To the ancients, friendship was the crown of life and the school of virtue. To us, it’s both of you clicking a button on Facebook. How far we have fallen.
That might seem overdramatic. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d been accused of that, but I don’t think it is. God had declared our warfare is over and is offering friendship to us, and we have dramatically changed the definition of friendship over time such that it’s now a very loose word—I’ve written on this idea recently.
We need a resurgence of deep friendships—true companions—and this is especially true for men. We need literal fellowships. If anyone has a terrible ring they would like carry to the crack of doom, I’m in.
The heart of friendship is found in Romans 12: rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep. When did you last do both of those with the same person? That’s a good first step to friendship.
Or as a total aside, it’s a good first step to pastoring too. Often the weeping has to come before the rejoicing, but a pastor’s tears are precious gifts to their congregants. Pastors: learn to cry if it doesn’t come naturally, it’s the first tool in your toolbox.
Andrew Sullivan argued back in 1999 that “the great modern enemy of friendship has turned out to be love.” By love he means the belief that true intimacy can only be found between a couple in sexual union. Churches can have our own version when we make marriage (a good thing) into the only setting for intimacy. Married people need friends. Single people need friends.
Discipleship requires friendship. It is almost impossible to live the Christian life without a web of friendships. Why would we try to do something harder than the way Jesus’ gave us?
I spent years saying I wanted friendships but struggling to find them. Many friends who had a very typical understanding of ‘friendship,’ what Paul Tripp would call our networks of “terminally casual” friendships, were somewhat disgruntled by my implicit suggestion that our relationship wasn’t cutting it for me. I doubt I was tactful. I was trying to say, with Aristotle:
oh my friend there is no friend!
Which is relatable. We have many friends but no true companions. The kind of friends who would be like David’s mighty men, or you could pronounce the Eve of Saint Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V over.
Of course, C. S. Lewis would argue that I was going about it all the wrong way. He argues that when we say we “want friends” we can never make any—the very condition of having friends is that we should want something besides friends.
What does he mean? Friendship cannot be its own goal; it needs a ground. He would say that we picture lovers face to face, but friends side by side. Friends do something together, they share a vision of life—a direction, a mission, a telos—and it’s that which unites them and binds their friendship.
I don’t think Lewis is entirely right that our lament for the paucity of companionship we suffer itself rules out answering it, but he is definitely right that we have find the closest friendships by discovering the person who we can say “I thought I was the only one!” with, the one with whom we can “stand together in an immense solitude.”
Of course for Christians it’s entirely possible that what we have in common is Christ himself.
Deep and vulnerable conversations are important, but so is purposeless enjoyable conversation about mutual interests. This is “spiritual” too. It’s the purposeless communication that the pandemic has stripped from you and we need to regain. Everything feels way more intense than it used to—this is one of the reasons why.
Friendship is additive
Once you get one friend, you often get more too. Lewis argued that friendship was additive:
The more we thus share the heavenly bread between us, the more we shall all have.
In an analogy that only my friend Phil will understand, friendship is more like allomancy than feruchemy. For the rest of you, the truest friendships are not strained when you insert other people into them, because we enjoy the way that different close companions draw out aspects of our dear friend.
However, the sorts of middle-tie relationships that most of us mean by the word friend don’t work the same way—they are subtractive. We feel put upon when we didn’t get the same time we were expecting with our friend because someone else was there.
This is one of those ‘let the reader understand’ moments when you consider how to apply this to your own life. You need deep friendships, but you may need less than you think, it’s very much the quality rather than the quantity of our relationships that matters.
It’s easy to lament our own friends—they are not like Lewis & Tolkien, or David & Jonathan. I think I often get a bit trapped here. A better move would be to assess our friendship with them and ask the question, ‘what kind of friend am I?’ As Vaughan Roberts suggests, “The way to have good friends is to be a good friend.”
How do you get these closest friendships?
Here are three lessons I’m learning the hard way:
Firstly: Show up. Make time. It takes a long time. You can’t shortcut it, friendships take years.
The desire for friendship comes quickly. Friendship does not.Aristotle
Secondly: Take the initiative, where you can. Be hospitable, by which I don’t mean you have to have people into your home but invite them to do things. Be vulnerable and take the initiative in doing so.
The secret of friendship is just the secret of all spiritual blessings: the way to get is to give.Hugh Black
Thirdly: Be patient & keep showing up. Keep doing it, keep going, and while there is such a thing as a time to give up it is about ten times further away than you think it is.
Why are those our three lessons? Well, from a certain point of view, that’s what Jesus has done for you. He’s shown up—which is a pretty trite way to describe the incarnation, but he has chosen to enter our world and our worlds. He’s taken the initiative by rescuing you, but also in hospitality: welcoming you into the household of God, and if Christ is never ‘vulnerable’ in one sense he certainly has opened himself to the possibility of pain by choosing to come and befriend us—he invited his three closest friends into his Test in Gethsemane, if that isn’t vulnerability I don’t know what is.
In other words, we make close friends by doing it how Jesus did it. Figures, really.
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