“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” – John 15:13
I recently finished the book Spiritual Friendship by Wesley Hill where he writes about a topic that’s not often discussed in the Church – friendship. Wesley covers the historical and theological background of the role of friendship in our society today lamenting its loss (in favor of an overinflated view of sex and marriage) and encouraging a renewed understanding of the role of friendship in the life of the believer.
So often in the North American church we hear both an emphasis on the value of marriage – finding that special someone whom God has picked out just for you – and this grand idealistic sloppy agape for one’s neighbor which amounts to the obligatory Sunday morning fake grin, firm handshake, and asking about the kids. Rarely do we ever hear a sermon on the joys of friendship or the self-sacrifice they require to be kept. Unlike the marriage covenant, the friend has no real obligation to remain with you in the bad times.
Hill writes of an unchurched couple remarking, “we have friends we go to the pub with, but we don’t have any friends who brought us meals after our baby was born.” Often our friends are those with which we are more comfortable hanging out, going to get drinks, or talking the finer points of theology than helping to bear burdens or carry losses. Ever embracing an epicurean utilitarianism, we’ll hold onto our friends as long as its convenient for us and they give us something, but as soon as conflict arises, we bail either in the form of some angry outburst or some quiet emotional seclusion. Thus, we resign ourselves to superficial friendships – those friendships that don’t require work, that don’t deserve dignity and respect, and that stay on the surface level.
I remember remarking to a friend at the beginning of the semester last year that when I graduated and left seminary I wanted it to be painful. If it were painful, then that meant that I was experiencing a loss. If I were experiencing a loss, it means that I had invested a part of myself in my community. It means that I had loved greatly.
In Andrew Sullivan’s book, Love Undetectable, the author writes
“One of the greatest poetic expressions of friendship, perhaps, is Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam.’ The deepest essay, Montaigne’s, was written about a friend who had been wrenched bitterly away from the author at an early age. Cicero’s classic dialogue on the subject was written in honor of a dead friend; so was the most luminescent medieval work, Aelred of Rielvaux’s De Spirituali Amicitia. Augustine’s spasms of grief at the death of a friend is the first time he ever really expressed the friendship he once felt, rather than simply feeling it.”
Friendship perhaps is one of those blessings that we rarely recognize until its no longer there. And if we never had it in the first place, how do we know what we are missing? How our egocentric and sociocentric beliefs on marriage and sex has robbed us!
Perhaps our beliefs on friendships stem from this idea that friendship and the love that pours from it is merely an affective state requiring no hard work. Then, our friendships fail when hard times come (or more tragically, never get off the ground). It is indeed hard work to maintain friendships and is often a difficult road to walk.
One of the points, Hill made early on that stayed with me was his acknowledgement of Christ’s statement in John 15:13. There is no greater love than when a man lays down his life for his friends. Christ did not say “There is no greater love than when a man lays down his life for his wife” but rather for his friends.
And St. Aelred of Revaulx remarked of friendship “See to what limits love should reach among friends, namely to a willingness to die for each other. ”
Christ’s greatest demonstration of love was his willingness to lay down his life for his friends. God’s glory and character is seen in the cross and the crucifixion. And make no mistake either, these “friends” of Christ end up betraying him, humiliating him, and crucifying him! By the world’s standards, Christ should have just flown away with his legion of angels. If they don’t respect him, why should he respect them? But that’s not how Christ works and that’s not what he commands. How too must we lay down our lives for our friends.
But what does that look like? Only when my friend is on a train track do I knock him aside to face the train head on? Do I pray that God would take my life instead of hers in the face of some illness? Perhaps. But perhaps there are more subtle, more difficult ways we should be bearing a cross for our friends.
One of the more detrimental sins to friendships is envy. Linking envy and covetousness together, Rebecca DeYoung writes
“But the envious and the covetous don’t want to ‘have one too.’ They want the very thing the rival has — ‘I want that one, the one she has.’ While the covetous person’s desires are focused on having an object; however, the envier is at least as concerned that her rival not have it. The covetous person delights in acquiring the thing itself, while the envier delights in the way the redistribution of goods affects her and her rival’s respective positions. Thus, it gives the envier satisfaction to see her rival’s good taken away, even if she herself does not acquire it as a result.”
For a friendship that is supposed to be about the good of the other, we would sometimes be most satisfied if our friends failed. Instead of congratulating them on their gains, how often do we view their gains as our losses (especially if it’s in the same field as we are). We say we love others in our lives, but how often do we really root for them, support them, and listen to them, instead of expecting them to be there for us? How often too do we believe that we are loving others by pointing out their faults and criticizing them openly when in reality, we’re merely attempting to tear them down to boost ourselves up?
What too of pride in our lives? Do we refuse to open up to others about our secret faults, refusing to help them share our burdens, because we don’t want to be seen as weak or pathetic? But how quick we are to bear their faults so that we can look like the valiant friend who stands over them in their weakness!
Do we praise our relationship status when the other person is doing well so that we can benefit from their social status and success only to admit that we’re really not that great of friends when our friend is down and out and in need of a hand? Do we lay potential social stigma aside to care for a friend in need? Do we go above and beyond?
This is the sinful, prideful, self-centered flesh that needs to die. The carnal nature within our being that contributes to the bitterness and pain we feel inside. This is what must be crucified at the cross.
Henri Nouwen says this of the Christian, “We indeed need each other and are able to give each other much more than we often realize. Too long have we been burdened by fear and guilt, and too long have we denied each other the affection and closeness we rightly desire.”
When we are too concerned about our own needs or when we seek to save ourselves, we lose our lives. When we love others by losing our lives by setting aside our own selfishness, we find life and joy. Maybe then we can know the greater love and have relationships the outside world would want.
It might be worthy to offer a disclaimer here. This laying down one’s life does not include someone in an abusive relationship or a toxic relationship. There is a point that we can ask and expect others to satisfy our needs in at least some capacity. Predominantly though, we are far more prideful than we claim and far more often need to lay down our pride for the sake of our neighbor.