What makes a good friend? What is the difference between Christian friendship and fellowship? Is there a difference between friendship between men or between women and the bond that men and women develop with each other? Can we learn about these kinds of relationships and gain insight into having a better relationship with God, or does a spiritual relationship come first?
I will summarize a few of the main things I have come to understand. Then I will share a little of my own personal experience and how that influenced what I have learned, hopefully in a positive way. Then, I will offer a few final observations, with the intent of expanding on these thoughts, at a later time.
Close to 40 years ago, I first heard about the Greek words for love, some of them used in the New Testament, and I read C. S. Lewis’ book, The Four Loves (I’m not reading it currently but plan to read it again soon). After I had studied Greek and begun to read from the Greek New Testament, I eventually adapted what I had garnered from these various sources into a presentation that I have taught, now, for a number of years. Some time, I will post a more detailed exposition, but here is the germ of what I have observed.
1) The most common word for love is the Greek word agapé. God’s love for us is usually agape, and it is “unconditional, sacrificial concern regardless of the apparent ‘loveliness’ of the person.” It is the most global word for love, meaning most of the commands to love are agape, and it is the polar opposite of what most unchurched folks think of as love. Most common conceptions of love are selfish, self-centered, and conditional, with only occasional glimmers of the real thing, demonstrating that humans are nevertheless created in God’s image.
2) The Greek word for fellowship is not a word for love, but it is a word that implies love, for koinonia involves having something in common and sharing what we have. This idea of fellowship is more than church suppers; it is a sense of a new kind of relationship, based on being “sinners saved by grace.” If agapé is a love we have for all God’s human creatures, koinonia is love for all his spiritual, reborn children. It is family love, mutual concern for every person who has trusted Christ as Savior, caring for each of our brothers and sisters who are part of this one big family of God. Koinonia should not be restricted within one denomination or theological orientation, and it is the basis for the unity of the Body of Christ that the New Testament also expects of us.
3) Another word for love is phileo (v) or philé (n), the word that is half of Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love. I believe this is the characteristic word for love between mother and child and between friends, adding to the idea of agapé a sense of investment. In other words, we give in certain relationships with an expectation or hope of return. This must not displace agapé, but it adds to it. In our special, close relationships, we gain a sense of connection and trust that we will never have as a general experience with people, however much we love them unconditionally and sacrificially.
4) Finally, the word eros, which is not used in the Bible, may be used carefully to represent the physical intimacy reserved for marriage. It is the final aspect of a loving relationship that ought to follow only after the first three levels of loving have been established. A measure of spiritual and interpersonal intimacy is possible in fellowship and, to a greater degree in true Christian friendship. The scope of love is broadest in agapé, narrows to all Christians in koinonia, is even more limited in philé, and involves only two people in marriage. Of course, the secular world has completely reversed and distorted this model, which is the nature of sin.
Notice that I have not included another word you may know from Lewis’ writings. He used storgé for what one might call acquaintances, casual friends, or fishing buddies, people whose company we enjoy in limited ways but wouldn’t trust beyond a certain level. This could also refer to the friendships between Christians and non-Christians, where the basic aspects of real love usually do not exist because they are not even known to most people.
When I was younger, I was profoundly interested in the nature of friendship, especially for Christian people. After our family moved, as I was going into the third grade, I had trouble making friends, presumably because I was a new kid. I also lived in a rural home but attended a school in a small city, where many of the students saw each other outside of school. Then, to make matters worse, I was a bright kid, favored by teachers so that many thought of me as a “teacher’s pet,” not something I ever sought or encouraged. I also picked up a nickname that I hated; I looked forward to graduation and a new beginning someplace else.
Our family’s church was small, and I was the only kid, my age. We had a small youth group, but most of us never really became friends. I had one friend at school, another guy who didn’t quite fit in. We did a few things together, played chess, but never really shared very deeply. I have three younger brothers, but I was more academically inclined while they were more mechanically oriented. So, I have never really been close to any of them; although we get along all right, today, they all live in another state.
When I moved to a large city for college, I made every effort to find Christian fellowship, even though I don’t think I really understood, then, what that was. It was the late 60’s, and one group was trying to be “mod.” I went to a picnic, thinking it was the same group, and found a very different sort of people. One of them made really bad puns, but several of them looked me up, later, in my dorm. They went out of their way to involve me, and eventually I even began attending a different church because of them.
Some of them were really close friends, and I occasionally heard about friendships they had with other people, going back through their childhood years. Others were really close to family members in ways I had never experienced. I figured out that I came from a rather stoic family background where hugs and affection were not very common. In time, I learned that my Dad was probably what we’d call “verbally abused” when he was a kid, and he could be somewhat aggressive verbally. It was probably after his death, when I was 20, that I was able to recognize the nature of his love, because he never verbalized that I can recall.
Like most children, I spent a good deal of time with my Mom, growing up. I came home from school, every day, and talked her ear off, if memory serves me correctly. I have many recollections of spending time in the kitchen watching her cook, bake, and can garden produce. I can almost smell tomatoes from making 100’s of quarts of juice, Christmas candies and cookies, and other favorite foods, many of which I learned to cook for myself, especially after she was expecting my youngest brother. She and Dad were in a car accident, the summer before his birth, and I became “chief cook and bottle washer,” although I did get my other two brothers to help with washing dishes. After my brother’s delivery, I still did a lot of cooking and baking since my Mom said that, if wanted cookies, I would have to bake them.
I don’t really think I had a bad childhood except that I suspect something unpleasant may have happened to me, when I was quite young. I have puzzled for many years over some odd things in my childhood, and I finally have accepted that something happened, that I cannot remember, but that affected me, rather significantly. I have counseled many other people and observed that childhood trauma influences the outlook and emotions of them as adults, and I have finally had to accept the possibility that I am such a person. Without being more specific, I think that maybe I have a hard time connecting to people because of the effects of something that happened to me.
In particular, I have always tended to be aloof in social situations. After many years, one of my few close friends noticed that people interpreted my keeping myself apart as arrogance. Nothing could be further from the truth! I have never felt better than anyone. Often I have watched people and wished I had their openness and outgoing attitudes. I also envied their friendships because I never seemed to be able to manage anything as close, enduring, or fun.
That’s another regret that I still have. I don’t think I ever quite learned how to have fun. Maybe a better way to put it is that I never was able to just let go and enjoy myself, particularly with other people. I tended to choose solitary pursuits, especially reading, and I often lost myself in other worlds where people did exciting things and enjoyed themselves, things I never did. I am fortunate that I ever managed to make any friends, at all, because I don’t think it was usually from being a “fun person.”
I put considerable effort into trying to understand friendship hoping, I think, that eventually I might discover how to find friendship in my own life. My interests extended into dating, but I never did too much of that either. I eventually stirred up the courage to get to know one very attractive young woman in our college group, and I was amazed when she consented to see me and did so steadily for a couple of years. She broke up with me to marry a doctor, but said that we were enough alike to have been brothers. I was engaged to another, briefly, but we had a very volatile relationship. She married a fellow teacher whom she had known before me. My third and last serious girlfriend had her own issues and later took her own life. I sometimes wonder if a kind of aloofness or lack of letting go and enjoying myself contributed to my failure to establish a long-term relationship and marry.
My quest to understand friendship unquestionably led to a greater understanding of Christian fellowship and many aspects of counseling and conflict resolution. In hoping to become a friend with whom others wanted to be friends, I worked very hard to be a good friend to others. At some level, I believed that being a friend would eventually gain me friendship, but I actually became a person who simply cared about people. Being aware of my own doubts and hurts, I gained empathy for the heartache and fears of others, and I find I want to help them, even though many move on and out of my life.
That is precisely what has happened. I have made good friends, mentored perhaps a hundred young people over the years, taught numerous students and parishioners, broadcast to an even larger audience of people so that I used to run into “radio friends” almost everywhere I went, and very few remain in that third category of philé relationships. I still stand by what I have learned, but I must confess to being a little disappointed, at times. I sometimes feel like the main character in the movie Goodbye, Mr. Chips, who spends his latter years alone after teaching many years worth of students who came to love him. In his case, his wife died childless; in mine there has never been wife or children.
So is there a problem? To an extent, I believe there is. The Biblical priority of love is often neglected. We never practice agapé, by which the world will know us a Christ’s disciples, in favor of more contentious priorities, based in a desire to be right. We withhold our koinonia from other believers because we disagree about some doctrine or practice sometimes ideas that are not even Scripturally probative. We fight within our congregations over territorial issues, preferences that are personal, and simple control issues.
I believe many of us, especially men, have lost a sense of genuine friendship, perhaps from fear of homosexual implications. Women seem to be able to enjoy close relationships, but men are often limited to sports activities, drinking and partying, and little else. I remember, with some chagrin, the time a girlfriend I had taken home chided me for withholding affection from my baby brother, for that very reason, I confess. How often do fathers do the same with their sons, whom they once played with and cuddled but suddenly felt embarrassed to touch?
I have long believed that men need close relationships with men, and women with women, for the sake of our very gender differences. We have been overrun with feminist ideology that would turn males into females, and another equally evil alternation by which women act more like men, particularly in over sexual behavior. Neither of these changes is beneficial. Oddly, the net effect is that men try to appease women and women strive to satisfy men. These are weird outcomes from the sexual and feminist revolutions!
Finally, there is one overriding concern that I see. The failure to live by the Creator’s defining standards of love leave humankind largely frustrated, disillusioned, and unsatisfied. What was once wryly called the “Battle of the Sexes” is moving toward “mutually assured destruction.” Divorce hovers at 50%, and many simply live together in serial bigamy, one shallow sexual relationship after another. Men have lost their sense of substantive maleness, and women are trying to accept sex as love. Men and women are becoming more calloused and coarse, and the promise of real intimacy, emotional and physical, has yielded to shameless familiarity and recreational sex. Sadly, many Christians are following the lie, sacrificing the wonders of grace and love for a disappointing illusion, manipulated by the father of lies, rather than following truth incarnate.
Will any of this solve my dilemma? I used to think it would, but now I’m far from certain. Sin has tainted our lives so that we live somewhat in a state of perpetual disappointment, hungry for something that may only be satisfied in eternity. Should I then give up? I don’t think so. I don’t know God’s timetable, and we need every bit of truth to resist the dangers that threaten to overwhelm us–progressive secularism, narcissistic hedonism, radical Islam, and unrestrained sin–as long as we remain. Perhaps my insights will save others from the loneliness I have struggled to overcome. Some find emotional gratification in God’s spirit, but I have not. Some do achieve a measure of joy in marriage and friendship that I have not. I have learned to be content, but my contentment isn’t always as solid as I’d like it to be. I continue to give myself to those that God brings and has brought my way, and I hope that I may give them what sometimes I wish I more often received. For despite the unconditional, sacrificial nature of loving as God loves, we frail humans find assurance that God’s love is real, when we experience the tangible love of caring humans. That is what I have committed myself to give, trusting His word that assures me of His love, regardless of what I feel or experience, here on earth.
 My apologies to Lewis and anyone who knows his material well. I haven’t reviewed it for this essay, so my memory may be fuzzy. I will come back and correct my errors, but I wanted to get something posted while it’s on my mind.