Friendship is hard

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Friendship is hard

True Friendship – Article Series
1. True Friendship (Part 1)
2. True Friendship (Part 2)

3. Friendship is hard
4. Why Friendship matters
5. What is distinctive about Christian Friends
6. Forgiveness (Part 1)
7. Forgiveness (Part 2)

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After David had finished talking with Saul, Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself. From that day Saul kept David with him and did not let him return home to his family. And Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself. Jonathan took off the robe he was wearing and gave it to David, along with his tunic, and even his sword, his bow and his belt. Whatever mission Saul sent him on, David was so successful that Saul gave him a high rank in the army. This pleased all the troops, and Saul’s officers as well. When the men were returning home after David had killed the Philistine, the women came out from all the towns of Israel to meet King Saul with singing and dancing, with joyful songs and with timbrels and lyres. As they danced, they sang: “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.” Saul was very angry; this refrain displeased him greatly. “They have credited David with tens of thousands,” he thought, “but me with only thousands. What more can he get but the kingdom?” And from that time on Saul kept a close eye on David.
~ 1 Samuel 18:1-9 (NIV)

Friendships are difficult and we have been, or will be, hurt by those around us. I have been mistreated, taken for granted, and used by people who I would have called my friends. But, at the same time, I have also mistreated, taken for granted, and used people who I have called friends. This post is about acknowledging the fact that relationships with others hurt, and trying to diagnose why that may be the case.

Friendship hurts

If friendship is a deliberate commitment to loving another, then that means that it is about the other person. It is not about us trying to use another, but rather is about giving ourselves for the benefit of another. And to love another means to become vulnerable. As CS Lewis says,

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. ~ CS Lewis, ‘The Four Loves’

This is a profound quote, and it gets to the heart of the fact that in committing to love another we are opening ourselves up to being hurt.

Now, keep in mind that this series is about trying to examine what true friendship looks like from a Christian worldview. We must acknowledge that there are other conceptions of friendship that are seen in the world. For example, friendship can be seen as a means of networking to further your own status in the world. In such a view, friends can be made to enjoy their company, but ultimately the goal is to be able to gain access to their connections and to gain benefits for yourself. Perhaps you have done this yourself? Or perhaps you have been the victim of this?

I think that this is the sort of friendship that the Bible has in mind in Proverbs 19:4 and 19:6-7, where the rich and the ones who give a lot are said to have many friends whereas poor people would have friends desert them. I don’t think that these Proverbs are to be interpreted as what ‘should’ be the case but, rather, these are ‘general principles’ for what tends to happen. We live in a world where people friend others for their own benefit instead of out a commitment to love the other person. And we ourselves can end up doing this when the reason why we want to commit to a person isn’t to love them, but to gain from them, to get close to them, or to use them as a stepping stone to someone or something else.

David, Saul, and Jonathan

In 1 Samuel we see two relationships that serve as case studies: David and Saul, and David and Jonathan. It should be noted that the word ‘friendship’ only explicitly shows up to describe the relationship between David and Jonathan (in the NIV translation of 1 Samuel 20:42) but we can still contrast the two relationships to see how they are different.

David and Saul’s relationship begins when David slays Goliath and rises to international stardom. Saul, the King, honours David and gives him position, power, and personal access to the palace. But then we see that as he sees that David is honoured even more than he is, he begins to envy David, and this transforms their relationship. Saul grows fearful (1 Samuel 18:8, 12), angry (1 Samuel 18:8), and malicious with a desire to remove David. Joe Rigney writes, regarding Saul and David,

The onset of Saul’s malice helps us see how envy changes shape. When Saul first sees David’s success, he takes him into his home (1 Sam. 18:2), and sets him over the men of war (18:5). Saul’s first reaction to seeing God’s hand on David is to give him a promotion. Then when envy is awakened, he grows erratic and tries to pin David to the wall with a spear…Promotion, resentment, raving and erratic behavior, fear and awe, flattery and lies, false gifts and malicious plots, overt hostility and hatred. These are the many faces of envy and rivalry. As we try to evaluate our hearts, we need to be alert to the fact that envy is a chameleon, masquerading as smooth flattery one minute and righteous indignation the next, fear and awe one minute and then malicious plotting and public assault the next. Saul’s story also shows us that envy, like all sin, is fundamentally irrational. It’s insane. When envy takes root in someone’s heart, he or she does things that make no sense. Like seeing God’s hand of blessing on someone in an obvious way, knowing that it is God’s blessing, and still making that person an enemy (1 Sam. 18:28–29). Envy is myopic; it focuses the mind on the offense of the other person’s success so that all other considerations take a backseat, and it spirals down into despair and destruction. –  Joe Rigney, ‘Killjoys’

Saul’s envy of David turns an outward focus around and gives rise to an internal resentment at seeing the person achieving so much. It consumes him. It draws him away from being able to love and celebrate this hero who gladly serves the King. But contrast that with David and Jonathan. Jonathan loves David (1 Samuel 18:1), makes a commitment to him (1 Samuel 18:3), and defends him (1 Samuel 19:4-5, 20:24-34). Jonathan, the son of the King, and a peer of David had every right to become envious as well, but he doesn’t. He loves his friend and is committed to his well being.

So why is friendship hard?

Whereas Saul’s relationship to David is characterised by envy and malice, Jonathan’s relationship to David is characterised by love and selflessness. About envy, Joe Rigney also writes,

For us, envy rears its ugly head when a friend or peer makes better grades, has more friends, is more likeable, receives a promotion, is given more opportunities, or better opportunities. It emerges when they are better-looking or a better parent, when they are more educated, more gifted, more popular, more intelligent, more esteemed, or more successful. – Joe Rigney, ‘Killjoys’

I suspect that many of us will be familiar with what is being spoken of here. Envy is a sin before God that turns our focus away from loving towards an inward, self-centered, obsession and over-consideration of our own situation and status. But envy isn’t the only sin that does this. Pride, anger, ungratefulness, selfish ambition, and taking friends for granted are all instances where we fail to love others and instead demonstrate a love for ourselves over and above those who we have committed ourselves to. Indeed, Galatians 5 contrasts the acts/works of the flesh (5:19-21) with the fruit of the Spirit (5:22-24) and says that in living by the latter we are to not become prideful, provocative, or envious of one another. So, then, I think that:

Friendship is hard, for the most part, because we are selfish individuals trying to engage in a selfless relationship.

Friendship is about selflessly giving ourselves to another, but it is hard because we simply fail to do this a lot of the time. We sin against each other, and we hurt one another, be it through envying one another, or angrily ignoring or exploding in words, or talking about someone behind their back. We sin, first against God by failing to love Him perfectly, and against each other by failing to love each other perfectly. We are not perfect lovers, so we are not perfect friends. Nobody’s perfect – that’s the problem.

Expectations and Disappointment

Now, I have written that friendship is hard ‘for the most part’ because of our selfishness. What about the other ‘parts’? Well, we must bring up the fact that sometimes friendships hurt because there has been a miscommunication of expectations, or a lack of reciprocity of the friendship. Remember that friendship is something that you can offer to another, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be returned. And sometimes we are hurt in friendships (or hurt others) because one person offers friendship but the other never agreed to return the commitment. We see this when one person is clearly more invested in a relationship than another. It is important to recognise that in such a situation a person can choose to continue investing and committing in friending the other, but it would be unjustified for them to feel hurt or disappointed if it is never returned.

Why? Because the other person has not made a commitment. Remember (as we have said in previous posts) that the offer of friendship does not obligate someone to return it. It is an offer to love, and it can be returned or not returned. Remember, also, that we can continue to love another even if it is never returned. We can do this because of the model of selfless love we see in Jesus Christ. However, if two people do express a commitment to love each other, then it is justified for us to feel hurt if that commitment to love is not expressed.

But another reason why friendship is hard, apart from selfishness, is that we are simply limited in our ability to love everyone by time, energy, and capacity. And so it is unrealistic for us to expect to be able to commit to everyone we meet, or even to have the same level of commitment for all that we wish to friend. We must understand that we are not infinite creatures, and be humble to focus our time, energy, and capacity amongst our priorities and commitments, including our  friends.

Moving forward

Sometimes people speak about David’s relationship with Jonathan and say “now be like Jonathan – be like this great friend.” But that isn’t the ultimate example of friendship we see in the Christian Scriptures, is it? After all, Jonathan’s example of friendship is but a shadow of the ultimate example of friendship we see in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus loves His friends, is committed to His friends, and defends His friends. So don’t be like Jonathan; be like Jesus. In Him we have been set free from bondage to sin in order to love one another (Galatians 5:13-14). But in Him we also find forgiveness before God, and the ultimate basis for forgiveness when we hurt each other. We’ll talk more about how forgiveness works in later posts.

Friendship is hard because we are sinful. We might ask the question, then, of why bother with friendship at all? We’ll address this question directly in the next post.

continued in ‘Why Friendship matters’

James Chen

James is a Philosophy graduate from the University of Sydney and is currently a teaching and learning manager of a senior high school tutoring centre. James is a member of St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Carlingford and loves reading and teaching the Bible.

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