“The world is a harsh and lonely place, filled with judgmental people and evil forces that conspire to keep you from being authentic and living the life of your choice. We need friends to cheer us on, to affirm our deepest desires, and to celebrate our self-definition.”
That’s a pretty common understanding of friendship nowadays, with its requirement of a friend to accept you, no matter what. Friendship means acceptance. Unqualified. Total. Constant.
Acceptance Plus Aspiration
But the older definition of friendship mixes the idea of acceptance with aspiration. Yes, your friend accepts you—warts and all—but one purpose of friendship is to call you to the best possible version of yourself, to help you aspire to an ideal. It’s not acceptance only. It includes the call to something higher.
This older, aspirational side of friendship is less prevalent today. We expect our friends to not only accept our flaws and failures but to celebrate them as part of our beauty. The world is already so harsh; the last thing you want is someone close to be critical or to call you out when you’re going down the wrong path. We need friends to cheer us on and never question our decisions.
The affirmation-only style of friendship looks good on the surface, and no wonder it’s become mainstream. But the result is a reduced understanding of friendship. Deep down, we know we don’t measure up. We know we could be better. So, when someone compliments us in areas where we know we could improve, we stop trusting them. All those words of affirmation feel superficial because they never capture the older, aspirational side of friendship.
Because we don’t believe we’re hearing the truth about how good we are (or how negligible our flaws may be), we double down and demand even more affirmation. We need more friends to tell us we’re wonderful and worthy, to overcome the superficiality of compliments we’ve come to expect (but no longer trust).
What does this notion of friendship look like in the Christian realm? A gathering of people who, in the name of friendship, coddle you in your sins. The new definition of friendship excludes anyone who would call you out for your wrongdoing or call you up to a higher ideal.
For example, if you lash out in anger at your kids, this is the friend who turns that sinful reaction into something smaller. You’re just feisty. I love that fire in you. You’ve been under so much stress lately. I’m surprised you don’t lash out more often! It’s a way of spinning the sinfulness of our actions, trying to make bad look good, or at least make sin look less significant.
In Proverbs, we read that the one who seeks sinful desires will tend to self-isolate (Prov. 18:1), but it’s also true that those with sinful desires will seek out counselors who minimize and coddle their failures.
This is one way self-pity maintains a grip on our hearts, as one our most underestimated and besetting sins—we look for friends to nurture our self-pitying tendencies. C. S. Lewis warned about the “ache that leads men to concede what should not be conceded and to flatter when they should speak truth.” Self-pity turns your gaze to yourself and your wounds. Fighting self-pity requires looking up to the crucified Jesus. By his wounds we are healed. And fighting self-pity requires looking to friends who show that beautiful combination of aspiration and acceptance we find in Christ himself—the Friend who sticks closer than a brother.
True Christian Friendship
True Christian friends accept you despite your flaws, but they lead you to aspire to new moral heights. Acceptance and aspiration.
True Christian friends understand the pervasiveness and pull of sin. They’re not shocked by your misstep. They don’t make you feel worse than you already feel. They don’t heap judgment and guilt upon you. But neither do they excuse or minimize your sin. They see something better in you. They know the work of Christ and trust the power of the Spirit. They call you away from sin because they’re calling you to holiness, to the Christlikeness that marks your destiny.
A true friend loves you enough to look past your present failures and focus your eyes on future grace. “Watch out, brothers and sisters,” wrote the author of Hebrews, “so that there won’t be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God” (3:12). What’s one way of avoiding an unbelieving heart? “Encourage each other daily, while it is still called today, so that none of you is hardened by sin’s deception” (3:13).
Encouraging, not excusing. Courage, not coddling. That’s what friendship in a Christian key must look like.
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