Raise your hand if any of the following questions feel familiar.
Who are my friends? How do I handle conflict with my friends? Why don’t I have a best friend? And, as Mindy Kaling famously asked in her 2011 memoir, Is everyone hanging out without me?
Christine Hoover—pastor’s wife, author, and blogger at Grace Covers Me—manages to address all of these questions in her new book, Messy Beautiful Friendship: Finding and Nurturing Deep and Lasting Relationships.
The book is full of helpful stories, practical wisdom, and humbling insights. It came at a crucial time in my own life, just weeks after a weepy session of complaining to my husband about how underdeveloped my female friendships are. Hoover provides excellent guidance for my situation and also encouragement that I’m not alone in my struggle. Lots of women seem to have trouble finding that sweet spot of contentment, service, and intimacy in their friendships with other women.
To open Messy Beautiful Friendship, Hoover tells her own story. She found friendship easy as a child and young woman, but it became hard as an adult. She describes seasons of neediness alternated by apathy and, throughout, a desire for the perfect “one friend to rule them all.”
Hoover exposes this “one friend” idea as a fantasy. She uses Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s term “wish-dream” to describe the desire we all have for a best friend who makes friendship easy, fun, deep, and utterly fulfilling. Instead, she maintains, you have to be prepared to take friendship as God gives it—imperfect, difficult, and ultimately, sanctifying:
We must look to serve rather than be served, which means it’s possible that we might not be served in ways we hope. We must be ever willing to broaden the circle, which means we must have an eye for the outsider rather than an eye for how we can be insiders, and it’s possible we might be forgotten in the process. We must be willing to address sin and conflict in an appropriate way, which means it’s possible we might be rejected. We must be willing to be vulnerable, which means we might be misunderstood and grace might not be extended to us. (43)
Practical, Step-by-Step Guidance
Hoover doesn’t leave us to wonder what this means in the everyday; she provides tips on how to both instigate friendship and also deepen it.
In a section called “threats to friendship” she uses the image of fire, observing that fear of being burned can keep us from getting the fire started at all. She then describes the good friend—a “kindling-seeker”—and suggests that vulnerability is the key to “sparking” a new friendship.
In the next two sections, Hoover keeps lobbing ideas and encouragement. Sometimes we have to “get over ourselves and just go for it” (93). Have people in your home. Tell someone your story and keep asking questions until you get theirs. Open up space in your life, even though it feels safer to look and feel busy. Honor others with the simple kindness and courtesy our grandmothers understood.
Especially interesting to me was Hoover’s chapter on “naming your friends” in which she suggests making a catalogue of the women in your life as an exercise to show you “who your people are.” She provides a list of questions to help you identify these women and see how full of friendship potential your life might already be.
In the final two sections, Hoover continues with godly, practical directive. Some of it is basic, Dale Carnegie-type stuff: Listen well, be considerate on social media, demonstrate magnetic joy. Some of the directives are more explicitly biblical: Speak hard truth in love, repent when your own sin is brought to your attention, and pray faithfully.
These pointers are convicting but also revitalizing. I was convicted of complacence, self-serving fear, and sinful assumption in several friendships. I put down the book ready to get on the phone, get out the door, and engage with the women in my life.
The book isn’t always clearly organized. Yet even though some of the sections feel a little forced, the advice gets through nevertheless. Hoover’s style is easy and engaging, and her promises are measured and realistic.
Hoover uses Scripture as she can (along with great quotes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together), but on the whole, exegesis isn’t the chief business of Messy Beautiful Friendship. Instead, it’s a field guide designed to provide sanctified wisdom to help women make friends. As such, the book works, and I’ll gladly be passing it along. It’s already provided the impetus for me to go out and light some fires of my own.