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The Gift of Spiritual Friendship

A Story to Set the Stage

The life streams of Bill, Albert and Derek have once again converged on this dreary Monday evening. The three leaders have gathered to connect and share their experiences of God’s presence and activity over the previous week. After a round of lighthearted jabs at Albert (Al, for short) over the results of the U.S. presidential election, Derek suddenly shifts the mood to a more serious note. He is visibly troubled. He takes the initiative and shares that earlier in the week he has had a serious run-in with his boss over the re-assigning of a colleague to a different departmental team (on the grounds that the colleague is “ill-suited to the challenge at hand”). Derek is still reeling from what he perceives as a hasty, slap-in-the-face decision handed down to one of their team’s most respected participants.

As Bill and Al listen to Derek’s emotional recounting of this incident, Bill proposes that the three pause and pray. “Let’s invite God’s presence into this evening”, Bill urges in earnest. “I sense that Jesus may not only want to unburden Derek, but may well want to minister to us all in some special ways tonight.” After a refreshing dose of silence before the Lord and a heartfelt prayer for the Spirit to guide their time together, Bill invites Derek to be the first “speaker” for the evening. He also suggests that he himself assume the role of “listener”, while Al takes on the role of “observer.” The three know the routine well and settle into those postures without hesitation. Bill opens this “attending exercise” by inviting Derek to tell a little bit more about his journey this past week. For nearly twenty minutes Derek unfolds the story of his tense interaction with his boss, with Bill occasionally interjecting poignant questions. Derek’s pained facial expressions betray his ongoing agitation over this incident. Bill’s probing questions help Derek to explore his reactions to his boss. They also help him to get in touch with what Christ may be speaking to him through this conflict.

As Derek processes his week aloud, he notes in himself something he has not seen earlier (even though he has already gained some insight through reflectively journaling that heated exchange with his boss). Thanks to a well-placed question by Bill, Derek begins to see that he is highly critical of his boss and overly sensitive to his fast-moving leadership style. Derek seems surprised to note that he has indeed reacted out of some unresolved hurt in his own life. This hurt he realizes is related to a painful incident in his previous job, when he felt misunderstood by his boss and hastily “relieved” from an important project. Derek sees that he has been unfairly projecting his own experience into this recent conflict, and in turn has been drawing some harsh conclusions about his boss’s motives and “reckless” decision-making pattern.

After a fifteen minute barrage of reflective processing about his week, Derek has become more self-aware and less burdened emotionally. He notes God putting His finger on the critical spirit he tends to exhibit when relating to his boss. He sees that he has been moving in mistrust, rather than honestly seeking to assist and under-gird his boss’s decision-making. Al closes this round of the attending exercise by sharing his own perceptions of what he senses God may have been doing or saying in the unfolding of Derek’s story this evening.

This sort of exchange is repeated for the next 40 minutes. Bill and Al each take on the role of the speaker for a 20 minute segment, with the other two men rotating in the roles of listener and observer. Like Derek, both men also find useful gleanings from this communal attempt at discerning God’s presence and activity in their lives over the previous week. The three men end the evening together by taking time to pray over some of the issues which have arisen through their interaction. After some more last-minute jabs at Al for voting for George Bush, the three close the evening over good beer and cheap-imitation Cuban cigars. They rejoice once again over their decision to journey together as spiritual friends.

From Simple Friendship to “Spiritual Friendship”

The longing for relational connectedness in community is often heralded as the single greatest heart-cry of the emerging culture of Europe and North America. But any “communing” of souls eventually falls short in its capacity to positively change us unless the Spirit of God is actively and collectively sought as the most highly-desired Party. When that hunger and expectancy for God to “show up” or “move” is present among a gathering of Christians, large or small, the Spirit’s presence and activity is often experienced in dynamic, life-changing ways.

While I believe the above to be true, I am also convinced that we in the Body of Christ often overlook one of the most consistently powerful expressions of Spirit-enlivened community - the realm of Christ-centered friendships. Here, the power of the Spirit is often released in great measure to effect deeper joy and transformation in our lives. I am not referring here to a friendship defined by a simple sharing of common interests; I am talking about a special wedding of hearts, where two or more people covenant together to foster each other’s spiritual development (i.e. awareness of and response to God’s presence and work in their lives). This covenanting for growth aspect makes these relationships more than simple friendships; they are “spiritual friendships”, representing another class of relationships altogether. In our opening story, Derek, Bill and Al had in their relationship entered this realm of transformative friendship.

(Okay, male readers, if my opening story felt a bit artificial to you, I invite you not to run away from possibility-thinking here. Dr. Hud McWilliams notes that being open and vulnerable is not natural to human beings – especially men. That means when men first come together and begin engaging in deep heart-to-heart sharing and accountability, it is not unusual for that interaction to feel somewhat artificial (initially). If most men are not used to that depth of personal or intimate relating, it’s not surprising that it might feel strange or awkward or somehow less than genuine. Dr. McWilliams contends that if men are willing to push through those early awkward feelings, they can find friendships that may prove deeper and more long-lasting than what they ever imagined possible).[1]

Just so we are clear about what is meant by a spiritual friendship, I offer a couple of brief definitions by two contemporary authors who have delved deep into the subject. Douglas Rumford, in Soul Shaping, defines a spiritual friendship as a Christ-centered, intentional relationship between at least two people, where these individuals focus on the nurture of each other’s spiritual life.[2] According to Rumford, this sort of friendship does not require one to be an expert, but simply to be spiritual peers who regularly come together and commit themselves to growing in Christ. David Benner, taking the lead from the spiritual writer, Margaret Guenther, adds more to this by defining spiritual friendship as “a gift of hospitality, presence and dialogue” given to another[3] Although he uses this in the context of a relationship between a spiritual director and the one he directing, Benner sees the aim or “task” of spiritual friends as helping the parties involved “discern the presence, will and leading of the Spirit of God.”[4]

In our day and age we tend to dilute our definition of significant friendship by making it hinge upon companionship and the simple holding of certain interests in common (e.g. similar hobbies, club allegiances, or business or social endeavors, etc.). Too often this is as far as two or more “friends” might ever choose to go together. It’s interesting that the ancients viewed friendship as the very crown of life. C.S. Lewis saw friendship as one of the four human loves, rich in its capacity to bring out the multi-faceted beauty of God in an intimate circle of relationship among “kindred souls”. So much is lost when we settle for the safety of “hang-out buddies” who never enter our souls, who never challenge us to grow, who never allow God’s glory to be reflected through genuine humility, sacrificial love and an enduring commitment to our well-being and growth.

The biblical storyline is replete with beautiful examples of what friendship can mean, the classic example being the relationship between David and Jonathan. That story begins in I Samuel 18:1 (NLT) with these words: “After David had finished talking with Saul, he met Jonathan, the king’s son. There was an immediate bond of love between them, and they became the best of friends.” Fourteen chapters later that story comes to a tragic end as Jonathan dies an honorable death at his father’s side. David laments the loss of his closest friend: “How I weep for you, my brother Jonathan! Oh, how much I loved you! And your love for me was deep, deeper than the love of women!” (II Samuel 1:26 - NLT). What a beautiful example of a deep relationship between two men, unobstructed by any impure or inferior desire like homosexuality, or any need to impress or manipulate another in order to meet one’s own needs.

In the Old Testament book of Ruth we find the account of another remarkable friendship - the relationship between Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi. When Ruth loses her husband, Naomi invites her to come back to her homeland and seek another husband. Ruth vows to sojourn with Naomi, and to follow her wherever she goes - even calling upon Yahweh to see that the two of them might one day be buried in the same place.

In the New Testament, the classic example of friendship is the relationship between Jesus and his disciples (and in that circle, we have yet another classic friendship in the relationship between Jesus and John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”). These friendships are significant, of course, because Jesus expresses God’s heart for being at the center of our human friendships. Just as God in Christ called his disciples to journey with him as friends, he calls us to the same and offers the assurance that he will never leave us alone. Friendships are able to reach their greatest potential when Christ is the bonding Agent.

On the Road toward Meaningful Spiritual Friendships

Both the Bible and history attest to the power and beauty of the unique bond of spiritual friendship. But how do we reconcile this vision for what friendship can be and the reality of a Church where deep, transformative relationships are the exception rather than the rule? How do we, particularly as this pertains to men, address the phenomenon of the “friendless male” so prevalent in Western society?

There’s no simple or satisfactory single answer to these questions. Probably the best starting point is for us is to recognize our God-given need for deep friendships. This requires us to combat Modernity’s prideful illusion of the self-sufficient individual. It requires us to humbly accept that our dependence on certain people (and they on us), for the sake of spiritual growth, is indeed a good thing. When we recognize our need for deep abiding friendships, and when we see how rich life can be with such relationships, we are prepared to receive those friends the Lord longs to give us. We ought to regularly pray and request such relationships as a pathway to joy and whole-life development.

As we pray and look to develop spiritual friendships, it is important that we come to understand some of the essential qualities required in us to be this sort of friend to another. One of the most renowned works on spiritual friendship, historically, is a little booklet called “Spiritual Friendship”, written by the monk, Aelred of Rievaulx in the twelfth century. Aelred devoted much of his life to developing, modeling and encouraging spiritual friendships. Here is his time-tested advice on the qualities needed in a spiritual friend:

There are four qualities which must be tested in a friend: loyalty, right intention, discretion and patience, that you may entrust yourself to him securely. The “right intention”, that he may expect nothing from your friendship except God and its natural good. “Discretion”, that he may understand what is to be done in behalf of a friend, what is to be sought from a friend, what sufferings are to be endured for his sake, upon what good deeds he is to be congratulated; and, since we think that a friend should sometimes be corrected, he must know for what faults this should be done, as well as the manner, time, and the place. Finally, “patience” that he may not grieve when rebuked, or despise or hate the one inflicting the rebuke, and that he may not be unwilling to bear every adversity for the sake of his friend.

There is nothing more praiseworthy in friendship than “loyalty”, which seems to be its nurse and guardian…A truly loyal friend sees nothing in his friend but his heart…loyalty is hidden in prosperity, but conspicuous in adversity. A friend is tested in necessity…Solomon says, ‘He that is a friend loves at all times, and a brother is proved in distress’.[5]

We can look for people exhibiting these qualities, AND we can work on becoming such people ourselves. It is important to realize that it takes time to test our relationships to see which ones might grow into spiritual friendships. Chemistry with another person is certainly a prime indicator of one who might well become a spiritual friend over time, but even that sense of kindred affinity must be tested.

Implicit in Aelred’s qualities above, and no doubt one of the most salient features of a spiritual friendship, is commitment. True spiritual friends exhibit a high degree of intentionality in their relationship. It is that higher commitment and focus that makes spiritual friendship different from many other friendships. Two or more people are meeting for the expressed purpose of giving attention to their spiritual development. This does not preclude companionship or non-directed “hang-out” time to simply enjoy one another’s presence or to engage in some mutually-pleasing activity or endeavor. But this relational connecting is supplemented by a greater priority of fostering each other’s spiritual development (which ultimately makes hanging out with each other all the more enjoyable!).

Some find it helpful to actually agree together on a basic covenant. This helps define the relationship, ensuring from the start a sense of common direction and seriousness about the relational commitment. In a book by Dorothy C. Devers, entitled Faithful Friendship, I found such a covenant beautifully framed:

A sample covenant of spiritual friendship

In accepting the challenge of the great enterprise [of spiritual friendship], our endeavor is three-fold:

1. We commit ourselves to enter into a more intimate relationship with Jesus Christ than we have ever before enjoyed.

All of life is relationship - relationship with God the Father through his son, Jesus Christ; relationship with self; relationship with others; relationship with material things; and relationship with events and circumstances. Relationship with God through Jesus Christ is the most important for it governs all other relationships. Therefore, we will endeavor to steep ourselves in meditation on Jesus Christ - we will endeavor to make such meditation a growing and strengthening habit, a habit which will ever be an essential part of life.

2. We purposely endeavor to become a faithful friend to one another depending on Jesus Christ who is a Faithful Friend to each of us.

In this endeavor we are being present to, praying for and with our friend; listening for and to him/her; discerning what he would say if he could articulate all he feels; comforting him; confronting him when confrontation is called for; requiring of him and giving to him accountability. Thus does one strengthen the other, help him to grow spiritually, pick him up when he falls down, support him, trust and encourage him, foster hope in him – and in turn is comforted, confronted and strengthened by the other. To be a faithful friend in this humble, helpful way is to give and to receive spiritual direction. We do what we can with what we have where we are in the moment – with the help of God.

3. Earnest endeavor to fulfill 1 and 2 above prepares us to live among all our associates – from the intimate members of our immediate family to the persons we meet only fleetingly – in a more and more affirmative manner, more and more in the Spirit of Christ. [6]

Devers notes that in staying true to the above covenant,

“We exchange autobiographies. We keep journals. We learn to listen - to listen in prayer, to listen to one another, practicing being truly ‘present’. We learn to grow through communicating with another. We are enabled to develop certain attributes - humility, trusting attitude, capacity to love. Our daily life is the laboratory where we test and practice what we have studied and pondered in our daily quiet time and in our times with our faithful friend.” [7]

Making This Very Practical

I have included in the following pages an appendix which has very practical advice on initiating and growing spiritual friendships, as well as a more thorough explanation of what spiritual friends generally “do” in their cultivating of friendship. Also included in this appendix are some guidelines for establishing a spiritual friendship triad, where three men or three women regularly meet to help one another become more attentive to the Spirit’s presence and work in their lives (i.e. engaging in an “attending exercise” similar to the one being practiced in the opening story of this paper). Finally, I have included some teaching on what spiritual friends actually do as part and parcel of their journey together. All of this practical material in the appendix has been composed by Pastor Brian Rice (Director of Leading Edge Ministries at Living Word Community Church in York, Pennsylvania), and it is used with his permission. I am grateful to Brian for allowing me to use his material.

Closing Comments

On the road to closing I think it is important to make a few qualifying comments about friendship in general, lest I be found over-valuing this particular kind of friendship. In this paper I am focusing on a special kind of friendship that has as its primary goal the nurture and development of our relationship with Christ. When friends aim to move together (intentionally) towards Christ, their lives cannot help but intersect at deeper and deeper levels. Like the spokes on a wagon wheel which grow increasingly closer as they approach the center hub, so it is with spiritual friends who together set their sights on moving toward Jesus.

While this “wagon-wheel” dynamic is observable in spiritual friendship, I do not want to suggest that normal, less-intentional, friendships are less “spiritual”. All friendships ought to be received as a gift from God. It is perhaps healthy to have common friendships (where we simply enjoy one another’s presence because of common background, ideas, values, interests, etc.) and friendships in which we covenant for one another’s growth in God (what I’m calling spiritual friendships). And, it is important to add that in given seasons we may not find spiritual friendship an appropriate or life-giving approach to growth in Christ. They might best be viewed like any spiritual practice or discipline that fosters intimacy with God. For certain seasons a given practice serves us, in others we do not find life in it. This may well be the case with spiritual friendships.

Now, on to my closing comments: I personally have found spiritual friendships to be among the most rewarding and enjoyable relationships I have experienced (few can outshine the relationships I enjoy with my wife and kids, but I have known certain friendships to be nearly on par with these). In the safety of authentic, Spirit-enlivened friendship I have been able to share my deepest joys and passions, along with my darkest secrets and sins. I have found not only great healing in my life through such relationships, but a seemingly bottomless pool of encouragement, wisdom and insight. From within the circle of spiritual friends, I have also found the motivation to consistently practice basic disciplines (e.g. journaling, spiritual reading, solitude, prayer). These help me attune my soul to the presence and activity of God, as well as enable me to weather those times of hardship and tragedy when God seems far away.

For all the reasons stated above and more, I am convinced that spiritual friendship is one of the most profound and powerful ways the Spirit of God communicates his presence and power to us as human beings. These relationships give us a taste of that circle-dance of intimacy enjoyed within the Trinity, which we will one day experience in its blazing glory. They are not easy to come by, nor can we produce them on demand. They are truly a gift of God given on occasion to hungry souls who keep asking and seeking.

Dan Steigerwald

[1] These comments were gleaned from a private conversation with Dr. Hud McWilliams at the “Thinklings Gathering” for which this paper on spiritual friendship was prepared. Dr. McWilliams has been a licensed psychologist in Texas since 1975 and has been in private practice for 35 years. He also served for nine years as a professor of psychology at Texas Wesleyan University.
[2] Rumford, Douglas J., Soul Shaping (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1996).
[3] Benner, David G., Sacred Companions (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2002), 46. Soul Friends show hospitality by making space in their lives for others. When we become people who are quiet and still inside, we are able to invite others to come and rest there. Soul hospitality is also a gift of safety.
[4] Ibid., 27.
[5] Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship (Trans. By Mary Eugenia Laker, Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1977), 105-106. Aelred used Cicero’s definition of friendship as a provisional working model: “Agreement on [all] matters human and divine, with charity and good will” where Aelred saw “good will” to mean a rational and voluntary choice to benefit someone, and by “charity” the enjoyment of our natural affection toward someone. Aelred dropped the “all” from Cicero’s definition. He also took friendship to a higher sphere by tying it into a relationship where God is seen as central.
[6] Devers, Dorothy C., Faithful Friendship (The Church of the Savior, Washington D.C.: Forward Movement Books, 1986), vii - viii.
[7] Ibid., vii.

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