Friendship matters. I’m a natural introvert, generally quite content with my own company rather than drawing energy from the buzz of social interaction. But even I recognise the need for – and deeply appreciate – close and trusted friends. Sadly, though, friendship is often undervalued and downplayed today. People tend to be more interested in our “relationship status” than the state of play regarding our friendships. Pick up a celebrity gossip magazine and you’ll find plenty of articles about who’s sleeping with who (so I’m told!) But who’s best friends with who? That doesn’t often hit the headlines.
Building meaningful, real-life connections also seems more difficult in a world increasingly dominated by virtual intimacy. The average British Facebook user only engages with around 10% of their friends, according to a recent survey of 2,058 UK adults. What’s more, users delete (on average) four “friends” a week from their profile.
Well, this article is a small attempt to encourage and inspire us to pursue real-life friendships. The Bible has much to say about friendship. Job, for example, was a “blameless and upright” man (1:1) who had “intimate friends” (19:19), which suggests that pursuing intimate friendship is a good and godly thing to do. I’m not, though, suggesting that we look at Job as a case-study in pursuing friendship (look up Job 19:19 if you want to know why!)
Instead, here are six principles for developing godly intimacy. Not that I set myself up as a friendship guru – I’m far from that. But for the last 24 years, I’ve been learning how to pursue godly intimacy as a Christian who struggles with same-sex temptations. And these principles have emerged from the joys and sorrows of that learning process.
- Devote time, but not too much
Friendship doesn’t just happen. We’re generally obliged to make time for family and for our work commitments, but the various pressures of life can easily lead to us neglecting our friends. Is it worth, perhaps, regularly setting aside space in your schedule for friendship? You could reserve an evening or a weekend to meet with someone you’ve not been in touch with for a while, or set yourself a reminder to at least ring, email, or message them.
Another danger is to devote all our time and attention to one particularly close and valued friend, to the exclusion of everyone else. A word of warning from Proverbs might help here: “Seldom set foot in your neighbour’s house – too much of you, and they will hate you” (Proverbs 25:17). Yes, I know, that sounds too much like Job again! But it is important to give time to developing godly intimacy with more than one person. Exclusive, obsessive friendships always tend to end badly.
- Value, but don’t possess
To value our friends is a good thing. Peter urges Christians to “love one another deeply, from the heart” (1 Peter 1:22). “Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself” (1 Samuel 18:1). There are several references to the “disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23, 21:7, 21:20). Ruth “clung to” Naomi, albeit as her mother-in-law rather than as a friend (Ruth 1:14). Friends, and especially our brothers and sisters in Christ, are meant to be loved and cherished.
But there is a danger. Love and cherish a friend too much and they become an idol. Someone we put our hope in, someone our life begins to revolve around, someone we subtly try to control and manipulate, someone we can’t live without. I’ve fallen into that trap several times. Remember, even your closest and most cherished friend is God’s treasured possession (Deuteronomy 7:6), not yours.
- Focus on shared interests
“Lovers are normally face to face absorbed in each other; Friends side by side, absorbed in some common interest.” I find that quote from ‘The Four Loves’ by C.S. Lewis very helpful. Not that there isn’t a time to enjoy deep and meaningful chats with our close friends, but friendship tends to thrive best when we focus on things that we have in common with each other. Things apart from the friendship itself. A shared hobby, perhaps, or a love of the same books or films, playing sport, walking, visiting the theatre etc.
In the past I’ve sought to be overly absorbed in the lives of certain friends and pursued mutual eye-gazing as a favourite pastime. But after a same-sex friend had the courage to tell me that I was “way too intense”, I decided it was time for a rethink. I realised that I’d been searching for a pseudo-spouse, for something on a par with marriage – albeit without the sex. But the Bible doesn’t teach Christians struggling with same-sex temptations (or indeed any Christians) to pursue one exclusive, emotionally inter-dependent “special” friendship.
By focussing on shared interests, friendships develop in a natural, healthy way. With Christian friends, of course, there is (or ought to be!) one obvious shared interest, for there’s “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:5-6). I’ve learnt that when I focus on the Lord more than on my friends, this invariably helps me to keep my friendships in perspective.
- Prioritise the gospel
One of the best ways to avoid developing unhealthy or overly intense friendships is to prioritise gospel concerns. The Apostle Paul, an unmarried man, seemed to develop strong bonds with his gospel co-workers. So he calls Timothy “my true son in the faith” (1 Timothy 1:2), his female colleague Persis “beloved” (Romans 16:12) and Tychicus “a beloved brother and faithful minister” (Colossians 4:7).
Now most of us are not vocational gospel ministers. But all of us can prioritise the gospel in our intimate friendships. By studying the Bible together, for example, and praying for each other’s growth in grace and godliness. Or by working alongside a friend or friends in an area of Christian ministry. Or by considering how I can serve my friends with self-sacrificial, agape love. “Greater love has no one than this”, says Jesus, “that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
- Flee from sexual immorality
For those of us who struggle with same-sex temptations, there’s an obvious danger. What if I find my same-sex friend attractive or begin to lust and fantasise over them? Well, as a young Christian I would run whenever there was any hint of attraction. Every time. “Flee from sexual immorality” a Christian leader advised me, quoting from 1 Corinthians 6:18. He interpreted this to mean that I must flee from any male friend that I found attractive or had a lustful thought about. Avoid them, ensure I’m never alone with them. At the time it seemed like wise advice.
But it led only to increased isolation and loneliness. Particularly as back in my twenties – freshly saved out of a long-term same-sex relationship – I managed to find something attractive in virtually every one of my new (male) Christian friends! I craved godly intimacy, but kept feeling attracted to my same-sex friends. And cutting myself off from them only led to me pursuing ‘intimacy’ in ungodly ways, such as through pornography or online chat.
Eventually I realised that merely finding a friend attractive wasn’t something I could control. But what I could learn to control, by God’s grace, is how I respond and react to that feeling of attraction. I could learn not to allow desire to conceive in my heart and give birth to sinful lust (James 1:15), I could learn to “resist the devil” (James 4:7) and I could pray for the grace to relate to Christian brothers “with absolute purity” (1 Timothy 5:2).
- Guard your heart
“Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” (Proverbs 4:23)
This is the most important lesson I’ve had to learn – and continue to learn – about developing godly intimacy. I must guard my heart. Keep it safe. Not allow any friend, or my feelings for any friend, to occupy the very command and control centre of my inner-being.
My most painful, heart-wrenching friendship experiences have come whenever I’ve tried to worship a friend before, or alongside, the Lord. It can’t be done. Because, as Jesus puts it (referring to the god of money), “No one can serve two masters” (Luke 16:13).
As Christians, we belong to the God “whose name is Jealous” (Exodus 34:14). He rightly demands to be number one in our lives and to sit, without competition, on the throne of our hearts. So above everything else you’ve read in this article, please guard your heart. Because the quality of friendship and the level of intimacy we experience with other people will flow from the quality of friendship and level of intimacy that we enjoy with God.