Friendship was easy when I was a kid; at least that’s how I remember it. My brother and I played with the neighbors, kids from church, and families in our homeschool group. Looking back, I know that my main focus in my friendships was what I got out of them.
How I benefit and to what degree I enjoy a person is a natural (and certainly immature) way to measure relationships. But as an adult and a Christian, how much do I still fall back on similar criteria to evaluate my friendships?
Friendship on the field
The other day I sat on the couch while a football game featuring my parents’ alma mater, Texas A&M, played on TV. I’ve never been into sports, so I didn’t pay attention to the game until I realized the announcers and crowd were yelling louder than usual. I looked up to see an Aggies player rocket across the field for a 95-yard kickoff return.
What struck me as I watched replay after replay was not the impressive run. Instead, another Aggie player caught my eye. He came from behind the player with the ball, running who knows how fast to catch up. Then he kept running, now keeping pace with his teammate. His head on a swivel, he watched for any possible threats to his teammate’s bid for the end zone. After the touchdown, he congratulated his friend with the helmet-slapping so common in the sport.
That player never tried to take the ball — or the glory — for himself. He didn’t sulk that everyone was yelling for his teammate and not him. His goal was to help his friend succeed, and he knew his friend’s success would mean success for them all.
Another time, another context
Sports analogies are probably a dime a dozen. But this idea of others-focused friendship isn’t found only on game night. A friend recently told me about John Newton, the slave-trader turned preacher and hymnwriter, and his friendship with William Cowper.
Like Newton, Cowper also wrote hymns. But unlike Newton who preached truth to his congregation every week, Cowper struggled to speak truth even to himself. Plagued by doubt, Cowper wrestled for decades with depression, even attempting suicide.
Newton and Cowper became friends in between some of Cowper’s depressive episodes. But in 1773, Cowper fell into a depression that would last 27 years until his death. For six years, Newton patiently walked alongside his friend despite the constant darkness, even inviting Cowper to stay in his home for over a year after a suicide attempt.
Newton eventually moved to take a role at another church, but didn’t move on from his friend. He wrote Cowper faithfully, gently reminding him of truth as Cowper struggled to believe it. Sometimes he asked Cowper to send him poems or other writings, knowing that the exercise would push him to focus on truth amid his mental anguish.
It would have been easy to just let the relationship drift off. Cowper wasn’t holding up his side of the relationship. Constantly hounded by dark thoughts and emotions, he was never a fun or helpful person for Newton to have in his corner.
But Newton didn’t allow the distance or Cowper’s depression to snuff out their relationship. He worked for his friend’s good, not his own.
Big shoes to fill
In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he told them that despite all the labor he had already poured into the church, he was ready to give more: “I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls.”
Spend and be spent. For your souls.
We’re not talking about an equitable give-and-take. This isn’t a mutual agreement. Paul was happy to make a radical commitment to expend his energies for these Christians’ growth.
It’s really about one question: Am I willing — glad, even — to spend and be spent for someone else’s good?
Do I have that others-focused mentality instead of focusing only on my wants or heartaches? Do I intentionally pray for my friends, ask about their goals or struggles, and brainstorm their next steps with them? Do I give more attention to their needs than my own?
Am I willing to try?
Made possible by a best Friend
John Newton and Paul set a high bar. How can we ever become friends like that?
In one of the confounding ironies of Christianity, it’s only in turning to Jesus — who raises the friendship bar inestimably higher — that we find hope for our own friendship abilities.
Jesus makes those friendships possible. He enabled Paul to focus his energies on his congregations. He daily provided Newton with the amazing grace he needed to show up for Cowper.
We can spend and be spent knowing that Jesus spent everything to buy us for himself, securing our place in the family of God. We can choose to focus on the needs of others because we have been freed from stressing about our own needs. We have been equipped to prioritize others’ growth because we know that God is not limited to providing for only one of us. He will continue to work in us as He works in our friends — and I have felt this reality many times as my friends pour into me during my weaker moments.
And besides, when one of us succeeds — we all do.
Copyright 2022 Lauren Dunn. All rights reserved.