Friendship is an exercise in learning to love the gifts God gives us without turning them into idols.
I’ve been thinking about friendships long and hard over the past few months because they’ve taken up more of my life than I can ever remember. While that circumstance gladdens my heart, it also means that I’m constantly thinking about how friendships influence my life.
That thinking has taken many forms. Over the past few months I have been asked to define friendship, consider how I view my friends, give advice on making and maintaining friendships, and evaluate how I look to my friends for fulfillment. I have made new friends, strengthened old friendships, and lost friends. I have read quotations on friendship, written about friendship, and prayed about friendships. These conversations and contemplations have taken me down many paths as I’ve sought for answers to the many questions I have about friendship. The conclusions of some of these musings have challenged me to wear the right glasses when looking at friendships.
If I were to define friendship with one word, the first I would consider using is the word gift.
Friendships are a gift from God.
What a wonderful truth! I am inexpressibly thankful for my many godly friends who love me with a Christlike love. But there is a danger even in that statement. Far too often I find myself taking those friendships God has given me as wonderful gifts and valuing them above the One who gave them to me in the first place.
I begin to love the gift above the Giver. That is a dangerous mistake to make, because when I place my friendships above my relationship with God, I begin to seek fulfillment in the wrong place. By seeking fulfillment in those relationships, I turn the very friendships that God intended to push me towards Christ into a stumbling block instead. I make for myself an idol. And when God is not the center of my vision, everything becomes blurry and uncertain. Rather, my devotion to Christ must increase as I recognize that he is the best friend I could have. I must choose to see my friendships through the lens of subordination to my relationship with God. When I adjust my focus, my soul is strengthened by finding its fulfillment in God, and my friendships flourish.
When I idolize my friendships, however, something else happens. It’s subtle at first, but when my friendships become my source of fulfillment, they become places where I expect not to give but to get. I often convince myself that I’m not really thinking that way—that I’m a selfless friend who is willing to invest in the lives of my friends without asking anything in return. Now, the expectation of giving-and-receiving is only natural: humans are fundamentally needy, and someone, somewhere must meet those needs. But, if my friends become my source of fulfillment, they must be able to give constantly. No human has the capacity for that kind of giving, but I lie to myself about that, too.
So it is when I look at my friends through the wrong pair of glasses—when I look to my friends for fulfillment and expect them to give me what I need—that I become discontent. I wonder why my friend isn’t responding to my texts. I wonder why they’re not reaching out to me when they know I’m going through a hard time. I wonder why they don’t seem to be putting as much effort into the relationship as I think they should be. I begin thinking things like, I’ve been putting plenty of work into this relationship; it’s about time they started giving a little back. I want them to show me they care; which usually means, “Love me how I want you to love me, because I’m not willing to notice the other ways you may be accustomed to showing care and concern.”
I just want them to initiate a conversation for once.
I want them to make more effort.
I want. I want. I want…
See what happens?
When I decide that my friendships should be my source of satisfaction rather than my God, I set myself up for a life of disappointment and hurt by demanding things of my friends that they can never give me. No human, or group of humans, can ever fully meet my needs, because they are all just as finite and frail as I am. No, the hole in my heart is God-shaped. He’s the only Person who can fill me because he’s the only One with endless resources. When he fills me, I become more concerned with what I can give my friends than what I can get from them.
When I realized that truth, I asked myself a new question: What do I need to be giving my friends? What do they need that I am gifted to give?”
The first answer that came to mind was “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). That’s the kind of love I need to be giving my friends, because that’s the kind of love Christ gives me. That’s all well and good, I thought, but how do I know if I have that kind of love for my friends unless I’m put in a situation where I actually have to give my life for them? I suppose I can’t really know, but I can love them sacrificially in other ways. I can begin by loving them in the little things. Loving in the mundane often makes the greatest impact. When I love my friends sacrificially in small ways, I show them that I care enough about them to notice those little things in the first place.
So, I have started wearing a different set of glasses when looking at my friendships: I have begun to look at them in light of their subordination to my relationship with Christ. Consequently, I have begun to see them as opportunities to love with the selfless love Christ has lavished on me. I don’t think I’m very good at it yet, because I’m an extraordinarily selfish person, but real change is never easy or fast. Thankfully, I get to start with the little things.