About 15 years ago I joined a certain group because everyone else was doing it and it seemed like the thing to do in order to be a better Christian, which of course I wanted very much.
The group followed a format that I found out later was typical, but it was all new to me at that time: We listened together to the respected speaker for the first hour, and then split up into small groups for the second hour.
This is where we would be transparent.
The two leaders, who were of course strangers, asked us all to promise not to speak to anyone else about what we would hear from others in that group where we, about 5 or 6 strangers, would open up to each other about our dark secrets. We all made that promise. (Except I don’t know if the leaders did or not.)
And we were encouraged to be transparent.
So I decided to try. I really did.
At that time, for several months I had been going through a period of darkness that I later wrote about here. When my turn came, maybe the 2nd or 3rd week, I started talking about it.
“I’ve been going through a really hard time, like a spiritual battle, I guess. . . . I just can’t get victory, feels like I’m being pulled down, dark thoughts all the time. I dunno, maybe it’s demonic . . . I keep crying out to God, but it’s so dark, like I can’t see my hand in front of my face . . .”
Then one of the group leaders interrupted me with a strong rebuke.
“Where is the Word of God in all this? You keep talking about yourself, just I, I, I—where is the Word of God?”
Now, others have told me that all my feelings show on my face. (I’ve tried to get better at this, but you still wouldn’t want to choose me to be your international spy.) So I’m guessing that my face turned either red or white and contorted with the utter confusion I felt.
If there hadn’t been so much internal confusion, I might have put up a robust argument. “Hey, you said we were supposed to be transparent. Isn’t this what that means?”
But as it was, I became very quiet and meek. I began to fumble through my purse, pulling out these cards, or others like them.
“Well,” my response came quietly, almost apologetically. “These are the cards I carry with me everywhere. When I’m driving I hold them up at the steering wheel and read them out loud. I write them out by hand, so I can pray them while I write them.”
It was then the leader’s turn to be confused. And to apologize, which she did.
But that shut me up, and I decided it wasn’t safe to be transparent in that group. Or maybe not any group.
(But as a side note, others have actually said that I’m transparent.)
So, two observations in 2020 about this story from so long ago.
First, I know that I desperately wanted God. I wanted God to rescue me. I wanted to see and know His glory. And I was sure God’s Word would be a major player in all this.
He came. He did. I did. And it was. That terrible time of darkness gave rise, eventually, to a time of great joy, even glory, which eventually gave birth to this blog.
And second, transparency is a fake Christian virtue. Fake in the sense that transparency is not actually virtuous (and lack of it is not a sin), and it isn’t mentioned in the Bible at all. I’ve talked about this before (most notably here, here, and here), but as my grandmother used to say, it bears repeating.
If you want to keep your story to yourself and hash it out with God alone, there’s nothing in the Bible that says you can’t or shouldn’t do so (unless it involves repenting of your sins against someone else)—that’s what I ultimately did.
If you want to talk to someone about it or seek help with it, pray to God to send you someone faithful and trustworthy you can confide in, who instead of rebuking you for talking about yourself (as the psalmist certainly did), will help you find rescue in Jesus Christ.
But don’t let the Christian world force you into the “everyone else is doing it” fake virtue of transparency. Look for transformation by Jesus Christ, live in integrity, and be free.
Happy New Year. And may 2020 be a year when Jesus Christ reigns supreme in the lives of His people . . . whether they’re transparent or not.
Also, while vulnerability/transparency *can *be a good thing, you don’t just toss it out there because you are in a group and everyone is automatically safe. That kind of trust must be vetted and earned.
Our last small group, my wife and I were told to share examples of difficult things in our relationship that made us stronger (which, btw, I don’t think is a great idea to begin with). We both shared examples from our previous marriages (because honestly, we feel like our marriage is easy-mode compared to what came before) and we got a call from the leaders afterward saying not to talk about our previous marriages because it was making people uncomfortable.
Yeah, be honest unless it’s not something they want to hear . . .
Well, there you go. Be transparent in a group, unless it makes people uncomfortable. That’s a standard I’ve heard before, expressed in different ways, such as accusations of gossip. Surprised you didn’t get that one.
Because making sure people are comfortable is the most important part of Christian living, right? SMH
Years ago, when I was in abusive marriage, I was honestly sharing my struggles with someone I considered a friend and prayer partner. He told me he wasn’t really comfortable hearing about it. I asked, “If you’re uncomfortable hearing about it, how do you think I’ve felt living with it all these years?”
Good grief. Way to walk with a friend through grief. So sorry, Joe, but sadly it’s all too common.
Good point! I wish I’d thought of that one when I was in a pickle! truly!
Yes, Joe, I literally made the exact same statement to a couple who I considered close friends to our family. The wife is a marriage and family therapist and the husband is a biblical scholar. I was told that my “situation” was “unsettling” to they needed to pull back. My comment to them was, “if it’s unsettling for an MFT and a biblical scholar to hear about, how do you suppose I have felt living it and walking my two young children through it?” Be the church . . . until it gets uncomfortable.
“Confidence in an unfaithful man in time of trouble is like a broken tooth and a foot out of joint….A righteous man falling down before the wicked is as a troubled fountain and a corrupt spring.” Proverbs 25:19, 26
I think it’s so important to have relationships with people you can trust, and with them, you can share your failings and your struggles, but you NEED to know you can trust them. And God certainly knows our pain. We have to realize that in church, the wheat is not separated from the tares. And so our faith shouldn’t be put in a group of people just because they call themselves Christian and attend the same church or Bible study that we do.
Very good point. Thank you.
Even family can betray your trust. It’s important to know the heart of the one you share your heart with … can you trust it or not. If the answer is no or you don’t know, don’t share!
Also, even with fellow believers, there is faulty judgment. People who fail to understand the full story of someone’s experience yet are quick to cast judgment. Scripture is not meant to be used to guilt one another into holy living… it is meant to free us to it. It’s much easier to do that than to take the time to know someone’s heart and being willing to feel the pain. I think the Good Samaritan is a good example of what happens spiritually when we judge one another unrighteously. Righteous judgment doesn’t cause us to look down on each other. It recognizes our frailty and suffering and comes alongside and helps us understand our need for God and His love for us.
I think without transparency there is a lack of meaningful and deeper connection. But I’ve learned not to be too open with those who are not open with me.
Relationships that are imbalanced or lopsided end up very unhealthy.
If it’s leaders simply mining for info while they keep all their stuff private there is a problem.
Safety and trust are required for authentic and transparent relationships. It cannot be demanded or forced.
It is terrible that you went through this experience and I would understand the need for extreme caution going forward.
But I think this group showcased the opposite of what sharing in a healthy environment with trusted people can do that you just don’t get with you & God alone: removing shame.
When we are fearful of how people will respond to our struggles shame builds.
We are made to be “one body with many parts” (1 Cor.12:12) where one part can’t say to the other “I have no need of thee” (1 Cor.12:21) where “if one member suffers we all suffer” (1 Cor.12:26)
where we are told to “carry each other’s burdens and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Gal.6:2)
Good points. I didn’t mean to indicate that we should be loners. But “transparency”–the very meaning of the word–means allowing everything to be seen. If we allow everything to be seen by people who aren’t trustworthy (and when we’re talking with strangers, we simply don’t know), then we might end up being played for fools when, as Tim Yarbrough indicated in his Facebook comment (and as I’ve indicated on another blog post), church leaders end up getting access to the information shared in the small group and use it in some way.
I’m no loner–I have many people with whom I share mutual deep regard and care for our mutual welfare. A couple of these are those I’ve gotten to know through the physical local church, while the vast majority are ones I’ve gotten to know by other means, but who are still part of the Church Universal.
I’m glad you have your trusted people you can share more with.
That was my main point. We all need people. But it doesn’t have to be with everyon.
On second thought these people were not looking for transparency. They were looking for you to regurgitate their beliefs back at them. There is nothing authentic or transparent about demanding that. It’s quite a misuse of the words they are using.
Some people don’t want authenticity. They have hijacked popular terms to fit trends, to draw in a younger generation that is tired of people putting on appearance for Church.
I am in my late 30’s.
I have ran small groups for young adults and sat in groups with older generations (where I was the youngest and most where in their 50s & 60s) and I spent years building into the same two groups of people in those two different generations. There was a stark contrast!
I noticed some big generation gaps.
The younger generation sort of expects and gives out transparency. They ugly cry in front of the group if that is how they are feeling. They may divulge personal information too quickly without an awareness of the types of people who are around them who may use that information badly. But they haven’t been hurt and lack the cynicism and detachedness many older people have come to as they have had to build up high self protective walls as a result of bad experiences.
To younger people, transparency and authenticity is currency to connecting with them.
The older group I spent years with had been taught image management amoung Christians was of utmost importance. “Don’t let anyone see you sweat”… so platitudes of how “God is good all the time” were used often and the repression of all negative emotions was more commonplace.
I always felt it was refreshing to run a young adult small group.
I was in one bible study group that was getting older and older and trying to attract the younger generation by trying to tell the older leaders it was important to be transparent. But it was a lot to try to impart to a group that had been raised a certain way. You can’t promote authenticity as a gimmick. The point of it is sincerity to begin with.
I think the best balance can be struck by teaching the important groundwork for authentic and transparent relationships (for both the younger and the older generations) :
Teach boundaries. Teach being discriminate and discerning.
Evangelical teachings tend to lean towards broad values and teachings rather than learning how applications change with different scenarios. We need more teachings on wisdom rather than blanket answers.
This will help people evaluate their context: what do I need in place in order to share openly and transparently?
Example: proverbs 26 says don’t answer foolish arguments of fools or you will be like them (vs 4) and the very next verse sort of tells us if we keep silent to fools they will be wise in their own eyes (vs 5)
Which tells me life is complex and doesn’t always require a cookie cutter response to all fools or non fools. We need to get better at evaluating. We need to stop with that one response to everyone, either sharing with all or shutting down from all. We need wisdom and understanding rather than 5 principles on engagement with all people in all contexts.
It looks like you’re equating transparency with authenticity, but I wouldn’t equate the two. I wrote a blog post about transparency vs. integrity here, explaining the difference and why it’s important. https://heresthejoy.com/2018/05/5-reasons-for-church-small-groups-to-replace-transparency-with-integrity/
I believe the “transparency” of many in the younger generation is naive, and many of them will be badly hurt. I believe the hard walls of many in the older generation are sad, and they need to have deep relationships with a few good people.
I’m glad to hear that because at one time I was told the universal invisible church didn’t exist, only local churches, because only local churches can meet and worship and do ministry together. Well, whatever. I think I understand what Gail is saying. When I came off the mission field after I had to report abuse at the orphanage where I had been working, it was such a relief to talk to some of my godly friends and hear them say, “Of course the abuse was wrong. Of course you were right to report it.” I was like, “Whew, for a second I thought I was going crazy, like maybe I did something wrong.” Incidentally, most of these godly friends were Christians who attended other churches that I met other ways and did not attend my local/sending church.
So thankful you met them. And I’ve heard the same argument, which has never made any sense to me.
The term “universal church” isn’t from the Bible, but my understanding is that it means all Christians everywhere, and we can’t deny that they exist.
And again, not a Biblical term, but my understanding is that originally the term “invisible church” meant the real Christians sitting in a body of “professing” Christians; that is, the wheat as opposed to the tares. They are “invisible” in a sense, because they can’t outwardly be distinguished from the unbelievers. But while the term “universal church” has always made sense to me, the term “invisible church,” not quite so much.
Gail – Thank you for fleshing out your comments further, and I concur with your assessments of the younger and older generations in general. Integrity is huge, and colors both sides of the equation. In Rebecca Davis’ post, however, the eager-beaver group leader violated the first line of integrity for small groups by jumping in with her “questions” of redirecting to the Word of God. My first thought was “Let the woman finish!” instead of assuming there was a problem to solve and an end goal in sight. The jump to judgment/pointing to scripture was premature for a healthy small group situation. Healthy leadership goes a long way to help a small group develop healthy trust and transparency. It is an art and an endeavor, not an event.
“Vulnerable transparency” are codewords for “data mining” to a skilled abuser.
What an excellent point. I thought about including an entire paragraph about this problem with transparency, but decided it would be taking the blog post too far afield. I’ve alluded to it, though, in this one https://heresthejoy.com/2018/05/5-reasons-for-church-small-groups-to-replace-transparency-with-integrity/ and would love to hear further thoughts about this from you and others.
Sometimes its really hard to know “who the bad guys are”.
I know. I’m so sorry.
It is easy in this data-driven age to confuse “knowing everything about someone” with “knowing someone.” With the online dating filter mentality, we can “feel we really have a lot in common,” but it takes time to develop intimacy, to know someone.
Thank you so very much- especially for your earlier post you linked, on your earlier period of darkness. I have felt like I was going crazy, and that post makes me feel not so alone.
After reading it I googled “horror of great darkness” and found this incredible sermon by an early 19th c pastor Andrew Lee. I am profoundly comforted by hearing his recounting of so many of the saints’ “horror of great darkness.” I think there are additional things to be said, such as our need for the body of Christ to walk alongside us at such times, to help us carry our burden, to embody Jesus to each other.
So thank you for helping me.
I’m so thankful that was helpful, Julie. I received several comments about that old post this time around.
Not a small group story, but a violation of vulnerable transparency … went to a youth pastor (not at my church, at a college group) to ask some questions that were bothering me. I thought the whole thing was in confidence. He answered my questions, though I don’t think he thought he was answering what he thought he was answering. (Some slight difference between what I asked and what he answered, but it was close enough to give the clarity and comfort I needed greatly.) However, AFTER that … turned out it wasn’t private after all … not only did he tell his wife (who brought it up in small group Bible study!!!!!!) but he used that information incorrectly to speak to my sister’s boyfriend, to ‘warn him off’ because ‘our family might not really be Christian enough for him’. (He was the ministry’s golden boy at the time and meant for Great Things, though we didn’t know that … he was just a nice guy dating my younger sister.) I didn’t know about that till my sister comes home one day, shrieking and asking what on earth did I say to Pastor X. It was horrid, and left me very scarred, and very careful what I ask in private. It still baffles me that he gave a good answer but still managed to twist it for evil because he completely missed the CONTEXT of the question. Fortunately, we are all many years out from that … sister and guy are happily married, I am happily married, we all have our issues but work through them … and I avoid small groups like the plague (though it took a few more lessons to let that one sink in). Ironically, I now teach youth Sunday School as an interim position, and I kick butt if anyone gives anyone a hard time for what they think or how they feel … and make sure they know that God’s grip on us is tighter than that. 😀 They need to know that.
I totally get the necessity of building trust, being appropriately and wisely cautious in our openness. I’m on the same page with what you’re saying here.
But I’m also thinking of Paul’s loving entreaty to the Corinthians, saints so dear to him: “Open wide your hearts, as I have opened mine to you.” He loved them and was “transparent” even when they had treated him poorly.
Just another side of the coin to hold in one hand with this post. We so need to call out for wisdom.
Thanks for that permission. I’ve discovered the same issues in similar situations. Now to discern the times when spiritual connection needs a boost with another human, and when that intimacy would be damaged by the same.
This is so good – such an important eye-opener to the risks of being “transparent” in a Christian setting. The same may also be true in the offices of some pastors and Christian counselors, who may be similarly quick to point out all of the ways we are failing as believers.
When we don’t feel accepted, seen or heard in such a setting, it’s important to give ourselves permission to walk away.
I’ll be sharing this. It’s too good to keep to myself!
Mrs. Davis, I became convinced quite some time ago that the destructive potential with the whole “accountable to another brother” movement, though perhaps with good intentions, sought to place a mere human in the place of the Holy Spirit. It can and very often does become, though not necessarily so, a methodology that promotes and encourages immaturity in believers because God does genuinely see everything and knows all – not just our own perceptions of what we may claim as reality or what others may assert for the same. The ultimate goal for the believer is to live under the direct care, control, and government of the Holy Spirit as He guides us through the instructions and application of God’s Word. It was David who cried out “search me oh God and know my heart” – because he knew God was the only one he could trust with such a task.
While there is nothing inherently sinful in confessing our sins one to another, that needs to be within the context of trusted friendships.
Thank you for that Tim Yarbrough. We need to ultimately listen to the Holy Spirit more than anyone else and hold ourselves accountable to Him. And we must trust ourselves to be able to hear His voice too. Direct communication with Him is the best! Certainly church leaders and Christian mentors can be wrong sometimes. Good grief, even my mom is wrong once in a blue moon!
My husband and I got hurt with this. I really believed he needed an accountability partner as a part of his purity, and boy did that backfire. Not only did I have to find out through a painful conversation that he shared what my husband said to him to his wife (who was my friend at the time) through casual conversation, I do believe this information was used against us. The temperature changed in those relationships. Not only did he never check in on my husband, but all of a sudden they became cold, careful, and distant from us…and even spoke to us in condescending tones. Later I would find out that the wife of this man had no problem sharing the deep secrets of others pain and troubles in casual conversation even if its’ at the grocery store. Ask me how I know. I cringed anytime she so glibbly shared the private traumas, and struggles of her friends in ways that seemed inappropriate so happily and casually. This wasn’t about exposing lies, or sin, but just casually sharing personal information about others. All that showed me is that is how she would share the personal information about us. That was a painful lesson that not everyone can be trusted, even in times when you do need to bring it into the open…and it takes time to really see how and if they are trustworthy. Seeing how they treat others personal info is huge, but unfortunately I trusted them WAY sooner than I should of.
Oh my goodness, awful. Yes, it’s so important to be careful who we talk to about our private stuff. You’d think a leader’s wife would be one of those, but that is often not really the case.
I think it is extremely unwise to be ‘transparent’, as in, share deep, dark secrets in a group. Particularly a group of strangers. No way. And, sadly, many have reported that these sorts of sharings have been used by church leaders to manipulate and threaten church members who may ask too many questions, etc. Share what you feel comfortable with whom you feel comfortable, and don’t let peer pressure force you to go beyond what feels comfortable.
I love the cards. I have an old spiral notebook in which I copied down some of my favorite, encouraging verses. I have read them silently and aloud many a time over the last thirty years. They went missing after a move, and I was so sad. I rejoiced when they finally turned up. I am having to recopy them, as I have pretty much worn out the pages. 😉
Thank you for this excellent (and honest) article. I have a dear Christian friend who gives Nothing but trite bible answers to everything. She thinks it is a sin to worry or be upset about things bc the bible says not to. She has destroyed a small group and a Mops group bc she got so upset at people for fretting. This makes her a very unsafe person to be real with.
My stomach churned when I read your post bcs BTDT…ugh! Have learned the hard way (several times) that churches and transparency are not always a safe combination. One of my close friends gave me the best piece of advice regarding this whole issue a couple years ago: “We are to be authentic with all, vulnerable with a few and totally transparent with the One.”
Excellent counsel. We already ARE transparent to our Lord, since He knows all and thus can see right through us, so having a relationship with Him that acknowledges this fact is key.
When I confess sin, I’ve often said something along the lines of, “Lord, I sure am glad You already know what I’m going to talk to You about so it’s not going to cause You shock and dismay.”
Hi Rebecca, a very similar thing happened to me a few years ago, and it hurt like crazy! I thought I was in a “safe place,” among Christian friends…. I was transparent and got scolded! “You must forgive!” I was told after explaining how someone very close to me had betrayed my trust and broken my heart. Sure, she was right, but boy did I feel invalidated. She later apologized (and I forgave her), but I never trusted her again with my heart!
Thank you! Laura Grace, Author, Grace to the Rescue and many more! I shared this on my FB today. and I don’t often do this! LOL
Thank you. Not to air any dirty laundry here, but DH would tell ANYONE ANYTHING in the name of transparency. The whole church body knew our business. I am not afraid to be honest-even raw-about my pain with a few friends I trust. Every other time, I’m just trying to be sincere but discreet and discerning. I learned in my journey that folks who rebuke when you spill your guts about something just really aren’t strong enough to bear that burden with you, and need to be seen as weak in conscience and faith. It makes them very uncomfortable. So out of love for that weaker brother/sister, I am very careful to save the hard things to share with a strong, close friend.
Very good counsel. Thank you, Lisa.
Oh yes, all that transparency stuff.. reveal your inner secrets to a group of strangers, in order to be spiritual and become a rue disciple.. It is so twisted, but unless you have come out of systems which are in that mentality, it is hard to recognize as harmful. How about bringing back ‘safety’ instead of (forced) ‘transparency’?
Another thing comes to mind. A bit similar to this is having any ‘accountability’, for example to stay free from porn.. Based on what I have heard, that is not really helpful – just as no amount of software is effective against someone who wants to watch pornographic stuff…
God does want to help us, not want to shame us, but these kinds of groups operate out of shame (usually..)
If I had that kind of problem I don’t think opening up to a group would be of any help..
I could have written this very post! It seems like “transparency” is encouraged more than “christlikeness” now days! thank you for sharing!
First of all, I am so, so, deeply sorry that your transparency was met with such a large bucket of ice water. Church small groups often encourage this sort of transparency, however, my experience has been discouraging. What usually happens is that one or two people in the group dominate the time with their woes, followed by one or two people trying to “fix” the sharer. Unfortunately, and oftentimes the so-called group leader has absolutely no clue how to truly guide a group, let alone deal with genuinely troubling, deep spiritual issues. Many are selected because they are friends with the pastor/pastor’s wife, or nobody else is interested in leading. Politics and availability aside, NONE of the group leaders at my former church were given a manual to help in the particulars of group leadership, let alone training in appropriate and compassionate responses, along with relevant, professional resources. As a leader there, the most I was ever told was to pass the hard issues along to the Pastor’s wife (which I never did), who would contact the woman and counsel her. Unfortunately, the pastor’s wife was clueless, as was her nouthetic counseling pastor/husband. Pathetic! And, what happened on too many occasions, was that the confidences WERE broken as evidenced by overheard comments that were introduced with the words, “We need to pray for so-and-so about such and such”. Welcome to the prayer/gossip chain! I “get it” that great friendships, and strong churches are made from being vulnerable with each other. But, for me, my deepest heart sharing is with two to three trustworthy women.
Yes, I very much agree.
I really like this. It seems “the be vulnerable” statements were being pushed hard right around when I went through the trauma of a miscarriage. So when we moved to a new state, and I felt very raw, I let it all out (i.e. I overshared) and always, always left feeling WORSE whenever I went to a bible study. Oversharing (which I took to mean being vulnerable) only pushed people away, and often left me not feeling understood or connected at all. In fact it often gave the wrong impression. I was even accused of being suicidal in so many words, even though that was NOT at all the case, but the assumption alone hurt badly and made my pain only worse. Kind of akin to someone telling you look tired, or sick when you feel fine. The truth is, as I studied proverbs I kept reading the word “discreet” and how that is the EXACT opposite of being vulnerable. I’ve also since learned that oversharing can often be linked to trauma, and if you share very personal information around the wrong type of people it can actually cause further pain and damage. Perhaps opening up, and being vulnerable is possible without oversharing, but when you go through grief and trauma, HA, it’s not always safe or easy to do that. I think this needs to be spoken about more because it caused a lot of pain in my life in my season of grief and trauma. I felt misled, because so many said if you bring it to the light in community (by being vulnerable) you can then find healing, but instead I felt crushing, hurt and more pain. SO often I discovered my pain was met with snap judgments, canned answers, and platitudes from people who were all to ready to slap a label on me and call it a day.
Oh my goodness yes to all this. I’m so very sorry.
It’s appropriate to be vulnerable with *certain* people in *certain* situations. Discretion, which the Bible talks about, will help us determine who and when. This is one aspect of wisdom and maturity, which I talk about a good bit in Book #3.