stories of our life together on the road home

The Gift of Knowing God as Friend


“You seem like you’re in your head a lot.” 

It was an early session in my first ever stint into counseling. I gave a humorless chuckle. “Yeah. I am.”

“That is a gift, you know.” 

In fact, I did not know that. I knew I had an internal conversation that rarely stopped. I had historically chalked that up to either a burdensome habit or the Holy Spirit battling demons (depending on how spiritual I was feeling that given day). Either way, a gift was not how I would have described it. It felt more like a handicap, especially in how I experienced social situations. For every minute of interaction I’d have with people, there would be 15 minutes of analysis. 

“Why did you say that?”

“That came across as rude.”

“You were making an odd face during that.”

“I think that joke might have crossed a line.”

“You didn’t really show up compassionately there.” 

I’d often try to answer those in defense of myself. “You’re over-analyzing. I think I showed up fine.” This would make the accusations intensify. “You just refuse to take an honest look at yourself, don’t you?”

I’d yell at them louder to try and shut them down, to the opposite effect. This repeatedly devolved into dissonant infighting. That soup of questions and accusations and rebuttals was also mixed with incessant replays, like a tiny tyrannical coach saying “okay, let’s go to the tape again.” I was desperate to relive interactions with others, to see some positive detail that would let me off the hook and assure me I didn’t blow it, but could usually only find more questionable items to scrutinize. 

It was at the height of these tendencies that my counselor had a double suggestion. The first I already mentioned  – that I look at my penchant for internal analysis as a gift. The second was opening that gift in prayer. I had a tricky history with prayer. I was a minister’s kid, so having a good prayer life had been a lifelong endeavor and nagging pressure. I myself had been paid to lead others spiritually for about 10 years off and on. I was a pro, right? But the truth is that outside of Friday night at church camp, where my religious zeal hit its annual summer spike, I didn’t really like prayer. 

Of course I found the concept inviting: entering the throne room of God, interceding for others, giving thanks, confessing my sins, worshiping. But the occasions were exceedingly rare when that was my actual experience. Usually, prayer felt like frustration, boredom, distraction, and unmet expectation, all like dodge balls to the face, knocking me back into shame. I knew prayer was supposed to be this transcendent experience. What was wrong with me that I couldn’t have that?  I realize now that a big part of that was lack of guidance. I had been told for 3 decades to pray. But effectively moving past “Dear God” was like clutching smoke. It never occurred to me that prayer might be what my inner voices were craving. But I still needed convincing.

Shortly after that counseling session, I was reading the Psalms. This too was at the behest of my counselor, who felt I might resonate with these deeply personal God-directed poems. He was right. I was in Psalm 62:8.

“Trust in him at all times.” – No surprises there. 

“Pour out your heart before him. God is a refuge for us.” – That’s what got me. 

Absolute safety. Forget filtering. No need for caveats. Unnecessary to explain everything I mean. Whatever the contents of my heart, he wants to talk about it. And on the other side of that invitation was someone who was a refuge for me, a safe place to do this. Until then, self-examination was just a place of shame and pain. But if this was true, I could look honestly at myself and not be afraid of what I might uncover. I had a black and white invitation to simply show up in God’s presence, honestly answer the question, “what’s on your mind?”, and count on a safe place to interact with whatever was there. Of all the relationships in my life, I had no better category for those descriptors than “friend.” My friends were the safest relationships I’d ever known. Could it be that God wanted to be in that category for me? 

Friend. God as a Friend. What a lovely thought. But I had to try it on first. 

It was a wooden start. 

What’s on my mind? 

Nothing. I don’t even want to do this. 

Wait, that’s something. 

God, I don’t want to do this. 

Can I say that to Him? 

He said to pour out my heart. Also, that’s something else. 

God, I don’t feel like I can speak freely with you, but I hear you saying you want me to. 

That kind of bumbling started a new phase of prayer for me, one I’m still learning to lean into; one in which prayer is less of a manual-less machine, and more of a place I can enter to feel safe and at home with God. 

As monumental as that adjustment was, it brought another change I hadn’t anticipated. It was precisely the one my inner world, so long at civil war, needed. God being a friend to me showed me how to be a friend to myself. I’d always reckoned that my exacting, accusatory inner dialogue was just a “me and God” problem, that if I would trust his promises or believe the gospel more, I could have peace inside. Doubtless, the “me and God” issue was a crucial one, but it wasn’t all that needed healing. The “me and myself” issue needed it too. That healing was the gift my counselor was talking about.

I realized that even though I was a Christian, my ways of dealing with myself were still so broken. I replaced berating myself with talking over myself, calling this newfound habit “preaching the gospel to myself.” It felt like the pious thing to do. Why not scream “there is no condemnation” until Satan, shame, or whoever it was shut his mouth? That’s what winning looks like, right? No more shame? But that attempt at emotional genocide seemed to compound my shame rather than heal it. 

But when I turned to prayer, I found that Jesus was not there with the frantic agenda to correct or fix or shut down. He was there as my friend, which meant he was there to listen and understand. That kind of presence brings the anxiety and stress down, and that’s the environment where thriving can get a foothold. Joining him in that work was what brought some quiet to my inner strife. It looks a lot different in my soul than it used to; less like a battlefield, and more like a living room. If a voice comes up that wants to question how a conversation went, he is invited to sit and chat. That question about whether I showed up with compassion? Validated. I do want to show up compassionately with people. That fear that I came across as rude? Something we can honestly evaluate with Friend Jesus in the room. His de-escalating presence touches my self-talk:

“I appreciate you bringing that up, and the kind of person you want me to avoid becoming. I don’t want to become that either. Let’s think about it together.” 

When I’m not busy fighting, I can be a friend to myself like Jesus is. 

I can be curious. “You seem really concerned with what that person thinks of you. Why is that?”

I can be understanding. “You didn’t know that at the time. No wonder you responded like that.”

I can even be firm. “That was important to consider, but this is no longer productive to dwell on.”

When I went to my counselor, I was looking for someone to help me silence the painful conversations in my heart. I assumed he would take the same strategy of warfare I had relied on, only that he’d be better at it than I was. But my solutions were only as good as my best efforts, and I was growing tired of the fight. It turns out that the surprising gift of friendship – with God, with myself, and with others – is what I needed most of all.

Dalton Deffenbaugh and his family made Sojourn East their home in January 2021. He and his wife Mary have one daughter, Iris. Dalton is fond of good coffee, crossword puzzles, bookshops, playing cards and board games, reading fiction (especially The Lord of the Rings) and slow time with close friends.

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