a gospel issue. When I'm not resting in the identity and righteousness I have in Christ, I'll be tempted to "save face" or keep up appearances. I'll want to make sure people have a certain impression of me.
But the gospel frees us from this temptation! The good news of the gospel is that your identity is in Christ, not in what people think of you. And your righteousness comes from Christ, not your good behavior (or good reputation). You don't have to keep up appearances. You don't have to manage your image. You don't have to save face. Jesus gives you a new identity and a righteousness you did not possess or earn on your own. They are yours by grace. You can rest in the identity and righteousness that Jesus provides. And so you can freely walk in the light with the people around you. You no longer need to sew together fig leaves; God himself has clothed you in the righteousness of his Son. "I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness" (Isaiah 61:10).
A community where the truth of the gospel is deeply believed, reflected on, and talked about will be a community of healthy, transformative honesty. It will be a community where people increasingly find their identity in Christ and not in the approval of others; a community where self-righteousness gives way to faith-righteousness; a community where people are loved as they really are, but loved too much to let them stay that way. It will be a community of radical grace, generous hospitality, and joyful humility. It will be a community of light, truth, goodness and beauty, where the glory of God is on display to the world.
Isn't that the kind of community you want? It all starts with you and me walking in the light.
This article is reproduced from The Gospel-Centered Community. Copyright © 2013 by Robert H. Thune and Will Walker. Used by permission of New Growth Press and may not be downloaded, reproduced, and/or distributed without prior written permission of New Growth Press.
Bob Thune (MA, Reformed Theological Seminary) is the lead pastor of Coram Deo, a gospel-centered church he planted in 2005 in Omaha, Nebraska. He is the co-author with Will Walker of The Gospel-Centered Life, a widely used small group study. He and his wife, Leigh, have four children. Walker (MA, Covenant Seminary) is the lead pastor of Providence Church in Austin, Texas, a church plant sent out from Coram Deo in 2010. He and his wife, Debbie, have two children.