I’ve been thinking a lot about friendship lately. Even (and perhaps especially) in the midst of completely altered social norms, my friendships seem to be growing stronger. Despite distance, change, and time, my closest friends and I are continuing to care for one another.
As I finished catching up with a dear friend last night, I began to wonder: what specifically has kept these particular friends in my life?
Consistent effort, of course, is key. Many of my friends are avid letter-writers and we have kept in touch the old-fashioned way, sending each other scripture, jokes, and whimsical thoughts. All of us also try to maintain regular FaceTime calls, and my local friends and I have become masters of the social distance get-together. Encouragement is certainly another contributor. The friends who cheer me on through my worst days, after all, truly seem to “love at all times,” as Proverbs 17:17 says.
I think, though, that our culture is quick to assume that consistent and encouraging friendships must necessarily also be affirming. As I consider each of my closest friendships, however, I see clearly that this is not the case. My best and oldest friends are those who tell me “no.”
Over the course of three years, my college roommate became the closest thing to a sister I’ll ever have. (She had two sisters already and likely wasn’t too keen on adding another…) Despite distance and time, our friendship has grown stronger not because she constantly affirms me but, rather, because she is bold enough to correct me. In college, she was my biggest supporter, but also my big sister in that she had no trouble calling it like it was; when I was being a perfectionist, she would call me out on my pride, and when I was considering something questionable, she loved me enough to advise caution. In turn, it was my responsibility as her friend and sister in Christ to offer accountability.
That is the key, I now realise: my truest and most lasting friendships are loving rather than affirming.
I’ve found that the more superficial the relationship, the more easily I can simply smile and ignore issues. The less I care for someone, the less likely I am to seek to correct them. Complete affirmation in a friendship is as dishonest as constant criticism is damaging.
Similarly, I had three close guy friends throughout college. We were all runners, as well as scholars in our university’s Great Books program. Initially, we bonded over our the fact that a heated philosophical discussion can distract from the pain of a long run. Eventually, though, we came to be able to seek honest advice on more than just our next read. I remember starting many runs in emotional states—I was angry at this classmate, confused by this professor, frustrated with this relationship, etc. These friends listened to me until I ran out of breath and then offered their advice. Many times this left me more furious because their insights were often contrary to my own emotion-driven opinions. However, I was always grateful after I’d cooled down, for these guys had the courage to disagree with me when I was being disagreeable—and they still do.
In the case of my roommate, running friends, and others with whom I am still in consistent contact, we became friends due to our common interests but remained friends because of our commitment to compassionate conviction. My closest friends are those who not only listen empathetically, but counter my emotion with reason, as well as those who offer encouragement through trials without compromising truth.
It is difficult to correct a friend. Although I am confident in my convictions, when it comes to those I care for deeply, I naturally desire to affirm. And yet, I know that if my friends did not have the courage to correct me, I would seriously doubt whether they actually loved me. Friends ought to want the best for each other, yet as fallen human beings we so often choose wrongly, think irrationally, and act selfishly. Without my friends, not only would I be lonely, but more than likely I would follow my sinful bent towards selfishness, arrogance, and misdirected affections. The friends who seek to save me from myself—even when I resent and resist it—are the friends I know to be true.
I’ve heard it advised that, upon entering college, students should immediately hire a therapist. This is troubling to me. I have no problem with seeking professional counsel when it is needed, but what I think we need most of all as young adults are friendships where we are able to find not only confidence, but conviction. As we enter the adult world, the best we can do is to immerse ourselves in a community which will not only cheer us on, but challenge us to pursue whatever is true, honourable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praise-worthy (Philippians 4:8).
Being fiercely loyal to one’s friends does not require absolute affirmation but, rather, being willing to risk conflict when necessary. The friendships I maintain now are the friendships I put most at risk. The acquaintances who I never dared to question or who never dared to question me have faded with time or remain only peripheral, fair-weather friendships—never tested by the storms of confrontation.
So, I want to thank the friends who have told me, “no”—to recognise those companions who disagree without defriending because their correction evidences their care. Thank you, dearest friends, for loving me in both word and deed, for not allowing me to pursue what is not good, nor affirming me in what is untrue.