We sometimes mistakenly assume that our life with God is an entirely solitary endeavour; a private spirituality. It pertains only to our selves, and relates solely to the inward focus our lives. Of course, our life of faith does involved the inward stuff of our lives. Our focus on the presence of Christ and our desire to live in step with His Spirit is deeply personal to each of us. Yet it is also true that we live our lives in the midst of a myriad of relationships.
Faith does not call us to isolated caves. It does not require us to cut ourselves off from those with whom we have established relationships. In fact, the call of God on our lives points us to the need for deep relationships and friendship. Our friendships as the very backdrop in which we hear the call to live amidst the presence of God.
This should not be surprising if we consider that our Lord relational in nature. The incarnation of God was an incarnation into social relationships. Jesus never stood aloof or removed, but entered into the deepest elements of humanity. Jesus himself expressed his mission was one of friendship. “No greater love has anyone than this, that they lay down their life for his friends.” He further describes those who focus on his presence and will in their lives as his friends. (John 15:13-15) More profoundly still, even in the shadow of the cross, at the very moment of betrayal, Jesus still referred to the one who rejected him as ‘friend.’ (Matthew 26:50)
Because friendship is central to life with God, our friendships, therefore, become central to our life in God. Aelred of Rievaulx, a twelfth-century abbot, wrote a book called Spiritual Friendship, in which he observed that ‘I am convinced that true friendship cannot exist among those who live without Christ.’ This is because friendship calls us to express a deep self-giving love to another. It calls us away from the self, from self focus, and from the desire to see others as mere means to our own ends, and embrace the other fully and completely. Sacrificial love receives the other and therefore receives the God in whose image they have been cast. Thus, true, authentic, self-giving love, indispensable to friendship, can only be rightly understood in light of Christ’s sacrifice for us.
Is it possible to see friendship as its own spiritual discipline? Instead of observing our spiritual disciplines by ourselves, alone in our inner chambers, what if we involved our friends? Of course, a little introspection is in order. We examine our friendships on the basis of faithful connection and support, born in love, not on pleasantries or chit-chat. We ask ourselves, how deeply do I know and love the other? How deeply am I known and loved?
James Houston, in his book The Transforming Friendship, remarks that friendship has been undervalued in contemporary religiosity. We simply do not see our friendships and constituting the tapestry in which we live out the Kingdom of God. It is something separate, pertaining only to entertainment and frivolity. Because of this, the decision to involve our friends into our life of faith can seem daunting and scary. We are afraid that we will come across as spiritual zealots or that our faith will become a wedge between the previously held relationship. Yet true friendship must embrace the deepest things of the soul, unreservedly. It is both in the risk of full self-disclosure and the grace found in acceptance where the Kingdom of God is lived out in our friendships.
This week is filled with plenty of time to touch base with your friends. Find a time to connect with one or two of them. Go for coffee. Go for a beer, or glass of wine. Go golfing, or bowling, or simply sit and watch tv together. What matters more than what you ‘do’ is the spirit in which you engage with your friends. Move deeper in your relationship by sharing the deep things of your spirit. Share your faith, your prayers, and your spiritual experiences. Offer to pray for your friend; ask them to pray for you.
There is a big difference between social companions, casual acquaintances, and rich and satisfying spiritual friendship that is rooted in the presence of God. It is this friendship that Jesus himself modelled, and that we are called into.