August 29, 2018

What is Christ-Centered Friendship?

Next week marks a brand new season of By Faith, in which we'll explore different facets of friendship from a biblical perspective. In anticipation of the first episode, I hope the following article, originally published on Tabletalk, will set the table well.
Friendship is vital to our growth and endurance as Christians but is not often the type of relationship we dissect in the Church. Perhaps friendship is not much at the forefront because we assume it should develop naturally and happily, when in fact brotherly and sisterly love requires much supernatural forbearance and practical skill. In the absence of biblical thought and teaching, we tend toward a distorted and often self-oriented understanding of what friendship should be. Therefore, it is not only important that we have and instill in others a deep understanding of biblical friendship, but that we also ensure our own friendships are centered on Christ. 

What is Christian friendship?
We will of course engage friendships with non-Christians in our everyday lives, but we must first consider the health of those relationships that fulfill Jesus’ command to “love one another” in such a way that “all people will know that [we] are [his] disciples” (John 13:35). These are our friendships within the Church.

An understanding of friendship begins with God himself. The first friendship began when God extended his hand toward humanity. In the very beginning, he sought out the company of those he’d created. Consider: the Trinitarian God enjoyed perfect friendship, but he wanted others to share in that fellowship, so he created man and woman, and he walked with them as friends. Adam and Eve, as we know well, marred that friendship through sin, but God responded by extending friendship to us even further through Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). And he did indeed lay down his life so that the hostility that had marred our intimacy with God could be restored. Now, if our faith is in Christ, we have fellowship with God once again.

Why must we know redemptive history when defining friendship? God’s initiation and demonstration of friendship is the foundation of brotherly and sisterly love, for “we love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Without this knowledge, or sometimes even in spite of it, we trade God’s love for people’s and look toward them for only what God can give: unconditional love, all-knowing intimacy, perfect provision, and soul security.

So many of our issues in friendship arise because we think people should respond as God does or we assume God responds to us as imperfect people do. When we attempt to find our security and value solely in human friendship, we become idolaters: “For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13).

One way we can know that our friendships are centered on Christ, then, is if we are consistently enjoying the friendship of God. When we know his daily companionship, we also know his ability to love, know, and care for us is limitless and without flaw, and human friendship can be enjoyed in its proper, secondary place.

And so, biblical friendship is securing ourselves to the sure, steadfast anchor of Christ and, while holding to that anchor, giving and receiving the gift of friendship to others as he gives us opportunity. The goal is to enjoy God together with other Christians and, as we move through life, sharpen and allow ourselves to be sharpened by friends.

Giving and Receiving the Gift of Friendship
As we hold to him and look to him for ultimate friendship, we can extend love out to others in imitation of how he first extended himself to us. Biblical friendship not only starts with God and is modeled for us by Christ, but it ends with him too. He is the object of our love toward others.

Keeping him as the object of our love and worship is the only way we can extend friendship out toward others without constantly looking for something in return or having demanding expectations of others. A Christ-centered friendship will not demand more from friendship than God intended it to give. In other words, we mustn't demand perfection from imperfect people, nor seek some ideal version of Christian community that will always elude us on earth. Christ-centered friends remember that the gift of human friendship, though from a perfect Gift-giver, comes to us in the form of imperfect people who will disappoint and hurt us, as we will them.

When we demand our visionary ideal of what we think friendship ought to be, we become self-seeking: Who is serving me? How is the church providing me community? How are others making me feel? Who is inviting me? What’s in this relationship for me? This focus stands in contrast to Christ’s example, who said he came to serve rather than be served.

Christ-centered friendship is about serving the other, asking ourselves how God might use us in our friend’s life and how he might want to use them in ours. We serve the other as more important than ourselves, believing Jesus’ words that it is more blessed to give than to receive. We also trust that initiating, serving, and loving another invites friendship but we don’t expect or demand a reciprocal response.

Where Does Our Friendship Point?
Finally, Christ-centered friendship always considers how we might point our friends toward Christ rather than back toward ourselves. John the Baptist, when many wanted to elevate his ministry and set him up as a type of competitor to Jesus, said plainly, “I am not the Christ” (John 3:28). Instead, he rejoiced in Christ as the Bridegroom and himself as the Bridegroom’s friend.

We do well to think rightly of our place in friendship, for we are not the Christ. Do we imagine ourselves as a type of savior to our friends, one who must have the right words to say, the answer to every problem, the “fixer” of all that is wrong for them? Do we hope to be revered, admired, in control, or validated in some way in the friendship? To set ourselves up as their Christ distorts and ultimately destroys the friendship. We are not the Christ, but we know the Christ, and our goal in Christ-centered friendship must always be to consistently point our friends to this perfect Friend as their true hope.

Consider Your Friendships
It is right and good to consistently consider our friendships, allow God to search our hearts, and test and see that he is in fact at the center of them. Are we daily enjoying the friendship of God? Are we seeking to serve rather than to be served? Are we unwrapping the gift of friendship with others as he gives it—through imperfect people? And are we pointing our friends to the hope found in Christ? If so, our dearest Friend is blessed and honored, our friends resemble family more than anything else, and we? We are rich indeed.