What makes friendship distinctly Christian?
I have the privilege of sitting across tables from numerous women, many of whom are asking some form of this question. They don’t know they’re asking this question when they’re considering how to respond to a broken relationship, a wound from a friend, or the feeling of being left out, but they’re asking it all the same:
How do I practice friendship by faith and in step with the Spirit?
Distinctly Christian Friendship
I too have asked this question. Friendship came easily in my youth, but after college, when work and responsibilities devoured most of my time and energy, I found myself adrift in years of relational loneliness, finally concluding I’d lost the ability to make friends altogether. The resulting insecurity and self-isolation led to my own shame, envy, and bitterness toward others for not coming toward me with friendship, and even frustration at God that, despite being a good gift-giver, he was inexplicably withholding the gift of friendship from me.
My understanding of the gospel of grace hadn’t yet come into focus. When God kindly awakened me to his true character and love for me, I was changed in a million different ways, and none more than how I related to other women. Knowing how God had moved toward me when I was an unworthy sinner, how could I not then move toward others? The gospel supernaturally compelled me outward (2 Cor. 5:14–15), toward others, in imitation and in honor of my King. The gospel helped me understand that being an initiator—with love, service, sacrifice, forgiveness, and grace—makes friendship distinctly Christian.
In Befriend: Create Belonging in an Age of Judgment, Isolation, and Fear, Scott Sauls, senior pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, digs deep into this distinction. He makes a case for “real friendship,” as opposed to the digital, transactional, or one-dimensional kind. Real friendship is “the multilayered kind that exposes us to the grit of our own and each other’s lives; the kind that positions us to love across the lines of our differences; the kind that leads us to lay down our lives for each other’s sake” (4).
Again, the key to enjoying real friendship is being an initiator: “Real friendship happens when we move toward the people we are most tempted to avoid” (6).
Sauls’s book isn’t a how-to manual on friendship. He isn’t giving us a treatise on how to ask someone to meet up for coffee. Rather, he is describing a level of initiation, of moving toward others, that may be uncomfortable, challenging to our own perspectives, and costly. This approach isn’t only inviting to those who desperately need a warm invitation; it also changes us in the process.
And he offers us the great “why” behind the “what” of our relationships: to love others as Jesus has loved us.
In 20 short essays, Sauls gives examples of individuals or groups the gospel will compel us toward, including prodigals, Pharisees, dysfunctional family members, children, the grieving, the poor, the rich, the vulnerable, and bullies.
Sauls offers a biblical perspective on each type of person, even a mini theology lesson. I believe the most salient and helpful chapters relative to our day are his exhortations on befriending sexual minorities, different races from our own, and those who vote differently politically. Concerning those of different ethnicities, he talks of moving toward others and putting ourselves in a position to listen and learn. Speaking of how he’s done this as a white man, he writes:
What I am learning is how important it is for me as part of the majority to talk less and listen more to the minority voice. I’m starting to see that because I haven’t lived the minority experience and because I have for all my life “reaped comfort from being white” in a white-dominated society, I should be quick to listen and slow to speak. I should presume less, offer fewer solutions, and ask a lot more questions. For only when I listen to the pain of the minority am I able to love across the lines of difference in ways that are helpful and not hurtful. (126)
On mixing friendship and politics, he observes:
Under Jesus, political loyalties lose their ultimacy. People who disagree with each other politically can also enjoy friendship and common ground as they identify first and foremost as followers of Jesus. Whenever this happens, worldly methods like caricature, spin, and partisan absolutism fade from their politics. (175)
Rich with Friendship
Befriend put words to what happened in my heart when the gospel took hold: Knowing Jesus and all he’s done for us compels us outward to love and serve “the other.” As I read the book, I nodded along at the theological perspectives. It is a solid, gospel-rich book.
But what if, I thought to myself, I actually acted on what Sauls encourages? My life would look radically different—in a good way. I’d be less focused on myself and more interested in others (Phil. 2:3–4). I’d learn and grow from differing understanding. And I’d be rich with friendships.
What if we collectively, as the church, were known as befrienders?