God's Plan for Friendship
When God called Paul to be his servant, he also gave Paul rich friendships to make the journey possible. Paul has some warm words for his friends in Rome, and more generally, teaches us how God wants us to grow in friendship for his glory and our joy.
8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world. 9 For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you 10 always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God's will I may now at last succeed in coming to you.11 For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you- 12 that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith, both yours and mine. 13 I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles. 14 I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. 15 So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.
Paul begins this letter, as he usually does, with warm affection for its recipients. What is surprising about this letter, though, is that Paul had never met the Roman Christians before writing. (The letter was written in 56 A.D.; Paul did not journey to Rome, under arrest, until 60 A.D.)
It's striking then, that Paul's language is so intimate, so familiar. He has given his heart to the Romans - praying for their needs, longing for their company, loving people he has never met. What prompted such deep feelings in Paul?
C.S. Lewis observes the same phenomenon in his essay on "Friendship" in The Four Loves. Lewis says that the essence of friendship is that two people share a common love for some third thing:
"Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; Friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest. Above all, Eros (while it lasts) is necessarily between two only. But two, far from being the necessary number for Friendship, is not even the best. ... Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: What! You too? I thought I was the only one."
I've experienced this with fellow distance runners. Recently I made a new friend in the Sewickley ice cream shop simply because he was wearing trail running shoes. After a few questions – where he likes to run, how much pain he can endure, whether he'd like to run up a small mountain with me, and other things runners discuss – we decided to run together later that month. Lewis' point is that people bring into a friendship a shared experience of joy – a common vocabulary, knowledge, and delight in something that deepens as it is shared. God's creation abounds with things that turn strangers into friends.
In the case of Christian friendship, then, Jesus himself is the common attraction that brings friends together. Paul knew how much Jesus had done for him – turning a persecutor of the church into a trophy of God's grace – and he knew that the Romans had the same experience of Christ's grace. Actually meeting one another, then, was secondary to meeting Jesus, who gave them the shared experience of his love.
This understanding of Christian friendship has many applications. For one thing, it ought to weaken all sorts of social vices that afflict the church – gossip, jealousy, pride, rivalry, resentment – because our common experience of Jesus is the experience of finding our worth in him, not in the social pecking order.
Second, Christian friendship should also be one of the primary tools for spiritual growth. It prompts us to seek out other Christians at work, in our neighborhoods, and in our schools in order to share our stories of grace (What? You know Jesus too?). Paul wanted to meet the Romans so that they might be "mutually encouraged by each other's faith, both yours and mine" (v. 12). Seeking out other Christians to share the encouragement of the gospel is one of the best ways of growing in our faith, that we "may impart some spiritual gift to strengthen" each other (v. 11).
Finally, Christian friendship should prompt us, like Paul, to pray for our friends. Today you might think of some of your Christian friends, both old and new, for whom you can give thanks to God. You might pray that the Lord would strengthen their faith, inspire their obedience, steady them through trials, and fill them with his hope. And if you find a minute you might let them know, as Paul did for the Romans, that today is a day they are on your heart, and you thank God for them.