On a recent cross-country flight, I watched two very different movies with a surprisingly similar theme. Both the period drama and the feel-good comedy emphasised the centrality of friendship. “Friends are the family you choose,” says hero Zak in The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019). It got me thinking: can you choose your family? What makes a friend a friend? And how does the Gospel help shed light on our understanding of family and friendship?
I am persuaded there’s something significant and unique about friendship between Christians, and it has everything to do with our familial connection.
God Chooses us, Loves us and Even Likes us!
Scripture has much to say about both friendship and family. By faith, we can be friends with God (John 15:14, James 4:4) and the family of God (John 1:12). That we can be adopted into God’s family and loved as his own is one of the marvels of grace (1 John 3:1); and yet God does more than that: he calls us friends, too. It is mind-blowing to consider that God does not only love us. He seems to like us, too. His is not just the love of a parent who is obligated to love their children, but also the love of a friend who seeks out our company and delights in reciprocated affection. He loves because he must, and he loves because he chooses to.
That we can be adopted into God’s family and loved as his own is one of the marvels of grace; and yet God does more than that: he calls us friends, too.
Our God—who is love—loves us with all the four loves of Scripture. He loves us with agape love, the unconditional love of his covenant faithfulness. He loves us with storge love, the strong heartfelt love one feels for family. In Song of Songs, we see imagery of God’s eros love for the church as well: he delights in his bride. And, he loves us with phileo love: that companionable love sparked by mutual interest, affection, and kindness. This is the love of friendship.
God Calls His Family to Love One Another
God calls us, as his children and image bearers, to love one another in multi-faceted ways, too. 1 Corinthians 13 calls us to unconditional agape love for one another. Titus 3:15 calls us to greet those who love (phileo) us in the faith. Romans 12:10 reminds us to love one another with brotherly affection (a compound of storge love). This is in keeping with the primary way that God describes how believers are connected to one another: by being adopted by the same Father, we become brothers and sisters in the same family.
Just as we learn to live as the children of God we are, so too we must learn to live as the siblings in Christ we are.
As the beloved children of God the Father, our relationship towards one another is to be that of siblings. And in fact, this is the primary way the New Testament letters address us: more than 135 times we are called adelphoi. We are brothers and sisters in Christ, and this is no more a metaphor than being a child of God. Rather, it is a new reality made true by the Gospel. Just as we learn to live as the children of God we are, so too we must learn to live as the siblings in Christ we are.
Belonging to God sets Christian Friendship Apart
It is this reality that makes Christian friendship different from other friendships. In The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis famously observed, “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, “what! You too? I thought that no one but myself…”, describing the delight and recognition of phileo between two people. I have a number of dear friends with whom I’ve had a phileo moment of bonding: Sara who shares my fear of Pinterest, Andrew who shares my love of puns, Joy who knows intuitively which books I will love better than I do, and John who is my favourite Dad to talk to while picking up kids from school.
But what makes two of those friendships differ from the other is that Andrew and Joy are more than just friends. They’re family. Not the family I chose, like Zak in The Peanut Butter Falcon, but the family God has chosen in Christ. What makes Christian friendship different is that it is preceded by and predicated on kinship: whether or not Joy and I ever find any interests in common, we are still in community. Whether or not we ever became friends, we would be family.
The connection God has established gives us a lens through which to view others and a mirror to evaluate the way we ourselves express friendship.
Viewing Friendship God’s Way
“Friends come and friends go, but a true friend sticks by you like family,” says Proverbs 18:24 (The Message). In the body of Christ, we don’t have to choose between having friends and family. God has already made us family. This provides a fantastic starting point for friendship as we cultivate the connection God has established. This gives us a lens through which to view others, as well as a mirror through which to evaluate the way we ourselves express friendship. As the family of God, we have both the gift and the responsibility to be and to find the truest of friends.