Most modern friendships last only until the first conflict. Like plastic cups, we toss them out and just grab new ones. But why would we expect deep relationships without deep conflict?
Here is the thing about your friends: they are sinners. Here is the thing about you as a friend: you are too.
This means all of our friendships and communities have the same active ingredient: sinful people like us. So we should not be surprised in the least that we hurt one another. Often deeply. On the contrary, we should expect to be hurt by our friends.
This is, at first, counterintuitive. It is easy to get caught up in romanticized visions of friends who have no conflict, share only laughter, aren’t bogged down with the ordinary pains of life, and are deeply grateful for one another’s commitment.
The problem with that vision is that it’s a total lie.
To be friends with sinners is our only option. You should expect to be friends with people who are downright selfish, who don’t care for you exactly the way you hoped, who miss opportunities, and who let you down. The question is,
- What do we do with the painful reality that friendship hurts?
We will answer that question momentarily, but to ignore the question is to entertain a false vision of friendship without conflict. A false vision of friendship (like a false vision of marriage or a false vision of church community) is the greatest enemy to the real thing.
Bonhoeffer saw this when he wrote Life Together. In a work that is otherwise soaring with encouragement and hopefulness, his passages on false visions of community are the strongest rebukes in the whole text. “Innumerable times a whole community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams.”1
I love that Bonhoeffer sees the shattering of our false visions as a grace.
He is right. We often forget that it is our failures that God uses as the means for encountering grace. On hearing the voice of God in his own struggle, Paul writes, “
My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.2
That logic of grace does not change on a communal level.
You may think that conflict with your friends is the barrier to deeper friendship. But that is true only if you do not practice forgiveness.
With forgiveness, conflict in friendship is the doorway to communal grace.
TO BE FRIENDS WITH SINNERS IS OUR ONLY OPTION.
The reasons to forgive are eminently practical.
Relationships cannot exist without forgiveness.
Either we forgive or we fall apart; there is no middle ground.
Given that all good friends will eventually hurt you, if you do not practice forgiveness, you will either be stuck in a cycle of endless resentment or never have a true friendship at all. In a moment that has elevated the spirit of cancel culture and downplayed the beauty of forgiveness, it is no surprise that so many are drifting into the loneliness of resentment. Here again we must swim against the current if we are to have friendships at all.
But even more than practical, forgiveness is profound. Here is the strange reversal:
- forgiveness is for us as much as it is for our friends who hurt us.
In His parable of the unmerciful servant, Jesus told of a man whose debt was mercifully forgiven, but then the man went on to mercilessly demand repayment from others.3 The way he treated others showed that the servant didn’t understand what had happened to him.
The most important reason we forgive others is to reexperience the way Jesus has forgiven us. We learn it by practicing it.
Importantly, our forgiveness is not predicated on our friends’ apologies. We don’t forgive one another because of how good the apologies are, we forgive one another because Christ has forgiven us.4
In practice, this does not mean pretending your friends did not hurt you but rather first acknowledging that they did. Then, instead of inflicting pain to make them pay, you bear the burden of the pain. This is the logic of our salvation: Christ bore our burden so we wouldn’t have to. It is also how friendships work.5
I recently had a difficult conversation with a friend I needed to forgive. It began with a text saying, “Can we talk?” I recommend that. If there is someone in your life you need to forgive, then initiate with them. What happened next was we set aside an evening to be face-to-face and say the things we were hurt by. Unsurprisingly, there were mutual errors, and I had to apologize too. Also unsurprisingly, I didn’t get the perfect apology I craved. Yet remarkably, we left in forgiveness, with imperfect apologies accepted, and continue to work toward deeper friendship.
Without the practice of forgiveness, I know we would both still be burning in anger, incessantly turning over in our heads the things that were said, consumed by perceived slights. That is who we become without forgiveness. But because of the grace of Jesus for us, this conflict became the doorway to deeper grace. This friend and I have found a second chance and a more tender friendship.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community, trans. John W. Doberstein (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1978), 26. To continue the quote: “Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves. By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. He does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like a dream. God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth.” (Ibid., 26–27.)
- 2 Corinthians 12:9.
- Matthew 18:21–35.
- Ephesians 4:32.
- We will talk more about when it is healthy to leave a friendship, or what to do when someone is unhealthy and hurting others, but it does not change the primacy of forgiveness. Even in friendships that have to end, forgiveness should be extended first.
Excerpted with permission from Made for People by Justin Whitmel Earley, copyright Avodah, LLC.
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Jesus not only forgave us, He gave us the road map for forgiving others. Do you have a broken friendship or one burdened with injury and offense? Who do you need to forgive? Who needs to forgive you? Pick up the phone today, ask the Lord for help, and ask that friend, “Can we talk?” ~ Devotionals Daily