This is an adapted excerpt from Jonathan Holmes’s book, The Company We Keep: In Search of Biblical Friendship (Cruciform Press, 2014). It was originally featured on The Gospel Coalition.
A couple of years ago, The Washington Post columnist Caitlin Dewey reported on a study showing that Facebook use among teenagers had plummeted from 72 percent to 45 percent. Where exactly were all these teens fleeing for virtual connection? Places like Twitter, Snapchat, and Tumblr. Such sea changes are nothing new, of course. If you’re sufficiently ancient (read: eligible to vote more than five or six years ago) you’ll recall that, before Facebook’s ascendance, Myspace was the leading way to see and be seen in cyberspace. And those who have fled Facebook? Before too long, many will have moved on yet again to some cooler, greener pasture promising an even simpler immersion in (digitized) connection, (virtual) community, and (pseudo) meaning.
Sociologist Sherry Turkle helps uncover what’s taking place:
Technology is seductive when what it offers meets our human vulnerabilities. And as it turns out, we are very vulnerable indeed. We are lonely but fearful of intimacy. Digital connections . . . may offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.
Remember friendship? This fundamental human relationship has suffered so much reimagining, rebranding, and reengineering that it now lacks any clear definition. Historically understood as one of the deepest and most complex of relationships, it now frequently inhabits the same mental space as the act of flipping through carefully curated images of other people’s lives and occasionally pressing an icon of approval.
Surely something as biblical and supremely human as the discipline of friendship is worth recapturing. But where do we begin? How can we reclaim the biblical contours of such an important relationship?
Here are two observations that might serve us well.
1. Friendship demands biblical definition.
Back in my college days, DTRs (“Define the Relationship”) were in vogue. When two people needed clarity about how to relate to one another—typically in a romantic context—a DTR conversation was often held. A careful, honest DTR can be fruitful, bringing structure and focus to the often churning emotions of young adults.
In the church, we desperately need something like a collective DTR about the concept of friendship among believers. What does the real thing look like? How do we pursue and maintain it? What is its goal? Perhaps most basically, what should be at the center of godly friendship? Common interests? Hobbies? Shared sensibilities? Physical proximity? Similar stage of life?
I’d like to frame the conversation by suggesting that friendship as defined by the Bible is explicitly Christ-centered. Here’s my working definition:
Biblical friendship exists when two or more people, bound together by a common faith in Jesus Christ, pursue him and his kingdom with intentionality and vulnerability. Rather than serving as an end in itself, biblical friendship serves primarily to bring glory to Christ, who brought us into friendship with the Father. It is indispensable to the work of the gospel in the earth, and an essential element of what God created us for.
Hobbies and interests change. Stages and seasons of life shift. Friendship needs to be grounded in something far more stable and enduring than these. Friendship that is truly biblical must therefore begin with our friendship in Christ. Augustine attests to this, praying: “There can be no true friendship unless those who cling to each other are welded together by You in that love which is spread throughout our hearts by the Holy Spirit which is given to us.”
Biblical friendship must be centered on Christ and mediated by his sacrificial death on the cross. A friendship built on anything less—whether short-lived social demographics or digital interactions—cannot bear the same fruit, survive the same tests, or deliver the same satisfaction.
2. Friendship demands sacrificial love.
In keeping with this biblical definition, true friendship requires sacrificial love. In a passage whose familiarity has perhaps obscured its profundity, Jesus says, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). A few days later, Jesus will actually live out this truth. He will voluntarily give his own life to bring underserving people like you and me into friendship with the Triune God. His words a few verses later permanently alter our status: “No longer do I call you servants . . . but I have called you friends” (John 15:15).
Sounds great in the abstract, right? But then Jesus commands (not suggests) that the disciples “love one another” (John 15:17). The connection is clear: If love in its highest and greatest form was demonstrated through Christ’s self-sacrificial death on our behalf, then clearly the love we display to one another through our friendships must also be characterized by self-sacrifice.
Yet herein lies the rub: We’re creatures of comfort and ease who generally don’t like relationships that demand much from us. Our sacrificial love may gladly extend to a stranger who cuts into our traffic lane. But listening to another believer’s burden or heartache? No . . . I don’t want to get too entangled. Serving a friend from church in a season of need? Sorry . . . I’m just too pressed for time.
In a commencement address a few years ago, American author Jonathan Franzen observed that our culture doesn’t like to love because real loving requires sacrifice. We’re “troubled by real love” and, as a result, we have “no choice but to trouble love in turn.” Borrowing vernacular from Facebook, Franzen says that instead of loving, we go for the path of least sacrifice, mere liking. He perceptively notes, “Liking, in general, is commercial culture’s substitute for loving.”
The digital like is ultimately about self; its focus is often on being pleased. This is the essential nature of many things today we call “friendship.” But biblical love is about the other; its focus is on serving. Biblical friendships cannot thrive in a mentality of like. To flourish, they require love—self-sacrificial love enabled by the self-sacrificial, unwavering devotion of the Savior who calls us friends.
In and through biblical friendship, demonstrated by self-sacrificial love, we can tell a living story to a world crying out for genuine relationships. In and through such friendship, two people who have nothing in common but Christ can tell the amazing story of the gospel, of the Friend who sacrificed everything to be in friendship with you.
Jonathan Holmes is the Founder and Executive Director of Fieldstone Counseling.