Friendship: The Overlooked Love

Part 1 of a Register series on friendship.

Samuel anoints David in the presence of his friends, from the third century AD.
Samuel anoints David in the presence of his friends, from the third century AD. (photo: Wikipedia)

The Christian tradition teaches us that grace perfects nature. Therefore, anything normal and native to human existence is, so to speak, grist for glory. God takes the ordinary stuff of human life and raises it—with our cooperation — to become the means by which his love is enfleshed and brought into the world. Everything, no matter how ordinary, can be raised by God to become sacramental.

A case in point: Once, when I was still a pagan, I came down with a horrible case of stomach flu. As I lay on my bed of suffering in my dorm room, I got a phone call from somebody on a neighboring dorm floor that had a bunch of Christians living there. I informed them I was not available to play Frisbee, mumbled something into the phone about praying for the sweet release that only death can bring, and hung up.

A few minutes later, there was a knock at my door. Peeling my face from the pool of drool on my pillow and stumbling to the door, shirtless and utterly disgusting, I opened it to find, to my surprise, Sandy Mac. I didn’t know her from Eve, but she was one of the Christians from the dorm floor and had heard about my plight. She held up a bottle of Pepto-Bismol and cheerily said, “I heard you were sick. I got you this!” I took the bottle from her, feeling rather gobsmacked that a total stranger would do such a kind thing for me — and I have remembered that for the last 34 years.

In that moment, the Holy Spirit working through the goodness, generosity and kindness of Sandy Mac elevated Pepto-Bismol to a sacramental for me and communicated something of the love and goodness of God to my soul.

In that moment, something besides Sandy Mac’s gift became a sacramental: Sandy Mac did too. Because a friendship was born then. And human friendship, like all human loves, can be elevated by the grace of God to participate in the life of God.

That’s because human friendship, like all rightly ordered human loves, comes from God and the same God who creates is also the one who redeems.

The key words here are “rightly ordered.” It is fatally easy for us to take some good thing (including friendship) and elevate it to a replacement for God. The moment we do this, the love is no longer rightly ordered and can become a block to, rather than a vehicle for, the grace of God.

But if we rightly order our loves with the help of God — including the love known as friendship — we can see wonderful fruits in our lives and in the lives of others.

Indeed, God can take friendship and raise it so high that the very salvation of the world can be mediated to us through it—as it was through that band of friends called the apostles. This may seem incredible to our eros-besotted culture, which automatically thinks of sexualized love as the only real form of love (and indeed, tends to assume that the love of friends is “really” a sublimated form of eros whether it exists between people of the opposite or same sex). But the truth is that the love of friends can be as profound and real as the love of lovers and such love — which is either repelled by or laughs at the thought of eros between friends — can be as profound an experience of human love as any in the world.

Over the next few columns, I would like to take a look at the mystery of friendship, since it has tended to get downplayed in our sex-obsessed culture. The world is full of love stories, but friendship has gotten short shrift, which is a shame since people hunger for it.

Let’s see what we can do to restore Christian friendship.

Mark Shea blogs at