When was the last time you felt let down by a good friend?
When was the last time you felt misunderstood, or entirely unheard?
When was the last time you struggled to resolve a conflict, and simply agreed to disagree?
When was the last time you felt betrayed, or even used?
When was the last time you questioned if that friendship was even worth pursuing anymore?
Chance are you can answer any of those above questions with “Last week” or “Yesterday” or maybe even “An hour ago!"
The Reality of Friendship
Regardless of how long you have been friends, and no matter how much you have been through together, your friendships can never fully escape the disappointment caused by the power of self-centeredness and the damaging effects of sin.
I’ll be honest: that reality sometimes makes me want to find an island to inhabit by myself, free from the risk and pain of friendships!
But God has designed for us to live in community (Genesis 2:18), and his command and prayer is that we would pursue friendship and be united with one another (see Ephesians 4 and John 17:20-26).
To live in isolation not only rejects God’s ownership over our lives, but also denies our fundamental human hardwiring. So we must continue to pursue friendship with others, but not begrudgingly or in fear.
Rather, we pursue friendship with joy because there is practical help offered to us in the Scriptures, divine grace available for our specific struggles, and beautiful blessings to experience when biblical friendship is realized!
There are many passages in the Bible that offer practical help with friendship, but one of my favorites is Ephesians 4: 1-7.
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— 55 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. 7 But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ's gift.
In this passage, we find three trademarks of a growing, healthy friendship.
1. Working Hard
The ESV uses the word “eager”, and I also like how the NIV begins verse 3: “Make every effort…”
The Apostle Paul tells us that friendships are not something that we should take for granted. They are gifts that are to be managed with great care.
At the same time, Paul is not naïve about the hard work relationships require. He knows that relationships, even among people who have the Spirit, will not be easy. (Remember, while the power of sin has been broken, the presence of sin still remains in the body of Christ.)
Considering both of those facts, we should be eager to work hard to develop and grow our friendships. I am deeply persuaded that the number one reason friendships fail is neglect. Sure, we may experience one big moment of betrayal or hurt, but most times, friendships erode due to the drip-drip-drip of sin and neither person taking the time to repair and heal the leak.
Are you eagerly working hard to develop your friendship? Or are you expecting it to grow itself?
Go out of your way to send an encouraging email or text. Call your friend on your lunch break instead of browsing Facebook. Get up early, stay up late, or put aside your hobby for an hour so you have more time in a day to dedicate to a friendship.
I’m afraid that many of us – the author of this blog post included – are just too lazy and self-oriented to invest the time in important relationships that God has placed in our lives.
2. Removing Expectations
Because of the nature of sin, each of us enter into a friendship with a self-centered agenda. “What can this person do for me?” is the default question of the human heart. But by God’s grace, we can remove those selfish expectations and ask, “How can I be used by God to love this friend?”
Ephesians 4:2 lists four character qualities that should define our lives – humility, gentleness, patience, and forbearance. Each of these will create a climate of grace that transforms our friendships.
Typically, relationships are governed by a structure of law, offense and punishment. I have a set of rules you must abide by, I'm watching to make sure you follow these rules, and if you don’t, I feel justified in meting out some form of punishment. This is a flagrant contradiction of the gospel, and it prevents the glory and worth of God’s grace from showing itself.
Where are you expecting to be served by your friend? How do you “punish” your friend when they don’t meet your expectations?
No wonder it’s hard to be friends with us! But if we, by grace, begin to remove the selfish expectations we had at the beginning of our friendship, we are freed up to love and serve with humility, gentleness, and patience, even if we are being provoked (forbearance).
3. Celebrating Diversity
The Bible celebrates and advocates diversity among the body of Christ (see Revelation 7:9). We should pursue unity, but not uniformity. That means you ought to have Christian friends who don’t share your skin color, economic status, and cultural preferences.
In the context of this Ephesians 4 passage, however, Paul is writing more about our spiritual differences. We have varying gifts, serve in a variety of capacities, and are at various levels of maturity (vv. 3-7). All of these differences are there by God’s sovereign apportionment.
Yet how often do we see diversity as a hindrance? How often are you frustrated and annoyed by the different strengths and weaknesses that your friend has?
Because we come into friendship with selfish agendas, we want our friends to fit our mold. What if we took up God’s agenda for friendship instead? That is, we celebrate the fact that God chooses to surround us with people who are different from us because he knows it will promote his purpose.
Because our friendships are grounded in the Trinity, we don’t have to be the same. There is one God, but three persons. God uses our diversity to accomplish his purpose — our growth in grace. Diversity is not an obstacle, but a very significant means to this end.
The Vision For Friendship
If I had to summarize Ephesians 4, this is what I would say: the highest joys of friendship grow in the soil of the deepest struggles.
Struggles are not obstacles, but instruments in God’s hands. Every struggle is an opportunity to experience God’s grace yourself and give it to the other person.
Every day in your friendship, you are either pursuing your selfish agenda or God's agenda. Take advantage of grace, follow God, and see the strong healthy friendship that results!