Friendships, Personal Development

The (often undervalued) Gift of Friendship

Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. They were His dear friends, and He held them in loving esteem. John 11:5

But you Israel, my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, you descendants of Abraham my friendIsaiah 41:8

Two weeks ago I had to say goodbye to a dear friend and colleague who, due to family circumstances had to relocate back to her home country. I felt so sad seeing her leave and I have missed her presence so much since then. As I thought about our friendship, in her absence, it caused me to reflect on why I hadn’t appreciated our friendship more fully while she was around. Why hadn’t I appreciated her steadfastness, her kindness, her patience and her very presence more, why did the value and depth of our friendship only fully dawn on me once she was leaving? As I further reflected I also started to think about friendships in general and if perhaps I needed to not only appreciate them more but to spend more time cultivating and nurturing them. I also wondered why I had not fully grasped how special and life-giving friendships are before.

While, as a single person, I naturally spend quite a lot of time with my friends, it seems that being friends with someone is never viewed as in quite the same way as being someone’s spouse. Friendships are too often seen as part of our journey in life but not really a destination. Friends are often viewed as people that you spend time with until that special someone comes along and then they are relegated to second, third or even non-existent places in our lives. But what if close friendships are indeed a destination in themselves? What if even in our spousal relationship being able to be friends is actually the one factor that will determine if the relationship will last or not? And if we consider that in fact it is really friendships rather than marriage that will last for eternity (Mark 12:25), what does that say about how we should value and nurture friendships here on earth? And finally what does God say about friendships that we may perhaps learn from and put into place in our own lives?

C.S. Lewis in his wonderful book The Four Loves opens the chapter on friendship by saying

To the Ancients friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it…it is something quite marginal; not a main course in life’s banquet”.

Sadly, since he wrote these words in 1960, the status of friendship has not changed and indeed may have gotten worse. Today we too live in a world which continues to elevate the romantic or the familial relationship over every other one and as a result it has become far too easy for people (especially Christians) to fall into the trap of viewing the marital relationship as the most important relationship to attain and maintain in our lives. If we turn to our social media feeds or to the latest news there are constant references to partners, spouses, weddings, divorces, getting married, staying married, dating, sex and many other discussions that revolve around the marriage. We see pictures of proposals, weddings, first dates, engagement rings, wedding dresses, bridesmaid’s dresses, honeymoon destinations, romantic restaurants etc. But how often do we celebrate our friendships, how often do we (after the age of 25 at least) use the hashtag ‘bestfriends’ or celebrate the years of a friendship. How often do we take the time to schedule regular meetups with our close friends or cook a special dinner for one of them? When was the last time we read an article about the 10 ways to maintain a friendship or the 5 ways a good friend improves our life or 20 trips to go on with our friends?

Many authors, including CS Lewis, have written movingly on the topic of friendship and describe it as the highest form of love, after the agape (unconditional) love of God. In The Four Loves, Lewis describes the love between close friends (philia) as “the least biological, organic, instinctive, gregarious and necessary…the least natural of loves” and in that lies it great strength and weakness. It is the one love that is freely chosen. We do not need friends to perpetuate the species, as we need passion (eros) to procreate or the familial love (storge) to care for and raise children, and it is not freely given like the love of God (agape). Rather two people become friends for no other reason than they see certain things in the same way or they share a common interest or passion. In friendships we are as Lewis describes free from our contexts, friendships transcend race, gender, social background, marital status, parental status, professions and all other external markers of who we are. Friendships, between Christians in particular, model this as they are based on the mutual love and understanding of God and as such it is in these friendships that the body of Christ comes together and presents to the world the wonderful vision that God has for His people as one body. Henri Nouwen also deeply valued friendships in his book Bread for the Journey he writes that friendships are

“one of the greatest gifts a human being can receive. It is a bond beyond common goals, common interests, or common histories. It is a bond stronger than sexual union can create, deeper than a shared fate can solidify, and even more intimate than the bonds of marriage or community.”

Both Nouwen and Lewis describe how true friendship seeks not to control or dominate but to come alongside the other person, lovers are portrayed as being face to face, but friends as sitting side by side. Close friendship with another person is a slow burn with none of the urgency of passionate eros love or the familial obligatory storge love. It rests secure in the fact that it is not bound by time or place. It seeks not so much to own the other person and become exclusively theirs but rather it seeks to share and learn about the other. It is inclusive rather than exclusive and while there will be friends of varying levels of intimacy these levels are not forced or required but rather discovered. We discover that we share common thoughts or feelings or beliefs with another, we discover that a certain friend understands us in ways that many others do not and we find that even after months or years of separation we can still sit down as if not time has passed at all. With our close friends we can be our true selves, we have no need to pretend to be something else, something more desirable, more attractive, more alluring. We can be as we are, the good and the bad and with those truly close friends we find a depth of understanding, forgiveness and compassion that seems to come straight from God.

It is truly a great loss to us all when we become so fixated on getting married or on being married that we neglect or even lose those people who were our dearest friends before and with whom we have conversations and discussions that awaken our spirits and nurture our souls. Having close friends actually gives us the ability to be less demanding of our spouses, to release them from the expectation that they must be all things to us at all times. And it is in a close friendship that we can truly be ourselves. Lewis says that with passionate love there are naked bodies but in friendship there are naked souls or personalities.

As adults it is also important that we understand what makes a good friendship in order to take our familial relationships from that of parent and child or siblings to one of friends. It is not enough to expect closeness and intimacy as a result of a blood or legal relationship. We must start to see the other person as a separate being, as someone who can choose or not to be our friend. We must decide to act in ways that being a friend with us seems like a good idea rather than just a family obligation. We can also accept that we will not always be the closest of friends with every member of our family. In doing so we can release them and ourselves from the burden of trying to force something and simply love and accept family members for who they are. But we can only do this when we actually have close friends with whom we can be ourselves and experience true connection. Without that we can be demanding and needy of family members who cannot live up to the expectations that we have of them.

When we start to understand and prize friendships and spend time and effort nurturing them then we will stop seeing them as second-rate ways of relating, we will stop using people as stopgaps while we wait for our spouse, rather we will see that it is in the context of these relationships that our spousal relationship will either flourish or die. When we see that indeed it is the ability to be friends in a marital relationship we can start to ask different questions when we are making choices about potential partners, such as would I like to be friends with this person and do I like spending time with them?

Throughout the Bible there are references to friendships, both the good and the bad. But the presence and emphasis on friendship as a primary relationship is undeniable. In the Bible three people (my own count and please correct me if I am wrong) are referred to as God’s friend. The first and most notable is Abraham who is referred to as God’s friend in 2 Chronicles 20:7, Isaiah 41:8 (above) and James 2:23. The second person that is referred to as a friend of God in the Old Testament is Moses. In Exodus 33:11 it says “And the Lord spoke to Moses as a man speaks to his friend”. Finally, in John 11:11 Jesus calls Lazarus his dear friend when He is on His way to raise him from the dead.  Each of these three men experienced a resurrection in their lives; with regards to having children at an old age, being redeemed back to leadership and finally a physical resurrection from death to life. Being called a friend of God is indeed no small thing and it is God’s gift to us as well.

Under the new covenant, through the blood of Jesus, the Bible says that we are now called friends of God. In fact it is Jesus who says in John 15:15 “But I have called you My friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. I have revealed to you everything that I have learned from Him”. Again echoing the words of God with regards to Abraham and Moses, about close friends sharing their thoughts and intentions with one another. Further Jesus writes that the greatest example of love is to give up one’s life for one’s friends…not family, or child or mother or brother but for one’s friend. Yet how rarely we read of such friendships today or prize friendships to the extent that we would give up our lives or money or comfort or other relationships for them. So often we readily sacrifice our friendships for romantic love, but how often do we say no to a romantic love that would ultimately strip us of our friends?

Friendships I have come to see are one of the greatest gifts that God has given us. Not only does He call us His friends, He also seeks to bless each and every one of us with friends on this earth that we can do life with. The challenge for us I think is to start valuing the gift of friendship, to take some time to get to know people and to take time with them. To pray and ask the Lord to send you a close, Christian friend if you do not have one and trust that He will be faithful to provide this for you. I can speak from my own experience as about seven years ago I did not have a single close, Christian friend and I was so lonely in my spirit. While I had some other close friends they were not Christians and as a result I could not share that most central part of my life with anyone. I cried out to the Lord to please send me just one Christian friend to encourage me and someone I could encourage also. And over time He did just that and of course he did not send me just one friend but three women from three different countries, who have blessed my life in many different ways over the past years. But I must confess that it was not until one them relocated that I truly sat down and thought what have I been missing about friendship and what is it that the Lord wants me to see. As a result I wrote this entry to share with you all.

This week I would really encourage you to take time to appreciate your friends, call someone up, send an email, invite someone to dinner. Treat your friend with all the joy and the appreciation and the excitement of being on the most amazing date ever. Say to yourself I am so blessed by the Lord to have such an amazing person in my life, I am so thankful for this friend who understands me, has stood by me, prayed for me, supported me and been there for me. If it is a new friend than thank the Lord for the new friendship and pray that He would nurture the friendship and help you to cherish it and be a good friend too. Ask the Lord to help you to see your friendships as just as special and life giving as a marital relationship and just as vital to the success of your future marriage too. Ask Him to give you greater insights into the value and importance of friendship with Him as well as with others.

In doing so I believe you will see those close friends that God has given you with fresh eyes and renewed appreciation and you will see that even in this waiting season God has blessed you with relationships that will not only bless you in this life but in the one to come.

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