When I saw Gran Torino a few years ago, 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.

A Brotherhood Forged Through Battles

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 differently?

In processing this, I've come to believe the difference lies in knowing the heart of people in a way that can only come through experiencing the battles of life together. My closest brothers have walked beside me when the battles were raging the hardest. These men helped carry me any time I felt wounded, disoriented, or just couldn't make sense of my life. I knew they had my back, which allowed me to pursue healing rather than spend my energy 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 (and here's the key) 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 shown 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 coarse and off-color language, as done in the movie, but how can we nurture this depth of relationship in our community of men? How can we begin to know others' hearts more deeply? I believe it begins with authenticity among our closest group of brothers. This happens by leaving your false self behind, bringing your true self, and offering it to the men in your life. 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. Consider these as a tool for building authenticity in your men's groups.

7 Principles for Authentic Community

  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 authentic manhood.
  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 other men 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 men closest to us 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 men's group and see how you experience change together.

Phil Davis is the Executive Director for Abba's Way, a ministry he co-founded in 2009 to help provide deeper connections for fathers and their children. A speaker and writer on issues of small groups, fatherhood, single parenting, and men, Phil has spoken at men and pastors conferences throughout the United States and internationally. Follow Phil on Twitter @PhilBDavis.