When I began graduate school a few years ago, I formed a close friendship with a non-Christian classmate. Although I’ve tried to plant seeds in her life that the Lord could water to bear good fruit, I realized recently that in her disdain for men and marriage, her hostility to God’s Word and laws, her worship of feminism, and her “live and let live” moral relativism, she’s influenced me more than I’ve influenced her. I was utterly sobered by the discovery. It happened a few months ago, while she was complaining that her brother-in-law’s sloppiness and unwillingness to work has taken a toll on her sister’s marriage. I found myself asking, “Why doesn’t she just divorce him?” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I felt ashamed; they didn’t come from the Lord, and the flippancy of that remark doesn’t reflect my admiration, respect or desire for the sacred covenant of marriage as God defines it, nor does it do anything to esteem committed marriage to this non-Christian who already disdains marriage and God’s laws.
As I’ve sought the counsel of godly friends, parents and mentors; prayed fervently over the direction of this friendship; and cultivated genuine, accountability-fostering community with some of the women from my small group, I’ve realized how draining this friendship has been on my time and energy — I’d begun to feel smothered without noticing it — and how toxic this friendship has been to my walk with the Lord. The Lord has shown me the folly of my own pride in thinking that I had to be the one to lead her to Christ and my “fear of man” in trying to curry favor with her instead of seeking to obey Him by speaking truthfully of my convictions.
How do I extricate myself from this in a way that honors the Lord, especially since this woman feels threatened, judged and condemned by Christians (most of her relatives are Christians) because of the choices she’s made and the liberal views she celebrates?
For the past few months, I’ve taken a hiatus from her, asking her for some time and space to focus, ostensibly, on my intensifying graduate work and promising that I’d get back in touch with her this summer. When I made the request, I expected that I’d be able to set some new boundaries and then resume the friendship with her, but now I think that would be foolish. Is it best to simply fade away, as some have suggested, or should I in some way explain to her what I’ve just explained to you? I don’t want to trample on the vulnerability she has shown in opening up to me over the years, and I fear that the fade-away approach, although easiest for me, might cause her to feel confused and mistreated.
Thank you for steering this column to friendship, a subject of vast importance for us as creatures who are made in God’s image and as such, are designed for relationship. You’ve rightly understood the power of friendship to influence your beliefs and actions — that’s one reason Scripture returns to the theme of friendship so often.
Scripture is full of warnings to avoid foolish and wicked friends precisely because of their ability to lead us into great harm. Bad friends can lead us astray (Proverbs 12:26), shame our parents (Proverbs 28:7) and lead to the squandering of wealth (Proverbs 29:3). Scripture is unequivocal when it comes to the power of friends: “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals'” (1 Corinthians 15:33).
By contrast, good friends are an encouragement toward righteousness: “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (Proverbs 13:20). It is a blessing to avoid the “counsel of the wicked” and to avoid mimicking the “way of sinners” (Psalm 1:1-6). Daniel 2:17-18 shows the benefit and blessing of faithful friends in the face of tribulation; Philippians 4:3 shows the great comfort and help of a “true companion” in the faith.
It is right for you to pull away from this friendship in its present form. Does this mean you should not be friendly with unbelievers? Certainly not. We who are trusting in Christ for salvation are charged with sharing the Good News of His redeeming work on the cross with others (Matthew 28:16-20). But your friendships with unbelievers should be qualitatively different from those with fellow Christians. The focus of friendships with unbelievers should be evangelism. Your heart should be moved to share with them the Good News of God’s plan for salvation. They are spiritually dead, and Christ has given us the keys to life. This is the sort of news we should long to share with those friends whom we know from Scripture are destined to suffer God’s wrath apart from Christ. There should be an urgency in our conversations, an active attempt to turn conversations to Christ and an ongoing effort to take them to the Word, without which no one can be saved (Romans 10:14).
What you should avoid is intimacy with unbelievers. Pairing off, exclusivity, isolation from the body — these sorts of friendship, even with another believer, can quickly become toxic. How much more so with unbelievers! Paul is candid:
Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? (2 Corintians 6:14-16).
We look often to that passage when considering whom to marry. But the implication is wider than choosing a spouse. It extends also to friendships and other intimate relationships (business partners, for example). There is great wisdom in building intimate friendships with those of the household of faith, your sisters in Christ. And there is great folly in doing otherwise. Solomon exhorts his son saying,
Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man, lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare (Proverbs 22:24-25).
That’s an unqualified warning based on the reality that we are influenced by those we take into confidence and closeness. We can’t help but be changed by those we spend time with. We will be like each other. “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). That influence can be for good or for evil. As you have observed firsthand, intimate friendship with unbelievers has a corrupting influence.
If you desire to grow in godliness, you should seek friendships with women who are more godly than you are so that you can learn from them (Titus 2). In friendship we need a Paul, a Silas and a Timothy: someone ahead of us who can disciple us; someone walking beside us whom we mutually exhort; and someone following in our footsteps whom we disciple. In the context of those righteous relationships, we can reach out to unbelievers and call them to faith. What’s not modeled in Scripture, and is instead warned against, is intimate friendship with unbelievers.
Which brings us to the heart of your question: How should you exit this relationship in a way that won’t bring harm to the cause of Christ?
It may be that she won’t seek you out to resume the friendship. If she doesn’t contact you, that’s OK. You’re not under any obligation to re-establish contact to explain why you no longer wish to spend time together. Such may be God’s protection steering you away from her. If, however, she is asking you to spend time with her, or if the Holy Spirit is prompting you to call her, it’s important to be upfront about your convictions and resolve for the friendship going forward. Things must necessarily change because you’ve realized she’s influencing you away from Christ. Tell her of your desire to see her come to the knowledge of the truth. Be honest. You mustn’t try to put her off with excuses about busy schedules or conflicting plans. Nor must you give her all the detail you’ve given here. Instead, be kind but firm.
There are ways to reach out that are consistent with the call to evangelize the lost:
- Invite her to go to church with you.
- Include her in a formal group Bible study led by an older woman.
- Spend time with her along with other mature believers, not one-on-one.
She may be angry with you, but if you walk in obedience to God, treasuring Christ above this friendship, then such reviling is not a mark of failure but of faithfulness (John 15:18-19).
I pray God will protect you and preserve you as you seek to obey Him.
Copyright 2013 Candice Watters. All rights reserved.