I’m a guy who needs about two and half good, serious friendships, and my wife takes up two of those spots. My remaining spot for a half friend may not live close. We may talk once every 6 months. I’m okay with that. Having zero friendships would be hard—I’m not a recluse. Having more than ten friendships would be debilitating. David Foster Wallace describes himself as an “borderline-“ or “semi-“ agoraphobe, which the medical dictionary (because I had to look it up, too) defines as “fear of places and situations that might cause panic, helplessness, and embarrassment.” If intimate friendships are anything, they are opportunities for panic, helplessness, and embarrassment. These strangers in social situations are only potential friends, after all, not my real friends yet. And I know this differs for some of you, because you think strangers are just friends you haven’t met yet.
What is a real friend anyway? I can point to friends easy enough. But why are they my friends? What do these friendships possess that other relationships lack? When you think of "real friendship”, do you think of people in your church?
My guess is probably not. For example, when a small group of men in my church were asked, “Who is your best friend?”, no one answered with a fellow member of the church. Church friends often seem like work acquaintances: yeah, we know them, but if they overheard us refer to them as a friend, they may be confused and think "really?" A friend is not someone you only see at required times. I could surmise several reasons why the church lacks friendship. Gathering together as God’s people is a really intimate time where we confess sins that we hate: better to keep these people at arms length. Or the church culture in general has historically succeeded at being self-righteous and put together, so don’t you dare bring your mess in here. Act put-together for an hour or two throughout the week; we can fall apart on our own time as long as no one knows, because these people at church have got it going on. Or it could be the general culture that we live in where friendship is scary, we have scars from broken relationships, developing any sense of intimacy carries with it the risk of being hurt, and especially with men, intimate friendship makes you “soft” and effeminate. We have hobbies and work out and stuff.
Regardless of reasons why relationships seem to flounder, if there’s any institution that is set up for friendship to flourish, it is the church. Love, which I will define as a commitment for another person’s good, is foundational to the establishment of the church. Jesus says the world will know the church by their love. The church is where we share our deepest hurts, fears, pains, hopes, joys, etc. It’s where a people have gathered and publicly declared, “I’m watching out for you and I’m here for you. I want to see you make it heaven, and I want you to help me there.” In essence, it’s where love exists at its optimal level. Jesus displayed this highest love when he died for his friends. And we are called to do likewise. Is there any better defining mark of friendship than love? One of the deepest cries of the human heart is to be known and loved, and friendship is what happens when someone knows you—truly knows you, warts and all—and voluntarily sticks around.
So how do we go about cultivating friendships with seeming strangers in the church? Maybe you’ve been at a place 30 years, and you’ve never had what you would call a best friend. Sure, plenty of acquaintances, but no deep friendship where you feel free, comfortable, and at ease being known and loved. Or maybe you just moved to a new church from someplace else, and all your deepest friendships remain at “home.”
Friendship is too important and loneliness is too much of an epidemic to do nothing.
My own perceived need does not dictate my effort. Jesus dictates my effort. So though I think I only need two and half friends, perhaps someone needs my friendship. And perhaps in the darker times, my shallow and few friendships will be revealed, and I’ll be left exposed, lonely, desiring more friendships but with no one to turn to. Furthermore, my old friends only know me as a high schooler, which is rather limiting. They don’t regularly see me interact with my wife or get frustrated with my children. They’re not around. They can’t speak into situations in which they know nothing about; they can’t call me out on sins I’m blind to, because they’re blind to them, too. Only real, flesh-and-blood, day-to-day relationships can bear that burden.
Let me remind you that friendship doesn’t require something new. When you think of your best friend, I doubt it started with “Oh gosh, but where will I find time?” Friendship takes intentionality, but if you start viewing friendship as a burden, it’s bound to fail. So invite potential best friends over for what you already enjoy doing. I eat food three times a day. I enjoy eating food—especially good food. Why not cook and eat together? Do you work out a few times a week? Do that with a church member. Mom’s: do you have to watch kids during the day? What better way to pass time then cultivating friendship together? Kids occupy each other. Win-win!
Whatever it is you enjoy or that you simply must do, participate in it with someone else you want to cultivate friendship and commitment with.
One of the many things that John Bunyan teaches in Pilgrim's Progress is the necessity of companionship on the way to the Eternal City. Pilgrim could not have made it alone. Jesus consistently draws people out of isolation and into community. I often dream about what relationships will look like twenty, thirty years from now. What joys will Jim and I talk about over coffee? What seasons of pain will Vance and I point to as hard but formative? What relationships restored will Nathan and I celebrate then?
In many ways, friendship cannot be made. C.S. Lewis describes friendship as a “You too?” moment. He writes, ““Friendship arises out of mere Companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, "What? You too? I thought I was the only one.” ... It is when two such persons discover one another, when, whether with immense difficulties and semi-articulate fumblings or with what would seem to us amazing and elliptical speed, they share their vision - it is then that Friendship is born. And instantly they stand together in an immense solitude.”
Is there any greater “You too?” moment that Christ reconciling all things—us included—into his body? And is there any greater context to pursue deep, hard, life-long friendships than within the church?
Though great friendships cannot be created, they can and ought to be pursued. So let’s pursue it together.
Christ is All,
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