Deacon Gerard-Marie Anthony
In modernity, friendship seems to be an often optional or superficial thing unnecessary for humanity. People settle for broken hearts and frustrated relationships, thinking that authentic relationships are impossible. Facebook friends and Instagram followers may be important, but we have forgotten the true benefits of friends. Friends help us to flourish and “become the best versions of ourselves” as Matthew Kelly notes. It is worthwhile reminding ourselves of the great blessing of true friendships in order to find the happiness we all seek. Therefore, we will first look at how friendship is a part of God’s original and restorative plan for us, next we will distinguish between true and false friendships, and finally we will see the psychological and bodily benefits of friendship.
God made friendship foundational for our happiness. This is fitting because we are made for divine and human love which leads to redemption, sanctification, and beatitude. Since the human person is made for love and meant to reflect God’s love, it is crucial that our every interaction involves love. As Mother Mary Francis, PCC tells us, “friendship is the common denominator for every kind of love there is. There is no real love that is not rooted in friendship; and when love does not seem to be functioning properly…it is always because there is not friendship in love.” Since we are made for love, we are made for friendships, and friendship is at the root of all vocations (single, married, consecrated, ordained), both as their healing and fulfillment. We can see this by looking at God’s plan for humanity.
God made mankind in His image and likeness (Gen. 1:26), and we are fulfilled as persons when we reflect that image of God’s friendship which is the blueprint for realizing the fullness of human nature. Theologian Mary DeTurris Poust tells us “there is one ultimate model of Spiritual friendship found in the relationship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…We see in the three persons’ openness. The Father, Son, and Spirit are generous with one another and are in constant connection… And yet the three persons are distinct and separate from one another, never in danger of overtaking or suppressing one another. There is always harmony.” So, in God, we see friendship involves openness, generosity, harmony, and an upholding of the other’s dignity and goodness. This is the blueprint indicating how we should model our own relationships.
In the Genesis creation account God says, “It is not good for man to be alone: let us make man a helper like unto himself” (Gen. 2:18). Dr. Timothy Gray tells us the word helpmate comes from the Hebrew ‘ezer,’ which means divine assistance and is usually the word used for God. Thus, Scripture tells us that Eve, who was Adam’s first friend, is a gift from God that is meant to lead him back to God and vice versa. Dr. Mary Healy from the Pontifical Biblical Commission expounds on the purpose of this friend as she notes Eve is Adam’s helpmate because “she helps him find the deepest meaning of his existence: to love and be loved.” This is what Pope John Paul II terms the Personalistic Norm. Healy continues, “Without her he would have thought that meaning was to till the garden which stands for everything we do: technology, activity, productivity. And we can be tempted to think this is the highest reality of human life.” St. Paul tells us that friendships and relationships are not about simply what we do or what the other can do for us, but about how well we love. This is why he writes, “if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2). If we base our friendships on simply what we can do for one another they will be shallow and eventually become nothing because they are not based on the one essential ingredient, the thing that lasts (see 1 Cor. 13:4), love.
This is the blueprint for all friendships. Sin, however, broke friendship with God, and this in turn had tragic consequences for human friendships. Friends would not necessarily focus on the good of the other, but on using the other for the good of self. They would not keep the focus on friendship aimed at union with God but upon making the self into God, i.e the center of the relationship.
Only God could fix the broken friendship between himself and mankind. Therefore, he would call mankind to friendship once again by calling them out of the slavery of sin towards an invitation of fully embracing his love. Thus Jesus, sent by the Father, issues the divine invitation which is to be man’s vocation, “I no longer call you servants but friends” (Jn. 15:12-15). He tells us that after conquering sin and death he will give mankind an even more powerful ‘ezer’ (helpmate), that is, the Holy Spirit, to help us carry out this task (see Jn. 14:16, 26-27). Thus, all three persons of the Trinity are involved in re-creating, redeeming, and sanctifying friendship. In doing so, God fulfills the meaning of friendship and gives us strength to live this out in our own relationships. When we live our friendships according to this new, Spirit-filled model, we become our best selves, reflecting the image of God and dwelling within His love.
Since flourishing means becoming our best self, we must distinguish between those relationships that appear compared to those that actually help us to become our best selves; i.e true versus false friendships. St. Francis de Sales encourages people to “form friendships only with those who can share virtuous things with you…It will be excellent because it comes from God…leads to God…because its bond will endure eternally in God. How good it is to love here on earth as they love in heaven and to learn to cherish each other in this world as we shall eternally in the next.” Francis de Sales further notes how the love that binds people must be good and what is exchanged between the people must also be good in order for the friendship to be true. This is true friendship and it brings about our flourishing.
On the other hand, false friendships are those that lead a person away from God and turn them in on him or herself. False friendships focus the individual on their own selfish desires, where each uses the goods of the relationship, such as humor, attractive looks, or intelligence, to satisfy themselves at the expense of the other’s needs and dignity. The friendship is false because those in the relationship are solely self-centered; true love must image God, and thus be reciprocal and invested in the good of the other.
This is why a person must choose true spiritual friends and not false sensual friendships, which are in fact self-centered attachments disguised as friendship. DeTurris tells us that spiritual friendships have “virtue front and center. They magnify our virtuous qualities and bring out the best in us, inspiring us to live in humility, honesty, charity and inspiring us to move beyond pettiness to a place where our hearts and minds are focused on what is right. We put aside anger in favor of empathy, judgment in favor of humility…We begin to respond as Christ would.”
Another important characteristic of true friendships is integrity in the relationship. True friendship is not about suppressing feelings or just being thought well by the other; it is about seeing those differences and choosing what is best for the other, so you can continue to walk together towards God and become the best version of yourself.
Empirical data indicates our need for true friendships by showing the detrimental effects of false friendships, i.e relationships built on self-centeredness, and how they lead to loneliness. Robin Henig cites John Cacioppo, director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, who states that the lonely brain has “less restorative sleeping, increased negativity, depressive thinking, heightened sensitivity to social threats, and trouble with impulse control. As a result, lonely people are impaired in their ability to control their emotions, make decisions, and interact with people. Ironically, the lonelier people were, the less well they functioned with others.” It is clear from clinical research that self-centeredness, which is the basis of false friendships, is not beneficial for human flourishing.
God has planned for friendships to be a means of mankind’s fulfillment since the dawn of creation. We think that true friendships are impossible but in looking at the word itself we are reminded, “I’m possible” [impossible]; authentic friendship is not only possible but essential because it allows us to reflect God and dwell in his love. We must respond to God’s call of friendship by living out this friendship with him and our neighbor. Our calling to friendship with God is bound up in our friendships here and now. Thus, true friendships are necessary for life. Whether in our vocation, our workplace, or in our other relationships, authentic friendships are necessary to help a person flourish, heal, and find happiness.