Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

Who Needs Friends?

Walking the lonely corridor of an emergency ward at three in the morning, I knew I had to make a call. Life brings us to moments where no one less than a friend will do. Who do you call when you are facing a terrible crisis? On the other hand, who do you text when you have just received great news?  Some years ago, when Heather was in ICU and her life hung in the balance, I knew immediately who to call. My friend.

Socrates once asked an older man to describe that which he was most thankful for. Without hesitation, he replied, “That being such as I am, I have had the friends I have had.” I feel this way. Perhaps you do as well. Though undeserved, God has gifted me with some of the greatest friendships in the world.

I’m thinking about this because our cabin has been filled with friends this past week. We took time to celebrate our release from a year of lockdown, one where texts and zoom go only so far. Such people remind me that without friendship, life is no life at all. The vibrancy is gone. To put it in Eugene Peterson’s words, “Friends add color to the black and white events of daily life.” For most of us, Covid created a black and white existence. It’s nice to have some color back.

Do friendships require work? Of course. Can they get in the way? Sometimes. Do they impact our pace, alter our schedules, force us to wait, switch the thermostat, change the menu, and make us consider other choices other than our own? For sure. Will re-engaging with some be hard after a pandemic? Possibly. In her article in last week’s Wall Street Journal, Elizabeth Bernstein warns that we need to “brace ourselves for conversations that may take significant mental energy, at a time when our emotional bandwidth is already running low. And we should be ready to address hurt feelings—’Where were you?’—on either side.”

Friendships can also bring emotional risks. They may walk out of your life, leaving one to question, “Why?” I have had some friends with whom we have mutually shared the raw textures of life, only to find them fade away. In some cases, suddenly disappear. Reaching out to discover one is not interested in reaching back can be some of the greatest pain of all.

In a recent article on friendship in First Things, Robert Wilken underscores the ache. The loss of a friend, as he puts it, “is a loss of self.” Friendship is the reciprocal imparting of lives. In some cases, the sharing of souls.  True friends enable you to see who you are by looking through their eyes. Losing them can lead to a season of confusion and disorientation.

The best friends fly reconnaissance. To put it another way, they help us negotiate through life’s labyrinth. They are God’s gift, given to sand off the rough and sharpen the edge. They enable us to remember, preserve events that otherwise might be lost. It is why we often take time to reminisce with them when together. Recall the time we traveled together on a train from Cairo and nearly lost our bearings. Heather and I maintain a connection with a couple we have known for over 45 years. We reflect on crazy things like the night we both considered eloping rather than wait for our upcoming weddings. Friends remember things we long since have forgotten. This is why losing a friend can sever connections in our minds and “yank them out by the roots.”

Friendships are fragile. They require, as Wilken puts it, “constant solicitude and attention.” Yes, I too had to look up solicitude. It’s a great word that describes consistent care. I immediately think of a person in my life who writes me, prays for me, celebrates with me, weeps with me, reads what I write, and vents with me. She has a sixth sense, a way of being there in the ebbs and flows. Friendships need this kind of watchfulness. They require a sensitivity to read another’s mood, discern a downcast spirit, or ask, “What are you dreaming in these days?” Overstepping, one must be quick to say, “I apologize for my shortness yesterday” It is signing up to enter a common bending of wills, knowing that friendships are vulnerable to breakdown.

My best friends are those with whom I have cut covenants, entered into pacts, and promised unreserved fidelity. Within this, I can be myself–frivolous and goofy one minute—and radically serious the next. Talk about our walk with God as easily we talk about sports. Wilken again says it well: “The deepest friendship exists only among those whose lives are oriented toward a higher good…who share in the sublimity of truth.” In this case, sharing what it means to be summoned by God to chase after his purposes and bring glory to Jesus.

No wonder the sage warns that living a life of isolation “breaks out against sound wisdom” (Prov 18:1). It is to stand on our own two feet and crash. It’s like trying to breathe underwater—and drown. Going it alone only intensifies our natural self-centered bent. Most of all, it is to miss that much of the formation God has intended for us comes through others. It is part of his creative design.

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