I still remember my best friend from elementary school. During recess we would climb to the top of the monkey bars and just sit and talk. We would call each other on the phone after school and talk for hours. We even planned what we would wear to school the next day—always in matching colors.
Until the day she invited someone else to join us on the monkey bars.
I struggled to like the new girl. I didn’t like a third person encroaching on our already perfectly even party of two. Before long, I found myself saying mean things to her and wishing she would go away. But the opposite happened— I ended up being the one booted out.
It was only as I got older that I looked back on that friendship and realized the truth: I had made an idol out of friendship.
How Can Friendship Become Idolatry?
Friendship. It’s a good thing and a blessing. We all enjoy having good friends, people we can enjoy favorite hobbies with and share our secrets and longings. But like all good things and like all the blessings God has given us, we can turn friendship into an idol that we worship.
An idol is anything we love, worship, and place in importance above God. It is anything we look to for meaning and significance. It consumes our thoughts and energies— thoughts and energies that should be focused on God. An idol is something we look to believing it will give us something that only God can give us. Though the idols in the Bible were often constructed of stone or wood, the idols we bow down to can be anything, including money, possessions, status, people, and power. An idol can be anything we think we need to make our lives better, happier, and give our life meaning. This includes friendship.
Idolatry in all its forms is a violation of the first and second commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:4-5). We make friendship an idol when we put our friendships above our relationship with God. We do that when we expect things from our friends they aren’t meant to give us or be for us. When we expect our friendship to provide us the love, affirmation, acceptance, meaning, purpose, and security that should only come from our relationship with God, we are making our friendships into idols.
What Signs Do We Have that a Friendship Has Become an Idol?
First, idolatry in friendship interferes with other relationships. It overemphasizes one relationship above all others. It pushes others away. It despises interference and demands complete allegiance. Idolatry is also self-centered. It focuses on what our friends can do for us rather than how we can serve them. Idolatry wants all the attention and cares little for what others need. It expects others to be at our beck and call.
Second, our responses to failed expectations speaks volumes. If a friend doesn’t act as we expect or follow our unwritten and assumed rules and we respond in anger, that friendship might be an idol for us. If a friend spends time with another friend and we feel jealousy or anger, that friendship is most likely an idol. When we expect our friends to prioritize their life around us, our friendship is an idol. When we need to hear affirmation from our friends, our friendships have taken first place in our heart. When we fear losing our friendships, our friendships have become idolatrous.
Turning from Idolatry: 2 Steps
1. Repent. All idols are disordered desires. They are false gods which take the place in our heart belonging to God alone. When we realize a friendship has become idolatrous, we have to turn to Christ in repentance. We have to remove our idol from the roots and sometimes that means taking drastic measures. It may mean having to cut back on the amount of time we spend with a friend or it may mean having to step away from the friendship altogether. Then we have to replace our love for that idol with love for Christ. We have to preach the gospel to ourselves, remembering that Christ is our greatest friend, the One who sacrificed himself to free us from our sins.
2. Reestablish Appropriate Boundaries. It is also important that we have proper boundaries with all our friendships. This is a healthy thing to do, for ourselves and for our friends. They are not our Saviors. They are fallen, sinful people just like us. They are not here to fulfill all of our needs; only God can do that. We need to set limits with our time, our space, our energies, and our thoughts, so that our friendships do not become all consuming. We should evaluate our friendships to make sure they are not interfering with other relationships, with our work, or with our responsibilities. We ought to take note of our emotional responses, whether it is anger, jealousy, or a desire to keep others away.
Like all things, our friendships should exist to glorifying God, not ourselves. Our friendships should be focused on helping one another grow in our love of God, not keep us from him. Like all the gifts God gives us, we need to steward our friendships well. They are a good thing in our life, but they can’t become our everything. God must have first place in our heart and in our affections. He must be the one to whom we turn to meet the needs of our heart. When he is first in our heart, can we properly love our friends, as Christ has loved us.
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Christina Fox received her Master’s Degree in Counseling from Palm Beach Atlantic University. She writes for a number of Christian ministries and publications including Desiring God and The Gospel Coalition. She is the author of A Heart Set Free: A Journey Through the Psalms of Lament (Christian Focus, 2016). You can find her at www.christinafox.com, @christinarfox and www.Facebook.com/