Ep. 069: What Does it Mean to be a Friend?
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One of the most important yet forgotten issues that we know in our Christian life is this: friendship. It’s almost as if we think it’s so easy that we don’t really talk about it or emphasize it when we preach the Word. The reality is, friendship is crucial. In fact, it’s the only relationship that continues when we get to heaven. To help us understand what biblical friendship is (not just superficial relationships), we chat with pastor and counsellor at Parkside Church in Ohio, Jonathan Holmes. Our conversation hones in on how we’re relational beings, what biblical friendship is, and how to grow in friendships that glorify God.
*Below is an edited transcription of the audio conversation.
With me today is Jonathan Holmes. Jonathan is a campus pastor at Parkside Church and oversees counselling under all the churches under Parkside Church in Ohio. And Parkside Church is actually where Alistair Begg teaches – you might have heard that name before. Jonathan is also the author of The Company We Keep: In Search of Biblical Friendship.
Anyways, thanks for coming on the show today Jonathan.
Thank you Isaac.
Why don’t you just first tell us a bit about yourself. So, for myself and listeners, we can know who you are – your family, hobbies, etc. And also the work you do at Parkside Church.
Well thanks so much for having me on, it’s an honour and a privilege anytime I can talk and share about Christ and specifically about friendship.
My name’s Jonathan, I serve at Parkside Church as the pastor of counselling. We have four campuses here in the Cleveland area. And I oversee our counselling and our counselling ministries as well as serve at one of our campuses in the southern part of the city.
I’m married, I’ve been married for about eleven years to my wonderful wife Jen. We have four children, all girls. I have girls going from age eight all the way to two. And it is an exciting time in the Holmes’ home. So, I love having all girls, I love having daughters, it’s been a wonderful adventure.
I don’t know if you have free time, but if you did, what are some things that you enjoy to do?
Right, well when we’re not changing diapers and we’re not doing math homework, my wife and I love to travel, we love to share a good meal together. I like to read, I like to be outside and do gardening and things around the yard. And I just love being with other people too.
Let’s just head straight into it because I really want to have a lot of this time to get into friendship.
Let’s start here: you mention in your book that we are relational beings – that, as a human, part of our ontology is that we’re relational. I guess the first question is, what does that mean and where do we find that in Scripture?
Right, great question. Well, when you look at the Genesis narratives there in Genesis 1 and 2, you see in Genesis 1:26 that God makes us in His image, and a lot has been written and said about that plural pronoun there. God says, “Let us make man in our image.” One of the things that we immediately see is,
the way that we’re created is meant to image God.
And the way that God relates within a community, we realize that at creation, not only is God present, but God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are also there. So we realize that for all of eternity God has Himself existed within a community. Within relationship. So in Genesis 1:26 when He says, “Let us make man in our image,” part of that image bearing capacity is the capacity and the necessity really to be in relationship. So when you go through the Genesis narrative, there is this cadence of “God creates, there was morning and evening, the first day, and it was good.” And when you get to the sixth day, the cadence stops a little bit – God creates Adam. But in Genesis 2 there is a recognition that there is something that is not good, there’s something not good about just Adam being on his own.
You can almost imagine as Adam is naming all the animals that there’s this sense that there is not a way that he can fully image God in the way that he’s been created with just an animal or just nature. And so as we know, God creates Eve for him.
So we see there that when man and woman unite together, a lot of the primary application that has been written about Genesis 2 is about marriage and about the goodness of marriage. But I think even before that, what you see is that Adam needed another person with whom he could fully image God with – that he was not able to fully image God by himself. And that’s what wasn’t good and that’s why God created Eve.
And so when we look at that dynamic in Genesis 1 and 2, I think it’s so important for us to see that we really were created to be in community.
We were created and designed to be in relationship.
So Adam’s loneliness which he sees and he feels and that he inherently notices in Genesis 2, that’s actually because he was perfect.
Loneliness is actually an aspect of our perfection.
And so I think that’s a really wonderful thing that we begin to see in Genesis 1 and 2 .
I think it’s neat to know how it says “It is not good for man to be alone.” It’s not just “It doesn’t work when man is alone,” or “It’s not practical,” it’s actually something to do with ‘goodness’.
Now you say in your book and I’ll quote it, “As soon as sin appeared, we quickly became I and human history has never been the same.” And I love that little quote. Anyways, can you expound on that a little more?
Yeah. When you read again in the Genesis narrative, at the end of chapter 2, Adam sees Eve and the words really can’t contain his excitement and passion. He says, “At last, this is woman, bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” It’s written poetically. We even see that in terms of how our texts actually section it off as poetry. But we see this wonderful exclamation of unity and purpose and relationship and friendship. You get this sense as you move along that they are in relationship. They walk in the garden every day with God.
And in Genesis 3, as soon as sin enters the world, that unity, that oneness, that relational intensity and integrity – it quickly breaks apart.
And so God’s coming in the cool of the day, he’s looking for Adam and Eve, He’s saying “Hey where are you?” And it immediately turns into a finger pointing game. Right? Adam’s blaming Eve, Eve’s blaming the serpent – all of the relational connectedness, the friendship between the two of them is completely fractured. Everybody’s out for himself, nobody’s taking responsibility. There’s shame, there’s guilt, there’s embarrassment, there’s recognition at the core that that have sinned, that something’s wrong, and that’s in many ways why they’re hiding. Not only from God, but in many ways from themselves.
And so, from Genesis 3 onward, the ability to be in human relations and by extension friendships has been completely altered. We can point out immediately in Genesis 4 these two brothers who in a perfect world should be getting along, imaging God together perfectly with one another, you see Cain turns against his brother and murders his brother.
So human history ramps up very quickly in terms of the way that sin affects our relationships, and by extension, our friendships.
I’ll look around at our culture today, especially around urban centers in the West, North America, I just don’t see a lot of close friendships. I even think of our own local churches, and I think it’s really neat, at the beginning of your book you list a whole bunch of these hypothetical examples of people who are struggling with this feeling that they need true friendship but it’s not there. What you said though, bringing us back to Genesis, this must be the root of the problem now that’s causing this autonomy, this individuality that is sort of messing with with us.
Right. Absolutely. One of the myths about friendship is that it should be somewhat easy. You find a friend, you have common interests, you would enjoy the same things and so the friendship should come easily.
And oftentimes friendships do come easily, but they’re definitely not maintained easily.
And I think in a large part that’s due to the way sin affects relationships. We’re not self-sacrificial enough. We don’t love well enough. We don’t pursue people like we should. So it takes work to be in friendship and to be in relationship. For most people, that just sounds like a lot of work. So we give up, we get disenchanted, we get disillusioned with friendship. And you withdraw or you push back or you just allow your friendships to be superficial. But all of that I do think traces back to the way that sin affects how we relate to one another.
I want to come back to the how of biblical friendship, but I think we first need to define what biblical friendship is and how it differs from friendships that aren’t with those who are Christian.
My simplest definition of biblical friendship is:
a friendship that is centred on Christ, where the two individuals are seeking to become more like Him.
So it’s a friendship that isn’t solely around a common interest, a stage of life, a technological platform, a political party, a certain grade level gender, or whatnot. A biblical friendship is centered on Christ. It’s centred on the gospel. How Christ brings two people together. And it exists primarily for both people to become more like Christ.
Now there are many unintended consequences and benefits; mutual enjoyment together, having a companion, having a friend, a comrade, etc.
But the primary goal we see of friendship is that both people, both individuals, are seeking to become more like Christ.
I think you quote Tim Keller in your book. I can’t remember the exact quote, but he pretty much said that no matter what race, the interests, whatever it may be that would normally repel people from each other, because there is this common goal to see Christ and to know Christ and to be like Christ, then it’s not just this thread that binds you together, but it’s a steel beam. I just think we need to hear this today because when I look around my generation and you just see these cliques of people who are all the same. There’s no multi-generational, multi-ethnic relationships going on. I’m guessing that has an aspect to it, right?
Absolutely, and I think that’s so important. Again, I think the church unintentionally can facilitate those types of fragmented relationships and friendships. You have different stage of life groups meeting and whatnot, you have groups broken down in terms of common interest.
And I try to make this point in the book: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I’m not saying that’s a bad way to do it.
But we don’t want to forget that the primary reason why we can be friends, and the primary purpose of friendship, has to be centred and rooted in the gospel.
So, in John 15 Jesus says “No longer do I call you servants but I have called you friends.” And it is the movement of friendship that Jesus Christ moves towards us in friendship, reconciles us with God the Father, that gives you and I a hope of pursuing friendship in a way that can truly help you and I live into our design as image-bearers of God.
Now, for all of us listening, including myself, we don’t always think about the purpose of friendship being to glorify God, to point one another to God. We think friendships are for the things that maybe come under that. But you are saying that this is the point of biblical friendship, two point one another to God.
So, the question for me is, I just feel like it’s waking up this generation to what friendship is, so how can we grow in that goal to do that together?
Well that’s such a good question again.
You look at the New Testament and it is absolutely impossible to read the ethical aspects of our faith and read them and think that you can do them by yourself. And to think that you can do it in isolation. I mean, the predominant movement of people who are in Christ is these “one another” commands, these “one another” imperatives.
You cannot “one another” yourself.
And I talk about that all the time. “One anothers” require another person. And so this idea that you can be saved and be a lone ranger and it’s just you and your private self, my private salvation, my private union with Christ, and it can be to the exclusion of other deep meaning relationships – I think ignores the faithful, biblical witness of the New Testament. And so what you see is that Christ is redeeming not just individuals, he’s redeeming a church for Himself. He’s renewing a group of people, people of God, a household of faith. And it’s that group of people who interact with one another in friendship, who are able to become more like their Saviour.
So for example in Ephesians 4 you see Paul starting off in the individual level, he says “I want each one of you to fulfill your individual calling, live like you have been called.” But when you move into verses 15 and 16, it’s very clear that the way that we do this is we speak truth and love to one another and in so doing, we build each other up. We build each other up in Christ so that the whole body is strengthened together.
Well the way that that happens is through friendship. We get involved in others’ lives, we love one another, we pray for one another, we greet one another, we host one another, we admonish one another. And that’s the only friendship that really can hold and sustain the “one anothers” – it’s friendship.
Can you do it in marriage? Absolutely. Can a parent-child relationship do that? Absolutely. But everybody always doesn’t have access to those kinds of relationships. And so friendship is the one relationship that whatever background you come from in a church setting, friendship is the friendliest of all. It’s the one that every person who is in Christ has opportunity to be a part of.
As you say that, I’m thinking back to another conversation I had a little while ago with a representative of the Gideons in Canada. We were talking about evangelism. And near the end of it we were beginning to think that before we can even evangelize, we ourselves need to be enjoying the gospel for ourselves and knowing the gospel and knowing Jesus.
I almost see that play here too. Before we can go and have these biblical friendships for the purpose of becoming like Christ, our hearts need to be aching to be like Christ and to see his church.
And so how does the role of Christ play out in friendship?
You know, in Romans 1:15 Paul says to the church of Rome: I’m eager to come and preach the gospel to you. So, you immediately see that this church, they are people who are already saved, so why does Paul need to come preach the gospel to them if they already know it? Well, the idea is:
we need the gospel every day. The gospel is not only the way in but it’s the way on.
And it’s going to be what sustains us . The message of the gospel is that God in Christ pursues people for Himself. And so if you don’t understand that individually, that part of the gospel is that God in Christ pursued you, well then yeah, you’re not going to get why you should go and pursue someone else.
If salvation is not permeating every aspect of who you are and what you do, how you think and how you look out for other people, well then it probably makes sense that friendships aren’t going to be a priority. But if you really understand the gospel and how it impacts everyday life, you can’t help but pursue others because that is the predominant move of the gospel.
God comes down to us in Christ, He sanctifies us, He justifies us, He pursues us to be in a relationship with Him, and so part of that imperative of what it means to be in Christ, is not only you and Christ, but you were a part of the family of God.
And so part of being in the family of God means that you have duties and obligations and responsibilities to those who you find yourself in family relationship with. And so friendship is relationship that I’m convinced of that helps us best articulate and work out so many of these different ethical commands and imperatives in the New Testament .
You know, for this last little section, I would love for you to share with us what the gospel is. I just feel like a lot of young adults, whoever may be listening, their lack of actually going out and having these friendships is because of their misunderstanding or confusion of God’s love for them. Because you say in the book, I actually had to share it with my friend, I think you were quoting someone but you said that God had to break His friendship at the cross in order for us to actually have friendship. When I read that I thought “I have never heard it said that way.” God is a trinity and had to break that. So, could you just share with us what this gospel is that really binds us together?
When we think about the gospel we know that oftentimes the gospel comes to us propositionally. So, in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul says “For this I delivered to you, it’s of first importance, Christ died, Christ was buried, and He was raised again on the third day according to the Scriptures. Well that’s encapsulated in propositional truth. That’s the gospel.
We also know that the gospel comes to us as a story, that’s really the story of the Bible.
So if you think of it in the perspective of friendship, the way that I describe it to people is, well here’s the first part of the story.
Part one. God created us for friendship. He created us to be in relationship with Him, He wanted to walk with us, He wanted to talk with us. But in Genesis 3 we see that friendship becomes broken. The way that we relate to God and the way that we relate to other people has forever been marred by sin. So, our relationship is fundamentally broken end our relationship with other people is fundamentally broken.
So, God made us for friendship, friendship goes bad at the fall, so the entire movement of this story is, well, what makes it better? What redeems it? What gets us back to that identic ideal of perfect fellowship with the father and perfect friendship with other people? And that’s where we get to Christ.
We see that Christ is the perfect friend. He is the perfect God-man who can satisfy the requirements both being fully God and fully human. So living life as a human being and also being fully divine, He is able to be that perfect sacrifice for us. And so it’s at the cross where we see, in the most cosmically beautiful way, it’s also a really horrific scene, we see that. Eternal friendship which has existed for all of eternity is broken. When we see Jesus crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken Me?” Well, the only reason that we can come up with if we read the gospels is that that is the payment that is required for our sin. It required a perfect sacrifice.
And so Christ goes to the cross and in the single greatest act of friendship, he self-sacrifices Himself. Which is why in John 15:15 He says “Greater Love has no one than this, that you lay down your life for your friends.”
Now the difference between Christ’s sacrifice and how you and I self-sacrifice is that Christ’s sacrifice was voluntary. He didn’t need to do it. He voluntarily died in our place. And so, we see at the cross friendship between God is actually made possible because Christ experienced this total abandonment at the hands of His Father who has experienced this eternal friendship with.
But the story doesn’t end there because then after that we know Christ is raised from the dead. The gospel then is us being reconciled to God in Christ, but the final element is that not only were we created for friendship, but friendship has gone bad, Jesus redeems friendship, but also we’re going to be friends forever.
Because you look at Revelation 7 and the picture that you see there is people from every tribe, every country, every nation, glorifying and worshiping God together.
That’s why I always tell people,
“Listen, if you don’t like friendship now and you want to be by yourself, you are going to hate heaven.”
Because that’s all heaven is. Heaven is a giant friendship party of people worshipping God forever. Not as married people, not as single people, divorced, widowed, disenfranchised, disillusioned, it’s people who are joined together, brothers and sisters in Christ.
So the reason why friendship is so important, is that friendship is the relationship that best prepares you and I for our future reality with Christ and with God worshipping Him forever.
So when you think about the storyline of the gospel, that’s where I feel like it’s so important for us to understand it – really from this perspective of friendship, because friendship really articulates in detail the storyline in such a beautiful way.
I think there are people listening who are totally on board with what you are saying. When they hear you it just clicks. My last question is, and it might sound kind of funny, but if someone’s listening, including myself, and if we want to see our church friendships become something that has this deep foundation, this deep root, how do we start that? Do we need to tell our friends “Hey, we need to start working towards pointing each other to Christ now.” How can we start integrating this?
Well, the easiest route is, go buy the book. There’s a whole chapter on foraging friendships. But, we’ll give people a little bit of a sneak peek here.
You know, it’s really simple: ordinary things.
Friendship is formed in the ordinary, everyday, mundane circumstances of life.
Every time you have coffee with a friend, every time you share a meal with a friend, you’re living out God’s design for you. Whether or not you know it or not , you are preparing for what? You’re preparing for that future meal. That meal that will happen for all of eternity where Christ is seated at the marriage-feast with His bride. So you’re not just eating a meal or catching a show with a friend, you’re actually getting ready for eternity.
Every time you pray for your friend, you’re becoming more like Christ – you’re pointing to Christ, because you’re acknowledging that you’re not meant to live life alone and you need help from outside yourself to handle the difficulties and the burdens and the hardships. Every time you speak truth to a friend. Every time you confront your friend. Every time you give counsel to your friend. You’re becoming more like Christ because you realize that none of us are supposed to just stay as we are.
We come as we are, but we aren’t supposed to stay as we are.
God is completing a good work of grace that he began in you. And so, every time you speak truth and love to one another you realize that you’re actually building up the body of Christ. And so what you do is you see all these ordinary ways that maybe we take for granted, but they’re actually fundamentally profound ways to build friendship.
You know, something as simple as, I tell people, “Sit with your friend on a Sunday morning and worship with them.” Right? Something as simple as physical presence as one worships God gets you ready for the future. You know?
So, there are a lot of ways. I think a lot of times people think about friendship as these really heroic, over the top acts of, you know, “How can I prove my friendship?” We have this, maybe over-realized ideal of friendship that we’ve drawn from literature and movies. And while friendship definitely has moments like that, I also think it happens in just everyday moments like this as well.
Jonathan, that wraps up our time now. But, thank you so much and I’m going to be putting the link to your book on the episode page so people can grab that as well. Anyways, again, thank you for your time, thank you for your wisdom and just sharing with us. I hope to have you back on the show again soon!
Alright, thank you so much Isaac. I hope it was helpful for everyone.