Pulling out a stack of mail from the mailbox, I leafed through the pile. I saw bills, ads, more bills, and then a white envelope with my name and address scrawled in handwritten cursive across the front. With handwritten notes being almost non-existent these days, I was immediately curious to see who had taken the time to send me a letter.
I walked inside the house, set the rest of the mail on the counter, and opened the letter. It was from a dear friend in town. She had written me a prayer, praying for my recent heartaches and disappointments. As I read these words—I pray this brokenness and discouragement would drive her to you, that you would be the encourager of her soul and the lifter of her head—I was reminded of this verse: "Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind" (1 Peter 3:8).
Friendship in today's culture
How many friends do you have? It's a tough question. Immediately our mind thinks of the number of friends on our social networking sites. And then there are our friends at work, in our neighborhood, and in our churches. When we think of it like that, it seems like we are rich in friends.
Or are we?
Since the advent of social media, our very definition of friendship has changed. We may have "friends" on our various social networking sites who we don't even remember how we know. While social media has often reunited us with friends from childhood and college days, all we really know about them is what we see on our feeds: pictures of their kids, updates on hobbies, vacations they've taken, the food they ate for dinner, and the latest joke they heard. All we know about these friends can be summed up in 140 characters or less.
What about the friends we see on a regular basis? Often our conversations center on the trivial. We talk about the cute thing our kid did last week, the grand vacation we are saving for, or the annoying thing our husband did that morning. We might exchange advice on dieting or parenting, or even how to advance in our careers.
Yet out of all our friends, IRL (in real life) or otherwise, who would know when we are feeling down? Who would know when our world is falling apart? Who would step in when we are about to make the biggest mistake of our lives? Who would encourage us with the hope we have in Christ? And who can we be real and authentic with, removing our masks and showing them who we really are?
Friendship in the early church
I often wonder what church-goers in the first century would think of our definition of friendship today. If they learned to use the computer, would they even participate in social media, or would they find it shallow and useless? And if we stepped back into their day, would we be overwhelmed by the level of intimacy and depth of love they had for one another?
The everyday reality of the early church was that they experienced intense persecution for their faith. Many were locked out of their synagogues, and most were rejected by their family, losing their jobs and homes. For these believers, Christian friendship was a literal lifeline. They depended and relied on one another in ways we could never imagine (Acts 4:32). They shared what they had with each other (Acts 2:42-47). They encouraged each other to stand firm in the face of persecution (Hebrews 3:12-14, 1 Corinthians 16:13). They loved each other in the same way Christ loved them (1 John 4:11).
Conversely, the people we connect with on social media are not "real friends." Call them online friends, acquaintances, or something else, but these may not be people who will drop everything to be by your side when your world crumbles around you.
Given the disparity between friendship in our culture and friendship in the Bible, how should today's Christian friendships look? What ought to define our friendships with other believers?
While not exhaustive, here are a few qualities of Christian friendships:
We need to be a part of a community of believers in real life. We need to meet regularly with a body of believers and do life together. This means not merely attending church together on Sundays, but being an integral part of each others' lives during the week. We need to meet with one another for prayer, share meals together in our homes, and help each other in practical ways (Romans 12:13, 2 Corinthians 9:1-2, 1 John 3:16-18).
It's also crucial we have people in our lives with whom we are real, transparent, and authentic. As Christians, we all come to Christ bearing the same scars and stains from sin. Not one of us is perfect, and it's wrong for us to pretend our lives are okay when they are, in fact, not okay. The reason my friend sent me a letter in the mail was because she knew from our conversations I was struggling. I had shared my disappointments with her. And like the early church members did with each other, she encouraged me with the hope of the gospel (Hebrews 3:13).
When we live this kind of life, as real people doing real life together, we shine a light in this dark world. Increasingly, more and more people connect less in person and more with people via the Internet. As a result, our culture is losing its sense of community. People are growing more isolated, withdrawn, and hopeless. The relationships we have in the church body can be a beacon, showing the world that the body of Christ is where true hope and community is found. Our relationships in the church can reflect the very love and grace we have found in Christ.
So, how many friends do you have? I guess the better question is, how many authentic and deep friendships do you have within the body of Christ? God gives us one another in the body to encourage, build up, bless, and spur one another one in the faith. May we be a community who is real with one another and whose relationships are less like the ones we see in our present day culture, but more like the ones seen in Acts where "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer" (2:42).
Christina Fox is a homeschooling mom, licensed mental health counselor, and writer. She lives in sunny south Florida with her husband of 16 years and their 2 boys. You can find her sharing her faith journey at http://www.ToShowThemJesus.com/.