There are a lot of ways to see things — that can be confusing. But the solution to the problem of deciding among competing viewpoints is not to give up seeing! — the solution is to develop better eyes. So Paul says, “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened” (Eph. 1:18) so we can see how great is our hope and how deep is God’s love in the middle of a confusing world — including confusing relationships.
So there is one thing about the topic of this blog. If you want to have a good friend and be one, you might need a better way of seeing friendship.
In a church devoted to community in an age condemned to self-sufficiency we have to pray Paul’s prayer a lot: “I pray that the eyes of my heart may be enlightened!” The main reason we need to keep praying is because people can have terribly disappointing relationships in an environment that keeps promising wonderful ones! How could it be that someone could be in your cell and end up feeling like they have no friends? It happens. How could long-term members finally slide out the door thinking they are not dear to anyone? It happens — not all the time, but often enough for me to know about it. The same dislocations happen to marriages, so it is not surprising that in a covenant community we face similar break ups and cut offs that make us scratch our heads and sometimes weep.
We need to choose
I think one key ingredient that is important to the friendship we long for in the church is choosing. We need to choose, first, to be friends. Then our friendships have a better chance to survive. When we enter a relationship or are maintaining one, we intend to be a friend to someone. We don’t think it will just happen. We mean to do it. People don’t need to prove worthy, they need to prove unworthy (which is hard to prove to a chooser). They don’t need to be valuable, they are already valued. They don’t need to have attractive traits, they are welcome. If this sounds like we are expected to be like Jesus, that’s true. But you know you aren’t Jesus; you are choosing, everyday, to follow, develop and end up a lot more like Jesus than when you started. The main place we develop that character is in our loves, especially love of people. We intend to develop.
All this would seem obvious if we did not live in a society in which consumerism is the reigning ideology. People are cultured to think that a relationship should be worth it — worth my time, not worthless. A relationship should have value to me — produce further value, be according to my values. A relationship should be attractive — should be the experience I imagine, should have the features I desire. All that sounds like we are buying a car; it’s kind of crass. But we do it. Many of us have already subjected ourselves to OkCupid or, worse, Tinder. So we have already put our features on an ad and have subjected ourselves and others to the dismissive swipe of a thumb. Some of us have grown up in hook-up culture and have become either inept at or suspicious of commitment or even affection. There is a streak in most of us that thinks cars and people are mainly for having a good time and asking for more is either overbearing or unlikely to succeed.
Then Jesus calls us out of that wilderness and into what is increasingly a foreign land where people get taken very seriously, are graced, and are loved. It is a bit jarring.
So here are four thoughts about choosing to love. Maybe they will help. They are about building a love that begins with our willingness to make a covenant — a love that is looking for connection, not avoiding it like it is prison.
When you choose first to be a friend your love has certain characteristics:
People don’t have to fit in to your preconceived notion of what fits you or yours. You are not a “type” and they are not a “type.” You don’t care what their sign is, their Myers-Briggs letters, their enneagram number, their addiction designation or psychological diagnosis, their race or any other kind of label. You fit them in, they don’t have to fit. The act of fitting people in is the key to fitting together.
People don’t have to be behaving right when you meet them. You are not the last foolish thing you did and neither is anyone else. You know you don’t see people’s hearts right off. You don’t care if someone is the kind of friend you deserve, or the one you always wanted, or the one your parents thought you would have. Your choosing has those things “covered” in the same sense that “love covers a multitude of sins.” This doesn’t mean that we are just tolerant. It means we are gracious. We know people are sinners and we love them anyway. And they know we know, and know we choose to love them. The act of covering is the relational warmth we all long for.
People don’t have to be afraid they will disappoint or offend because you don’t cut people off. They are not left to bear the consequences of not being perfect, you are on their side. You don’t pretend to be perfect and you don’t have that expectation of others, even though your mercy demands a response you might not always get. Love is more important than principle. You choose to not cut people off even when they are difficult, painful, ignorant, or not growing. You might be forced to thicken some boundaries or even shake the dust off your feet at times, but it will have to be a strong force. The act of forgiving is the mother’s milk of friendship, much more of intimacy.
People don’t have to wonder what you think and feel about them. You tell them. They don’t find out from someone else what you really think and they don’t find out after you are gone that all that time you really cared. Love speaks the truth. That’s not because we long for transparency or like hearing ourselves talk or feel better when we’ve unburdened ourselves (exclusively, at least), it is because we trust God and trust others. We believe in others – their capacity to learn and grow, to feel and love. We bring that grace to the relationship, not because we’re great, but because we choose to believe in hope and believe in opening up to transformation and believe in obeying the model of suffering love that blasts open tombs. The act of believing creates an environment where friendship can grow.
So look around the church at least, if not your marriage and family, and choose again. You may have stopped choosing and allowed the weeds of “unlove” to take root. Choose your freedom from what is ailing the world. Choose the freedom to be a friend first. Don’t wait until it seems fitting. Don’t wait to see the friend you deserve. Don’t expect to be unoffended. Don’t be afraid to rock the boat by being real. Then we’ll all have more friends because we will have you.