Even before the pandemic forced many of us into relative isolation, Americans were feeling increasingly lonely. In one pre-COVID survey, more than 3 in 5 people reported feeling poorly understood and hungry for companionship.
We human beings are hardwired for connection. Our well-being depends upon belonging. Superficial contact alone will not nurture our souls. To thrive we need intimacy. We need friends.
In his work Spiritual Friendship, the medieval monk Aelred of Rievaulx put it this way:
“How happy, how carefree, how joyful you are if you have a friend with whom you may talk as freely as with yourself, to whom you neither fear to confess any fault nor blush at revealing any spiritual progress, to whom you may entrust all the secrets of your heart and confide all your plans. And what is more delightful than so to unite spirit to spirit and so to make one out of two that there is neither fear of boasting nor dread of suspicion? A friend’s correction does not cause pain, and a friend’s praise is not considered flattery.”
It’s good to have business contacts, coworkers, and buddies to kill time with, but we yearn for something more. We want to be seen, to be known, to be loved as the work in progress that we really are by someone committed to helping us become our true selves. And we want to offer that same gift in return. Friends do that for each other.
Our life will get messy, and we don’t want to go through it alone. We take comfort in and draw strength from the assurance that somebody will show up and go through it with us. No matter what. In other words, friends don’t let friends navigate heartbreak, joy, disappointment, triumph, weariness, or delight alone.
Here’s how Jesus described the essence of friendship: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13) And if you think that’s a tall order, try this on for size. Jesus tells us to show that kind of love—to be that kind of friend—to everybody.
Still, if you hear Jesus out, his commandment to love—and that’s what it is, a commandment—isn’t some impossible task he expects us to accomplish all on our own. For starters, Jesus has already made the first move. He says, “I do not call you servants any longer…, I have called you friends.” (John 15:15)
In Looking for God in Messy Places, I explain what Jesus means when he calls us his friends:
“Wisdom is at the heart of the relationship that Jesus had with his friends. Jesus was divine wisdom incarnate…. Wisdom is the art of doing the loving, God-shaped thing in all the varied, changing, and nuanced situations that life hands us. Jesus reached out in friendship to Andrew, Peter, John, and the rest from the very first. He offered to impart his wisdom to them. As we read in the Wisdom of Solomon, this is what made them friends of God: “In every generation [Wisdom] passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets; for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom.” (Wisdom 7:27b-28)
Jesus was echoing Wisdom Literature when he said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). When we love like him, when we devote ourselves to the well-being of others and to the healing of this world, we are braiding our lives together with his. Already on this side of the grave we begin participating in the eternal life embodied by the risen Jesus.” (Looking for God in Messy Places, pp. 110-111)
As it turns out, our longing for friendship is a holy longing.