Spiritual friendship is friendship that is rooted in Christ, for the purpose of growing in Christ.
“What is the vision of Graceworks?”
Often folks would ask Bernice or myself about the nature of our work and we usually reply by stating our mission: “to promote spiritual friendship in church and society.” The response to this is usually a quizzical look and more questions. Which is really sad because, while the world at large is awakening to the importance of friendship, many in the church still do not get it.
Note the following:
1. In their book, Loneliness, John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick report:
In 1985, when researchers asked a cross-section of the American people, “How many confidants do you have?” the most common response to the question was three. In 2004, when researchers asked again, the most common response — made by twenty-five percent of the respondents — was none. One quarter of these twenty-first-century Americans said they had no one at all with whom to talk openly and intimately.
Also published in 2004, a joint study by the World Health Organization and researchers from Harvard University found almost ten percent of Americans suffer from depression or bipolar disorder. They also found that binge eating and drinking are up, and that our children are medicated for depression and attention deficit disorder to an alarming degree. (Loneliness, New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 2008, 247)
2. For 72 years, researchers at Harvard have been following the lives of 268 men who entered college in the late 1930s, to try to find out if there is a formula — “some mix of love, work, and psychological adaptation — for a good life.” When George Valliant, the head of the study was asked what he learnt from the study, this was his reply:
“It is social aptitude … not intellectual brilliance or parental social class, that leads to successful ageing.” Warm connections are necessary … “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.” (Joshua Wolf Shenk, “What Makes Us Happy?” The Atlantic, June 2009, 46)
3. In her article, “What are Friends For? A Longer Life,” Tara Parker-Pope writes:
In the quest for better health, many people turn to doctors, self-help books or herbal supplements. But they overlook a powerful weapon that could help them fight illness and depression, speed recovery, slow aging and prolong life: their friends. Researchers are only now starting to pay attention to the importance of friends and social networks in overall health.
A 10-year Australian study found that older people with a large circle of friends were 22 percent less likely to die during the study period …”In general, the role of friendship in our lives isn’t well appreciated,” said Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. “There is just scads of stuff on families and marriage, but very little on friendship. It baffles me. Friendship has a bigger impact on our psychological well-being than family relationships.” (NYTimes.com, April 20, 2009)
I could quote many more sources, but the above three should suffice to establish the point that we need our friends to be truly alive. Or to quote my favourite Christian book on friendship,
… friendship is basic to our nature, a fundamental need at the heart of what it means to be human … A desire for friendship is one of our most basic and enduring inclinations, as inescapable as our need for food, drink, clothing, and shelter. (Paul J. Wadell, Becoming Friends, Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2002, 111)
The growing appreciation of the importance friendship may help us to better understand why Jesus tells His disciples He is their friend. Biblical scholars have long noted that Jesus is the fulfilment of the Old Testament expectations that the Messiah would be prophet, priest, and king. In the gospel of John we find that our prophet, priest and king, is also our friend (John 15:9-17). Our need for friends point us to our need for our ultimate friend — Jesus. Friendship is a weighty matter.
We would think that a church who follows a Lord who is a Friend would understand the importance of friendship. Unfortunately this is not the case. This morning I received an email from a brother in Christ. This is part of what he wrote:
I feel that church is so unreal and plastic. I’m sick and tired of church. People are just moving in and rushing out. Most of the people I talk to are either the clergy or the younger kids. At this point of time, I’m really sick of church and ministry. I’m feeling so lonely in church now. Been there for such a long time, but no deep friendships formed. My closest friends are mostly outside the church.
I will not tell you who wrote to me. I don’t need to. He speaks for many in our churches.
Many in our churches are lonely and friendless. Most churches I know are absorbed with getting their doctrines right and/or getting things done for God. Few are concerned with ensuring that their people are loved and valued for whom they are, not just for what they can do. Few ensure that their people experience the friendship of Christ through the friendship of their brothers and sisters.
Every day, Bernice and I find fresh reminders of why the Lord has called us into a ministry of promoting friendship. Perhaps our vision can be: “Everyone having at least two close friends to share their life with.” And if we are followers of Jesus, then “every follower of Jesus having at least two close friends in Christ with whom to follow Him.” Many still don’t understand what we are trying to do. Or they are bemused by the fact that we make such a big deal about friendship. We make a big deal about friendship because God does. We make a big deal about friendship because we need friends for life.