The words came through an email and, as I skimmed through, I assumed I hadn’t read them correctly. My heart started beating quickly as I re-read the first few lines and saw that, in fact, I’d read it right. The biting words sunk in deep. A friend had misunderstood me, had not given me the benefit of the doubt, and she was writing to let me know I had disappointed her.
We’ve all been hurt by someone we considered a friend, whether it’s an inconsiderate word or an unexpected betrayal. I’ve discovered that when it happens to me, as it did through that email, it’s my natural tendency, like it is the tendency of many women, to pull away, erect protective barriers around my vulnerability, and let the friendship fade into the background as if it never existed.
Sometimes, when the wound is especially deep, our tendency is not just to write the friend off but to write friendship off. We’re hurt so badly that we give in to cynicism, bitterness, and resentment, and we wonder if friendship is worth the risk of wading through the emotions and hurts, reconciling relationships, and making ourselves vulnerable again. We are friendly and sociable at a safe distance, but heart-level friendship? It’s too hard and too risky.
Why do we become cynical about friendship after we’ve been hurt? Too often, it’s because we cling to a false idea of what friendship should be: the sugary-sweet, easy-come community where we flit into one another’s homes without knocking, laugh deep into the night, know each other and are known without effort, and never exchange a cross or challenging word. I typically envision dinner parties and game nights. You may envision vacationing together or talking on the phone everyday. We all have that ideal picture, and with that ideal view in mind, it’s easy to feel insecure about or frustrated with our reality.
I tend to want to cast the responsibility or the blame for my imperfect relationships on others, but it works both ways. Sometimes I have hurt others, which I did inadvertently this year. Although my friend that I hurt brought it to my attention, I remained blind to the way I was wounding her, wanting to blame her instead. She brought it to my attention again, just as clear and gentle as the first time, and I finally saw what my protective barriers had kept me from seeing and, in reality, how they had been used as weapons instead of defense. This friend challenged me to stay in the friendship and work through our differences rather than keep my distance, something that felt risky to me but in the end has been worth it.
Isn’t this what true, biblical community is about: being willing to love, forgive, and bear with those we might not necessarily always understand and being willing to confess sin, inadvertent or not, and receive the grace that helps us grow? This is more what it’s about than dinner parties and game nights.
Over coffee, a young woman in my church and I discussed this together, about how we have this stubborn belief that community can actually be what we ideally picture in our heads. She said she wishes people would invite her to more things, how it seems like everyone is always getting together without her. I said I sometimes envy certain relationships and resent that I’m not included in them. After confessing our self-focused thoughts to one another, the conversation turned to what true community is and what it should look like in reality.
Isn’t it, we said, an ongoing effort? Isn’t it having to deal biblically with our inevitable hurts, being quick to forgive, crossing life-stage boundaries and refusing to put other women in categories? Isn’t it pushing through awkwardness and refusing to give up on people even when they disappoint us? And perhaps the most important question: isn’t it the greater blessing to be a person that seeks for this type of community rather than clinging to false ideals and waiting for it to just “happen” to us?
While it is a greater blessing, we determined that it’s also risky. We must look to serve rather than be served, which means it’s possible that we might not be served in the ways we hope. We must be ever-willing to broaden the circle, which means we must have an eye for the outsider rather than an eye for how we can be an insider, and it’s possible we might be forgotten in the process. We must be willing to address sin and conflict in an appropriate way, which means it’s possible we might be rejected. We must be willing to be vulnerable, which means we might be misunderstood and grace might not be extended.
Instead of holding fast to our ideals, we need a new definition of friendship, one that allows for awkwardness and risk and fumbling through, because isn’t true friendship paved by these very things? Paul offers us a definition for friendship in Colossians that we’d do better to cling to than our false ideals:
“Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. But above all these things, put on love, which is the bond of perfection. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful.” (3:12-15)
Paul certainly goes beyond vacationing together and small talk and waiting for someone else to initiate. He exhorts us to actively pursue being a godly friend to others, to actively pursue being patient, forgiving, loving, and being thankful for others as we relate to them. The focus is on what we give to others, not what they give to us. We don’t do these things because we hope to get something in return, friendship or otherwise. We do these things because it is the way Christ showed His love toward us and because biblical community will always model itself after Him.
Until Heaven, our community will never be perfect; it’s inevitable that we will experience hurt and disappointment in relationships. But it’s worth the risk. Because by actively pursuing others in the way Christ pursues us, we extend an invitation for the friendship we desire, but we also discover the beautiful and always-faithful way in which Christ relates to us.
Christine Hoover is the author of The Church Planting Wife: Help and Hope for Her Heart. She has contributed to the Desiring God blog, In(courage), and Christianity Today, and blogs for ministry wives at www.GraceCoversMe.com. Christine and her husband Kyle, a church planting pastor, have three boys.