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Healthy Friendships
Andy McGowan

Growing up, most of my friends didn’t know the Lord. Before the days of cell phones, (I know, I’m dating myself.) friends would show up at my front door and ask if I could come outside to play. All I needed to do was be home by the time the street lamps turned on. What a time. I didn't have unlimited freedom, though. There were some friends that my mom wouldn’t let me hang out with because of the way they were being raised or the trouble that we would get into when we were together. You see, my mom wanted to make sure I was hanging out with the right people because she understood that the more we spend time with people, the higher probability that we have to pick up their habits and potentially their world views. Because of this understanding, my parents would not let me go to certain birthday parties, they would not let me watch R-rated movies, they would not let me play video games all the time. I thought it was very unnecessary, up until I became a parent myself. Now I realized that they were right all along.

Years later, during my time as a youth pastor, I became familiar with Kurt Johnson's concept of Friendship Circles in his book My Middle School Friends, but it totally works for adults too! In his book, Johnson explains very clearly the different types of friendships that we may have in our lifetime.
Casual Friend
This is the largest circle—there is room for a lot of people in this circle:  school classmates,  work friends, people from your neighborhoods, coffee shops, even people that you bump into at church. These are people that we have friendly conversations with and share common interests or activities. You don’t necessarily go out of the way to see each other and you are selective in what you share. You may or may not share core values. Most of our social media friends fall into this category. These are people who have limited trust and influence in our lives, and that’s okay!

Close Friends
These are highly influential people in our lives, and there's room for quite a few! Some of these people could be mentors or trusted confidants.

These are your closest friends. Besides the Lord, this circle should include your spouse and your most trusted people. It's okay if this circle is very small.

I love this imagery because it shows how Jesus made connections and held friendships. I heard a pastor put it this way, “This is what Jesus did; Jesus came to love and save the world.  He fed the five thousand, trained the one hundred and twenty, he discipled the twelve, and he mentored three. Only Peter, James, and John went on the Mount of Transfiguration.”

Who you let into your friendship circles is incredibly important. Proverbs 12:26 says, “The righteous choose their friends carefully, but the way of the wicked leads them astray."  In this verse, Solomon is warning his son to consider carefully who to let into his sphere of  influence. Why must we be intentional with our connections? Because bad connections will lead us to compromise our integrity. 1 Corinthians 15:33 says, “Do not be deceived: 'Bad company corrupts good morals.' " I often hear Christians think they are the exception to this rule, that they can withstand a bad influence in their life. It never turns out well.

So what are some of the characteristics of an unhealthy friendship? The first would probably be drama-seeking behavior. Galatians 5:14-15 says,  “For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement:  Love your neighbor as yourself. But if you bite and devour one another, watch out, or you will be consumed by one another.” In the Galatian church there was a lot of division over small issues that quickly became big issues. Paul took extra time to remind the church that they needed to love one another instead of devouring one another with petty and non-gospel issues. Paul is telling the church to watch out for people who cause division. Watch out for people who continually cause drama and dissension. 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12  says, “Seek to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you, so that you may behave properly in the presence of outsiders.” This is a good standard for us as believers to follow.  

Another characteristic of an unhealthy friendship is gossip.  Proverbs 6:16-19 says, "The Lord hates six things; in fact, seven are detestable to him: arrogant eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that plots wicked schemes, feet eager to run to evil, a lying witness who gives false testimony, and one who stirs up trouble among brothers.“ Gossip and slander are so normalized and excused as valid in our world today, but we as Christians, who have made the decision to let the Lord lead us in our speech, have to take a stand and not allow this type of talk to come out of our mouths. Gossip is cancer to the body of Christ.

The last quality of an unhealthy friendship that I will mention is a critical spirit. Again, having a critical heart, being quick to judge others is second nature in our world. You don't have to be on social media for more than a couple minutes to see evidence of this. I wish I could say that this does not exist in the church as well, but seeing as we are all broken and in need of grace, we shouldn’t be surprised when we see critical hearts within the body of Christ. Even worse is when Christians proudly own a critical heart, relabeling it as the gift of discernment or prophecy. It is not. The spiritual gifts of discernment, wisdom, and prophecy are intended to edify, to encourage, and build up the body of Christ. Tearing people down is not a spiritual gift, and it is certainly not a healthy trait to exhibit in the context of friendships.

It’s clear that the Bible really does have a lot to say about how we are meant to treat the people around us. These things can be hard to reflect on, especially as we realize all the ways that we have fallen short in our friendships, both in how we treat each other, as well as how we allow ourselves to be treated. But I have good news! Jesus gives us a very clear description of what a biblical friendship should look like. John 15:9-16 says, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love  one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to  you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go  and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.”

The love of God sets the highest standard of friendship. Jesus even foreshadows the depths of His love for us, that He would love us by ultimately laying down His life on the cross. There is no greater love than this. Jesus is the embodiment of love. He is our most faithful friend, and as people who have placed our faith and trust in Christ, we can be confident that our identity is found in Christ, which means that we are no longer called servants, but friends. Jesus wants us to follow Him in every area of life. In every joy, every heartache. This type of love is a love that is meant to change us from the inside out, a love that enables us to love others the way that we ourselves have been loved.