Should Friendship Be Costly?
There is no shortage of motivational quotes on social media encouraging us to rid ourselves of people who take more than they give or don’t properly appreciate our efforts. For example, “If you’re giving it all and it’s not enough, you’re probably giving it to the wrong person.” Similarly, “Not everyone will appreciate what you do for them. You have to figure out who’s worth your kindness and who’s just taking advantage.” In sum: don’t give more than you’re getting; and if your generosity goes unnoticed or unreciprocated then you should invest it elsewhere. Now I do believe that there is wisdom in a sort of relational triage. But should we always put ourselves first? Must a relationship primarily meet my own needs? And should we abandon people who are emotionally draining?
Of course, for fear of appearing calloused and grossly self-centred, few of us would answer those questions in the affirmative. Yet the conventional wisdom communicated by motivational quotes encourages something resembling a relational balance sheet. And when a friend is in overdraft for too long it’s time to cut our losses and stop investing in them. Thus with almost unconscionable reductionism, another motivational quote from social media reads: “Spend your time to those who love you unconditionally. Not with those who love you only when the condition is right for them.” In other words, you deserve unconditional love but your friends don’t. But I’m convinced that the gospel demands selfless, unconditional love across the spectrum of relationships we enjoy. Friendships do not exist simply so that I can flourish but rather so that I might serve others.
In Marriage But Not Friendship?
If you’re ever been to a Christian wedding, marriage counselling, or relationship seminar then it’s highly probable you’re familiar with Ephesians 5—regrettably, it’s also possible you think 1 Corinthians 13 is ‘the marriage text,’ but that’s a quibble for another post. In case you need reminding, in Ephesians 5:25 Paul exhorts husbands to love their wives “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Thus God expects sacrificial, unconditional, Jesus shaped love from husbands towards their wives.
So marriage is not about me and my needs but those of my wife. This is evident from the traditional Christian marriage vows, where prospective spouses promise unconditional love rather than gushing empty declarations of undying passion. So, when it comes to marriage, the church is usually clear on God’s demanding call for selflessness. Yet in my experience this call is rarely applied outside of marriage—except perhaps towards one’s children. It’s almost as if God’s call to imitate Christ in our relationships through radical other-person centred love is the sole right of a spouse (cf. Philippians 2:1-4). Even though few of us would put it quite like this: marriage is permanent but friendships are primarily a matter of convenience. My wife can urge me to love her like Christ, but my friends can’t.
“No Greater Love”
To adopt this sort of approach to friendships isn’t merely to ignore the broader implications of how God defines love throughout the Bible; it ignores Jesus explicit teaching about the selfless love to be extended to our friends. You may be familiar with Jesus’ words, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). But we’ve conveniently disarmed this uncomfortable imperative by reducing it to Christ’s death for sinners. So look at the verse immediately preceding, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). Then, a few verses later, Jesus reiterates: “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:14). Thus friendship with God is seen in being a selfless friend to others.
Jesus also calls this sort of love a matter of obedience, which is astonishing when we consider how little we ask of each other as well as how unwilling we are to make sacrifices. If my wife woke up in the night and insisted she needed to get to a hospital I’d drive her there in my pyjamas. But if a friend called with the same request I might suggest she call someone who lives closer—or I’d offer to pay for her Uber. Maybe you’re a better friend than me. In fact, you almost definitely are. But I do not think it’s an overstatement to say that the church champions selfless love in marriage while condoning a much poorer love in other relationships. Yet the New Testament does not only urge Christians to imitate Jesus’ love when they’re married.
Christian Friendship Is Costly
This brings me to the question that was in the back of my mind when I drafted this post: should friendships be costly? We must consider it carefully because the conventional wisdom found on Facebook and Pinterest says, ‘No.’ For social media has baptised selfishness and convenience. We’re encouraged to budget the emotions, time, and energy that we spend on others. Far from Christ’s call to selflessness, most of us believe on more than one level that relationships exist to fulfil our needs. So we feel justified sharing stupid things like, “Some people can stay in your heart but not in your life.” Wrong. To claim that you’ve kept someone in your heart even though you’ve cut them out of your life is about as meaningful as offering a picture of oxygen to a drowning man—thanks Dr Manhattan.
In his superb book, Spiritual Friendship, Wesley Hill compellingly answers the question about whether friendships should be costly. He writes: “Friendship, then—for Christians who take their cues from the arc of the scriptural story—lives with pain. There’s the daily pain of our efforts, as well as our failures, to love each other under the conditions of sin and weakness that we all experience, along with the resultant tensions, heartaches, and losses that such attempts incur…Friendship, in Christian terms, is all about giving up oneself for the sake of love and embracing the cost of such radical loyalty. Friendship, in a word, is cruciform. If Jesus is the ultimate author and exemplar of friendship, then we can’t fail to remember that his own practice of friendship ended with him strung up on an instrument of imperial torture.” Friendship cannot be anything but sacrificial if it is to be Christian.