It’s almost impossible to live the Christian life without deep, abiding friendships, as well as a web of wider friendships. How do we know that? Jesus had these kind of friendships. If he didn’t try to do it without them, why do we?
The pandemic has damaged our friendships. There was a recent Atlantic Op Ed that opined that all but the closest friendships we might have are slipping away. But things were broken before that, back in 2018 the US Surgeon General announced a “loneliness epidemic”, especially facing middle-aged men. So, while the pandemic has made thing significantly worse, we weren’t starting from a place of strength.
Sixty years before that C. S. Lewis bemoaned the lack of friendship in his The Four Loves. This is not a new problem. We can trace a problem with a lack of friendships—especially for men—back a few hundred years, but it’s been getting gradually worse as community slowly degrades around us.
I read on Twitter a few months back:
The greatest miracle in the Bible was a man in his late 30s having 12 close friends.
—Some bloke on Twitter I can’t find again
Which is worryingly relatable.
What is a Friend Anyway?
One of our problems when talking about this stems from our use of the term to apply to everything from our contacts on Facebook to our work colleagues, to people we hang out with, to others at church, to those brothers-in-arms that we would willingly die for. It’s a slippery term, and each of the three sources that bemoaned friendship that I mentioned at the top of this piece used the word to mean something slightly different.
Sociologists talk about different levels of relationships as strong, middle and weak ‘ties’. The weak ones are those on the periphery of your life, from that person you see commuting on the train every day, to someone who works in another department who you make small talk with while waiting for the lift, to that friend of a friend you see at parties.
We wouldn’t call all of those people friends—if I called the guy I sometimes see on the train who gets on and off at the same stops as me my friend that would be creepy, we’ve never spoken and I know nothing about him—but some of them are our friends.
They are also where our closer rings of friends come from. Our middle ring—the people we talk about as our friends who we choose to spend time with. And our inner ring (not exactly the same as the famous C. S. Lewis essay of the same name, but not not that either), the very closest friends who we talk to all the time and share all of our lives with.
It would be ideal if we had a different term for each of these. I normally use ‘friends’ to refer to the ‘strong ties’ or ‘inner ring,’ which bamboozles people who use the term more broadly. Saying that, I also call my readers friends, and do the same when addressing the church as a whole while speaking—that’s invitational as much as anything, but we use the word to mean a thousand different things.
Those closest of friends naturally start as someone at a less close level of intimacy. The sociologists agree that we desperately need webs of friendships at all these levels and everything in between.
Jesus and Friends
I’ve written before on how Jesus wants to be our friend, but we can also learn about having friends by watching him. Jesus had friends at all these levels: the crowds, the 72 disciples, the twelve, the three, and then John his closest friend.