Friendship without self-interest is one of the rare and beautiful things of life.
—James F. Byrnes
Finding truly good friends can be like trying to find hope at a pessimists convention. Good friends are a true rarity. They are the diamonds of human relationships. They are usually forged under pressure, and often emerge from what was at one time as plain and common as coal.
So what is it about true, genuine friends that make them matter to us so much? The short answer is––they care. They care enough to listen, cry, mourn, and rejoice, even amidst their own crying, mourning and rejoicing. True friends have a way of setting themselves aside, putting their agendas on hold, in order to be with us. And it’s really that, the ability to be with us, that is the mark of true friends.
Pseudo-friends and wanna-be friends can be around us, near to us, in our vicinity, but they are almost never really with us. They tend to come to us with the desire to show us something of themselves. They want us to notice their learnedness, their eloquence, their strength. Genuine friends, though, come to us and bring only a desire to hear us, love us, and show us something of ourselves. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote:
The glory of friendship is not the outstretched hand, nor the kindly smile nor the joy of companionship; it is the spiritual inspiration that comes to one when he discovers that someone else believes in him and is willing to trust him.
True friends show us that we matter as people, that we have value inherent in ourselves. And, this is most often accomplished not in displays of strength, but in displays of weakness.
Our best friends, often emerge from our shared experiences. Recently we were in South Africa at retreat for missionaries, and I couldn’t help but feel an almost tangible––something, between all of us. Some of these other missionaries were close friends. Others, I had never met before. And, yet when we gathered for worship, or simply for a meal, there was a unity among us, a bond that was uncontainable in either our persons, or in the spaces in which we gathered. It was a bond that transcended us, and refreshed us.
And it wasn’t just that we were in the company of one another. It was that we were in the company of one another, and simultaneously in the company of Christ. Because only by encountering Someone—namely Christ, who can genuinely help us to become what we were created to be, can we truly find joy in being ourselves.
In his book “A Reasonable Faith: A Case for Christianity in a Secular World,” Tony Campolo argues that secularized man longs for humanness, for a sense of self-actualization. Campolo describes how as a sociology teacher at University of Pennsylvania he was constantly confronted with a single question by his students (sometimes in various forms). The question was, “What does it mean to be human and how can humanness be achieved?”
Campolo asked a student what he meant by being human, to which the student responded, “It means to be loving, infinitely loving; sensitive, infinitely sensitive; aware, totally aware; empathetic, completely empathetic; forgiving, graciously forgiving. I could go on but I would only be elaborating on the obvious.” Campolo then asked the student how it is that he came to have a knowledge of these traits even in a limited fashion. “Were you born with them? Were they part of your biological makeup?” The student grew agitated at the questioning, knowing that Campolo knew full well where the traits came from.
“You know that whatever qualities of humanness I possess are obtained by the process of socialization. If I am forgiving, it is because I associated with forgiving people and took on their traits and likeness.” The student argued that Campolo, as a professor of sociology knew all of this. So why the line of questioning? What Campolo was trying to do was to remind the student that “Socialization is the process whereby a homo sapiens becomes human.” He reminded the student that his entire being was the product of interaction with other people. Had he been separated at birth from all people and raised by wolves he would have none of the qualities that he possesses that mark him as human. Ultimately the conversation led to the student despairing that if his humanness, his achieving his full potential depended upon his ongoing interaction with someone who possessed in superior measures all the forms of humanness (love, compassion, emphathy, awareness of others) then he was doomed, because no such person exists. With this, Campolo directed the students attention to Christ, as FULLY human, fully present, and desiring just such a relationship. The student was converted to Christianity.
This, I believe, is what missions is all about. We go to places like Africa, with the message of God’s friendship (John 15:13-15), we go to share in the struggles of our brothers and sisters around the world, because in sharing the same experiences in the presence and company of Christ, we all are “born again.”
Apart from Christ, friendships can only help us to become like the person we are friends with, and help them to become like us. But in Christ, our friendships shape us all into the image of the One we serve. The imagio dei, the image of God, imprinted upon mankind from the very beginning, is revealed in our love for one another, and in our simultaneous love for God. It is revealed when we sacrifice for one another and give of ourselves because of the inherent value of one created in God’s image.
As Paul writes, “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body” (2 Cor. 4:10-11).
If we truly understand that we have friendship with God, through Christ, then we can begin to comprehend the immeasurable importance of being a friend ourselves. This is not only what humankind most desperately wants, it is what humankind most desperately needs. And Christians, ought to be the world’s largest supplier.