Perhaps nothing else has helped me connect the dots between God’s tenderness and knowing the high tolerance of intimacy between cross-sex friends than reading therapist Brian Thorne’s essay on “The Quality of Tenderness” years ago.
As a typical evangelical male, I had so little tolerance toward knowing God’s tender heart in in opposite-sex friendship for the first twenty years of my adult Christian experience. But now looking back on the last seventeen years of my practice toward intentional opposite-sex friendship, I know a high tolerance of intimacy in friendship with women because of shared tenderness.
To know a high tolerance of intimacy with a cross-gender friend sounds so counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? It appears so provocatively naïve! We have so little tolerance for the fullness of tenderness between a man and woman as friends; we are urged again and again in many of our churches to be ashamed of embodied tenderness at the intersection where sexuality and friendship meet.
It is urged as “common sense” according to human nature to be at home with a deep distrust toward anything that opens our minds, our bodies, our hearts to the glory of human tenderness in cross-sex friendship.
Thorne reflects in his own journey as a therapist of how entertaining the possibility of knowing the knowing the fullness of embodied tenderness came across to him as something akin to enjoying forbidden fruit. That was a big dot connection for me.
I am not sure if I recall those two words ever being used, but nevertheless, when I start to share any kind of depth with a Christian about my journey in shared tenderness with a) my wife about my cross-sex friends or the subject of cross-sex friendship, and or, b) my cross-gender friends, there is this sense from some of them, I am eating forbidden fruit.
For so many evangelical Christians, to know something of mutual deep tenderness within male-female friendship is akin to indulging in inappropriate pleasure. It’s analogous to be flirting with foreplay.
Thorne, though, unlike anything I read previously, helped me to connect dots with the full complexity of human tenderness between human beings and God’s tenderness. To be open to God’s tenderness at the heart of intentional cross-gender friendship is to open up a wide range of endless possibilities toward knowing a high tolerance of mutual intimacy between cross-gender friends.
Just consider the breath and depth of our knowledge of tenderness and the ways we speak of our experiences. Of course, we know the phrase “tender heart,” or “tenderhearted.” We speak of metaphorically of touching another in a “tender spot.” We know what its like to have a kind of whole-embodied connection when we tenderly connect with someone’s eyes in the moment of sacred conversation. We use the phrase, “tender eyes.” We can talk about a “tender conscience.” Thorne comments the meaning of tenderness can include, “vulnerable and warmly affection.”
Thorne’s essay opened up to me a treasure—an invitation to the heart of God. An immediate awareness of God’s tenderness in the present moment in the ongoing practice of cross-gender friendship. He gave me permission to reframe the practice and openness of tenderness in cross-gender friendship not as weakness I must overcome or stay clear of, but one of moral sensitivity.
Friends, at least for me, there is no language possible, I lack the vocabulary to describe how there are woman in my life—both my wife and some female friends—who have embodied to me this deep quality of God’s tenderness. Embodying tenderness is one of those clear paths toward know the difference between a low tolerance of mutual intimacy in friendship and knowing a high tolerance for intimacy.
“Tenderness becomes a possibility at the moment when two human persons meet and are able to give way to the liberating urge to trust without anxiety.”
There are women in my life—my wife and some female friends—who invited me to go from the shallow end of the pool of tenderness in cross-gender friendship to the deep end of the pool. So many of us fear that the deep end of the pool means indulging in forbidden pleasures. Or it means we have lost touch with how deceptive tenderness—softness—is.
So many of us like to associate tenderness with the feminine. In a man’s world, there is no moral fiber, no moral energy, no space for moral sensitivity for “softness.” But what would happen if could discover in opposite-sex friendship, unashamed tenderness? Could we perhaps know a, “world of tenderness where male and female flow together without inhibition and without shame?” (Thorne).
What if, the ongoing practice of opposite-sex friendship was a call for us to know the fullness of God’s tenderness in our communities? Toward a high tolerance of deep, intimate connection in friendship? Thorne suggested, “in the moment of tenderness the body is infinitely precious.”
I am not ashamed to say, I have learned so much from women who have journeyed with me to provocatively, boldly, and openly discover unashamed, uninhibited tenderness in cross-gender friendship. In the past couple of months, a close female friend shared with me a huge significant event for her. I didn't think it was anymore possible for us to know tenderness at the deep end of the pool. She's one of my female friends who has taught me endless depths of shared, mutual, embodied tenderness at the deep end of the cross-gender friendship pool. But these past two months? Oh, so much more tenderness in our intimacy! Words fail me.
Remember, this bold biblical truth: the kindness of God that leads to repentance. How about an invitation to a journey toward a deep rethinking of tenderness between men and women in friendship?