This is a follow-up to some previous thoughts on friendship, and, if you haven’t already, you should read that first post because this one builds on it.

I am still thinking through how to think in a gospel-centered way about the idea that “needy” people make terrible friends. To repeat Douglas Wilson’s line:

Someone who desperately “needs a friend” will rarely make a good friend. A friend is one who overflows, not one who sucks everyone dry around him.

Yet improperly understood, it can sound as though the point of friendship is only to get, not to give. This is not what that Wilson means, nor what this Wilson means. What I believe we’re doing is just being honest about the way friendship is really forged. When an emotional vacuum of a human being requests — oh, let’s be honest: when they passive-aggressively demand — friendship, they are not positioning themselves as a potential friend, but as a patient. They are not looking for a friend, but a therapist, a supplier, a functional savior.

To be clear, you can be a friend to this person. But it is not likely you can be friends with them. They are takers, not givers.

That said, while a real friend is not predicated on neediness, a real friend is not someone who never needs you. What comes to mind is when a friend is hurting, grieving, or going through some other difficulty. I certainly don’t feel like they’ve stopped being my friend; I don’t feel put out or impatient with them. I don’t suddenly feel as though they are inconvenient. I think I don’t feel that way precisely because they’re my friend!

I wonder if we ought to look at friendships as covenants, somewhat like the marriage covenant. A covenant is predicated on grace, on mutual giving. Sometimes one party is weaker and must “take.” But the relationship is originated in two-way giving: of time, of respect, of interests, of laughter, of help, of “me too!”-ness.

While a needy person practically demanding a fixer might sound like a great opportunity for grace, it doesn’t result in real friendship because:
a) this person wants a relationship predicated on law — their demands, your measuring up — not gospel, and
b) this person wants a relationship that precludes the real picture of the gospel — reconciliation — because it is a one-way street relationship.

Let’s back up. An emotionally needy person looking for their functional savior does not make a good friend because they reflect the demands of the law, not the gifts of the gospel.

You hold your arms out for me. Is it to give me a hug? Or to size me up?

You can have some kind of relationship with an emotional vacuum but not a real grace-driven friendship because they’re treating you like an idol. And if you enable them, you’re returning the favor.

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9 thoughts on “Grace-Driven Friendship”

  1. cjbooth85 says:

    I wrote about this once and asked, "are you a "drainer" or a "filler?" And I put up a picture of a sink. :)Good posts Jared.

  2. melledge says:

    While I can agree with the premise that a "drainer" is a difficult person to befriend, I am a bit put-off by the black-and-white notion that a person in need will never make a good friend.Many of us find ourselves at some point in our lives in "need" of a friend. Perhaps you've moved into a new city or country. Perhaps several of your core friends have recently moved, and you suddenly have a vacuum which was previously filled by their presence. It seems pretty harsh and graceless to dismiss such people simply because they are in a place of genuine need and unable to be effective "givers" at that time in their life.As someone starting a new life in a new country, I can personally relate to the difficulty of trying to make new friends and the sadness of living without them for a time.

  3. Jared says:

    Melledge, you wrote: I am a bit put-off by the black-and-white notion that a person in need will never make a good friendBut this is not my premise. Persons in need can make good friends. "Needy persons," as the post(s) have described rarely do.Aside from that, anyways, even those people need grace, and it has not been my intention to suggest withholding grace from anyone. All I have been trying to say is that while you can be a friend to a needy person, you likely cannot be friends with them because they are very much focused on having their needs met. Friendships don't (often?) form unilaterally.But everybody needs grace and every Christian is obligated to give grace to everyone. I just don't believe every Christian is obligated to be close friends with everyone.I am sorry you are having difficulty in a new land.

  4. prin says:

    But the takers do reciprocate, albeit not intentionally.[32] “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. [33] And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. [34] And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount.Friendship is not supposed to be reciprocal. Reciprocity is just a bonus of being loved by those around us. Some of those around us cannot love the way we want them to love and that, in my experience, isn't as a result of determination but of brokenness.And a second way we benefit is by having to face our own pride. Who can be constantly aware of their effect on others? Who is always aware of their selfishness in relationships? The person who says they are aware of both those things is the person who really needs to face his/her pride. We can make assumptions about ourselves, about others and how they make us feel, but to know the truth about all of it is something apart.

  5. Alvin Lin says:

    This is something I've been wrestling through over the last few years or so, but it's been really difficult for me to process.How do I know if I am just demanding too much from others and making them an idol?My struggle is I feel like I'm pouring a lot out — but not receiving much reciprocity — I can definitely think of those I would view as friends where we can just be around each other and it's lax, but by in-large I feel like most of "friendships" are one-way avenues that you talked about and I'm just trying to balance everything with having desires that are good and being on my guard that they do not become idols.So I suppose my question would be — if there are those that you feel like "suck the life out of you" or only contact you when they need something — how should I treat them in light of the Gospel, even when I get frustrated with the circumstances and how it seems like a one-way street with them?Any insight would be very much appreciated!

  6. Roberta says:

    Alvin Lin–I read a book called "Boundaries" co- written by Dr. Cloud. Ii showed a completely different way of looking at scripture than from what I was taught. Maybe it would be helpful for you.In the Daily Bread Devotional for July 5 it said that"Someone has defined friendship as 'knowing the heart of another and sharing one's heart with another." …We have confidence that that they will use our sharing to help us, not harm us."

  7. coachtrain says:

    We just don't know who can be a good friend – and it shouldn't matter. Our giving of grace is not based on whether we see a return, or it certainly wouldn't be grace or gospel…without reiterating the great comment above by prin, I would just offer this to Alvin and others having difficulty with feeling drained…My experience is that if you take that emptiness and lay it at the feet of Jesus you'll get the energy you need to do what HE needs you to do. We may bend but in Him we will never break from giving too much love.I do recognize Jared's point – that giving grace is an obligation but being a close friend is not – and I don't completely disagree but would just say this: We are absolutely obligated to LOVE. "Giving grace" seems like it is becoming almost a catchphrase. God gives grace. We may try but we can't do it. What we can do is LOVE. Love. Love. Love. With no expectation of reciprocity. If we are not driven by return on investment then the idea of who is or is not able to be a good friend becomes a matter of where the person is in their walk with God and belief in the Gospel of Christ. If they are lacking – our OBLIGATION is then to them…not our funny or fun or cool great friend who we really like spending time with because they make us feel full and reciprocated.

  8. Alvin Lin says:

    I appreciate the thoughtful responses. I might check out Boundaries sometime — I'm not a big fan of what I understand the premise of the book to be — but it will be worth reading to see if what my perception of the book actually matches up to what the book is saying.Coachtrain — I am inclined to agree with you and I generally err on the side of me being idolatrous with friendships since I generally refer to Welch's When People Are Big and God is Small for much of my thinking with friendship, but over the last few months I've "gone back to the drawing board" and been trying to figure out how exactly Scripture speaks to this issue. A few months ago I met with a Christian counselor who was very good at helping me apply Gospel truths to my life graciously, which was extremely important because I tend to have moralistic tendencies and a performance-oriented mindset often. One point he pointed out was that even Jesus in the garden was sad/broken over the failure of his friends. There is nothing wrong with feeling that way — it's all about how we respond. Yesterday I had the blessing of speaking with this counselor again and it was encouraging because in the end when it was all whittled down — the Gospel shined through — that because of what God has done for us we are called to love, show grace, try to care for others, etc no matter the circumstances or how we feel. BUT, we can also be honest with God and lament and cry out over how we struggle with our feelings and friendships.So the way I perceive it now is that there's a tension — the Gospel is always the final say — but it isn't mere optimism or positive thinking that will get us there. Sometimes the road/path is difficult and we can acknowledge that and then run to Jesus.

  9. coachtrain says:

    AlvinAwesome post. Youve got the right counselor if you guys were able to get it pointed back to the Gospel!I love our pastor because of that very thing – it must always lead back to truth and HIM :) It can seem trite to say to people "take it to Jesus" but as Christians we know it isn't. We know that in fact, that is the ONLY way to really conquer an issue or make progress with others is through Him.It was great you go back to Scripture too…I know that I personally have issues with friendships because I tend to expect others to behave the way I do (as if I am some personal model of friendship lol) and I get disappointed when they don't…it is disheartening to wonder about someone's reciprocal care, trust or loyalty….BUT – you hit it RIGHT on the head Alvin. It IS tension..and tension is what makes us stronger, builds us into who Christ wants us to be. No growth can occur in the universe without tension first being applied!Thanks for that post – I am going to read this to our bible study group next Wednesday :) Take care all – and Praise God!:)

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Jared C. Wilson


Jared C. Wilson is the pastor of Middletown Springs Community Church in Middletown Springs, Vermont. You can follow him on Twitter.

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