Kay and I have spent most of our lives reading about, thinking about, and experiencing friendship in many different ways. Those ideas show up in the following pages because they have given us insights into relationships with the people God has made special to us. This reflection has been given added understanding by the friends who have shared their insights with us. My hope is that these ideas will enhance your desire for a deeper and more fulfilling journey with friends. This is the love that is changing us and the world.
“The church at its most authentic has always offered something radically different from – and infinitely richer than—the superficial ways of connecting that are proliferating today. The profound bond of joy and strength among those who are rooted and grounded in love is a far stronger tie than the shallow ‘liking’ and ‘friending’ of social media.”Staying Present Together by Deborah Smith Douglas
Basis of Friendship
The basis of friendship is a growing experience of God’s love. God’s love for us and our response to this love is foundational. It is what transforms us so we can begin to love our friends. When we know down deep that we are loved and accepted and affirmed by the God who created us and knows all about us we are free to give ourselves to others. This is essential because if we are not experiencing God’s love we will always be seeking from others what only God can give – they will always fail us because we have expectations from the friendship that they cannot meet. Henri Nouwen expresses this thought in the following:
“I discovered the real problem – expecting from a friend what only Christ can give. Friendship requires closeness, affection, support, and mutual encouragement, but also distance, space to grow, freedom to be different, and solitude. To nurture both aspects of a relationship, we must experience a deeper and more lasting affirmation than any human relationship can offer. When we truly love God and share in his glory, our relationships lose their compulsive character.” The Road to Daybreak by Henri J. W. Nouwen
Kinds of friendships
Recognizing the nature of a friendship frees us from unrealistic expectations. It is necessary to understand the different relationships that can all belong to the category of friends as a way of reducing unrealistic expectations we place on ourselves and on those we reach out to in friendship. This also helps us decide on the way we allocate the limited resource of our time. It would not make sense to give less time to those who mean the most to you. But a caution: People will be hurt and alienated if your private categorizing becomes known to others.
It is also important to know that the person who wants the least in the friendship determines the depth of the relationship. You can’t force yourself into the lives of others.
What are some possible categories of friends?
- Mentor – Mentee is a beginning place for many friendships in the Body of Christ.
- Short-term – God moves us into and out of many lives and we give ourselves to each other when we are together.
- Long-term – we want some friendships to be for life and quite a number fit into this desire, even if there is not space for all of them in our lives.
- Historical – we were very important in each other’s lives at some point in our histories but for various reasons we are not a priority for each other at present.
- Dormant – we are very important in each other’s lives but because of circumstances (e.g. raising a family in another part of the world) in this season of life we are not able to interact or be together often but this will change in the next season of life.
- Constant – the special few with whom we have the most intimacy. Two characteristics of these are that we mutually initiate being together and we mutually submit our lives to each other. These are the friends we all long for and few have.
Aelred of Rievaulx wrote on the subject of friendship and his thoughts about the intimacy of friendship gives some insight about the special few:
“We are compelled by the law of love to receive in the embrace of love not only our friends but also our enemies. But not all whom we love should be received into friendship for not all are found worthy of it. We embrace many with affection, but yet in such a way that we do not admit them to the secrets of friendship, which consists especially in the revelation of all our confidences and plans. For since your friend is the one to whom you entrust yourself as to another self, from whom you hide nothing, from whom you fear nothing, you should, in the first place, surely choose one who is considered fitted for all this. Then he is to be tried, and so finally admitted.”
Other ideas about how we discover and nurture these deeper friendships will unfold in some of the later thoughts in this writing. But it might be interesting to ponder what has occurred with you and the other person that moved your friendship to a deeper level. .
Usually, friendships start out being based on common interest – sports, schools, hobbies, work, etc. As the friendship develops, we give and get some history that helps us understand how each of us sees life and what we value. When I realize that I want the best for this person even if it complicates my life it becomes clear that we have moved to a new level of friendship. Eventually, trust develops in various aspects of the friendship and we are free to reveal more of our self. We discover that God is putting us together for life. When both parties sense this, that new commitment of seeing the friendship as permanent sends the relationship to a deeper level.
A friend is a gift – given by God to us and, with our permission, God gives us as gifts to others. In our broken world the way to get ahead or to get what we want is to develop the skills to grab and to hold. Therefore, many are called friends who have been manipulated and controlled by others into a pseudo-friendship. The Kingdom of God is a kingdom of grace. Real friends are ours through the grace of God and we don’t need to grab them – we receive them with gratitude and we want them to be launched and to excel – the very opposite of grabbing and holding.
Another thing we have to guard against is our self-centeredness. When we think about walking with friends the tendency is to think about who will be the one or ones who can meet my needs. It is the consumer approach to friendship. And when we think that way we move from one person to another because no one quite lives up to the vision we have as to how they should befriend us. I know it can sound trite but the old maxim of, “if you want to have a friend – be a friend” is true. When reading these thoughts about forming friendships consider them from the perspective of what needs to be true in you for the friendship to form. The following writers have given me insights that have been helpful on this journey:
“A secret Master of Ceremonies has been at work. Christ, who said to the disciples ‘Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you,’ can truly say to every group of Christian friends ‘ You have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another.’ The Friendship is not a reward for our discrimination and good taste in finding one another. It is the instrument by which God reveals to each the beauties of all the others. They are no greater than the beauties of a thousand other men; by Friendship God opens our eyes to them.” The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis
“One important difference between friendship and other relationships of care is the presence of mutuality. They are supposed to be mutual and reciprocal and we feel betrayed and used when they are not. Mutuality does not mean equality, but there is a rhythm in which the giving and receiving balance over time.” Sacred Companions by David G. Benner
“Jesus calls us to seek our unity in and through him. When we direct our inner attention, not first of all to each other, but to God to whom we belong, then we will discover that in God we also belong to each other. The deepest friendship is a friendship mediated by God; the strongest marriage bonds are bonds mediated by God.” The Road to Daybreak by Henri J. W. Nouwen
“If you are on course at all, your world should grow much larger in the second half of life. But I must tell you that, in yet another paradox, your circle of real confidants and truly close friends will normally grow smaller, but also more intimate.” Falling Upward by Richard Rohr
“We get to be best friends by a kind of grafting and a growing together as we learn to trust each other, feel safe with each other, understand each other, admire each other, maybe even envy each other, and simply expect each other to be there to do things we especially like to do together. We commit ourselves to each other in snippets, in all sorts of little ways, over a long haul.” Caring and Commitment by Lewis B. Smedes
Nurturing friendships – How to be a friend
The “one another’s” of the New Testament give us all the advice we need on how to deepen our friendships. It begins with Jesus’s command for us to “love one another as he loves us.” This gets spelled out in its many facets by other Scripture: cherish one another, forgive one another, honor one another, bear with one another, pray for one another, don’t lie to one another, encourage one another. . . and on and on. Consider: it can be helpful to study the one anothers with your friends for insights into how you are to walk together.
Some quotes that provide insights into this process of walking together are:
“The big factor in friendships is being proactive. Not much happens if we are only reactive with friends. We have to have some intentionality about friends and invent various ways to invest even when it can only be a little bit. Letting others know in concrete ways that we really think about their best is tremendous fuel for them. Just ask yourself how many people you know that really want your best and tell you that.” Rick Baugh
“In caring for me, my friends support my emotional, spiritual, intellectual and physical development. They do not want me to stay as I am. They seek my growth. They want me to become all I can be. By being honest with us they offer us invaluable opportunities for growth. They can help us penetrate our self-deceptions and cherished illusions.” Sacred Companions by David G. Benner
“While we might imagine sacrifice in terms of one moment of heroic martyrdom, faithful hospitality usually involves laying our lives down in little pieces, in small acts of sacrificial love and service. Part of the mystery is that while such concrete acts of love are costly, they nourish and heal both giver and recipient.” Making Room by Christine D. Pohl
“Listening is the coin of love.” John Gilman
“Conditional or limited forgiveness is a strategy of the ego, which is precisely what must be overcome for true friendship or twoness to exist. Friendship, like forgiveness and hospitality, must be unconditional, without limits.” The Joy of Two by Christopher Bamford
“One thing I have found is that I no longer have expectations in my relationships. I am happy when I get people’s time and care but I am fine when I don’t. I see my interactions and time with friends as a blessing and gift from the Lord and I don’t put demands on them. Because of this I do not have any present relationships that I am disappointed in. I also have a good number of deep friendships that keep growing and I am thankful for them. I am blessed to have many people care deeply for me and a privilege for me to care for them. Some friendships are somewhat superficial, some a shallow depth and some are deep. I see them all as a gift and believe in time the ones that are meant to go deep, will.” Mark Tibbles
“Transparency is the key to deep relationships. It is easy to put on the mask and say the right “Christian-ese” words in relating to others. But the true, deep friendships result from sharing the hard things of life — sharing my failures and my weaknesses. One of my closest friends recently said to me, ‘If you didn’t share your struggles with your health and the spiritual struggle in that, I would think you were unattainable.’ What? I certainly don’t ever want to present myself as unattainable!!! But she opened my eyes to the desire of others to share in our sorrows/struggles. We are to weep with those who weep. Those friends, as part of the body of Christ, use their gifts, to then encourage and strengthen us.” Carol Hernandez
“The challenge is communicating love through a balance of support and confrontation. Confrontation without support will never be experienced as love. But support without confrontation will always remain an insipid form of love.” Sacred Companions by David G. Benner
“Commitment is about loyalty. We don’t tell their secrets to other people. And we don’t desert them. . . Loyalty is the heart and soul of any committed friendship. It is the consistency that gives friendship a toughness to survive when it costs a person something to stick with a friend.” Caring and Commitment by Lewis B. Smedes
“That intercession is a great and necessary part of Christian devotion is very evident from Scripture. The first followers of Christ seem to support all their love, and to maintain all their intercourse and correspondence, by mutual prayer for one another.” A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life by William Law
“Friends play favorites so they give priority in their commitment of time and presence, the way parents favor their children above their neighbors’ children.” Caring and Commitment by Lewis B. Smedes
Caution: Too often we are tempted call people “friend” because we want them to help us in our projects but it is a misuse of the word. The companionships we admire in the Bible are the ones where people walked together living out the Kingdom desires placed in them by the Holy Spirit. When we are marching or strolling down the road doing the will of God together we build deep bonds of genuine friendship. Seeing relationships as based on mutual “usefulness” can be healthy interaction but it is not friendship and if people feel used it stifles the growth of friendship.
Difficulties in experiencing and maintaining friendships
One of my friends reminded me that no relationship is ‘perfect’ – all our relationships (marriage, friends, church) are imperfect – cracked. We must never insist on wish-dreams being the ‘normal’ or ‘what should be’. He pointed out that the “light” can only shine in through the cracks. So what are some of the issues we have to deal with as we walk the road of friendship?
One of the issues raised by several in response to my first posting is the issue of how one maintains a deep friendship when time and distance are hurdles to be overcome. Several responded to this and the best way I can summarize the responses is “if you both want to maintain the friendship you will.”
One of the difficulties is that few think clearly about what is involved in the making, valuing, and maintaining significant relationships.
Here are some thoughts on that issue:
Those who live superficial lives hold the false idea that it is easy to maintain friendships. It is easy to have superficial relationships but to be, and to have a friend, requires transformation: yours, the other persons and your ways of relating.
“The principal reason friendship is so undervalued is that too few people have experienced a significant, enduring friendship. The coin of friendship has been continuously devalued by being applied to lesser forms of relationship.” Sacred Companions by David G. Benner
“Friendship is such a holy gift, but we give it so little attention. It is so easy to let what needs to be done take priority over what needs to be lived. Friendship is more important than the work we do together.” The Road to Daybreak by Henri J. W. Nouwen
Another issue is the one mentioned above by Mark Tibbles and that is the issue of placing expectations on our friends. The following quote is helpful is thinking about this self-centered tendency:
“Jesus did not lace his relationships with expectations, and he refused to be trapped when others sought to put these expectations on him. He refused to manipulate people even for their own good. Expectations are resentments waiting to happen. We sabotage many of our relationships by imposing expectations on others or trying to meet theirs. It cannot be done. People who live with expectations will never be satisfied.”Wayne Jacobsen in Authentic Relationships
And of course there is the fun designation of young children as to who their best friend is – this week. Having a best friend is not about the friend – it is about me – because they become my possession just like anything else I own. David G. Benner in Sacred Companions addresses this issue:
“The intimacy that exists between spiritual friends is a togetherness that honors separateness. I must never view my friend as an extension of me – my property, my possession or someone who exists for me. Friends owe nothing to each other except love. Possessiveness is always destructive to relationships.”
A major difficulty
Another issue that I have wrestled with for many years is the question of how do we give ourselves to a few in deep friendships in the midst of an expanding fellowship? The more depth we have with these few, the more attractive our fellowships are and the more others are attracted to us. And when there is little room in our lives for them they can’t help but feel rejected. Em Griffen in Making Friends writes: “There’s something blatantly undemocratic about friendship. To announce, ‘You are my friend!’ to someone, is to say by implication to another, ‘You are not.'”
In pondering this question Tim Coe asks some questions in return which may open our minds to new ways of thinking about this:
- How many friends did Jesus have?
- Who were his closest friends? Peter, James and John? Maybe the woman at the well, or Mary and Martha?
- Who did he love the most?
- Are relationships dependent on time, common interest or information download?
Then he writes:
“I am not sure what my number of friends is or how many are possible. But I have this moment with you. My question for myself in these moments is whether I am going to think about this as an eternal moment, or a temporal one, where I am only thinking of myself. What if we were to rely on something that we rarely consider when we start relating to people? Imagine if instead of communicating with words or common experience or demanding more time from another person, we were to completely rely on His Holy Spirit. We would then be communicating with the Spirit that lies within us and not the spirit of this world. Instead of trying to take the whole world on in a single moment for our own gain, we would just take on the one person that is standing before us in a way that was centered on what Jesus desires. When we give our friends and relationships to Jesus, he will multiply our capacity and allow us to be vulnerable and to let others see into us. This is the road to true intimacy.”
The Kingdom impact of friendships
“What at any rate seems certain is that when Friendship bears fruit which the community can use it has to do so accidentally, as a by-product. The little knots of friends who turn their backs on the world are those who really transform it.” The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis
“What happens in intimacy, whether in twos, threes or more, cannot be communicated adequately to those who are not part of it. Yet there is something about the secrets of intimacy that makes us want to share them. We thirst for deeper penetration into the depths of others, and to have someone with whom we can share our own secrets and who can understand us more deeply.” The Shape of Living by David Ford
The biblical record gives us the flow of friendship and the world changing impact it has:
- The offer of friendship begins with God’s initiation of love – 1 John 4:10
- We experience the friendship of Jesus as we receive what he shares with us from the Father and we respond in obedience to his commands – John 15:10-15
- We learn to love each other as Jesus loves us – John 13:34,35
- As others experience the love and oneness we have with each other they know they are loved by God and the changing of lives goes forward – John 17:23
Let us stay on the journey be experiencing our friendship with Jesus and with each other for our personal transformation and the transformation of our needy world.
 This has extra challenge if you are in vocational ministry because pastors, Young Life workers, etc. need money and people engaged in their projects for them to succeed. I have discovered the issue is a matter of faith. Do I believe that God supplies the funds and the people to move projects forward or do I have to make it happen by “making friends”? A true friend has no hidden agendas.