The Friend Who Stays

World Challenge Staff

We all want relationships with people who know us well and love us, but what is the secret ingredient to friendships that last? 

One of the most memorable moments in the BBC’s Sherlock series actually has very little to do with murders or mystery. It’s a wedding speech. John Watson is finally getting married and has made the somewhat questionable decision to have Sherlock Holmes as his best man. The crowning moment is Sherlock’s heartfelt, if tremendously awkward, speech that kicks off with “All emotions — in particular, love — stand opposed to the pure, cold reason I hold above all things. A wedding is, in my considered opinion, nothing short of a celebration of all that is false and specious and irrational and sentimental in this ailing morally compromised world.”

While John shoots him jaundiced looks and several guests look ready to crawl under a table, Sherlock makes several exquisitely socially inappropriate comments about the wedding, John and himself.

At the last, though, Sherlock says, “I am dismissive of the virtuous, unaware of the beautiful, and uncomprehending in the face of the happy. So if I didn’t understand I was being asked to be the best man, it is because I never expected to be anybody’s best friend, and certainly not the best friend of the bravest and kindest and wisest human being I have ever had the good fortune of knowing. John, I am a ridiculous man, redeemed only by the warmth and constancy of your friendship.”

Part of what makes Sherlock Holmes and John Watson’s friendship so memorable is that endures enormous trials. Sherlock is not an easy person to have as a friend, if only because someone’s odds of being kidnapped or murdered by the psychopaths he hunts goes up tremendously. John is so emotionally stifled from his terrible experiences as a war medic that he’s difficult to reach. Somehow they both overlook each other’s flaws and selflessly support and care for one another.

We all want warm and constant friendships, someone who matches Proverbs 18:24’s description of “a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”

The question is how do we achieve a relationship like that? Where do we start finding a person who will be that kind of friend to us? A lot of Christians struggle with the many verses extolling friendship in scripture and the seeming scarcity of such people in church.

In The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis pointed out a major consideration in our search for friendship. “The very condition of having Friends is that we should want something else besides Friends. Where the truthful answer to the question Do you see the same truth? would be ‘I see nothing and I don’t care about the truth; I only want a Friend’, no Friendship can arise… Those who have nothing can share nothing; those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travellers.”

Do we see the same truth? If that truth is our belief Christ, our answer and connection to others should be easy, right? Except it often isn’t, so this truth we must share with others in order to build a lasting friendship must be more complicated. Rather than simply believe in the same truth, it must be something friends pursue side-by-side.

Professor David Benner put Lewis’s observation a different way when he insightfully wrote, “I can be present for another person only when I dare to be present to myself. …I can be genuinely present to myself only when I can be genuinely present to God. Presence to another person is offering this gift of my true self-in-Christ. It is not playing a ‘spiritual friend’ role.”

He mused that the degree to which we grow in a close relationship with God and also come to know ourselves better will be the degree to which we will be able to cultivate deep, long-lasting friendships. In his book Sacred Companions, he somewhat ironically notes, “Spiritual friendship is not primarily a matter of doing certain things. Often, in fact, it is precisely the opposite of doing; it is a gift of not doing — not interrupting, not attempting to solve problems, not prematurely or inappropriately advising, not assuming that what has worked for us will work for others. Stated positively: spiritual friendship is a gift of hospitality, presence and dialogue.”

We can only offer those things to others if we are conscious of how God offers them to us. We will only begin to develop those qualities of the best sort of friends as we press forward towards God, knowing him better, understanding what he had to say in the Bible, experiencing him in our daily life, allowing him to heal past wounds, addressing old patterns of sin, being redirected into places we would’ve never even thought to go by ourselves.

Like a child who learns by mimicking their parents, we learn how to love other people well by experiencing how God loves us.

On paper, the whole concept of maturing in Christ so that we have the capacity to form long-lasting friendships is an ‘easy’ one. Most people would not call themselves emotionally or relationally immature. Despite that, many believers still are relatively immature when it comes to experiencing a relationship with God and being able to echo that in their relationships with other people.

If this weren’t the case, Paul would’ve never had to reprimand the Corinthian church about their desire for spiritual gifts in order to make themselves more important, concluding, “Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature” (1 Corinthians 14:20). In a similar spirit, the writer of Hebrews urged believers, “Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God” (Hebrews 6:1). In his usual blunt fashion, James warned believers, “For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like” (James 1:23-24).

If the early church struggled with these maturity issues, it’s safe to say that the modern church does too. If we want long-lasting, healthy friendships in our lives, we’re going to have to start addressing maturity issues in our lives. One very quick litmus test of maturity is how do we handle and resolve conflict?  

Mark Renfroe, World Challenge’s chief ministry officer, offered another one related to conflict on the Truth & Grace Podcast: “One sign of maturity is that somebody can distinguish between preferences, opinions and convictions. You know, I prefer this genre of music over that genre of music. I have an opinion as it relates to when Jesus is coming back, but there's a lot of people out there in the body of Christ who loved Jesus just as much as I do and have a different opinion on that topic. A conviction would be Jesus came in the flesh, died on the cross, rose from the dead, and there's only one way to have restored relationship with God. That's a conviction. Not to sound overdramatic. I'm willing to die for my convictions.

“So when there's a relationship hemorrhage, we should say, ‘Is this based on preference, opinion, conviction or just personality?’”

This is one practical way that we can obey the command “Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Colossians 3:12-13). As we learn to do this with more finesse, we will become a more gracious friend who knows how to resolve the inevitable conflicts that arise within relationships.

Friends who know how to solve conflict and love one another through tough patches will go a long ways together on this road we call life.