A while ago one of our students, Andy Hudson, submitted an essay on the value of friendship in the Christian life with specific reference to male friendships. Here he highlights the need for openness, honesty, love, and burden-bearing. At a time when many are struggling with mental health issues, trauma, and loneliness, I asked him to write a piece for our blog on this all-important issue. We hope this will encourage Christian men to seek deeper and more nurturing friendships.

The value of friendship in the Christian life

Over the past year or so I have been reflecting on the nature of friendship.  Difficult life events thrust me into a place where I relied upon friendships all the more.  But this also led me to the realization that I haven’t really had the intimate, honest, “no holds barred” friendships that are essential to navigating the ups and downs of life. So I began to reflect on what those might look like.  My experience is that many of our friendships, especially between men, struggle to develop the intimacy and honesty for them to really flourish.  Speaking from personal experience, the struggle with emotional intimacy is very real.  That, and a fear of rejection and judgment, has often inhibited me from cultivating these friendships.  Questions such as “would they still be my friend if they really knew what went on inside my head?” spring to mind.  The reality is, that no one is as “normal” as they seem.  In fact, one could say to be normal is to really be honest about the idiosyncrasies and the struggles that we keep hidden, rather than conform to the airbrushed normality our culture asks us to portray.  So what do friendships look like for us as followers of Jesus?

Paul writes in Galatians 6:2 that we should “carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”  The Greek word for burden is baros, which has connotations of a literal weight. So this could be something that inhibits someone’s free movement or figuratively speaking, something grievous.  The burden carries personal and eternal significance.  Given the context of the verse, it is clear that Paul wants the Galatians to enjoy freedom in Christ, which is found in a Spirit-transformed, Christ-led identity.  He recognises that the burdens we carry, be they a pattern of sin or a time of struggle, are of eternal significance that can inhibit us from this freedom.  Therefore it’s essential that we share these burdens with our friends.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes this as the “ministry of bearing.”[1]  For Bonhoeffer, the law of the Christ is the law of bearing.  Whilst our love may be imperfect, the ministry of bearing can help one another live a life of God-dependent, Spirit-enabled and Christ-exalting love based on the justification we have received and no longer need to strive for.  With our identities in Christ, in forbearance we are to take the weight of our friends’ burdens to sustain them and help them live a life from an identity in Christ and that fulfills his law.

But what does this mean for our friendships?  Looking at Paul’s understanding of love, we see that he bases it around agape rather than philia.  For Paul, love is a disposition of character, something we put on rather than do.  Paul’s teachings on love (1 Cor. 13:4-8) is not simply stating that we are to be patient, kind and humble, but teaches those are the characteristics of love, and so they should embody who we are.  This definition of love greatly shapes Paul’s understanding of friendship.  Whereas the Oxford English Dictionary describes love as a “deep affection” for another, for Paul, friendship rooted in agape love runs much deeper.  For Paul, friendship is not just the goal, but rather something more significant—living out of the reality of siblingship in Christ.  So we begin to see how the ministry of bearing is borne out of a deeper bond that is shaped by identity in Christ and modelled on God’s love for us.  This is something that Scot McKnight identifies in his book Pastor Paul. [2] He argues Pauline friendship closely observes God’s love for his children and identifies four pillars in which relationships can be built upon; covenant, presence, advocacy and Christoformity (becoming like Christ). [3] I am hard pushed to find a better four pillars on which to build a friendship.

McKnight writes that God loves us by entering into a “rugged commitment”[4] of a covenant.  God’s love in a covenant can first be seen with Abraham and throughout scripture we see God’s rugged commitment remain as his people shuttle back and forth in their commitment to him. [5] We see this covenant commitment mirrored in the likes of Ruth toward Naomi, Jonathon toward David and later on Paul towards his ministry coworkers.  Whilst our friendships won’t match the covenant commitment of God’s towards us, we can embrace the notion of it and root our friendships in it.  A friendship built upon covenant love enables its roots to deepen and creates a safe space for honesty and confession in the knowledge that both parties are committed.  Here burdens can be truly shared and friendships can start to become more than just shared interests, but they can start to become life giving in nature.

Jesus shows us the necessity of presence in relationships.  You can’t listen, lament or rejoice with a friend in a hurry.  Presence is required to be known and helps make the relationship personal.  It cultivates trust and intimacy and an environment for healthy, loving confession.  One can’t underestimate the power and freedom that comes from such a confession.  Bonheoffer writes in his book Life Together how someone alone in their sin is utterly alone and how confession in the presence of another breaks the last stronghold of self-justification. [6] In the ministry of bearing, when two friends confess their sins it becomes a sacred space where Christ’s mercy rules and gives us permission to look our sins in the eye and be the sinners that we are.  Here sin loses its power and allows us to breathe again.  From there on in, we’re no longer alone, thanks to the friendship that has facilitated the confession.   Presence such as this shared with friends enables both to look to find our salvation, freedom and worth in Jesus alone, not in our own track record.  Here we see how genuine presence in the context of the ministry of bearing can truly ease the burdens we carry.  It allows friendships to observe and enquire after one another rather than react to crises.  It can generate a depth to a friendship that is of incomparable joy and strength to one another.

Advocacy in friendship can be seen as “having the other’s back,” or perhaps allying oneself to another to fight their corner.  In Acts 23 we see Barnabas’ advocacy for Paul, fighting his corner against the sceptical apostles.  The encouragement Barnabas translates as parakaleó in Greek, which aligns with the description of Christ’s advocacy (paraklétos) in 1 John 2:1.  Here we see a model of advocacy for our friendships.  We must advocate for our friends as Christ advocates for us.  Seeking to pray for, encourage and love the other into the freedom that identity in Christ brings.  Paul perhaps does not become the man he became without Barnabas’ advocacy.  It allowed Paul to throw off the regrets and mistakes of the past and step into his future calling.  It models the love that Paul writes of in 1 Corinthians 13 (which could have been written with Barnabas in mind) and can be seen in Paul’s own life as he advocates his fellow coworkers in support, encouragement and prayer.  By championing our friends through their struggles, which in its very nature helps share the load.  Therefore we see how advocacy is a key element of the ministry of bearing as advocacy is in it’s very nature bearing.  It supports and encourages our friends and lifts them up to celebrate all who they are as a person and who they can be in Christ.

McKnight writes that “to love someone is to be so committed to them that we yearn for and work for their growth into Christoformity.” [7] For Paul, the reason and the purpose of the ministry of bearing is Christoformity.  Perhaps it could be argued there is no more loving a thing than to yearn for a friend to intimately know the love of Christ and for the freedom that comes from that.  Yet sin distorts our path to become more like Jesus, which is why for Paul the gentle restoration from sin outlined later in Galatians 6 is of such importance.  How are our communities to cultivate the love of Christ if we don’t help one another untangle from the sin that so easily entangles?  For Paul, the restoration from sin is the first step to Christoformity, but beyond that Paul is challenging friendships to sow seeds of the Spirit so that they may both reap and further sow seeds of the Spirit in other relationships.

St Augustine writes that in friendship “rough things become smooth, heavy burdens are lightened, and difficulties vanquished.” [8] The more I consider Galatians 6:2, the more I see it as a beautiful blueprint for friendship.  It reflects the beauty of a Christ-centered and Spirit-led community expressing commitment, presence, advocacy and Christoformity.  As a man who has struggled with depression, grapples with past and present failure and the expectations to be a loving, Godly man, I often find the whole experience quite overwhelming.  For me the ministry of bearing in friendship offers me respite and lightens my load.  It helps me to honestly assess my character and integrity in a setting where the mercy of God reigns and our identities are found at the foot of the cross.  It helps me recalibrate and helps me to be the man I am seeking to be—one who fulfills the law of Christ to love my neighbour as myself in all situations.  From there I see a knock on effect.  For in the ministry, the one who is bearing for another, knows that he is also being borne.  As such communities can flourish in bearing, as the one who has been borne is encouraged to bear for another.  From my experiences, friendships that step into the ministry of bearing are more life giving, more real, more human and more enjoyable.  They rest in the grace of God and are not self-serving and don’t seek self-justification.  They move beyond our self interests and the need for gratification and develop an intimacy and understanding of one another that brings freedom and a deeper joy.  We are fully aware of our shortcomings, our mistakes and our sin, yet we can look one another in the eye in the knowledge that we will bear one another’s burdens.  I still have a long way to go in order to love my friends like this and a long way to go to learn to be candid in my friendships and trust my friends to receive what I say.  But I find deep encouragement in my friendships that do seek to model the ministry of bearing as we seek to help one another walk the narrow path together.

By Andy Hudson, WTC GradDip student

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (SCM Press, 2015), 77.
[2] Scot McKnight, Pastor Paul (Theological Explorations for the Church Catholic): Nurturing a Culture of Christoformity in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019).
[3] McKnight, Pastor Paul, 86.
[4] McKnight, Pastor Paul, 41.
[5] McKnight, Pastor Paul, 41.
[6] Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 86–89.
[7] McKnight, Pastor Paul, 44.
[8] St. Augustine of Hippo, The Letters of St. Augustine (Jazzybee Verlag, 2015), 261.

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