16/7/17 8:40 pm
There’s a striking scene of friendship, or perhaps its lack, in Mary Shelley’s book Frankenstein. The monster, an eight-foot-tall, hideously ugly creation of Victor Frankenstein, has escaped and is wandering alone when he discovers a peasant family in the woods. Despite his appearance, he’s intelligent and sensitive and watches the DeLacey family through a hole in his dwelling, undetected.
Day after day, he observes that nothing could exceed the love and respect they have for each other, not even their poverty and want. The actions of each family member serves the greater good of the group. Because the father is blind, the two children do more than their share of chores to compensate. Felix, the son, wakes up early to clear paths through the snow for his sister Agatha’s chores, as well as gathering wood for the family’s fire and drawing water. His ability to put his family’s needs before his own exemplifies the love that’s been engrained in the DeLaceys.
Over time, the monster learns how to speak and interact by observing them, but when he finally steps out of the shadows hoping for friendship, they beat him and chase him away. Everyone but the blind man have shunned him. However, their deep love has opened the monster’s eyes to the absence of love throughout his existence.
Doesn’t this picture describe how many of us feel when it comes to friendship? We can see it in others and long for it, but it seems forever outside of our grasp, observed only from a place of deep loneliness and alienation.
Yearning for Friendship
Seeing the friendships in the Philippians community awakens these same longings in us. Like the DeLaceys, they were united in a common goal and in their desire to serve each other. Despite their diversity and dire circumstances, they experienced a solidarity and deep friendship in Christ. They supported their beloved leader in prison, bringing him financial gifts through Epaphroditis, who risked his life and became so sick he almost died. Timothy, another member who was constantly concerned about the other people’s well being before his own, was a role model. It wasn’t a perfect community (in fact, at one point Paul urges two women to reconcile), yet the joy between them seems palpable throughout Paul’s letter.
Augustine said we are created for friendship with God, and that our hearts are restless until they find rest in God. All of us, in our heart of hearts, long for relationship with God and with each other. We know that when we are in friendship with God, life flows better.
We know this but like the monster, a place where everyone belongs often seems out of our reach. Life in community and relationships often gets sticky because we’re human. The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre knew that when he wrote, "Hell is other people." When we are out of touch with our deepest selves, this can be true! Friendships can be difficult, but Paul wrote that when we are in Christ and living close to Christ, the opposite is true.
In churches, there is often a homogeneity for the sake of church growth and church cohesion which passes for friendship. The Philippians community was anything but homogenous. There were Jews, Greeks, the military community and slaves, yet God broke down barriers and brought people together in a common unity in Christ. Theirs and ours is not friendship based on common interests, family ties or neighborhood proximity. Because we are “in Christ,” wrote Paul, when we are close to God, then we are close to each other.
God at the Center of a Circle
There was a 6th century monk and hermit who imagined a large wheel with many spokes. God is at the hub or center, and each of us stand at the circumference. The many spokes represent paths to God, such as Scripture, prayer, community and service. If we each turn toward God and move along the spokes, two things happen. As we draw closer to God, we become closer to one another. Of course, the reverse is also true. The more we travel away from God at the center, the farther we become from those on the other spokes.
Everyone knows this is not easy. We’re all at different points on the wheel and can quickly become snarled in differences large and small. If we are feeling out of sorts with other people, it might be that we are out of sorts with God and so our fellowship with one another suffers. We stall and make ourselves or others a mini-hub, quickly experiencing Sarte’s sentiment.
It seems the whole thing depends on which direction we’re facing. Being turned toward God and moving along one of the spokes is key. The rest will take care of itself. The apostle Paul knew this because he was always encouraging people to get closer to God. What he taught in Philippians has much relevance today.
Model your Friendships after Jesus
The best model of Christian friendship is found in Jesus. The way we are friends with each other is modeled on how Jesus was with us. The heart of Philippians is a poem in chapter 2 which says that Jesus was with God but gave up glory and equality with God to come down to earth. He chose not to exploit his status, but became a human instead. He became a servant to all and even allowed himself to become humiliated in a shameful death on the cross.
This is the self-emptying process we are to copy as we take on the character of Christ, who taught us to bear with and forgive one another. Like the DeLacey family, we become people who think about the benefit of others, and what they are going through.
Because we are all human, it’s very easy to think me first. But in community, things go more smoothly when we think of the other person first, and how we can work this out together. “With humility, think of others as better than yourselves,” or as The Message eloquently puts it, “Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand” (Philippians 2:3). Paul’s letters are filled with ways we can model ourselves after Christ, who taught us to bear with and forgive one another.
Thinking of others is mutually beneficial. When we encourage others, we ourselves benefit. Author Stephen Fowl expressed this when he defined Christian friendship as “the mutual devotion to the good of the other because it is a good that both share.”
Keeping Looking to the Master Story
Paul also encourages the Philippians to touch their own stories to the Christ story. We are always putting a story to our life. We come home and talk about the story of our day. We might say some was good, some was bad, and if we’re really off, our friends might say, “You’re not looking at things properly. You have a skewed perspective on your story.”
What friends in Christ do is keep reminding us to look back to that master story of Jesus found in Philippians 2; how he sought the benefit of other people rather than his own advantage. The greatest thing that friends in Christ do for one another is try to connect to the past, present, and future to the master story. When we keep touching our experience back to Scripture, it begins a kind of a cycle. The more we steep our lives in Scripture, the more it infuses our experience and friendships with meaning. It’s life on the wheel, moving towards God.
Joy in Christian Fellowship
Joy is not so much an end in itself as a byproduct as we work out our Christian friendships. It is what one should expect in the midst of a common life ordered, as Paul put it, in a “manner worthy of the gospel” (1:27). When we are steeped in our life of study together and fellowship, our hearts can no longer remain cold. There can still be a joy even when we are struggling.
In our community, when things are running smoothly, there is a resonant din of joy and laughter. Friendships which could have broken down are infinitely richer because of our friendship with Christ. The joy of being together and having a single purpose is part of Christian community. We are going somewhere together.
Joy is connected to perception. If we have a lack of rejoicing, we are probably experiencing a failure of vision. When we are reintroduced to the Christian story, we begin to perceive things properly again. And when we reorient ourselves, we find joy bubbling over again. Suddenly the whole world looks different. In the words of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”
Unlike the monster, we don’t have to remain on the outside. In Christ, everyone and everything belongs, even the darkest parts of ourselves. Sartre said hell is other people but perhaps followers of Jesus, as we move towards Christ, can say that joy is other people.
Stephen Fowl writes about Christian friendship in his book Philippians (New Testament Commentary). His final section is devoted to friendship.
Read a blogpost further describing the wheel with God at the center, originally imagined by the 6th century monk Abba Dorotheos of Gaza.
The Oscar-nominated documentary Life Animated (available from iTunes) tells the story of how the Suskind family used Disney films to start to interact with their autistic son. The film offers an example of how stories can help us narrate and direct our lives.
Question of the Week
Recall a time when a friend helped you reconnect to the Christian story when you had lost the plot and started to live by some other story.