Friendship ain’t what it used to be.
Facebook has skewed our definition of friendship. People you just met and people you haven’t seen for decades all become your ‘friends’ on Facebook. Then you share special moments with them as if you are reporting the news, without ever having an authentic conversation. I realize that, as a card-carrying introvert, I need and expect to have fewer actual friends than my super-extroverted husband, and I’m fine with that. One’s quantity of friends is not so important as the quality of one’s friends, and that’s what I’ve been thinking about this week.
There’s a spectrum of meanings for ‘friend’: from passing acquaintance to willing-to-die-for-him soul-mate. As we go to Scripture, our understanding of friendship affects our interpretation of the Word. (By the way, sorting out our perspective/worldview from Biblical truth is called hermeneutics.) Take, for example, James 4:4-5.
You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.
Jesus didn’t have a problem
associating with “the world.”
Sounds like we shouldn’t make friends with “the world” (i.e. “people in their rebellion against and alienation from God.” That definition comes from my NIV Study Bible notes). But apparently Jesus didn’t have a problem associating with “the world.” The Pharisees accurately accused Him, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2). Why did Jesus spend time with these sinners? Did He just pretend to like them for what he could get from them? No way. The people labeled sinners by the Pharisees were social outcasts, along the lines of Hester Prynne, with that scarlet ‘A’ on her chest. Jesus had nothing to gain—and much to lose—from identifying with them. Yet He did it over and over. He even called a tax collector as one of His elite twelve followers (Luke 5:27-28).
So it’s obvious that James didn’t mean we should separate ourselves from all contact with people who aren’t Christ-followers. If we did, it would be impossible to follow Jesus’ example or obey His command to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19).
When James speaks of our friendship with the world, he speaks of a shared intimacy that inspires influence. Like Sarah urged Abraham to sleep with Hagar or Delilah convinced Samson to share the secret of his strength, we can be influenced by those with whom we are intimate. It doesn’t have to be sexual. When something happens (good or bad), who do you call first? When you need help making a decision or you seek advice, to whom do you talk? Who knows your most private secrets? Whose reaction can you anticipate whenever you’re together? That’s the kind of friendship to which James refers. Such individuals influence you—for better or for worse.
That’s why James uses words like adulterous people (4:4) and jealously longs (4:5). God plants the Holy Spirit in our hearts to be our counselor, our guide. Through the Spirit and the Word, we get to know God intimately. As a result, we submit to His influence (James 4:7). Don’t like submission? Think about this: any time you heed the advice of another person, you are submitting to that person (Ephesians 5:21). James’ audience (from the first century to today) rejected the built-in intimacy of the Holy Spirit in favor of rebellion and alienation as they allowed their worldly friends to influence them.
Jesus never let the tax collectors
and sinners influence him.
Think again about Jesus with the tax collectors and sinners. He never let them influence Him. His association with them never drew Him into sin. Okay, so he had a bit of an advantage, being God and all, but nevertheless, we follow His example.
When my son was in first grade, he struggled to understand friendship. There were daily DTRs (Define The Relationship) over after-school snacks. His teacher said everyone in the class should be friends, but my son didn’t want to be friends with the cruel kid or the kid who consistently disobeyed the teacher. We worked hard to distinguish “friendly” from “friendship.” Surely, all Christ-followers can work toward consistent friendliness, but we don’t have to truly befriend everyone around us.
What’s the take-away here? Personally, I am prompted to evaluate the level of influence I permit my friends to have in my life.
- Does my friend draw me toward Christ with his/her lifestyle?
- Is our relationship healthy: emotionally, socially, mentally, even physically?
- Is our relationship pure in all these ways?
- Do our conversations consistently glorify God?
I like to rub shoulders with people who don’t follow Christ. I’m comfortable calling them friends, according to the cultural definition. I will, however, guard the degree of influence such friends exert in my life. For those most intimate friendships, I will seek out Christ-followers who hold me accountable and pray for me.
What about you? How do you guard your friendships for God’s glory? How do you balance your relationships with people who don’t follow Christ?
For further reading:
Tangible Kingdom by Hugh Halter and Matt Smay. This one’s all about living out our faith in “the world.”
Let’s Revise the Popular Phrase, “In But Not Of” by David Mathis at DesiringGod.org. Mathis explores Jesus’ prayer about how His followers are in the world but not of the world (John 17:13-18)—exactly what I’ve talked about here!