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Friendship on the frontline | Imagining a delight-full embrace of the world

Jesus was famously called ‘a friend of sinners’ (Luke 7:34). He crossed every social divide. But today, many of us don’t have any close friends, be that inside the church, in our workplaces, or on our streets.

So, how do we practise friendship well, like Jesus and the early church did, as a witness to our lonely and fragmented world?

That’s the question this blog series explores. Over four articles, our contributors – Sheridan Voysey, Chloe Lynch, Corin Pilling, and Phil Knox – will have a conversation, responding to each other’s reflections as they ‘triple listen’ to wisdom from the Word of God, the world, and one another. The goal? To help our friendships flourish as whole-life disciples, wherever we are, whoever we are, and whatever we do.

The series also accompanies our Wisdom Lab: Friendship on the Frontline event, at which each of the authors will deliver a TED-style talk and bring together evidence-based insights and theological wisdom, making space for honest dialogue to inspire us to practise friendship in a more fruitful way.

In our first blog post, Sheridan Voysey helped us listen to our culture through Zara and Jez’s stories, so we can understand why deep friendships are so hard to sustain. In this second blog post, Chloe Lynch – Lecturer in Practical Theology at London School of Theology and a Carmelite-formed spiritual director – explores the centrality of friendship in the Scriptures and God’s mission in the world, helping us imagine what should be going on for Zara and Jez. In the final two instalments of the series, we’ll learn to create a healing response, and think about how to communicate the good news as a whole-life witness.

I often wonder whether churches talk about fellowship because it sounds less costly than friendship. We can handle the idea of occasional but distanced interactions, the Sunday how-was-your-week-fine-thank-you, and the mid-worship handshake. If pushed, we might manage a monthly bring-and-share or an awkward mingle over coffee post-service. We can do ‘fellowship’ but friendship seems a bridge too far.[1]

We know instinctively that friendship, though potentially rich, is demanding. It brings us close to others – whether fellow Christians or not. And yet, in opening us to love, friendship also opens us to vulnerability with one another. There is possibility for mutual delight but also for mutual disappointment; laughter, but also, unexpectedly, loneliness. And so, very often, we hold back.

We hold back. But, simultaneously, our hearts reach out. For somewhere within, we know friendship is God’s ‘very good’.

Friendship and Scripture

The Genesis 1 refrain echoes: ‘God saw that it was good.’ With all that he created, God saw that it was good.

Save for humanity.

When God made humanity, ‘God saw that it was very good.’

God made humanity male and female, Genesis 1 continues, so they might relate to one another in a kind of unity amidst difference. The parallel account in Genesis 2 records heaven’s declaration that it is not good for man to live alone: God made humanity for relationship with one another. And he also made us for relationship with him.

God always intended friendship to characterise both his relationship with us and our relationships amongst ourselves. We see it in creation and we see it in the garden after the fall. Even then – after Adam and Eve have broken the relational trust between them and God, doing the one thing he’d asked them not to do – this God still comes walking in the garden. He walks in the very place where they’ve built their friendship with him and he calls to them.

But they hide. They hide because they can no longer bear the relational expectations that are part and parcel of friendship with God. And God, knowing this, puts them out of the garden, a place resonant with friendship’s rich memories. He does this not in a fit of pique, out of anger at broken friendship, but as a kindness of love by which Adam and Eve are protected from making this state of broken relationship permanent. For if, in this state, they were now to eat of the tree of life, they would live forever but be condemned to separation from God.

Outside the garden, though, friendship is hard. The first humans experience opposition and power imbalance between themselves, just as God predicted when warning them of sin’s consequence. One of their children kills the other and, generation by generation, the earth becomes filled with violence. Few find favour in God’s eyes: there is Noah, who walks with God and talks with him – friendship perhaps, though the word is not used. And we hear of Abraham, whose friendship with God is real but whose friendship with his wife seems complex, to say the least. There is Moses, who shares his heart with God as with a friend, yet there are those he leads who prefer to offer their hearts to a golden cow. And let’s not forget Job, whose friends are both brilliant and terrible all at once – brilliant because they manage to hold silence in the face of his suffering for an entire week, but terrible because eventually they can’t help themselves, for the most part not speaking the truth about God.

Outside the garden, friendship – with God and with other humans – is hard. But Scripture doesn’t just leave us with the consequences of the fall. It also recounts the story of Jesus, the God-man, coming into the world to restore what was lost and fulfil the things that never had a chance to grow. Friendship, I think, is one of those things. The incarnation is the ultimate offer of friendship from God to us. Though the fall destroyed all possibility of responding to God in faithful, mutual love, Jesus’ obedience to the Father in life and death changed everything.

As God, Jesus was himself a reiteration of the Father’s offer of friendship to humanity. And by living as a perfect man, relating to God in loving trust, Jesus did on our behalf what we could not: he reciprocated the friendship God was offering to humanity, with the result that we could now share in his friendship with God.

Jesus’ incarnation means that humans can now be friends with God, a friendship we experience through the gift of God’s Spirit (Romans 5:5). And, as we shall see in our reading of John 15, Jesus’ coming also restores the possibility of true and good friendships with one another.

For now, of course, our friendship with God and our friendship with others will be less than is one day promised. That’s the reality of living ‘between the times’: redemption has come, but its fullness – its consummation – is still to be revealed. Saying this is important because it helps us to be realistic about friendship now. We will struggle in our friendship with God. We will experience betrayals within human friendship. We may be overwhelmed by our friends’ inability to respect our space, wounded by their failure to maintain our confidences. Or perhaps we will inflict the pain and fail our friends.

However they happen, even in the best of friendships, misunderstanding and disappointment will sometimes be rife. One day, though, things will be different. Friendship with God will be face-to-face. And friendships with one another will be perfected.

Following Jesus’ way of friendship

Imagining what human friendship might be like after Jesus’ return is helpful for marking out what friendship could be now. One way to do this is to explore Jesus’ only explicit teachings on this subject, found in John 15:12–17:

‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another.’

‘I have called you friends’, Jesus says.

Jesus calls his disciples friends. Not servants, but friends. They had been chosen, he continues, to enjoy the same intimacy with God as he himself knew. Friendship like this would not only mean giving but also receiving – and genuine delight in each other. Somehow these frail, human disciples would become friends of God. Despite the great gulf of otherness, of inequality, between them, Jesus’ friendship with them would be real. He would not make them equal to him in being: he would remain both God and man and the disciples would remain very definitely only human. But there would be between them a shared reality of love. Echoing earlier imagery of the vine (John 15:1–8), Jesus would abide in them and they in him. Though he would not stop being the vine nor they the branches, his life of love would unite them in friendship with him.

But this friendship was also to be shaped by the cross, offering oneself in love for God and others, a relationship characterised by obedience to God. Jesus could ask this of his disciples, his friends, because he himself would lead the way. They would lay down their lives, either literally or by laying down their preferences in order to honour their divine friend. But they would do it because he would first have done it. They would submit their hearts and wills to him in obedience because he would shortly do the same with his Father in a second garden, this one called Gethsemane.

Jesus knows his friends will do what he has commanded and he knows that intimacy is what will sustain their obedience. They will obey because they know the secrets of his heart, secrets that John 15 describes as being all that Jesus has heard his Father speak to him.

The disciples will not obey Jesus as servants who have no choice. Rather, they will obey as friends, a submission born of love. And what is it that they will obey? He tells them his expectation twice in short succession. Twice, perhaps, to underline its seriousness.

‘These things I command you, he says, so that you will love one another.’

And only moments earlier: ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.’

‘As I have loved you.’ That is, as friends.

Friendship with God means friendship with one another. It means loving others like Jesus does, in an offer of mutual, loving relationship. It is more than distanced charity, doing good things for a neighbour but never sharing our hearts. No, friendship assumes that we will share enough of ourselves for relational intimacy to grow over time. And this kind of friendship is also not about using the relationship to attain our own ends. We love the person in front of us as an end in themselves, seeking their good and finding our own joy in their joy. We lay down our lives for them – perhaps literally or perhaps simply in seeking outcomes that benefit our friend. And though maybe not quite obeying one another, we will certainly have to set aside our will sometimes in favour of our friend’s, learning to delight in their preferences over our own.

In friendships like this, we can hope that Jesus will be seen in and through our love. For this is how Jesus declares that he expects his disciples to come to know the Father and his secrets. They will encounter the Father, he claims, through their friendship with him.

We can hope for this, indeed, because we love our friends and want the best for them. But we cannot force the issue. Nor can we offer true friendship to those whom we have befriended only as ‘evangelistic projects’, instead of treasuring them as persons made in the image of a mysterious and holy God. For whilst friendship with Christians should bring a person face-to-face with the Spirit of Jesus who indwells us, friendship can never be twisted as the means by which we ‘get people saved’. Such twisting is more akin to manipulation than a love that honours and delights in the other.

Reflecting on human friendship today

All that we’ve seen Jesus say about friendship points to what it can be. But, as Sheridan’s case studies have shown us, in practice, friendship is still a deeply problematic reality for many of us. Following Scripture’s arc – through creation, fall, redemption, and consummation – explains why this tension exists. Because of where we are on that timeline, our experience of human friendship is that it is devastatingly broken – but also, because of Jesus, that it is being restored.

In this section, we’ll put the biblical ideal into conversation with Jez and Zara’s real-life experiences, and reflect on the issues and questions that arise.

Friendship and delight

Jez’s friendship with Daniel began through a shared love of cycling and running. Similarly, Zara was looking for likeminded people, wondering how to meet them. There’s something in this: philosophers of friendship have long recognised that we like those who are like us. Friendships with such people are easier, more natural. But theologians call us deeper because the biblical text calls us deeper. What, they ask, would it have looked like for Jesus’ disciples to hear him command them to love one another as friends when one had been a tax collector, another a zealot, and a handful of them fishermen? What did they have in common but him?

For one thirteenth-century scholar named Thomas, Jesus’ words meant we have to become available to liking those to whom we aren’t naturally drawn, enjoying them for what is enjoyable about them. It doesn’t mean becoming bosom buddies immediately. It doesn’t mean liking everything about them. But it does mean being open to those whom we don’t immediately like, even intentional about learning to delight in them just as God delights in us.

Put that baldly, of course, it sounds harsh. Some people are just annoying, right? But what if we were to choose to partner with the Spirit, exercising our imagination in regard to them by choosing actively to look for things – however obscure! – that might connect us together? Do we have any shared passions or hobbies? Do we have mutual friends whom we both enjoy? Could we be open to spending time together – with or without others to ease the intensity of it all? What friendship might grow if we built even a short history of shared conversation, activity, and laughter?

Friendship and mutual relationship

Shared life is important because friendship is fundamentally mutual. That’s clear in the juxtaposition of Jesus’ friendship talk and his reference to himself as the vine and his disciples, or friends, as the branches. Friendship-life with God, and therefore with human beings, comprises togetherness. We are attentive to our friends, their needs, and their desires. We seek their good and find our own joy in being together and seeing them flourish.

Jez surely feels this way about Daniel. Yet Daniel is not a Christian, which raises questions for Jez because he believes knowing Jesus would be to Daniel’s ultimate good. He wonders whether mission and friendship go together. How real can he be about his own faith and is friendship even possible when so much of what is important for Jez is not shared?

Yet, actually, their friendship has already started to take root: Jez enjoys Daniel and the time they’ve spent together. He wants to share of himself and also has Daniel’s best interests at heart. There are already one or two activities they both enjoy doing and there is potential for more commonality, whether or not Daniel ever receives the gospel.

Over time, these men may start sharing more deeply; inevitably, Jez will speak about Jesus. Not to do so would be to withhold something of who Jez is and of what he holds most dear. But true friendship means sharing in a way that respects Daniel’s freedom, offering something of Jez’s self but without imposing it on Daniel.

So, though he’s probably heard more sermons calling him to personal evangelism than to healthy friendships, Jez must find a way to hold carefully any emotional tension he feels around Daniel’s salvation. He may absolutely believe that Daniel’s ultimate good is relationship with Jesus, and will surely hope and pray strongly for this end, but true friendship means honouring his friend as a person who remains free to make his own choices. Because Daniel is a person created by God, not a means to Jez’s end of making disciples.

Friendship in all its variety

Zara’s question was how long to keep trying when others don’t reciprocate. This touches the heart of friendship: if it’s not mutual, it’s not friendship. Without mutual commitment to prioritising time together, whether in conversation or shared activity, there is no common life. Yet, as the Friendship Lab survey revealed, busyness in western life works against this. How can we spend time with existing friends given the time spent working, commuting, or in the throes of family life? And if we struggle to find time for the friends we already have, the chances of spending time in new and developing friendships can be nearly nil.

Certainly, each friendship looks different. Sociologists recognise this. For example, some friends meet or speak every day, whereas others get together only once a year – and yet, when they do, it’s as if they were never apart. Some friendships are centred around the workplace whilst others grow because of a common interest or because of living in the same neighbourhood. And some friendships involve lots of time together – perhaps like Zara’s friendships at her last church in Manchester – even as others are shaped by regular but brief contact.

This conceptual breadth can help us think differently about friendship, prompting us to ask whether our frustrated expectations as to what we want friendship with a person to look like are preventing us from seeing what kind of friendship might actually be possible. After all, almost no friendships start from a place of depth and intensity: that kind of mutual intimacy and commitment typically takes months or even years to grow as friends progressively prove their trustworthiness.

Though Zara’s loneliness is real, and hard as it is when others don’t reciprocate, there’s possibility in the connections she’s begun to make with the lady who promised her a cycle ride and the other lady whom she’s met via the app. There’s possibility, too, in the occasional connections with her Manchester friends, as well as with Cath and perhaps even Claire. Whilst these older friendships have changed, and cannot replace the need for friendships that satisfy Dunbar’s Thirty-Minute Rule, they don’t necessarily have to be treated as dead.

Zara is right, though: friendship is hard – ‘hard to accomplish, harder yet to sustain, fragile, vulnerable, and, quite often, tragic.’[2]

We forget this at our peril.

Yet we remember, too, the Christian hope: a world where friendship, finally come of age, will be a universal joy of mutual delighting, intimacy, and love. For this we surely wait!

Dr Chloe Lynch
London School of Theology


Discussion questions
  1. The Bible promises us friendship as part of God’s ‘very good.’  But it is also not naïve about all the ways in which our experience of friendship now is broken. What have been your greatest joys in friendship? And what have been your most painful experiences in a friendship?
  2. How realistic is the idea that we can and should be open to friendship with those whom we don’t immediately like – and even should perhaps be intentional about learning to delight in them?
  3. Consider the friendships you have with those who are not Christian. Do you ever talk together about faith or the deep things of life in general? How might you build the kind of relational intimacy that makes such conversations both inevitable and natural?
Helpful resources

Ecclesial Leadership as Friendship by Chloe Lynch (Routledge, 2019): a rich practical theology bringing together leadership, literature, and ecclesiology to reimagine our faith community as guided by friendship-leadership. If we practise this well as the church, it promises to be good news for our wider witness in the world, which is dominated by managerialism rather than characterised by Christlike love.

Friendship: Interpreting Christian Love by Liz Carmichael (Continuum, 2004): Chloe’s top pick for arguably the best theological overview on friendship out there!

God is Friendship by Brian Edgar (Seedbed Publishing, 2013): a brilliant interdisciplinary deep dive into how friendship with God and others is at the heart of a theology of spirituality, community, and society.

Friendship Matters by William Rawlins (AldineTransaction, 1992): a wise exploration of the varieties, tensions, and functions of friendship across the course of one’s life.

 

[1] Koinōnia, the Greek word that ‘fellowship’ usually translates, means much more than this, of course. But often fellowship, at least as we’ve made it in the West, falls very far short of New Testament church ideals.

[2] William K. Rawlins, Friendship Matters: Communication, Dialectics, and the Life Course (New Brunswick: AldineTransaction, 1992), 278.

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