The Dangerous Beauty of Friendship

Feb 19, 2009 |Gary Thomas, Graham Thomas
The Dangerous Beauty of Friendship

Friendship can be an enemy, a seduction of the mind lying beyond the reach of investigation. Or not.

One of the best investments you can make in your early 20s is to learn the art of creating and sustaining deep friendships. Keep in mind, though, that the friends you have at 24 years of age may not be the ones who you should take with you on the journey to 42. This is something that few people really think about.

We'd like to invite you to take a few minutes to evaluate the state of your friendships.

Profitable businesses don't spontaneously erupt, good marriages don't happen by accident, and fruit doesn't suddenly grow in the middle of the living room floor. God-honoring, soul-building friendships take the same good intentions and effort.

Men and women who have lived satisfying lives — the ones who have truly sucked the nectar out of life and are glad they have done so — have learned to be intentional about cultivating, and occasionally discarding, friends.

Scripture tells us that as "iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another," but it's also true that the wrong man can also dull another. Have you ever evaluated your friendships to see what they're doing to your soul? There's great beauty in friendship and great danger; how do we walk this line?

Let's go back to some ancient wisdom. People who only read books written in the past decade walk half-blind. Wisdom is old: "By wisdom the Lord laid the earth's foundations" (Proverbs 3:19), so we think it's wise to occasionally read old books. Saint Augustine, who lived over 1,500 years ago, has many valuable things to say about healthy friendships in the 21st century.

Powerful Peers

In his early Christian classic Confessions, Augustine spends a lot of time thinking about friendship, both good and bad. Surprisingly to many, and perhaps even shockingly to some, Augustine eventually found one of his truest friends to be his ... mother. As a young man, Augustine remembers his mom warning him "that I should not fall into fornication, and above all that I should not commit adultery with someone else's wife."

Looking back, Augustine realizes that his mother's warnings against sexual sin were actually "[God] speaking through her." A properly working conscience would have led the young Augustine to feel guilty if he was not listening to his mother's (and ultimately God's) warnings against sexual impurity. Any act against his mother's words should have led him to feel deeply ashamed.

Instead, Augustine admits that "among my peer group I was ashamed not to be equally guilty of shameful behavior when I heard them boasting of their sexual exploits."

Did you catch that? Rather than feel shame at not acting in accordance with God, Augustine is ashamed that he is not acting more in accordance with his peers. His conscience has essentially been reversed because of the negative pressure of his peer group.

Augustine allows the voice of his peers to become more powerful than the voice of God in his own life. The resulting backward shame even leads Augustine to "pretend I had done things I had not done at all, so that my innocence should not lead my companions to scorn my lack of courage."

This is exactly how one man dulls another: Instead of lifting him up to be his highest and best, he pulls him down to his lowest and least. Augustine's peer group successfully perverted his conscience so that it was but a small step from lying about sexual immorality to actually committing it. Just a short time later, Augustine fathered a child out of wedlock, never marrying the mother.

Are your friendships leading you toward what should be shameful, or are they giving you an increased sensitivity to be all that God created you to be? Shame, like anger, can be misdirected and misguided. We can shape what we take pride in and what we're ashamed of, and the group of people we hang out with have a powerful role in shaping that sense. You want friends who inspire you, who challenge you to become more courageous, not more corrupt.

Begging for Belonging?

Friendship is, at heart, a yearning to belong. "Buddy movies" or sitcoms like "Friends" are popular precisely because, as in the old sitcom "Cheers," we all long for a place where "everybody knows your name." But when wanting to belong to any particular group becomes more important to us than belonging to the family of God, friendship can become a debilitating force.

That's what Augustine experienced in his famous episode of stealing pears. Together with his buddies, Augustine became a thief, but not because he was hungry or because he was a glutton for the sweet taste of pears. He just wanted to be a friend. "My pleasure was not in the pears," he tells us, but rather "it was in the crime itself, done in association with a sinful group. My love in the act was to be associated with the gang in whose company I did it." He admits that, on his own, he'd have neither the inclination nor the will to steal pears, but as an act of "friendship" he soured his soul and denied someone else a basic human right to property.

Later in his life, Augustine would feel this sin grievously; he came to believe that his group of friends at that point in his life was one of his greatest downfalls and one of the prominent reasons for his sinful behavior. They corrupted his conscience and led him to sinful thoughts, feelings and actions that Augustine believes he would not otherwise have given way to.

In a poetic moment of pondering all this, Augustine warns, "Friendship can be a dangerous enemy, a seduction of the mind lying beyond the reach of investigation." For the rest of his life, he urged his followers to use careful scrutiny when choosing friends due to the extreme susceptibility to corruption as a result of an unhealthy group of peers.

Here, then, is how to evaluate your "affinity groups," the circle you hang around with: When you get together, does sin become more or less likely? Does the force of the group lead you toward God and God-honoring achievements or toward rebellion? Is your cadre a place of spiritual refuge or a constant temptation?

We don't know about you, but for us, there's plenty of temptation that assaults our own sinful hearts, all on our own. The last thing we need is more temptation, so we want to choose our friends accordingly.

Weak Wills

Another friendship that proved beneficial to Augustine, besides that with his mother, was a friendship with a friend from Thagaste. Though Augustine believes there was error in this relationship, primarily because he put his relationship with his friend outside of his relationship with God, his friend from Thagaste at least had the courage and backbone to challenge Augustine when he went wrong.

Following his friend's baptism, Augustine "attempted to joke with him, imagining that he too would laugh with me about the baptism." In the same way he and his friends had mocked sexual morality, Augustine expected to mock one of the sacraments of the church with his new friend, but his friend would have nothing to do with that.

Rather than join in the mocking, Augustine's friend "was horrified ... and with amazing and immediate frankness advised me that, if I wished to be his friend, I must stop saying this kind of thing to him." This rebuke rocks Augustine's determination that religion and faith are worthless and even leads him to question why he doesn't believe in religion.

Are your friends strong enough to correct you when you're wrong? Do they love God above you so that they would even risk the relationship they have with you to call you back to God? Or are they mostly weak men and women who value your affection and fondness for them more than they value God's pleasure and approval? A well-intentioned but weak friend is sort of like a paper coat — a good concept, perhaps, but not worth much when the rains start.

But What About the Lost?

All this talk about friends is fine, some might be thinking, but are you suggesting I should dump all my non-Christian friends and hang out only with believers?

Of course not. Jesus himself was called a "friend" of sinners. We need relationships with those who need the light God shines through us.

But overall, relationships are sort of like a well-balanced diet. Salads are healthy for you, but it's OK to eat ice cream on occasion. If you only eat ice cream and never eat salads, you're not going to be very healthy, however. If all your friendships are out of kilter, if they are unfocused or a drag on your walk with God, your spiritual health will suffer. For true, soul-baring friendships, you want to find strong, growing and godly believers. That's the basis that gives you positive peer pressure so that when you spend time with acquaintances who might be temptations more than support, you influence them instead of them influencing you.

This is not to say that we can't learn lessons even from the unbelieving, but it is to say that a wise man or woman chooses for their closest friends people who inspire them, people they respect and people who love God as much if not more than they do.

The final thing to keep in mind is that friendships with nonbelievers become most dangerous when your relationship with God is not your ultimate source of intimacy and satisfaction. The reason Augustine was so influenced by his non-Christian friends was because he relied on them as his sole source of affirmation and fulfillment. When you put your relationship with God first it becomes much harder for friends to negatively influence you more than you positively influence them.

As you make your way through the next months, take some time to evaluate the friends you have and the ones you've lost touch with. Do you have a healthy relational diet, or do you need to do some purging and planting to become healthier as a person and as a Christian?

Copyright 2009 Gary Thomas. All rights reserved.

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