Perhaps you’ve noticed the decline of friendship in contemporary culture. It’s common nowadays to have relationships through Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter, without any face-to-face contact. We “friend” and “follow” one another on Facebook, people we’ve not actually met. We participate in online “communities,” even though self-disclosure is limited to the superficial bits.
In other segments of culture, we see a hunger for transparency and vulnerability in a string of “bromantic” comedies such as Superbad or I Love You, Man—films in which two guys learn how to maintain a platonic relationship that entails a level of candor. It’s also been seen in television programs such as Broadchurch where main characters grapple with one another’s shortcomings. In either case, the message is clear: friendship is difficult.
The Challenge of Friendship
It’s not a new problem. Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430) was among the first Christian thinkers to explain the difficulty of finding and keeping friendships. Near the end of his City of God he writes:
There is no greater consolation than the unfeigned loyalty and mutual love of good men who are true friends. (19.8)
But this gift of friendship, according to Augustine, always involves a measure of trepidation and heartache. He continues:
We become apprehensive… [that these friends] may fail us in faithfulness, turn to hate us and work us harm.
If we were to identify the reason behind Augustine’s apprehension, we might use the word “vulnerability.” It is, simply put, the inescapable reality that genuine friendship always leaves us a bit exposed. For instance, here is how C.S. Lewis explains it:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable. (The Four Loves, 169)
Unfortunately, the need for vulnerability, with its attendant apprehension, keeps us from approaching others, a hesitation that impoverishes friendship. We must therefore lift our eyes above the horizon and find in the triune God the basic principles of which true friendship consists.
In this current moment, as in ancient times, men and women crave a relationship with the divine, to somehow lay hold of a transcendent reality, something greater than ourselves. For example, in the mythologies of Egypt and around the Fertile Crescent into Mesopotamia, the relational impetus of religion was routinely driven by human initiative, an ascent from earth to a transcendent deity. Despite the frenetic activity of priests working in temples, sanctuaries, and precincts of animal sacrifice, the gods of the nations were recognized as aloof, distant, and generally unapproachable.
This, however, was not the experience of Israel. From the beginning, the God of Abraham was decidedly unlike the gods of the nations, existing from eternity past in three distinct persons bound together in love—the supreme love of which all human friendships are merely a reflection. It is here, in the Persons of God, the purity and holiness of human friendship finds it source and inspiration.
Furthermore, for Israel, relationship with this Triune deity was always a movement from heaven to earth, from God to humanity. It was decidedly by divine initiative. In abundant grace and mercy, the Lord didn’t simply look down, but he came down to his people: the Creator with the created, holiness with profanity.
And although frightening in that holiness, God disclosed his character in the context of Mount Sinai where he described himself as, “The LORD, the LORD, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Exodus 34:6-7).
In revealing himself to Israel, the Lord revealed two crucial principles of godly friendship: a love that is holy and one that condescends in humility toward another person, principles that are made crystal clear in the pages of the New Testament.
The Cruciform Shape of Friendship
The Gospel narratives reveal a quality of friendship that takes our breath away. Here we have God himself, who spoke the universe into existence by the word of his power, as a speechless baby. The incarnation of perfect love coming from the womb of a teenager, set in a humble feeding trough. In tears at the side of Lazarus’ grave, washing his disciples’ feet, and ultimately on the cross where he shed his blood to the point of death—Jesus has showcased divine love through supreme vulnerability.
How does the cruciform love of Christ define and direct our friendships? Simply put, it rebukes our apprehensions toward vulnerability. Just as the cross of Christ involved rejection, so does friendship, calling us to love other sinful persons who may reject our affection. We realize that in many cases our love will never be reciprocated; it may even be scorned.
Nevertheless, we choose to love. Why? Because the Savior who calls us his friend has us to do the same: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12).
These are the cruciform contours of Christian friendship.