Internet articles about “myths” and “misconceptions” abound. Most of these perk our interest but have little to no consequence in our daily lives.
There exist, however, widely-held fallacies that, if applied, can alter how we approach life and our relationships for the worse. We readily accept them due to their popularity and because each fallacy has some degree of truth to it. They go astray because they are founded in a limited worldview that tries to exclude God. As a result, something meant for good becomes deformed, and that alteration can cause problems.
Over the next several weeks, I will attempt to uncover some of these misconceptions, and at the same time, try to point us in a healthier direction. I must warn you, however, that you might have to struggle a bit. Prejudices don’t die easily. I only ask that you remain open-minded and willing to take a second look at your assumptions. For my part, while I come from a decidedly Christian worldview, I will strive to give a fair and honest hearing to both sides. From there, I will let the truth speak for itself.
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A Friendship Takes a Wrong Turn
Jen and Marta had been best friends since high school. They shared their secret thoughts and dreams. When one of them was having a bad day, she would soon be texting or calling her friend. Jen and Marta were so connected that one seemed to know what the other one was thinking before she said it.
That’s when Jen met Michael. He was good-looking, and she loved the attention he gave her. It wasn’t long before she was wildly in love with him. She was shocked when Marta told Jen her opinion — that Jen should stop seeing Michael. Where Jen saw Michael as someone who would take care of her, Marta saw a man who was controlling and self-centered. Marta just had a bad feeling about him.
Jen: “Marta, I don’t understand you. I thought you would be happy for me.”
Marta: “I am happy for you. It’s just that I don’t think he’s right for you.”
Jen: “You’re supposed to be my friend. Why aren’t you supporting me?”
Marta: “I do support you, but I don’t want to see you get hurt.”
Jen: “Really? So that’s why you want me to break up with the best thing that’s
ever happened to me? A real friend wouldn’t do that.”
Although Marta tried to smooth things over, Jen was so upset that she stopped talking to Marta.
That’s What Friends Are For
What happened here? Was Marta acting as a true friend or over-stepping her bounds? Let’s take a deeper look.
Our friendships usually start with things we have in common, like raising young children, a love for football, or similar ideals. Learning more about the other person and spending time together helps our friendships grow. And, of course, friends like each other.
But what makes a true friendship? What does that even mean?
I see three ingredients filling out a popular view of true friendship: acceptance, loyalty, and support. True friends should accept you the way you are. That includes your ideas, actions, and decisions. They are unswerving in loyalty and will back you up and stay with you no matter what happens. Finally, they’ll do what they can to help you reach your goals.
Sounds pretty good. But wait a second! What happens when your friend’s interests demand loyalty and support that conflict with other ideals? In other words, what should you do if your friend asks you to lie, cheat, steal, use drugs, or hurt someone? If you refuse, have you reneged on your friendship? Or, what if your friend’s actions will cause injury to themselves or another person? Mental health professionals have urged us to intervene with friends who use drugs or consider suicide. But what about entering into disastrous relationships (Jen and Marta’s story)? Or inflicting spiritual self-injury through sin? Should we be quiet or vocal? Finally, the above definition seems to revolve around one person: me. It’s my ideas and decisions that set the standard. It’s my actions and goals that others must accept and support. Does anyone or anything else even count?
As a Catholic Christian, I naturally look to what God has to say about friendship. Even if you don’t believe in God, you can still glean valuable guidance from the Scriptures.
As a starting principle, we see how God desires friendship with us and graciously invites us into a relationship. Jesus, the Son of God, is a model we can follow.
In contrast to Jen’s view of friendship, loyalty does not mean acceptance of everything we say and do. But it does mean our care for the other person never ends. Even when we can’t go along with our friend’s decisions, we won’t abandon her.
There are friends who pretend to be friends, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.
Proverbs 18:24 (RSV)
A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.
Proverbs 17:17 (RSV)
Jesus gave us a higher standard for friendship: to love one another. Christian love is much more than warm, fuzzy feelings and positive regard for the other person. Love is unconditional, and at the same time, sacrificial. After all, Jesus held nothing back — he gave his life for us.
How we exercise our love for others requires some judgment, or in other words, decision-making. In an era that highly prizes tolerance, one can be led to believe that love means not passing any judgment. This is, in fact, a myth, for not to make a decision about something is actually making a decision. For example, you’re driving, and you come to an intersection. You have to decide whether to turn left, right or go straight ahead. But you tell yourself, “I won’t judge.” So you just sit at the intersection. Did you avoid judging? No. You made a decision to stay where you were.
There are two valid concerns related to tolerance: the decision-making process and the action we take as a result of our decision.
We rightly want to avoid discrimination, where one exercises prejudice and pre-judges someone or something based on an attribute unrelated to the situation at hand. For example, refusing to serve people in a restaurant because of the color of their skin is discrimination and should be condemned.
On the other hand, prudence demands we make distinctions. It is only wise to prefer wholesome fruit over rotten produce. It makes sense to seek health advice from someone with medical training instead of the person who has none. Making distinctions helps us make wise decisions when the information we use is relevant to the matter at hand.
How we act on our decision is also important. Dishing out negative consequences out-of-proportion to an infraction is a form of intolerance. Society has set up a system of consequences to promote fair practice and the common good. Christ calls us to act in love and with justice. Paying a small fine for parking in a “No Parking” zone can be a just response. Forcing someone to serve a one-year prison term would be unjust and intolerant.
Back to our discussion on friendship. Friendship calls for making distinctions. It is misguided to think a true friend doesn’t make distinctions or for one to limit her decisions to meeting her friend’s expectations. Christians have a definitive guide to follow: to do God’s will. And as God wants the very best for us, so we also will desire the best for our friends.
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man 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.
John 15:12-15 (RSV)
A friend will act in our best interest, even if it causes some pain in the process. He may have to “wound” us to keep us from harm.
Who disdains the wicked, but honors those who fear the Lord; who keeps an oath despite the cost…
Psalm 15:4 (NAB)
Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.
Proverbs 27:5-6 (RSV)
True friends also help one another become stronger and healthier. They will encourage us to become a godly person — one who does God’s will.
Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.
Finally, the apostle Paul’s exhortation for disciples acts as a guide for friendship as well:
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
The “Secret” to Excelling as a Friend
I’ve presented a view of friendship based on God’s relationship with us. But do you need to believe in God to practice these principles? No. You can follow Christian principles and Christ’s example without any profession of faith. So as far as friendship goes, is there any advantage to having a relationship with Christ? There is.
A few years ago my wife and I attended a lecture on marriage. The speaker asked the audience what they thought was the most important characteristic of a healthy marriage. The two top answers were commitment and communication, and I wholeheartedly agreed. But it was then that I realized that in my marriage, one factor ranked well above these: my relationship with Jesus Christ. Why?
Sure, my faith gives me principles to live by. But God is a living God who loves me and has given me the gift of the Holy Spirit. He is continually working with me to change me into a better person. He helps me recognize when I screw up. His Spirit not only helps me to apply what I have learned, but through ongoing conversion, is changing who I am.
Now just being a Christian doesn’t automatically give someone super-powers when it comes to relationships. God loves us, and He wants to bless us, but we have to cooperate with His grace to realize the benefit. But when we do, we will experience healing and know the “secret” to becoming a true friend.