By Stephen Hong
I was eleven years old when I first came to the States from South Korea. Even though I didn’t speak a lick of English, with my amazing body language, I was able to befriend my first American friend. Just like in Korea, we played soccer together every recess, video games over at each other’s house, rode our bikes, and even shared our favorite Pokémon cards together. One day, as we were walking back from school, I felt proud of our friendship and wanted to express our intimate camaraderie, so I linked my arms and try to hold his hand just as I did in Korea with my close friends. I will never forget the disgusted expression that he had against me and the words that he spoke (which later I learned).
A year into the marriage, a close friend texts me, “Hey, we gotta talk.” We sat down for a cup of coffee, and he kindly points out how I have changed. He explains how distant I felt and that I no longer cared about our friendship. I immediately became defensive and shared the value of marriage and how things must be different, and he doesn’t get this because he is single. But once again, he graciously rebukes me, saying, “No I get the different priorities. But does our covenant as brothers in Christ change?”
A recently graduated college student calls me asks for help as no one was able to in his crisis. I was surprised because he was one of the most well-connected students that I knew. What I thought would be a week of helping, turned to a year of supporting and discipleship. During this time, I was intrigued by the lack of supportive friends when things got hard.
These three brief personal stories highlight why this topic of friendship became more important to me. They also bring up the 3 myths that obscure our view of friendship, which is also mentioned in Wesley Hill’s book called Spiritual Friendship. But I think these myths affect beyond just friendship but all relationships.
Wesley Hill says, “sex must be there, humming along like an engine that powers the relationship, even if the friends themselves aren’t always aware of it…” Hill goes on to say, similar to my first story, “the belief that sex wholly explains the depths of our most profound relationships—has led many of us in recent decades to feel suspicious of, uncertain about, and at times even ashamed of deep friendships and has hindered our search for closer and more fulfilling ones…”
Second myth is that there is a hierarchy in relationships. Hill says, “the myth of the ultimate significance of marriage and the nuclear family].” Marriage or the nuclear family is idolized and seen superior than other relationships.
Lastly, I would call the last myth as a consumeristic relationship. Like having a car, or an asset, a friend is a liability and only becomes essential when needed. Hill says, “the myth that the less encumbered and entangled I am, or the less accountable and anchored I am to a particular relationship, the better able I am to find my truest self and secure real happiness”
So then, what are the main questions do these stories and myths raise when it comes to exploring a biblical friendship? Two big questions: 1. What is intimacy in friendship? 2. What is a commitment in friendship? Thankfully, the Bible addresses these questions.
Proverb 18:24–“A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”
Ajith Fernando, in his book Reclaiming Friendship, gives a helpful insight in understanding this verse. The first line of the parallelism’s emphasis is on how dangerous this type of friendship. Revised Standard Version translation helps clarify the danger: “There are friends who pretend to be friend.” This line ultimately points to the fact that we could have acquaintances who are not real friends. The second line then leads to the type of friendship that is life-giving. The translated word “sticks” is the same word used of a husband cleaving to his wife (Gen. 2:24), of Ruth clinging to her mother-in-law Naomi (Ruth 1:14) and of Israel cleaving to the LORD (Deut. 10:20; 11:22). According to the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, “sticks” has the sense of clinging to someone in affection and loyalty. The rest of proverbs expounds on these two key ideas, affection (intimacy) and loyalty (commitment), to true friendship.
Framing Intimacy and Commitment through the New Covenant
First, the new covenant established and demonstrated by Jesus Christ redefines LOVE to a whole new level. Dennis McCallum and Gary DeLashmutt give a helpful definition it in their book Spiritual Relationships That Last, “Christian Love is a voluntary commitment to give of yourself in every area to meet the appropriate needs of another person” (p. 14). Consider Jesus’s example of this love in the Good Samaritan parable in Luke 10:30-37. Jesus speaks of compassion that leads to doing something sacrificial (time, effort, and money). McCallum and DeLashmutt further say, “selfless love is not only the result of spiritual growth; it is also an important cause of growth” (p. 15). The beauty of the covenantal love is that we learn the joy of giving of ourselves to love when we do not focus on our need to be loved, which can often lead to disappointments from people. This is the radical reality of the new covenant. And God empowered us to live this out. “For whoever wants to save his will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it” (Luke 9:24).
Second, the new covenant redefines our relationship with other people. Wesley Hill says, “when Jesus announces that ‘The Kingdom of God is at hand,’ nothing including our human relationships can ever be the same (Mark 1:14-15).” Jesus, “takes the basic notion of “family” and cracks it open, stretches its contents beyond their agreed-upon limits, and wraps the result around a much wider range of people than was socially acceptable.” That’s why in Mark 3:33, when the disciples told Jesus that his mother and brothers came while he was teaching, he retorted, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Which he answers, looking about at those who sat around him, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother” (vv. 34-35). What if we saw our different relationships (friendship, marriage, family, and etc.) on a depth level (a square) rather than on a hierarchal level (a pyramid)? Meaning, intimate relationship is not only possible in marriage but other relationships. I find McCallum and Delashmutt’s definition and categorization helpful in their chart of the depth of relationships helpful:
Coming back to my stories, it’s been a journey to wrestle and figure out what true biblical friendship, intimacy, and commitment look like through the lens of the new covenant in various relationships. This is not easy, and it requires heavenly wisdom and discernment. We must not be naive to think that the 3 myths of friendship do not affect us as they are deeply ingrained into our minds and culture. So muse with me. Let’s be creative in reimagining what Kingdom relationships could look like so that, “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).
Fernando, Ajith. Reclaiming Friendship : Relating to Each Other in a Frenzied World /. Scottdale, Pa. : Herald Press, c1993.
Hill, Wesley. Spiritual Friendship : Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian /. Grand Rapids, Michigan : Brazos Press, 2015.
McCallum, Dennis, and Gary DeLashmutt. Spiritual Relationships That Last: What the Bible Says About Dating and Marriage. 2 edition. Columbus, Ohio: New Paradigm Publishing, 2001.
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 Hill, 55
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 McCallum and Delashmutt, 31