Recently, I took a trip to the ER because of a sliced finger. Without placing blame on my close friends, I didn’t feel comfortable asking them to be with me in the waiting room at the ER, even though I knew that’s really what I needed. As a decently reserved person who likes to flourish in his own independence, it was very easy for me not to be upfront about my needs. But as someone who has severe clinical anxiety centering around germs and illness, I felt incredibly uncomfortable going to the ER alone.
It should have been easy for me to ask my friends to be with me in the waiting room at the hospital, at least for a moment—especially since my friends are incredibly loving and loyal. What made that situation more difficult is that I don’t have a spouse, and I live far from any family, making my friends my only geographically close forms of loving relationships. Nevertheless, I found it easy to tuck in my emotions of loneliness and tell myself subconsciously that I had no right to ask these things of my friends.
It is important to explore why I felt this restriction, as well as what friendship, specifically Christian friendship, can and should look like on this side of heaven. Before we begin, I consider it wise to look at Scripture first. In talking about love, Jesus himself uses the avenue of friendship to describe it: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Friendship is not some lesser form of love than marriage or biological kinship; nor is it less related to the love of Christ. Rather, just like marriage and kinship, friendship holds a uniquely beautiful place in the kingdom of God.
It seems that there exist three types of relationships humans have with each other: marriage, family, and friendship. What’s difficult about “friendship” is that it could refer to a workplace acquaintance, a significant other, or your closest, most intimate, spiritual comrade. As a result of the mystery in this vocation of friendship—our Christian call to befriend others and love them deeply (Mark 12:30-31)—I hope to share some thoughts on both the beauty and the difficulty of good Christian friendship. In order to do so, I will first look at marriage and kinship, comparing and contrasting them with friendship.
While marriage is a relationship created to show us more of God’s character, friendship bears some similarities with it. As I have been contemplating the topic of friendship, as well as setting out to write this article, I have spent time reading Wesley Hill’s Spiritual Friendship.
If you know about or have read Hill’s work, you have had the pleasure of reading a thoughtful and engaging writer, although there is plenty of controversy around his name and the movement following him in the Church’s conversation on same-sex attraction issues. Some might read Spiritual Friendship and conclude that Hill is suggesting that friendship is the same as marriage if it is done correctly in the Church. However, as someone who has deeply appreciated Hill’s pastoral care for the life of the Church and his humility before the authority of Scripture, I have to highly object to this conclusion. While he does discuss important ways friendship can share in the qualities of matrimony, he does not deny the sanctity and particularity of the marriage union. He does, however, talk about how friendship can be characterized by sincere and significant commitment that is not meant to be isolated only in the marriage union.
Let’s look to Ephesians in order to see how the marriage union particularly images the covenantal character of God that friendship is able to image in other ways:
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands.
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loves the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
While I cannot spend time talking about the characteristics of gender in this passage, I do want to emphasize how there is this mysterious bond between Christ and His Church that is exclusively mirrored by marriage. Marriage does, in deeply significant and mysterious ways, exclusively show us who God is, how He relates to us, and how we are to relate to Him.
On the other hand, marriage has no monopoly on being the only image that shows us how God is committed to His people. It’s not as if marriage alone can show us that God loves His people faithfully. Thus, the mysterious covenant of marriage can illustrate to us how friendship is also a place for us to know God intimately and imitate His character.
It’s easy to see this commitment in marriage, as it includes legal documentation and divine vow-making. However, God’s covenant can also be imaged in friendships—namely, in the way friends remain loyal to those they have chosen to befriend. Whether one finds themselves in the vocation of marriage or singleness—both viable and beautiful, including their own unique set of difficulties—we are all called to a life in devoted community with others.
While kinship is so specifically detailed in the context of blood and generations and upbringing, our familial relationships can show us what Christian friendship can and should look like within the Church. You don’t need to look much further than the gospels to see God’s care for family. Jesus Christ himself is the beloved Son of God. In addition, Paul talks about how we are children of God in Romans:
So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba, Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
In this passage, it seems clear that the familial bond also images the character of God, and also how we relate to God Himself. The avenue of kinship shows us, in different and equally significant ways, the faithfulness of God and His covenant with His people.
However, certain qualities of kinship are not exclusively held within the family. Friendship, in certain ways, can approximate what, say, siblinghood looks like. Scripture uses this language in describing friends of the gospel: brothers and sisters in Christ. Jesus himself uses this language for friendship as well:
And his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. And a crowd was sitting around him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.” And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.”
Jesus Himself applies the nature of kinship to explicitly non-familial bonds. Therefore, it seems that friendship can, in certain ways, come to look like marriage and kinship—even if matrimony and familial bonds do have qualities exclusive to themselves.
So, how do we look at friendship? It doesn’t have the naturally explicit vows of a covenantal relationship. It doesn’t have the “given” quality present in strictly biological familial relationships. It’s more flexible than either of those relationships. It is not dictated, at least in our day, by any sort of official vows like marriage. Also, while we don’t have choice on who our family members are, we do have some control of who we spend time with and get to know intimately as friends. So, what do we do with this vocation of friendship? How do we live for friends? This is an especially pressing question for those that will never experience the blessing of marriage and for those who have already said goodbye to their last living relative.
We must remember that friendship is a beautiful and unique way to show the love of God for His people. He chose a people to draw unto Himself, similar to how we choose friends and develop friendships. What, then, does it look like for us not to treat friendship as the neglected type of relationships that it often is in contemporary America? Wesley Hill answers this well with the “patterns of the possible” he includes at the conclusion of Spiritual Friendship. Hill lists the following steps to take as we desire good friendships.
Admit Our Need for Friendship
Sometimes it can seem that people know that they “need” friends, but their need for a spousal companion seems so much stronger. Maybe this is the particular nature of romantic love that is so pressing and strong. However, our need for deep friendships is absolutely necessary for our flourishing in the life of the gospel. You cannot know the love of Christ intimately without friendships.
Strengthen Our Current Friendships
After acknowledging your need for friendship, look at your current friends. Whether they are deep friendships or more acquaintance-like, find small ways to make these friendships stronger and more intimate. Maybe that’s a weekly lunch or an opportunity of vulnerability. Whether that’s inviting said person to go bowling with your family or getting someone’s phone number from your English class who seems lonely. Or maybe you’re the one who is lonely, and you reach out to an aquaintance who seems connected to loving and loyal friends. Strengthen relationships with those around you, whoever they are—the Lord has placed them there for a reason.
Set Our Friendships in the Context of Community
Just as you cannot survive in absolute solitude, neither can friendships exist separate from community. Spend time one-on-one with particular friends and bring that friendship into the context of Church community as well. Both your friendships and community will benefit from this.
Understand That Our Friendships May Strengthen Our Communities
When friendships flourish within communities, it allows the community not to merely exist as a collection of isolated individuals. Then there will be deep connections between specific persons within the larger context of the community. To repeat myself, your friendships and community will both benefit from including your friendships in the community in which you find yourselves.
Our Friendships Are a Chance for Reaching Outside of the Friendship
Sometimes it can feel like the only way to deepen friendships is to isolate ourselves into that friendship. Indeed, there is much need for time with individual friends, but good friendships produce other good friendships. Good friends are loyal and committed, and because of that, they are free to form new friendships without the fear of losing each other. Friendship is, among other things, a missional, outreaching vocation.
Stay with Friends
You will suffer because of your friends. Your friends will hurt you and disappoint you. You will hurt your friends and disappoint them. Stick closely to your friends through these hard times. Be honest and vocal and humble during these times. Also, rejoice when each of you enjoys where your friendship is at the time. Remember that Jesus remained faithful to those who ditched Him in His most dire need of others. Stick close to those who are around you, like Christ did with those who were around Him—and like Christ does with those that continue to reject and desert him—people like you and me.
To bring it all the way around—why did I feel so uncomfortable about asking any one of my friends to be with me in the hospital, even if just for a moment or two? I think a big part is how our culture considers marriage and family so much more important than friendship. This is a sort of unspoken law of contemporary America. Yet, this doesn’t make much sense, especially considering the life of Jesus. Jesus was single. Jesus did not experience the beautiful mystery of human marriage. Yet, Jesus treated friends as if they were brothers and sisters and mothers. Not only did he treat them that way, he said they were his brothers and sisters and mothers. Let us learn from Jesus and esteem friendship as highly as he did.