The Spiritual Importance of Friendship

spiritual-friendshipThe ancients spoke of friendship as the “highest ideal.” Conversely, we don’t speak much of friendship at all today. This is in part because we are culturally so driven by individualism that we are becoming increasingly isolated. Robert Putman has argued that social networks have faced a dramatic decline in the 20th century (see Bowling Alone), and Paul Amato and others argue that even spouses are more-or-less “alone together” (see Alone Together). The same might be said of the church too. Christians think friendship is nice if you can get it, but it’s simply not that important. If we’re willing to consider it, though, friendship is actually a vital part of good spiritual health.

There may be a number of reasons for why we are experiencing a loss of friendship in our culture. Perhaps the pace of life makes building relationships increasingly difficult. Perhaps the digital world gives us the impression that we already have really deep relationships. Perhaps our consumerism convinces us we’ve really got all we need in our house; so why bother going out to socialize. Perhaps the individualistic bent of our modern culture has convinced us we simply don’t need others. Whatever the answers may be, what is clear is that we don’t think, talk, and write about friendship like the ancients did.

The ancients believed friendship was essential to existence. Aristotle stated that the whole political system was built off of this one idea: that men can be friends. Others insisted that friends were the greatest blessing. Even within the church there was a great emphasis on a theology of friendship. Several key truths highlight the significance of friendship for us today.

Friendship illustrates the gospel. The bible uses a number of different analogies to depict the gospel. We read of the parent/child relationship, the slave/master relationship, and the husband/wife relationship as examples of how we should think about our relationship to the Father and to Christ. But perhaps one of the more often overlooked analogies is that of friendship. John 15:12-17 reveals that it is a valid picture of the gospel:

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: Love each other.

What does Jesus command of his followers? That we love one another in the same way that he has loved us. How has he loved us? He has loved us as a friend. Jesus calls us friends. Friendship is, then, at some level a picture of the gospel. So, when Proverbs 18:24 states, “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother,” we know that Jesus is that friend who sticks closer than a brother. When Job declares, “My intercessor is my friend as my eyes pour out tears to God; on behalf of a man he pleads with God as a man pleads for his friend” (Job 16:20-21), again we know that Jesus is that friend. Jesus is our friend and true friendship is a picture of the gospel.

As friends love each other despite differences, difficulties, and hurts we demonstrate the gospel. When my friend loved me through a betrayal many years ago I saw the grace of God with more clarity. When we sacrifice for one another, carry one another along, and stand by one another through many trials we demonstrate the grace, mercy, and longsuffering of God Himself. Friendship depicts the gospel in very real and tangible ways.

Friendship also helps us to grow in godliness. Two famous passages highlight this point clearly. Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 speaks about the value of two people working on the same goal. It also states plainly that when one falls the other can pick him up, “But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.” There’s a word there about the value of partners and accountability. We could look too at Proverbs 27:17 which famously speaks of friends who “sharpen” one another like iron does to iron. The most obvious place to see the value of relationships, however, is in the myriads of “one another” commands in the New Testament. We are instructed to rebuke one another, pray for one another, bear one another’s burdens, instruct one another, even kiss one another (I’ll let you work that one out on your own). The New Testament writers understood that we need one another to help us grow in godliness.

Friendship cultivates intimacy with others. We use the term “friend” loosely these days. In common parlance friend refers to anyone with whom we have acquaintance. So, people have over 1,000 Facebook “friends,” most of whom they rarely speak with or interact. If that word “intimacy” makes us squeamish it may tend to further my point. We don’t think of friends as the ancients did. Friendship is an unnecessary relationship in modern culture. But true friendship helps us to know and be known. This is an important part of what it means to be human.

Humans, made in the image of their triune God, are made for relationship and community. The capacity for and indeed need for deep friendship is an essential part of our nature. We need to be known and to know others. The Bible speaks of friendship in much more intimate language than we do today. Deuteronomy 13:6 speaks of “a friend who is as your own soul.” Capture the image of that language in your mind: as your own soul. That is a level of intimacy and connection that is often lacking in the way we describe relationships. It hearkens back to the language of “bosom buddies” from years past. It is the idea of being so deeply connected with another person that two become one. This is certainly the way we talk about marriage, but here the Bible uses it to describe non-romantic relationships. This is most clearly depicted in the relationship of David and Jonathan in the Old Testament. 1 Samuel 18:1 says:

After David had finished talking with Saul, Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself.

That is a deep relationship. It demonstrates a way of thinking about friendship that is intimate. Friends are essential to our emotional and spiritual health. The ancients knew it, the Bible states it.

One of the greatest things we can do in the contemporary church is to recover the significance and value of friendship. It is not optional; it is not secondary, but essential. If Jesus calls himself our friend, then we ought to see friendship as one of the most important things that we could ever experience.

Comments

  1. Joanne Southern says:

    Well written and so true! Good friends reflect Christ so well. A super book for women on friendships is “Getting to the Heart of Friendships” by Amy Baker. This book discusses how we were made for relationships and actually describes what a good friend is like.

Trackbacks

  1. […] ideal for all people. It can be valued to such a degree that we lose sight of the significant importance and role of friendship. Romantic love is great, but we need more than romantic love to be healthy, […]

  2. […] 11. The Spiritual Importance of Friendship […]

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