All of us give a small circle of people permission to shape us … our thinking, our convictions, our world view, even our future. It’s not a formal agreement, more like an unspoken understanding.
Whether it’s with a couple of folks or a handful, the vast majority of us connect closely with only a limited number of people. Beyond that, we spend considerably less time with the next closest circle of friends, and so it goes to the outer limits of our relational networks.
Some may believe they are impervious to the influence of their inner circle, but that thought reveals a dangerous vulnerability. It’s one thing to knowingly accept the influence others will inevitably have on us (even if it is poor); it’s quite another to be shaped while maintaining the delusion of being completely unaffected.
It is far better to embrace the reality of relational influence, and to prayerfully consider who we permit to have that influence in our lives.
If you were to start from scratch and choose an inner circle, who would be in it? What would you want to be true of them? Most of us aren’t very intentional about who we allow to shape us, but I can think of three kinds of people we might want to consider.
A mentor. This is someone who is likely a bit older than you, but more importantly, someone who models the spiritual maturity you desire, but don’t yet have. This person can speak to you more from experience you lack, good and bad. A mentor can offer seasoned wisdom gleaned from faithfulness over time.
An ally. This traveling companion is a peer, one who is in a similar season of life as you, and someone who shares your passion for spiritual growth. They may have a different temperament, personality or background than yours, but they hold the same convictions you have about the essentials of the faith.
An apprentice. Our faith needs an outlet if it is to grow. We need to have at least one person in our inner circle who is gaining from us what we received from others.
Now, let’s compile a list of characteristics worth looking for in those we invite to shape who we are becoming. Keep in mind, it’s vital that we cultivate the same qualities in our own lives that we hope to find in the people closest to us.
Grounded in the gospel
The first and most important attribute of those in our inner circle is gospel-groundedness. This is the conviction that all of life for the Christian flows first from the essential truths of the gospel.
Without this foundation, we and those in our inner circle will be prone to compare, compete, critique and control in a futile attempt to subjectively reassure ourselves of our goodness before God. But with this foundation, we are free to love, serve and sharpen one another out of gratitude for the righteous standing we already possess by grace through faith in Christ.
Devoted to Christ
A second quality to be sought after in our closest friends is devotion to Christ. The idea here isn’t a self-sufficient determination, but rather a dependent fidelity.
A great picture of this is recorded in John 6. Jesus had just said some “hard things” to a crowd he was teaching:
“After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:66–69, ESV).
Peter and the fellas weren’t super saints, intellectual giants or remarkably mature. They were desperate for the kind of life that counts most (eternal), and they understood that it couldn’t be found with anyone other than Jesus. They had no plan B, so they stayed, even when many others walked away.
You and I want those closest to us to be devoted to Jesus in the same way; committed to following Christ with or without the crowd.
Willing to speak the truth in love
Another quality often missing in our inner circles is truth-telling. Let’s be honest, it’s less messy relationally to leave genuine thoughts, impressions or concerns out of our conversations for fear that they will damage our relationships. Obviously, this lack of transparency may preserve a superficial form of peace, but at the cost of true intimacy and Christ-like maturity.
Twice in Ephesians, Paul urges the folks in that community of faith to speak the truth to one another.
“Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ (Ephesians 4:15, ESV) … having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another” (Ephesians 4:25, ESV).
Part of the permission we give to those in our inner circle is a freedom to be completely honest with us, even if we don’t particularly like what we hear. If our traveling companions aren’t willing or able to tell us the truth, then our permission is pointless.
I should add that truth-telling is to be done with humility, gentleness, discernment and goodwill. The goal is edification; to build up one another in every way according to the hope of the gospel.
Able to promote and preserve unity
Unity is a big deal to God — so big that it is among the last things Jesus prayed for his church before going to the cross (John 17:20-21). Spreading strife, on the other hand, is listed among those things the Lord hates (Proverbs 6:16-19).
Look for the amount of conflict surrounding those closest to you. Also, pay attention to how those in your inner circle talk about people outside of it. Are they gracious, empathetic and kind-hearted? Or are they critical, condescending and slanderous? This is a subtle but serious way in which your personal growth and influence can be inhibited.
Co-laborers in the mission
Our smallest circle doesn’t exempt us from engaging the world. It protects and provides for us while propelling us into the world. In light of that, we need our traveling companions to be as invested in God’s redemptive mission as we hope to be.
This doesn’t mean that we or they are fulfilling the mission to its fullest. It means that we are all striving together by God’s grace to cultivate our partnership in the gospel. This provides a core focus for all of us on knowing God and making him known as a way of life for the rest of our lives.
Finally, let me encourage you to surround yourself with traveling companions who possess biblical wisdom which governs how they actually live. The amount of it isn’t nearly as important as their commitment to comply with what they have received.
I trust wholeheartedly in Solomon’s words, “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (Proverbs 13:20, ESV).
May you and your traveling companions be known for fervently following after Christ, committed to authentic, live-changing relationships, and to faithfully equipping the next generation to do the same long after you leave this life to be with the Lord.