“The quality of your life is determined by the quality of your relationships.” I am no fan of cliché inspirational quotes, but my personal experience has proven this one true. I don’t have a ton of close friends, but I do have a handful of people who are closer than a brother (Proverbs 18:24)—and I consider myself the best kind of blessed to possess such treasure. Funny thing is, though, the people who make up my tight-knit social circle are not the types of people I ever would have envisioned myself associating with, much less calling my best friends. They aren’t super weird or institutional-level crazy (if anybody is treading on the border of that, it’s me!). But they are just . . . nothing like me.
Anyone who knows me knows that my closest comrades are the fellow members of my itty-bitty Baptist church. And I have always found it amusing when friends from work or from out of town come visit my church and afterward say things like, “I can’t believe these people are the people you talk about all the time and are always hanging out with! I mean they’re nice and all, but they’re nothing like you.”
I totally understand their surprise. Most friendships spring up from the ground of commonality, right? Our natural instinct is to link arms with people who are like us. We befriend people who share our background, life stage, income bracket, social status, personality traits, and interests. So naturally, my friends outside of my church envisioned my beloved church mates to be like me. Fair assumption.
But contrary to even my own friend-making instincts, the deepest friendships I possess today were not forged by similar lifestyles or compatible personalities. We are very different people—and honestly, we don’t always mesh all that beautifully. The beginnings of these friendships were messy and often difficult. Our various temperaments, maturity levels, and sin-struggles were a breeding ground for conflict. And though confrontational occurrences are less frequent today, our personalities still sometimes collide and create a not-so-holy combustion. Building and sustaining these friendships has been work—hard work—on all our parts.
Sounds a little backwards, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t friendships fall into place easier than that? Why would I work to create and sustain a relationship with someone who regularly offends me, makes me feel awkward, or gets on my nerves? Why would they seek to do the same with crazy ole’ me? I’ll tell you why: because despite our many lifestyle differences and personality incompatibilities, my friends and I share a single commonality that makes us ultimately compatible: love for Jesus Christ.
In my pre-Jesus days, I treated friendship just like everybody else did. I wasted zero time pursuing or preserving relationships that didn’t function smoothly. If you regularly offended me, made me feel awkward, or got on my nerves . . . well, bye! I didn’t have time for that. And in the first two years of my walk with the Lord, I didn’t do things all too differently. I bounced around from church to church, searching for Christians like me—young, single, humorous, and a little rough around the edges— to be friends with.
But in late 2012, God led me to participate in a “covenant membership” class at one of the churches I popped into on occasion. It was in this class that I began to understand God didn’t want me to hop around town, handpicking similar-to-me Christians to do life with. He wanted me to commit to one body of believers made up of all kinds of people and cultivate my deepest friendships within that context. After a few more months of resistance, I submitted to what I believe is the biblical way to “do church.” I locked arms with a small group of believers, and we committed to glorify God by befriending one another, serving one another, and spurring one another on toward love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24). I made them “my people” and they made me theirs, and we all lived happily ever after.
I’ve already mentioned that the beginnings of these relationships were a bit messy. Doing life with people you barely know who are so different from you is difficult! People often compare spiritual sibling-hood to biological family relationships, and I understand why they do. But it’s not quite the same. You and your biological brother might annoy the crap out of each other, but at the end of the day, you are tethered to one another by a deep mutual affection that has been developed over time. Since I barely knew these people, I couldn’t be tethered to them by mere emotional affection—it barely existed! I know the Christianese thing to say is that I was overwhelmed with love for these people from the get-go, simply because they were my brothers and sisters in Christ. Maybe I’m just a bad Christian, but that’s not how I felt. I barely knew them! However, though my brotherly affection for these very different-from-me folks was weak, I knew Jesus loved them just as much as he loved me, and he commanded me to love them just as he loves me (John 13:34-35). So in those first days of “doing life together,” I loved and served these people out of my love for Jesus and desire to please him. It was an act of faith—an act of obedience.
But over time, brotherly affection began to grow out of this obedience. As I strived to serve and share my life with these people, my desire to serve and share my life with these people intensified. My commitment to them was no longer an act of faith void of emotional connection; rather, the love I began to feel toward these people was more vibrant than any love I had felt before. Though we were dissimilar in so many ways and would have never chosen to be friends with one another apart from Jesus, the connection we shared was stronger than any connection I’d ever experienced with anyone else. Today, they are no longer merely the people I have pledged to do life with; they are the people I love to do life with. They are no longer merely the people I obediently serve; they are the people I joyfully serve. They are no longer merely my church friends; they are my best friends. They are the people I love most in this world.
Where did this genuine love and affection come from? It came straight from God.
Christian friendships aren’t forged by weak and breakable things like similar lifestyles or agreeable personalities. They are grounded and built up in something so much stronger and more enduring: the love of Jesus Christ. And because these relationships are grounded not in fleshly compatibility but in the God who is love (1 John 4:16), they are infused with the grace of Jesus and characterized by the nature of Jesus. Christian friendships are life-giving and gospel-proclaiming. It is in the context of my Christian friendships that the gospel is most tangibly experienced by my heart and most vividly demonstrated to those around me. Our unconditional love for one another points the world to God’s unconditional love for those in Christ. Our willingness to forgive one another over and over again points the world to God’s willingness to continually forgive those who are in Christ. Our refusal to give up on one another points to God’s refusal to give up on those who are in Christ.
These friendships haven’t been easy. They have entailed constant repentance and death to self, but they are the most secure and authentic friendships I have ever experienced. More importantly, they show Jesus to be the powerful, reconciling God that he is.
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.” – 1 John 4:7-12.