Friendships Require Commitments

VowsThe way we use the word “friend” reveals what our culture often thinks about it. We have tons of friends, hundreds of them. Everyone with whom we have some familiarity, ever acquaintance, ever “friend-of-a-friend” becomes someone we are now in personal relationship with. We are friends. Only the term doesn’t really mean anything. Being friends with someone requires nothing of me. Friendship has no expectations, and friends can easily be abandoned and replaced with other people who can quickly become “friends.” To counter such a meaningless use of the term, I propose that friendship should actually require real, tangible, commitments.

The devaluing of friendship in contemporary culture has led us increasingly to expect nothing, and require nothing, of our friends. It has led us to conclude that friendship is nothing more than a nice luxury. Friendship is something that we can enjoy so long as it is convenient for everyone involved. The moment my friendship with you calls me, however, to sacrifice and inconvenience is the moment that our relationship takes a back seat to my other priorities. Friendship is nice, but it is not so important as to require serious commitments from us. Without these commitments, however, the relationships we develop are not true friendships.

Friendships teach us about the gospel, the help us to grow, they invite us to know others and to be known by others. For friendships to be truly effective at communicating the gospel, helping us to grow, and inviting us to know and be known, then there must be some sort of promissory element to them. Friendships are not merely the relationship of casual acquaintances, of passing faces in the hall at church. There needs to be a depth, a level of commitment and accountability associated with them. Friendships cannot communicate the gospel clearly if they can so easily be abandoned. Friendship cannot help me grow if friends are not willing to sacrifice for my well-being. Friendships do not allow me to know and be known if they don’t move past surface level familiarity. There is a level of mutual commitment and accountability that are essential to true friendship.

We might observe the way that the Proverbs speak of friends. Proverbs 17:17 says:

A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.

There is a level of commitment evident in these words. Friends “love at all times.” There’s no limit to a friend’s love, to their devotion and dedication. There’s no room for convenient love in this picture. The image carries over to one who endures “adversity” with us. Friendship endures hardship and trials, difficulties and frustrations in order to demonstrate true devotion. Friendship is depicted elsewhere as one who “lays down his life” for those he loves (John 15:13). I have written elsewhere about the “burden and beauty of friendship,” saying:

Friends don’t have the luxury of distancing themselves from the burdens of those they love. It can’t claim freedom from responsibility while also claiming genuine love. In the language of Scripture, great love lays down its life for its friends (John 15:13). (Walking with the Dead: The Burden and Beauty of Friendship)

To truly love another requires a level of commitment that supersedes accepting “friend requests” and greeting each other once a week.

Wesley Hill spoke of this recently in an article for Christianity Today. There he argued for what he calls “vowed friendships,” which have a “significant, committed, public, and permanent” element to them. He wonders aloud if we ought to think of the bonds of friendships in similar (though not identical) ways as the bonds of marriage. Hill writes:

What we need isn’t disinterested, disembodied camaraderie, in which we keep distance from one another’s hearts and stories. We need stronger bonds for brothers and sisters in Christ. (“Why Can’t Men Be Friends?“)

He examines the pledge of fidelity and loyalty that one Pavel Florensky made with his friend Sergei. Hill describes it as follows:

As young adults, [Florensky] and his friend Sergei exchanged vows of commitment, pledging fidelity to one another even as they made promises to remain chaste. According to biographer Avril Pyman, Florensky regarded this pact ‘as binding as a marriage or monastic vow.

Some have pushed back against this idea of “vowed friendship,” but his point about devotion and commitment stands regardless of how one views the idea of vows in this relationship. Without some level of commitment what is “friendship”? To some degree, it’s precisely what we have made it today: a nice, non-essential, insignificant luxury. Commitments change these relationships dramatically.

It’s not clear in my mind what exactly this kind of commitment will look like, the concept is so foreign to our cultural norm that it’s hard for me to visualize it. We need to begin thinking about this idea more carefully, though. The importance and significance of friendship requires us to be more intentional about our philosophy of friendship and our affirmation of it. True friendship requires commitment of some kind. It’s time to start talking about that and practicing it at some level.

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