Can You Come Out and Play? — Spiritual Friendships
When I was in the 6th grade my best friends were Mike McFadden and Mike Doherty. We were all patrol boys at our elementary school; I was the Captain, Mike M. was the Lieutenant, and Mike D. was the Sargent at Arms. Together we would get to school early, raise the flag, and then Mike M. and I would get on our banana-seat bikes and visit all the crossing sites near the school. At the end of the school day, we would visit all the crossing sites again, and then lower and fold the flag. Not only were we hot shots, we were friends.
During the summer before 6th grade (in 1970), the three of us were hanging buddies, though usually one on one. On any given day, after finishing chores at home (which we all had) one of us would get on our bike, ride the 5-10 minutes to our friend’s house, and knock on the front door. A parent usually answered the door, and then came the question: “Can Mike come out and play?”.
We were friends. We wanted to spend time together. When our work was done, we wanted to do things together. We never called ahead. We did not plan the day before. We would connect and then begin an adventure that usually involved our bikes, sports, playing war, or pushing the boundaries of our parents’ guidelines around where we could go.
We knew all about each other, we liked each other, and we wanted to spend time together. We were friends.
This background, repeated in later years of my youth, has framed my mental model of what it means to have a spiritual friendship, or a discipling relationship. Fortunately, much of my experience over the last 40 years as a disciple has confirmed this. I had prayer partners in college with whom I learned to read and study my Bible, pray, and share my faith. As a single man, young married, and young father, I had discipleship partners who were committed to helping me grow. Additionally, as a father of older children, teens, and young adults, I have had spiritual friends who have helped me to navigate the vast unknown territories of life. I have been quite fortunate and am grateful.
Currently, however, I feel and observe a gap. Something is not quite right, and I am therefore writing about it.
“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything I learned from my Father I have made know to you”.” – John 15:13-15
This passage is rich, and I am not going to do it justice. Suffice it to say, that after three years of spending a lot of time together, Jesus relationship with his disciples matured from a teacher-student or master-servant relationship to a friendship. Because of time spent, they knew each other and had lots of shared experiences. They were friends. Jesus had just washed the feet of his friends, and he was about to make the ultimate sacrifice, showing his love for them.
I love the paradigm of friendship.
James, while describing Abraham’s faith and closeness to God, states that Abraham was God’s friend:
“And the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,’ and he was called God’s friend.” – James 2:23.
Abraham knew God, trusted him, loved him, and wanted to spend time with him.
During some shared years in the southern part of Boston, I enjoyed a friendship with John McGuirk. John is especially good at being a friend – so I was drawn to him. He would often talk about spiritual friendships when describing discipling or evangelism, and John has proven to be quite gifted at both. John’s premise is that the ability to influence, teach, persuade, love, serve, or resolve conflict with another disciple or disciple-in-the-making is rooted in friendship.
I think that the strength or weakness of our discipling relationships is often rooted in the strength or weakness of our spiritual friendships. Just being friends is not enough, and just being spiritual is not enough. Put them together, however, and something magical happens: we feel loved, encouraged, inspired, and emboldened. God’s holy spirit flows between us and through us. Look out world!
“Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people” – Acts 2:46-47
Wow. We have become good at explaining this away. They lived close together, walked everywhere, etc.; translation: it was easy for them to meet daily.
Life was hard. The basics of life required six days of hard work – just to eat, drink, and have clothing and shelter. Some of life’s chores that take us an hour may have taken them a day or more.
I get that we have busy lives. But are we busy doing the right things? Are our priorities God’s priorities? Do we make the time to have spiritual friendships, not just with each other, but with new friends who have not yet fallen in love with our God?
I believe that the pattern of spiritual friendships, or discipling, is set by those who have the most influence. If the pattern for a leader’s discipling relationship is to meet once a month for a couple of hours then that will be normative for the church, and most people will be lucky to get together nine or ten times a year – for a grand total of 20 hours.
20 hours in a year? Think about how much of life happens in a year: how much sin to confess, encouragement to be given and received, life difficulties to discuss, opportunities to grow and mature. This pattern is a pattern of appointments, not friendship. We can have some relationships like this, but this simply does not work for a primary discipling relationship. A meaningful and impactful spiritual friendship requires time and commitment. Lacking that, disciples will weaken in their faith, and evangelism will be anemic.
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” – John 13:35
“Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart.” – 1 Peter 1:22
Not only is it important that we love each other deeply, but that we feel loved. When we feel loved, it will come out our pores: how we talk, our body language, our facial expressions. And if people will know of our faith and discipleship by our love for one another, they will need to be able to hear it and see it!
For me, it takes a commitment of time and friendship of another person for me to feel loved. Beyond the scope of this article, but useful, is the construct of Gary Chapman’s “The Five Love Languages”. We are all different, but my love languages are quality time and words of affirmation. If you spend quality time with me and are encouraging, I feel loved, and think of you as my friend.
I propose that when we feel loved our faith will grow. When we feel loved, we will then love.
“We love because he first loved us.” – 1 John 4:19
When we understand God’s love for us, we will love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. When we feel loved by a spiritual friend, we will not only reciprocate in that love, but we will have a greater capacity to love our neighbor as ourselves: to love our brothers and sisters, to love those who are poor and needy, to love those who are harassed by sin and are helpless.
If you add together spiritual friendship with time spent and a deep love you have powerful, life-changing relationships. We help each other be God’s friends and to know and share his love. We help each other to show the world Jesus by the way we love each other. And we are more effective sharing the good news with others when they know not just what we know but how much we care.
It takes friendship. It takes time. It takes love.
How will we then live to have spiritual friendships or discipling relationship that honor our God and enable us to fulfill his purposes for our lives? What do we need to change? What will we change?
Can you come out and play?