I want someone to care about me.
I have noticed this common desire held by friends and non-friends alike in my city. While people hardly ever speak this pointedly, such exact words are not necessary.
My Christian friends speak of a desire for true community, while my non-Christian friends speak of a desire for more intimate relationships. On more than one occasion, strangers in town have told me of their bitter relationship woes. One senior citizen told me she was still reeling from the recent death of her spouse. Another confessed she was hiding from her abusive husband. Another described how her religious relatives ostracized her after she, an unmarried woman, became pregnant. Men I encounter have the same need. Some tell me of the vacuum left by childhood abuse, and others admit the presence of crushing loneliness. Some of these men are married yet crave unfulfilled intimacy. One would expect the perspectives of Christians to be more hopeful, but I have found that believers are just as hungry for care in their own unique ways.
Our neighbors are asking themselves Why can’t I find intimacy? If I cannot find intimacy in the church, where can I find it? Non-married Christians feel this need regularly, and even some married among us feel this void in their own hearts. As with many contemporary issues, ancient writers provide valuable insight. Consider these words by several of ancient history’s greatest minds and identify the shared concept of intimacy in friendship. See if you can identify which of these are from the Bible.
A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.
Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.
Friendship holds cities together.
It is true, in the case of the serious person, that he does many things for the sake of both his friends and his fatherland, and even dies for them if need be.
The mere presence of friends is pleasant in both good fortunes and misfortunes, the pain of those who are suffering being alleviated when their friends share it with them.
Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.
Is it not the unfeigned confidence and mutual love of true and good friends our one solace in human society, filled as it is with misunderstandings and calamities?
I have written these here in the order in which they were written in history. The first two are from the Bible (Proverbs 18:24 and Ecclesiastes 4:9-12), the third, fourth, and fifth are from the Greek philosopher Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics, Books 8-9), the sixth is from Jesus (John 15:13), and the final one is from Saint Augustine (City of God, XIX, 8). Each of these writers lived in radically different cultural contexts, yet each identified a similar human need.
If these words are true, then we may have located our problem: perhaps we cannot find intimacy because we cannot or will not find friendship.
Where is intimate friendship to be found? I believe that the church as I know her has exiled friendship in a failed attempt to revive the intimacy of marriage. From my perspective, my church culture generally views friendship with suspicion because it threatens the perceived purpose of marriage, which exists to populate the earth and encourage a man to “settle down” with a woman whose “clock is ticking.” At best, friendship is viewed as a means to an end and at its worst, a tragic distraction.
Protestant Christians may be surprised to learn that married life with a “full quiver” of children has not always been the highest relational ideal. Indeed, for much of church history, celibacy and the unmarried state were not only prescribed for those who wanted to go the extra mile in their spirituality but were expected requirements for the clergy. Therefore, unmarried Christians found intimacy in both their spiritually and literally close friends. Martin Luther and the Reformers soundly exterminated mandatory clerical celibacy, but the awkward fact remains: many Christians from the past prioritized close friendships in a way that would make us suspicious or uncomfortable today.
Yet how different is our vision compared to the ancient vision of friendship? Notice the intensity of these descriptions. We stand at the end of a long line of wise men and women who knew the value of friendship and prioritized it accordingly. Jesus describes our relationship with God as a friendship. “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” Jesus calls his disciples (then and now) his friends because he makes known to them the truth of God. Imagine the hope we could offer to the lonely among us if we made known the truth of God in friendship. Imagine how God would bless our own health as believers if we invited intimate friends into our closed systems and disclosed ourselves for solid criticism and love.
Let us pray for God to restore to us today to a true view of friendship, let us repent of our disdain for God’s blessing of friendship, and let us remove the sentence of exile and invite friendship home.