I had “the talk” with my dad when I was in sixth grade. Sure, it was awkward. I remember munching down on a bag of peanut M&Ms while he discussed things that blew my mind. I bet I ate the whole bag as he described what sex was, and why I should wait ‘til marriage to experience it. There was a strong emphasis on the temptation that men and women experience when they are together, especially at night, and if they’re unchaperoned. In my mind, I was thinking, “Don’t worry dad, I’ll wait forever because that all sounds gross!” Not the peanut M&Ms, just sex. 

Later in high school, my youth group had a February tradition of making true-love-waits commitments. Remember those? We’d break up into small groups, guys in one group and girls in the other, and discuss the importance of “purity.” In this setting, purity was defined as more than just not having sex—it was about avoiding the appearance of wrongdoing, staying vertical, not being too “alone” with our girlfriends or boyfriends, and seeking accountability. At the end of small group time, everyone would get together, sign little cards, and commit to purity. Sometimes, parents would give their kids a gift, like a gold chain or ring, to symbolize their commitment. It was quite the ceremony. 

I didn’t realize how much I was shaped by these experiences until my second job out of college. I ended up in an office of mostly women, pretty amazing women, who were smart, kind, and professional. But we didn’t have a chaperone! It sounds silly perhaps, but I struggled to know how to interact with them because, for so much of my life, I’d been shaped to see women as a threat to my godliness and purity (not my wife of course, or my sisters or mom, just all other women). I had multiple conversations with my wife where I’d ask her things like, “Can I have a coffee meeting with them like I would with a male coworker? Can I give them a hug when they’re sad about something?” 

Looking back now, I can see the real questions beneath the surface: “How can I be friends with someone of the opposite sex?” According to the research, I’m not the only one asking this question. A lot of millennials and GenZers struggle to know how to have friendships with people of the opposite sex without feeling the pressure to become romantically involved or pursue marriage. Now you know, I’ve been there too. And sometimes, I still feel the pressure. 

15 years later, I met a guy named Geoff. Our families began to hang out together. We started sharing things about our lives and going deeper. I’m the kind of person who tends to be open and vulnerable pretty quickly. After only a few months of forming a deep friendship, a nagging fear began to pop up in my head: “What if we run out of things to talk about?” I also noticed, after my family spent time with his family, I’d drive away analyzing our time together and hoping that I didn’t do or say anything that would make them want to not be friends with us anymore. Did I talk about myself too much? Did I ask them about how they were doing? Was that one joke too far? Did I talk too much about what I’m struggling with? Was I too negative? 

Through this experience, I realized that not only do I struggle with how to be friends with someone of the opposite sex, I struggle with knowing how to be a friend in general! 

It gets worse. 

There was a song I heard in youth group about being a friend of God— I used to sing it, but I never felt like I experienced it. I read verses like John 15:15, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” Surely that only applies to the disciples, right? We can’t be friends with God like that, can we?  As I grew up, people used to emphasize God’s closeness and his desire to have a relationship with me, but more often, I experienced separation from him and distance. One time, a pastor asked me the question: “How are you doing at letting God love you?” The response in my head? “What the heck does that even mean?” 

I grew up confident in God as a lawmaker and rule master. I was fearful of God’s holiness and justice. I knew God could strike me with lightning and take me out of here at any time. But friendship with God? A love relationship with God? Closeness to God? God felt about as accessible to me as the president— even if I needed him, he’s surely got bigger and better things to do than worry about me. So, not only did I not know how to be friends with humans, I had no idea how to have a close relationship with God either. 

What if these are all related? 

Recently, I’ve been reading Klaus Issler’s book, Wasting Time with God. One quote that struck me was, “… the more our relational capacities are developed through human friendships, the greater will be our capacity to explore the rich potentialities within a deepening friendship with God.” Issler continues later, “…We must develop closer friendships with other believers in order to make room in our lives for God. Greater intimacy experienced with others increases our capacity to become more intimate with God.”

If Klaus Issler is right, the fact that I’m not very good at friendships with humans means it’s going to be difficult to have any kind of close friendship with God. And perhaps it even applies vice versa—if I’m also not good at being a friend with God, might I struggle with being a friend to other humans? 

Pastors and Christian leaders talk a lot about dating and marriage. They talk a lot about the importance of being a part of a church community. There’s pressure to find good influences and to avoid the wrong types of people. But you know what isn’t discussed very much? Friendship. Yet, friendship is the foundation for all these other relationships. 

How can you be a good partner, spouse, or sibling if you don’t know how to be a good friend? How can you be a good coworker or a contributing member of a church community if you don’t know what true friendship looks like?  We’ve really done ourselves a disservice by not helping people become good friends! So, what is friendship? Here are some ideas…


1. Friendship is emotional. 

Friends make us feel accepted, appreciated, comfortable, and loved. They empathize with us and feel our pain as their own. They show compassion. They are kind. They get angry for us. Sometimes, they get frustrated with us, but that frustration leads to pushing deeper into a relationship and not running away. 


2. Friendship is intimate. 

That word “intimate” freaks us out, doesn’t it? In our culture, we’re taught to see or hear the word “intimate” and picture lingerie. But intimacy is so much more than sexual. Intimacy is the sharing of souls and the binding together of hearts. It means vulnerability surrounded by compassion and held in trust. It’s physical, but not even close to always sexual. Our culture tries to push everything toward the end goal of sex, but as Christians, we understand a different type of intimacy.  We really need to learn and practice being intimate in words and gestures with others (even spouses) without pushing toward sex. This might look like making eye contact with someone during a conversation (it’s okay if it feels a little awkward), giving someone a real hug (feel free to ask them first), or seeing the tears in someone’s eyes and putting your hand on their shoulder (again, ask if they’re comfortable with that). 


3. Friendship means disagreement. 

Of course, friends often agree, but it doesn’t take much of a relationship to agree with someone does it? Disagreement can be an invitation to take a relationship deeper. It’s a space that opens both people to grow and consider new ideas. Not seeing eye to eye about some issues means trusting that the other person is smart, thoughtful, and has good reasons for seeing things differently. It’s also the surest way to reveal blind spots in us and in them. 


4. Friendship means laughter and memories. 

Laughter is good medicine for life and for friendships. Genuine moments of mirth bring people together. So do memories. Friends share memories and laughter. They spend time together and do stuff together. Close friends don’t only sit in coffee shops and share their souls, they might play disc golf, attend comedy shows, or randomly stop by to simply say “hi”, and share food together. 


5. Friendship is consistency. 

The best friendships are built with a consistent rhythm of being together. Friendships are faithful over a long period of time.  Proverbs 18:24 describes this as, “A friend who sticks closer than a brother,” meaning someone who reaches out regularly, thinks about the other person often, and is available as often as possible. 


6. Friendship prioritizes. 

Here’s an incredibly freeing truth about friendship— you can’t be close friends with everyone. Stop trying. By attempting to be a close friend to everyone, you are a close friend to no one. As Christians, we’re called to love everyone, but not called to be intimate with everyone. We should always be kind and compassionate to strangers, and we’re even called to love our enemies. But, it’s also okay to have a small birthday celebration with only a few close friends. It’s okay to go on vacation without inviting the whole church. It’s okay to say “no” to hanging out with a group of acquaintances, to have more time in your schedule for close friends. This sounds terrible, doesn’t it? But it’s true. Close friends require closeness, which automatically means there are some who can’t be “close.” 


7. Friendship navigates the ruts. 

Friendship is not all moon pies and RC Cola (these are very positive Southern things). Real friends experience the other when they’re tired, grumpy, or… off. But it doesn’t shake the foundation of the friendship in the slightest. Friendship navigates bouts of depression and anxiety and allows space for anger (even at each other). There are no relationships in life that go perfectly all the time. We all make mistakes. We’re all broken people who hurt even those we love the most. Friendship navigates the ruts of life together and still shows up for the next bonfire night. Sometimes these ruts are deep and long, but faithful friendship has the maturity to apologize, to do better, and to navigate difficulties together. 


When we put all of this together, it feels impossible. How can any of us be a friend like this? Surprisingly, there’s only been one true friend who has fulfilled all of these requirements all of the time. He’s the one who sticks closer than a brother, and models to us what true friendship looks like. Think back to what Jesus said in John 15:15, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” Yes, he was talking directly to the disciples, but in that section of John, he also prays for all those who will believe in him because of his disciples. In other words, you and me, friend, are called friends by Jesus. And he is a really great friend! Like, the best possible friend we could have. 

And now, through his grace and by the power of the Holy Spirit, we’re invited to be a friend with him, and with others. Wow.