The four of us talked late into the night, enjoying a rare weekend together without our families. We laughed, we went deep, we teased and challenged one another. We were in the mountains of northern Georgia, celebrating 20 years of friendship that had started when we were first-year college students. When we met at 18, I don’t think any of us could have imagined ourselves as we are now, in our late 30s: with 4 marriages, 14 children, a few advanced degrees, multiple cross-country moves, and a handful of career changes amongst us. But the friendship that we formed in college has been deepened and strengthened through the years as we have supported, laughed, and cried with each other.
That weekend felt sacred. We reconnected and felt our souls nourished by the friendship we shared. And as we scattered back to our homes on Sunday evening, I thought, how right God was that it is not good for humans to be alone. We often hear that passage from Genesis 2 at weddings—in fact, I had used it as my sermon text when I performed my little brother’s wedding ceremony this past spring. But when God created Eve out of Adam, God created not just a couple but a community.
In his 12th-century text Spiritual Friendship, the Cistercian monk Aelred of Rievaulx writes:
“Finally, when God fashioned the man, to recommend society as a higher blessing, he said, ’it is not good that the man should be alone; let us make him a helper like himself.’ Indeed divine power fashioned this helper not from similar or even from the same material. But as a more specific motivation for charity and friendship, this power created a woman from the very substance of the man. In a beautiful way, then, from the side of the first human a second was produced, so that nature might teach that all are equal or, as it were, collateral, and that among human beings—and this is a property of friendship—there exists neither superior nor inferior” (1.57).
Thankfully, Aelred here departs from his classical sources, like Cicero, who claimed that women were not capable of true friendship. But notice how Aelred describes the nature of friendship: it is a recognition of equality, of the human nature that we all share. Friendship, in its ideal form, is not about power or status or selfish gain but about mutual support. Friendship is a gift from God to sustain human communities in the very good world God made.
There is a problem.
But, of course, the Fall corrupts all relationships: between humans and God, but also between humans and one another. After the beautiful union between Adam and Eve in Genesis 2, the first post-Fall relationship described in scripture ends in fratricide as Cain kills his brother Abel. Our ability to have and keep strong friendships has been broken and warped by sin in the world; I imagine that not one of us needs to be convinced that friendships range from imperfect to destructive. We long for connections with others even as we struggle to attain the equality, support, and respect that Aelred describes.
Forming friendships in a world of broken relationships can seem daunting. It takes vulnerability and involves risk; it brings out our feelings of jealousy, competition, and inadequacy. But forming deep friendships is also a proclamation of the good news of the gospel through our lives. In Christ, all that was broken is being restored and made new. As we live in the tension between the already and the not yet of the kingdom of God, our friendships are one way to enter into and experience the goodness of Christ’s redemptive work. Because of sin, we have to work at friendships; because of Christ, friendships can heal what was broken by the fall.
We have help.
We are not left on our own to do this work of healing what was broken. John, in his beautiful epistles that center on the love of God in human lives, reminds us that we love because God first loved us (1 John 4:19). The love of God in us allows us to both truly love others and allow ourselves to be loved in return. Because of the love of God, incarnated in Jesus and sustained in us through the Spirit, we can aspire to friendships that reflect the love that Paul famously described in 1 Corinthians 13.
This theology of friendship acknowledges the difficulties of relationships in a world broken by sin while reminding us that the love of God can flow through us and heal what is broken, making deep and lasting friendship possible. As Aelred points out in the quote above, God created human beings to be in relationships, to have profound friendships. Moreover, we are created in the image of a trinitarian God, a God who is three in one. The Greek word perichoresis describes the relationship between the three members of the Godhead as an eternal dance of perfect fellowship, equality, and intimacy. In order to reflect the image of a God who exists in perpetual relationship, God creates not a single person but a pair, the start of a human society sustained by relationships.
Building and maintaining friendships pulls us back to God’s intention for humanity, that we live in relationships with one another that reflect the Triune God. This is heady theology. But what does it mean for us now, living in an imperfect world, with hearts that long for connection but also deny or sabotage that longing through selfishness, envy, insecurity, busyness, or even the pain of previous broken relationships?
Friendships change our perceptions.
Entering into friendships requires that we see others as God sees them, through the lens of love. It requires that we see others as our equals, as fellow human beings made, as Aelred says, of the same substance as we are. It requires that we lay aside notions of superiority and inferiority, the power dynamics that can stifle true friendship. It requires that we allow the love of God to flow through us. It requires the vulnerability to let someone else see us and love us, trusting that they are striving to see us as God does.
But when we experience true friendship, we can feel that we are in a sacred space. We feel the joy of reflecting God in relationship and we experience a taste of the kingdom of God. I certainly felt that with my friends this summer; I hope that the four of us will continue to have those moments of connection for the next 20 years and beyond. Because God created us to be in relationships with each other, despite the brokenness of the world and of our own hearts, by the grace of God we can still experience the blessing of friendship.