In today’s social media culture, friendship can be challenging. It is common to maintain friendships through Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter, without any face-to-face contact. We “friend” and “follow” one another on Facebook, despite the fact that many of us have never met. We participate in what we call “online communities,” even though self-disclosure is limited to the nice, safe bits.
Friendship is also challenging when you’re sitting across the table from a friend—particularly when differences in deeply held beliefs come to a head. Perhaps you’ve found yourself sitting with someone you know well and one of you is on the political left while the other is on the right. You normally manage to avoid issues related to politics, but when conversation takes an unpredictable turn, what then? Do you become an actor and simply put on a mask, as T. S. Eliot says, “To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet?” Or can you navigate your differences as friends with vulnerability, loyalty, and love?
Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430) was among the first Christian writers to highlight the challenges and opportunities of friendship. For example, near the end of The 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, is also challenging. 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 boil down the reason behind Augustine’s apprehension, we might use the word “vulnerability.” It is the inescapable reality that genuine friendship always leaves us a bit exposed. Listen to how C.S. Lewis makes the point:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to 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.
Unfortunately, this apprehension too often keeps us from the risk of vulnerability, which in turn impoverishes friendships. In light of this challenge, we turn our eyes to the triune God who reveals the contours of authentic friendship.
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.
Now, as in ancient times, men and women sought to apprehend a relationship with the divine. In the mythologies of Greece and around the Fertile Crescent into Mesopotamia, we find religions in which the relational motivation was driven by human initiative, a movement from earth to the transcendent deity. Despite the frenetic activity of priests working in temples, the gods of the nations were recognized as unapproachable.
This, however, was not the experience of Israel. From the beginning, the Lord of Scripture was decidedly unlike the gods of the nations, descending to commune with his people, indeed speaking to Moses face to face—He showed a supreme love of which our friendships are a mere reflection. The trajectory of this relationship was always a movement from heaven to earth, from God to humanity. It was 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 God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth” (Ex. 34:6).
The New Testament reveals a breathtaking depth of love and accessibility. Here we find the God who spoke the universe into existence become a speechless baby. The embodiment of perfect love from the womb of a teenager, set in a feeding trough. In tears at the side of Lazarus’ grave, washing His disciples’ feet, and ultimately on the cross where He died for the sins of the world—Jesus expressed divine love through vulnerability.
How does the cross-shape of Jesus’ life speak to our friendships? Simply put, it rebukes our apprehension to express love toward one another and it inspires us toward vulnerability. As the cross of Christ involved rejection and pain, so friendship calls us to embrace a certain sorrow—an ongoing struggle to love another sinful person. We realize that in some cases our love will not be reciprocated; it may even be scorned. Nevertheless, we choose to love. Why? Because the Savior who calls us His friend has instructed us to do so: “This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you” (John 15:12).
This is the cruciform shape of friendship.
Art by Jeff Gregory