I think we need to make a distinction between utilitarian relationships and true relationships of the heart (aka friendships). Many people mistake the first for the second, sometimes with painful results.
When relationships depend on circumstance, those you work with, do some activity with, or go to church with and those activities pass, then the people, the relationship, passes along with the activity. These were not true relationships of the heart, but only utilitarian relationships driven by your needs. They might appear to be more than that because these interactions are usually mutually driven, but in reality, these are the people with whom you find the most enjoyment in that situation.
Friendships cross the lines of circumstance and persist when the initial circumstance no longer exists. However, when the job changes, the activity is over, or you join a new church, those former associations do not persist; most often, not even one purposeful contact is made. These people are, and always have been, associates, not friends.
I have seen the pain many people experience when this apparent loss of friendship happens. They feel abandoned by those they thought were more than they were, more than they had ever really been, those they thought were friends.
I should say upfront that associates are not bad. Quite to the contrary, they are good. These are the people that you have chosen to associate with, chosen out of all those available in that particular circumstance. I guess you could say they are sort of like friends lite; your interactions with these people exhibit many of the characteristics of friendship, but they are missing the ties that bind. These relationships make work, play, church, and other interpersonal interactions enjoyable and sometimes, even more important, bearable. Yet, they are transitory, tied to circumstance.
Now is probably the time to bring up another important differentiator in relationships; there is a difference between being a friend and having a friend. I think that is where a lot of the pain comes from when people feel abandoned by their former associates. They may have been a friend to some of the people who no longer appear interested in interacting with them. If you are extroverted even a little bit, the number of people you will be a friend to will greatly outnumber your actual friends. The problem is understanding the difference and seeing your relationships for what they really are.
I am an extrovert’s extrovert. No matter where I go, I interact with the people around me. In a short time, there are a few less strangers in my immediate space. As a result, I have a large circle of associates. In business, this is a major asset. I seldom go to an event in my field where I do not meet someone I know and with whom I feel comfortable. At conferences, ad hoc groups of associates form and share important information and sometimes, new relationships form, new associates are brought into your circle. However, you should never confuse these with actual friends.
That does not mean that you will not make friends in business, through events, or at church. I have. One friend who I met through business is on his way over right now to drop off some tools I lent him. Paul and I periodically get together because there are ties that bind, connecting us beyond our initial association. We do not interact every day, or sometimes every week, but we are more than associates; we are bound together in who we are as persons and we interact for that reason alone.
Biblically, this type of binding relationship is defined by philios, the form of love expressed in friendship. Proverbs 18:24 talks about the significance of a true friend:
A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother. Proverbs 18:24
Many companions (many associates) are circumstantial, friends are consequential.
My primary mode of thinking is visual, that is why I often use analogies to try and explain my thoughts. When I think of a friend, I think of a living fibrous connection that joins us, sort of like a fibrous thread of light. In my minds eye, I am literally connected to all of my friends in this way, with filaments of light extending all over the world to these special people. Some filaments are brighter and thicker than others, but they are all firmly attached, actually rooted, in a way, in my very soul. These connections are always ready for activity and it takes very little effort for them to begin humming with vibrant life. There is a richness, a brightness when these connections are active and because they exist, I am never truly alone.
Within these rich filaments of light there are two unique connections. One is much thicker and brighter than the others. It is rooted deep and has become an actual part of me. This is the connection with my wife, my chosen friend and partner. That connection is extremely rich, very bright, and very active.
However, there is another connection, one that is orders of magnitude above even her special connection. Its bond goes into my very core and is rooted in the center of who I am. When it is fully active, it illuminates and enlivens every other connection, energizing and deepening their attachments. That is my connection, my friendship with my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Jesus told his disciples in John 15:15:
No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. John 15:15
Among the many things that God is to me: Father, Lord, Savior; he is also Friend. The Eternal Son is my friend. He is the one who defines friendship; the one who energizes and enables all other friendships to grow and flourish.
This leads us to the question, the catch 22 of this posting. Is Jesus your friend or your associate? Is he someone you are comfortable with when you in the right circumstances? Or is he your true friend, connected through ties that bind, now and forever? That is the real question and in the end, the most important question you can ever ask yourself.
Remember what Jesus said in Matthew 7:22:
On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’
But Jesus reply to them will be: I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.
They mistook association for real friendship. They never took the next step and did the things that made the Lord of Creation their true friend.
May, by the grace of God, you call Jesus your true friend. And, if he is now merely an associate, I pray that you will be willing to take the final step of being his friend. He has said, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” Revelation 3:20 Open the door. You will never regret it.
Update: Welcome to those coming to this post from the CXLVIII Christian Carnival hosted at Crossroads: Where Faith and Inquiry Meet. Stay a while, wander around and let me know what you think, but most of all, grace and peace to your day.