The Love of Friendship

By Gwen Sellers

It's Valentine's Day week in case you hadn't noticed. The hearts, chocolates, flowers, and romantic movies have been mass-marketed since Christmas went on clearance. But even though it's all been around, Valentine's Day kind of snuck up on me. I'm single, and frankly the only time I was dating on Valentine's Day was stressful. But I do still enjoy the holiday. I think it is a great time to express love to family members and friends. Plus, who doesn't enjoy getting to eat chocolate and wear heart-themed socks? Romantic movies, corny as some of them are, can be pretty cute, too. Yet for many who are single the holiday brings a sense of emptiness. It is a reminder that they are "alone" when they would rather not be. I question our concept of "alone." Actually, I question our concept of love. When our Blogos editor asked me to contribute to this week's love theme, it didn't take long for me to remember a comment made by John Stonestreet at a recent event put on by Summit Ministries. He proposed that our culture either reduces love to sentimentality or limits it to sexual love. He reminded us that love is so much more than that, and challenged us to express all the kinds of love to one another.

Interestingly, his comment was related to speaking with a Christian man who struggles against homosexuality. When asked what the church could do to support this man, he told Stonestreet first to not move the goalpost on the issue of homosexuality. He recognizes homosexual behavior as sin. But, he said, if I cannot express love sexually, please do not withhold all the other kinds of love from me.* I think expressing all kinds of love to one another would be helpful for more than just the homosexual struggle. This man's plea applies to singles, to widows, to married men and women, to parents, to children, to the elderly, etc. We all need to experience the fullness of love. Let me briefly explain some of those other kinds of love.

Those who have been around church for a while have likely been introduced to the various Greek words translated as love in English. There is eros, which is sexual love. But there is also storge, or naturally-occurring familial love; phileo, or brotherly love; and, the crowning jewel, agape, or self-sacrificial love. Only agape and phileo are used in the New Testament.

Agape is sacrificial love meant for the benefit of the recipient. It is the love God has for us and the love He calls us to have for all people. It is love in action, and based on the character of the giver of the love, not on the recipient. It is not earned. Ultimately, it comes from the very nature of who God is. The only way we can demonstrate agape toward one another is through the enabling of the Holy Spirit.

Phileo is basically good friendship. There are mutual feelings of warmth and affection, and desire for the happiness and well-being of the other. It is this love that I think is most often missing from our lives, and is most easily applied to a conversation about Valentine's Day.

I could go into the implications of phileo for competition and jealousy among women, my suspicions about relationships between men, cross-gender relationships between singles as well as marrieds, our concept of sexuality, and the somewhat generalized sense of over-connectedness yet isolation in our culture (and, sadly, some of our churches). But, instead, I'll just ask some questions to help us all reflect on our hearts, how we give and receive love.

Do we have people in our lives we truly consider friends? How often do we express to our friends how much they mean to us? Are we willing to put our own hearts on the line and admit that we genuinely like someone else, in a totally non-sexual way? Are we willing to tell them how much they mean to us, why we appreciate them, and what they add to our lives? Are we willing to seek out another's best simply because we care about them, even when it doesn't do anything for us? Do we really journey alongside others, living our lives together as a community who is bonded in Christ and cares for each other? Will we sacrifice our own interests because we have invested in the life of another? Will we be vulnerable with our friends? Will we seek to develop and work on our relationships? Do we fight for our friends? Or do we succumb to fear, to social awkwardness, to busy schedules, and decide that risking our heart for friendship isn't worth it? Are our relationships a business transaction, or are they heart connections?

I admit that I have fallen on two bad extremes of the friendship spectrum. I have inappropriately expected my friends to fill my heart completely. I've been needy and codependent. I've had the "savior complex." I've also walled off my heart and chosen not to interact socially, trying to live life as a lone wolf. Neither was a good situation, and neither is what God has in mind when He calls me to love others as He loves them. I'm learning now that genuine friendship involves risk and work. It also involves a lot of fun. And all of it has incredible payoff. My friends are treasures. I count them as gifts from God. Each is unique, and I thrill at learning from their uniqueness. I feel honored that they share their hearts and lives with me. I feel safe doing the same with them.* I'm experiencing genuine phileo, and it's pretty awesome.

So, yes, I am single. But I am far from alone. I may not have the typical Valentine's "love" in my life, but I sure do live a life filled with a lot of love. And I'm going to celebrate it. I'm going to send cards to family members and exchange gifts with my parents (storge love). I'm having friends over for chocolate fondue and heart-shaped brownies (phileo love). And I'm going to mostly celebrate the agape of God that enables all this community and love to begin with. I hope you'll do the same.

Some parting verses for you:

Jesus praying for future believers in John 17:20-24:
I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
John's instructions in 1 John 4:7-12:
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.

*I feel compelled to caution here that there are appropriate boundaries in terms of intimacy in relationship. The threat of codependency and emotional affairs is real. There is reason to guard your heart (Proverbs 4:23) and only invite certain people into certain places. We do not have to be friends with everyone. We are called to demonstrateagape to all people, but not phileo. We also do not have to phileo people the same way. There are varying levels of friendship, each with different boundaries, and that is by design. The key to navigating what those boundaries should be is giving our hearts more fully to God and trusting Him to be their Protector, as well as our Guide. When we trust Him and seek Him, we can live a bit more freely in love that is genuine and appropriate to the situation.

Published 2-12-15