Can I be Friends with Girls?

Let me start this post with two short anecdotes. Firstly, a couple of years ago I was rebuked by an older Christian man in my church after he saw me sharing a plate of eats with a female friend. His wife also chastised my friend, at another time. Why? Sharing a plate of food was something only a husband and wife could do and who knows how people might have perceived our breaking of bread. Secondly, two years ago I heard the testimony of a visiting pastor. Discussing his conversion he repeatedly mentioned a close friend who the Lord used extensively in bringing him to faith. They would meet up, go for coffees, and chat regularly over the phone. But after becoming a Christian, this pastor called his faithful friend up and said they could no longer be friends. Why? Because this friend was a woman and their close relationship posed a threat to his marriage.

Man and womanThis post is titled with a question: ‘Can I be friends with girls?’ But the more general question or issue I hope to begin answering is this: can we share an intimate friendship with someone that we might grow romantically attracted to? In my case, that is women. Returning to my two anecdotes, the first is little more than laughable legalism and I treated it as such. However the second is more in touch with reality and genuine Christian concerns about adultery or sexual sin. While that pastor shared this aspect of his testimony I felt that his decision was commendable but nothing to celebrate. For example, I struggle with anger on the soccer field and because of it I have periodically refrained from playing. But that is never where I want to stay, on the sidelines, for I desire to glorify God on the soccer field and not simply by avoiding it.

This brings us back to the question of this post, which I am writing as an extension of its predecessor: Six Obstacles to Friendship. After preaching on friendship recently (you can read a summary of that here) I was asked about mixed-sex friendships. And that was not the first time I have been asked the question. I also recently learnt that the question is not unique to our time and has tended towards legalism in the church. In Reading with the Reformers Timothy George paraphrases Martin Luther, “There are legalists who have so tightened the meaning of Jesus’ words against lustful gazing that they forbid all companionship between men and women…But Jesus did not call for such sequestration. He distinguished looking and lusting.” Luther went on: Jesus allowed “talking, laughing, and having a good time” with women. To George and Luther’s points I would add the fact that Jesus certainly had close female friends (John 11:5; Luke 8:1-3). Personally, I am with Jesus and – on most points – Luther.

Freudian mythI do understand the caution against intimate and vulnerable friendships between men and women, where one or both are married or even in the case that neither are. It is possible to become sexually attracted to a friend, but then it is also possible I will lust while walking through the local shopping mall. Yet I still go. Gerald Bray notes in God is Love that because Western culture is obsessed with sex there is a suspicion towards close relationships, “It is now much harder than it used to be to maintain friendships, not only between members of the opposite sex (which has always been difficult) but among those of the same sex as well.” In Spiritual Friendship, Wesley Hill goes further and challenges Christians who adopt what we might call the Freudian Myth, “The belief that sex wholly explains the depths of our most profound relationships.” Sex is not the ultimate destination, or trajectory, of love-filled and close relationships, intimate friendships or affectionate companionship. In other words, sexual intimacy is not the aim or outcome of all intimacy.

There is much more I hope to write on this question, because it seems to be one many people are unsure about. In conclusion, let me say again that avoiding deep and vulnerable friendship is a wisdom issue, not a matter of law. When pressed to the extent that I have encountered it among conservative Christians it becomes legalism. The idea that sexual attraction is the inevitable end of intimate friendship between a man and a woman is not a biblical one. Likewise, the desire for close relationships with women who are not my wife is not born from sexual desire. In the church God has created a wonderfully diverse community whereby the differences of its members are a blessing to one another. We should embrace that, with both delight and discernment.

Six Obstacles to Friendship

Friendship is a wonderful gift from God. Over the years I have gratefully enjoyed its fruits, though not without effort and commitment. On occasion I have been asked to teach on the topic, and I have tried to make that material available at Rekindle: defining friendship and its purposes as well as appreciating it as an eternal gift. Recently I was handed the privilege of preaching on the topic, so I took the chance to rework my material and supplement it.

FriendsReflecting on the many obstacles to friendship I realised that friendships must survive in a hostile environment, fraught with threats and challenges. So here are some of the obstacles to friendship that I have experienced in my own life and culture. The list is far from comprehensive and you will very likely think of more, which I hope you will add in the comments. But my intention in listing them here is to make you aware of the obstacles to friendship and encourage you to strive harder for this glorious, satisfying and sanctifying gift.

Friendship is undervalued

Like a sunroof or cupholders, we tend to think of friendship as a ‘nice to have’. We do not consider it essential but an added extra. The result of this thinking is that we have a low estimation of friendship. If you believe something is not necessary you are unlikely to think it is important. But as I argued in a previous post defining friendship biblically, “Friendship involves complete vulnerability, the joining of two people’s souls in a wonderful love that reflects the nature of God.” This should not be undervalued but undertaken with concerted devotion.

Marriage has supplanted friendship

WeddingWhile I affirm that marriage is also a tremendous gift from God I fear that an unhealthy emphasis on it means friendship is overshadowed, and friends are forgotten. We make the mistake of believing that one person (our spouse) will be able to meet all of our relational and emotional needs, as if one single relationship (marriage) removes the need for all others.

Increased mobility

We move around, relocate for work and chase our ambitions into new neighbourhoods and countries. This impermanence is relationally disorienting and probably one of the reasons marriages turn inward and become isolated. Anyone who has relocated will know that finding community and creating new friendships is challenging, and often ends in loneliness. As Rod Dreher writes in The Benedict Option, “If you are going to put down spiritual roots…you need to stay in one place long enough for them to go deep.”

Technology

Following from the previous point, perpetually moving around we convince ourselves that we can remain ‘connected’. I will admit that I am indebted to platforms such as Skype and FaceTime but mediated communication (and friendship) falls short of the true glory of friendship. Despite all the benefits of these tools, which we ought to also praise God for, they are simply no substitute. 1000 friends on Facebook cannot stave my loneliness; nor can a video call provide the physical comfort and presence of a friend when it is desperately needed.

We are suspicious of intimacy

FriendshipIn his book titled Spiritual Friendship, Wesley Hill develops what he calls the “Freudian myth”, the idea that the terminus of intimacy between two people is always romantic or sexual. On once occasion, after speaking to teenagers about friendship some of the guys came up to me and said words like vulnerability, affection and intimacy cannot exist between guys for fear of being perceived as homosexuals. We might easily laugh that off, but most adults probably limit those adjectives to romantic relationships. But when we see two friends visibly loving delighting in each other we assume they desire something more than friendship.

Unbiblical idea of masculinity

Admittedly a generalisation and perhaps this is linked with the previous point, many men I know stick to the shallows in their friendships, revelling in the superficial and bonding over the inane. A lot of people have the strange notion that being a man means independence, strength, apathy and the complete childish avoidance of anything deemed effeminate. This has not resulted in generations of impressive men but boys with serious emotional and social limitations.

So there you have it, a far from comprehensive list of obstacles to friendship in our world today. Please interact with anything I have raised or add your own below. Returning to the first point, until we are convinced that God has given us friendship and imbued it with significant potential we will settle for cheap imitations and shadows.

Friendship

Facebook friendsFriendship has been cheapened. Though we have seen no drastic shift in our lifetime I am convinced that we find ourselves in a generally negative trend with regards to friendship. The tragedy of this trend goes further than losing the richly significant role friendship once played in human life and flourishing, for I believe Christians have lost sight of the crucial role deep friendships play in discipleship and spiritual growth. The cheapening of friendship as an integral part of all of human life, and specifically Christian life, needs assessment and I hope to convince you to revaluate your own understanding of friendship in this brief post.

Defining friendship

Defining friendship is not a simple task. Biblical reference to it is thin and we have largely lost touch with the fullness and rich appreciation many cultures throughout history have attributed to it. A great place to start is to point out that the Christian God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – has never known anything less than perfect other-person centeredness as Trinity. Our God is relational; his fundamental nature consists of personal intimacy and communion.  As Christoph Schwöbel writes in his essay Recovering Human Dignity, the imago Dei means human relationality is explained by the relationality of God. Adam’s intensely relational capacity sheds light on how it was possible for him to be in a ‘not good’ condition when he walked Eden with his Creator. Because we are created in the image of our God we are created with the need for intimate and self-giving relationships.

St Paul's HouseI do not think that this deep and other-person centred intimacy should be limited to marriage, as many tend to do today. In 1 Samuel 18:1 and Deuteronomy 13:6 we are given a vivid description of friendship as ‘souls knit together.’ Michael Haykin comments that this metaphor says friends are intimate companions to each other’s innermost thoughts and feelings, bearing ideas of strong emotional attachment and loyalty. We are so caught up with the “one flesh” of Genesis 2:24 that we completely overlook the knitting of souls in holy and spiritual friendship. I love how this metaphor in some ways reflects the Trinitarian nature, for there is plurality and oneness, merged yet distinct persons. Despite the scant references to friendship in Scripture, this description alone should enrich our impoverished definition and practice of friendship.

In Spiritual Friendship Aelred of Rievaulx says, “We call friends only those to whom we have no qualm about entrusting our heart and all its contents.” Friendship involves complete vulnerability, the joining of two people’s souls in a wonderful love that reflects the nature of God. I realise some readers might find this comes too close to our definition of marriage. Perhaps that is because we operate with a biblical definition of marriage but a culturally informed definition of friendship. So we limit love to romance, intimacy to physicality, and oneness to marriage. This is far from God’s intention for the gift of friendship and a misunderstanding of the imago Dei.

The purpose of friendship

1. Hedonism. As with all good things, friendship is a gift from God to be gratefully enjoyed. Though he goes on to say more, Aelred writes, “True friendship is the fruit and reward in and of itself”. Hear Augustine in his Confessions on the pleasures of friendship, “To make conversation, to share a joke, to perform mutual acts of kindness, to read together…to share in trifling and in serious matters, to disagree though without animosity…to teach each other something…to long with impatience for those absent, to welcome them with gladness on their arrival.” Furthermore, if our friendships imitated God’s Trinitarian and self-giving relationality they would provide unending joy, security, and love. Friendship is a gift from God that is entailed in the imago Dei, yet we spend most of our lives content with vague reflections of true friendship.

Spiritual friendship2. Holiness. Moving on from the above point, friendship has to be about more than itself. Friends need a common pursuit, or shared interests and longings. We can say that there must be a shared direction. Tim Keller, in The Meaning of Marriage, writes that the best friendships are cultivated when there is something both friends are seriously committed to. To develop this point further, Aelred says that a friend desires nothing that is unbecoming and never fails to wish for what is becoming. It involves willing and not willing the same things for each other; like desires and denials. For Christian friendships, another way of putting this is the pursuit of holiness, spiritual growth and the opposition of sin. I am convinced that the greatest shared direction for any friendship is towards Christlikeness. Listen to this great quote from Gregory of Nazianzus about a close friend, “Different men have different names, which they owe to their parents or to themselves, that is, to their own pursuits and achievements. But our great pursuit, the great name we wanted, was to be Christians, to be called Christians”

3. Heaven. C.S. Lewis famously said, in The Weight of Glory, that we have never met a mere mortal. We are all eternal. Only people will last forever. The hard truth is however is that while friendship is a wonderful gift from God in the present, not all friendships will last in eternity. In Confessions, Augustine writes about a dear friend, what we might call a ‘best friend,’ who became ill and died in his twenties. Though Augustine joyfully reflects on what they had when his friend was alive, he laments what was lost: “I had poured out my soul on to the sand by loving a person sure to die as if he would never die.” He speaks of his soul being lacerated by the loss of his friend and becoming miserably inconsolable. In the post linked above I make this point: eternal friendship is only enjoyed by those who are in Christ and will be with him in glory. Friendships will tragically end on earth with death, and some will carry on into heaven. With this point we learn that friendship can be one of the most important experiences in our lives, not only because they will continue in glory but also because as Christians we can introduce others to the man who laid down his life for his friends.

Reflection on Bible College: Christian Disneyland

disneycastleI recall one of the first phone conversations I had after arriving at Bible College. Shiny shoes and starry eyes, I remember telling my mom not to worry that I was 1000+ kilometers away from home; Bible College is “like an extended church camp”. And it was. Good teaching and close knit community built around a common interest will always produce a high. More so, I would say, when that common interest is also the highest interest, namely God. The high lasted without decline for four years. Perhaps, however, it was a bit like the high of a stint in Disneyland.

I am told that Disneyland is built with a vast network of underground tunnels so that actors in costume are never found out of place as Goofy goes for a loo break or Mulan has Indian takeaways for lunch or the White Rabbit hurries through the park late for his appointment. The point is nothing in Disneyland goes wrong, vomit doesn’t have a chance to hit the floor and litter is vapourised as it leaves the negligent tourist’s hand. The world of Disneyland is surreal and fantastic – it’s designed to be, how else would it sweep you off your feet into the world of your imagination to “The happiest place on earth”? There’s only one flaw, it’s not real.

lonelyfootstepsAs I think of the time I’ve spent beyond Bible College, all 7 months of it, I realise that one of the experiences I share with many of my fellow graduates is a post-college low. It’s characterised by loneliness in some form, discouragement and possibly even lacklustre spiritual life. Of course these experiences ebb and flow and we are all now well enough equipped to deal with discouragement and spiritual struggles. I wonder, however, whether they are necessary.

Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t trade my days at Bible College for the world. I made lifelong friends there and the depth of relationship that I experienced I suspect will only ever be rivaled by marriage. I certainly wouldn’t wish anything different in my own life. In fact, the people are the biggest selling point in my mind for full time Bible College and they’re something I never would have imagined matter as significantly as they do, had I not experienced it for myself. But supposing there were another way?

Supposing the local church worked hard at training people from its own midst – perhaps resources would need to be pooled from a number of closely located local churches but the models are being developed for this sort of theological education. Now supposing instead of investing four years into the church community of George Whitefield College (because really, it was a church community, as much as I poured myself into my placement church, GWC was inevitably far more a part of my life), I poured those four years directly into the church to which I would minister in the years to come and the people who are pooled together from the vicinity for training purposes would be the ones I network with to do inter-church activities.

Maybe I haven’t solved the problem at all because I’m still pooling people together; I’m still doing “college”. I guess my friends who got married to other friends who met through college would never have crossed paths. I suppose the advantage of that sheer number of people you rub shoulders with and learn from would be lost. So maybe Bible College is the best solution but is leaving Disneyland a necessary experience?

Then again, given the option I’d rather leave Disneyland than never have been. What do you say?

Reflection: Heaven and Friendship

Grafitti by Bansky A thought came to me the other day. Large portions of our lives are spent enmeshed with the transient. So much of this life is fading away, receding from view, as we approach the horizon, moving through time’s inescapable passage. We leave things behind. And many of us won’t have the chance to return to precious memories. Friendship too can fall into that abyss of antiquity. Towards the end of my fourth year in Cape Town I noted that all the special times spent with friends were not only unrepeatable but also numbered, one less jointly juncture we would own: one less hike, possibly our last coffee, or a penultimate theological discussion. We live in the shadow of the end and we are running out of moments together.

A very good friend of mine, wise beyond her years, once told me: ‘saying goodbye creates one of the most unnatural feelings.’ The people we spend our lives with will not always be around, or even on the other end of a phone line. In Stevenson’s classic Jekyll and Hyde, Utterson says to his dear companion Lanyon, who wanted nothing more to do with Dr Jekyll: “We are three very old friends, Lanyon; we shall not live to make others.” Our lives as fraught with loss and full of the unrepeatable; we forever long for something or someone that has been.

Writing these reflections down brought another thought to mind. Towards the end of last year I went away with the leaders and boys from my youth group. For part of an evening we shared some encouragement from the year past along with what would strengthen us in the year(s) to come. I told them it was glory. The sure hope that I would see my brothers again in eternity, beyond the horizon and free from time’s relentless march. Glory is the absence of goodbyes. Each and every precious moment will not fall beneath the shadow cast by uncertainty and temporality. Our fondest memories actually provide a pattern for the future. For there will be more like them shared with the friends we have not lost.

Listen to David Brainerd’s diary entry from the 19th of August, 1742: “I prayed with [Mr Bellamy] and two or three other Christian friends, and we gave ourselves to God with all our hearts, to be His for ever. Eternity looked very near to me while I was praying. If I should never see these Christians again in this world, it seemed but a few moments before I should meet them in another world.” Brainerd understood that the world to come was resplendent with relationships, unending friendship in the undying light cast by our eternal God, the one who gives us into communion with himself and each other.

I often catch myself joking about glory, talking casually about it being an opportunity to meet and spend time with great Christian figures from the past. It very well might be. But upon reflection I cannot imagine leaving those who were dearest to me on earth for those I barely know in heaven. Now I realise this is beginning to sound quite speculative, so I will finish off. Is it not a marvel that our hope enmeshes the transient with the eternal? Friendships will continue into heaven. And while it is sometimes hard to imagine, glorified friendships will be more magnificent in the unadulterated presence of our God.

Author of Gilead, RobinsonTo close, here is a fitting quote from John Ames, in Gilead: “We know nothing about heaven, or very little, and I think Calvin is right to discourage curious speculations on things the Lord has not seen fit to reveal to us…but I believe Boughton is right to enjoy the imagination of heaven as the best pleasure of this world” (p189). What pleasures surpass real friendship?