This paper is a reflection on friendship, which explores the theme from a personal point of view, while also considering the writings of others on the subject. I will consider what friendship is and on what basis it operates, before thinking about intimacy – what it is and what it is not. I will then reflect personally about friendship and conclude by thinking about friendship as being holy ground.
Does the heart of any person not cry out for friendship? And God is a person, too. Join me on the voyage of discovery aboard the USS Friendship, and let your heart be fed with gentle thoughts and chosen words that, hopefully, may seem like honey to your lips.
WHAT IS FRIENDSHIP?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a friend is “A person joined by affection and intimacy to another, independently of sexual or family love.” Friendship, therefore, is the description of the relationship that exists between two friends. Since the word ‘intimacy’ was used in the definition of a friend, this is much more than mere acquaintance or knowledge; for, though the word ‘friend’ may be commonly used (and abused), I believe that the reality of friendship is much rarer than the common usage of the term would imply.
Our individualistic society casts a deep shadow over the concept of community, and therefore over friendship. Indeed, today’s world, which almost cares about the rights of any one individual more than it does about the rest of the planet, has tarred friendship with the brush of connotation and innuendo – and we have lost the loveliness of friendship as a result. This is easily demonstrated by two men saying that they have an intimate relationship – what immediately springs to your mind?
The way that Jesus demonstrated his friendship would be seized upon today by the tabloid press as Moltmann-Wendel points out: “Christ touched people, stroked them, kissed them, smeared them with spittle; he brought wholeness and healing. Kissing, stroking, spittle were means of communication for him.” Such forms of communication now seem to be the exclusive possession of sexual intimacy, and the church – and the world at large – have been robbed of something beautiful; the tragedy is that we haven’t even realised it.
Moltmann-Wendel says that for Jesus and his disciples and the culture in which they lived, “Activities which had previously not been addressed or had belonged merely in a private intimate realm like kissing, caressing, touching, became open to a new interpersonal way of relating to one another.” Our sophisticated and technological world is the poorer for letting the thief of friendship do his work unopposed. Little wonder, then, that Moltmann-Wendel titled her book, “Rediscovering Friendship”.
THE BASIS OF FRIENDSHIP
How are we to rediscover friendship? And on what basis does friendship exist? The answer must be that we rediscover friendship tenderly, for “The essence of friendship is entireness, a total magnanimity and trust” as Emerson says, but this essence has been extensively diluted in today’s world. In relation to friendship, Emerson has spoken of the need of “an absolute running of two souls into one” and this is a wholly appropriate way to describe the growth of friendship; but to speak in such a way in the public eye today would be to court rumour, scandal and accusation. Or simply scorn.
Nevertheless, the basis of real friendship is precisely that of two souls running into one and exploring the intimate knowledge of each other. As the Church Without Walls report declared: “Here friendship is about commitment to each other (“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”) and openness with each other (“I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have heard from my Father”)”.
Such friendship is time-consuming, energy-consuming and thought-consuming but, “if we follow Jesus in that kind of friendship, it will transform our approach to children and young people, our relationships as church members, our understanding of team ministry, our mission in our communities, our inter-church relationships and our international viewpoint.” Little wonder that the Church Without Walls report recommended that “the church recover the lost art of Christian friendship.”
All too often in our world today, everything consists in what the individual wants to get and wants to have – sex, politics and money are supreme examples; but a friend wants to give, and it is the true giving of one’s self to another in friendship which is all but unknown today. Yet we were not designed to be islands or billiard balls, nor any other way of speaking of the individualistic individual; but to look around our world today is to see that “obsession with oneself (narcissism) is a deadly virus in our mainly affluent western society” as the Baptist Union of Scotland pointed out.
Friendship is always about the other, and friendship was God’s idea and creation. For God so loved the other that he gave his only Son, and Jesus, who was the exact representation of the Father, was known as the ‘friend of sinners’. But God’s created friendship goes much further back than that. Let us journey back into the Old Testament and discover a powerful, divine friendship that changed history.
Scripture speaks of an intimate friendship between two men, and yet there is a paradox in the way that it does so. David and Jonathan became one in spirit, and loved each other as his own self. They made a covenant together because of their love, and vowed their friendship in the name of the Lord. Jonathan invested himself in David, giving the younger man his robe, tunic, sword, bow and belt. Their intimacy was expressed in embrace and tears, in the finding of strength in God, in being together when they near and together when they were apart.
Yet here is the paradox. They did not talk about their relationship to others, they simply lived it. Their intimacy would have been obvious to all, yet no-one is recorded as having gossiped about them. There was no innuendo, no accusation, no scandal. Their relationship was respected as being holy ground, but no such holy ground is respected today.
The paradox is even greater, for even the Bible itself has very little to say about their relationship. Yet we are given one glimpse into their depth of friendship in a verse of Scripture that would baffle today’s world: “I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women.”
Where is that intimacy of friendship today? Jesus himself knew that depth of friendship with ‘the disciple that Jesus loved’. John had an intimate knowledge of Jesus that no-one else had. It is only John who really records Jesus’ humanity – Anger 2:12-25, Thirsty and tired 4:1-26, Servanthood 13:1-20 and so on. There are names and details that appear only in John’s gospel, facts which only John reveals, and an intimacy that is unmatched elsewhere. The other disciples did not speak of their relationship, and the occasional reference or hint that they record merely makes clear that they regarded the relationship between Jesus and John as holy ground. No such holy ground exists today. Or does it?
Moltmann-Wendel has rediscovered the lost significance for her as Jesus being her friend, and she wonders why this “theology of tenderness’” has not been written of more in our society. I believe that what she has to say is staggeringly important for Christians today, but there is a great danger that she will not be listened to because she writes as a feminist theologian who seems to suggest that the only true friendship to be found is between women. I suspect that many men (and women) who cannot accept this will simply dismiss the argument as a whole. But, for me too, friendship is a rediscovery, and the friend that I discover also discovers me.
WHOSE FRIEND AM I?
Emerson declares that “The scholar sits down to write, and all his years of meditation do not furnish him with one good thought or happy expression; but it is necessary to write a letter to a friend, – and forthwith troops of gentle thoughts invest themselves, on every hand, with chosen words.” Those who have not known real friendship will hardly be bothered to read those words of Emerson. They will seem silly, perhaps even childish. And, truth to tell, I am no scholar; but, nevertheless, let troops of gentle thoughts now be expressed in chosen words which reveal the depths of intimacy of which a human being is capable. This human being, anyway. Like Alistair Ross, “I want space and freedom in order to discover me” and it is God who gave that space and freedom to me.
It has been said that you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family. If that is so, I wonder how good we are at choosing our friends? Jonathan and David became ‘one and spirit’, Jesus and John knew mutual intimacy, and the God who loves me has united me with a friend. But what is a friend?
A friend is one whose spirit and heart have been joined to mine. A friend is one who has been given divine love for me and me for him; that divine love which causes rivers of living water to flow between us. A friend is one for whom I would give not just my life, but each moment of my life. A friend is one in whom I invest all my trust; to whom I make myself wholly accountable. A friend is one who owns my space and my freedom. A friend is one in whom I can discover the person and presence of God as my friend makes the same discovery in me. A friend is one in whom my human creativity is a reflection of divine creativity, and for us to express together our creativity is itself a form of worship before our creative God. A friend is one with whom I can dream; together we can dare to believe God. My friend and I are not merely linked individuals, but we are “a love movement, an interweaving dance of participation.” I am the richest man on earth; I have a friend. A friend who walks on holy ground with me.
The Trinity has been described by Pinnock as an “open and dynamic structure”, a “loving community”, the “ultimate in community, mutuality and sharing”, and this is surely also what true friendship is. Like the Trinity itself, the togetherness of friendship is not, according to MacLeod, some “mere proximity; it is face-to-face relationship, rich in self-expression, rich in glorious out-goingness, rich in what we might almost call its external extrovertness, the outward-lookingness of the divine agape.” In speaking of Christians together, Grenz states that we should not focus on solitary human persons, but “persons-in-community.” “Therefore,” he says, “community is not merely an aspect of human life, for it lies within the divine essence.” So, I suggest, does friendship.
Therefore I agree with Hans Van Der Gees who wrote that “friendship is a better pattern of orientation for the pastor than preaching or ministry.” Before Jesus was my Lord, he was a friend of me the sinner. It was Jesus being my friend that enabled him to be my Lord.
“If we follow Jesus in that kind of friendship, it will transform our approach to children and young people, our relationships as church members, our understanding of team ministry, our mission in our communities, our inter-church relationships and our international viewpoint.” In short, it will transform society. Then we will discover that friendship “may be the key to many locked doors.”
Therefore I, too, would call us who are Christians to rediscover friendship; to discover again the holy ground of intimacy; to share our space and our freedom with another. The Spirit of God will lead us in this, for friendship originates with God and proceeds from him. So – join me in this! And, as has been said by Johnson, “Let us live! Let us love! Let us share the deepest secrets of our souls! You first.”
Baptist Union of Scotland, Heart, Mind and Mission, (Glasgow, Baptist Union of Scotland, 2001)
Paul S Fiddes, Participating In God, (London, Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd, 2000)
The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, The Report of the Special Commission anent Review and Reform, ‘A Church without Walls’, available on the Internet from: www.churchwithoutwalls.org.uk
Stanley J Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, (Carlisle, Paternoster Press, 1994)
Derric Johnson, Did You See That?, (Nashville, Thomas Nelson Inc, 2000)
Donald MacLeod, ‘The Doctrine of the Trinity’, Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology, Vol 3 No 1, Spring 1985, pages 11-21
Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel, Rediscovering Friendship, (London, SCM Press, 2000)
Clark Pinnock and others, The Openness Of God, (Carlisle, InterVarsity Press, 1994)
Alistair Ross, Evangelicals In Exile, (London, Darton, Longman and Todd, 1997)
Editor: Paul Sherman, R W Emerson, Essays, (London, Dent, 1984)
James Thwaites, The Church Beyond The Congregation, (Carlisle, Paternoster Press, 1999)
Rob Warner, 21st-Century Church, (Eastbourne, Kingsway Publications, 1999)