I was once in a friendship I tried desperately to extract myself from. My friend lived across the street from me, was a fellow church member, and was also a fellow women’s ministry leader, so there was no amount of extracting I could actually do in order to cut off the relationship completely. She was a fixture in my life and was such a persistent pursuer of my friendship that I finally had to consider why exactly it was that I wanted to step away from her.
Truthfully, she made me uncomfortable. She pressed on all my sensitivities, insecurities, and self-centered desires to “hide away” parts of myself from others. I didn’t like that she probed deeply, disagreed with me, responded with direct and sometimes blunt truths, or had such open access to me. I see now that I was wrong to want to extract myself, because in extracting myself from the friendship, I was attempting to run from God’s work in my life.
At the time, however, I thought I had valid reasons to run. Because I assumed that an uncomfortable relationship could not also be a beneficial relationship, I hurt her, and our friendship became severely damaged.
Of course, not all uncomfortable relationships are beneficial, and not all beneficial relationships are uncomfortable. But how do we know when we need to stick with a friendship that’s become messy and difficult rather than stepping back from it? Every relationship is unique, and there are often unique circumstances that add complexity to those relationships, but Colossians 3:12–15 gives us a filter through which to sift our unique friendships and situations:
Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.
Are We Corporate People?
Paul’s instructions in Colossians 3 are not only to individual Christian but to Christians collectively. He says that when we’re brought into Christ, we’re brought into a corporate faith. This corporate faith will require compassion, patience, forbearance, and forgiveness. In other words, relationships with others will not always be easy, but they will work for our sanctification. When we recognize that God often uses others to help us grow toward greater devotion to Christ, we are more apt to learn from the very relationships that require patience and forgiveness. Let us not step back because we don’t want to do the hard work of being in relationship with others.
Are We Bearing with Others?
Do we have endurance in friendships? We often give up on friendships too quickly and without looking back. As soon as our feelings are hurt, a misunderstanding occurs, or an angry word is spoken, we walk away. When we discover a friend has a surprising conviction or preference that we disagree with, we let awkwardness or division creep into the relationship. When we grow close enough to see the theme of our friends’ struggles or discouragements and they are simply not relatable to us, we give up on trying to walk with them through it. Paul says we must bear with one another, especially as we grow closer to one another, because only then do we see the weaknesses and failures that must be borne. Let us not step back because we won’t allow our friends space to grow, room to be different from us, and the freedom to be imperfect.
Are We Truth-Tellers?
It seems we often equate being a Christian with being nice, meaning we don’t want to initiate difficult but necessary gospel-centered conversations. Sometimes necessary conversations are difficult, but we must not be people who walk away from a friendship because we’re afraid to speak our “complaint.” Paul is not suggesting that we have a critical spirit toward others, constantly spouting off about what others have done to offend us. Paul is, however, commanding us to be truth-tellers. If someone has sinned against us, if it seems there’s been a misunderstanding, or if we see our friends in perpetual rebellion against God, we must be willing, after much prayer, to approach our friends for the purpose of their restoration to God and also our reconciliation with one another. Let us not step back because we’re unwilling to have necessary conversations and unwilling to give our friends opportunity for explanations and confession.
Are We Forgivers?
Are we living at peace with our friends as much as it depends on us? Or are we grudge-holders, unable to be fully restored in a friendship even after confession and repentance have occurred? Paul says that in light of Christ’s response to our confession, we must be forgivers. Let us not step back from a friendship because we cannot forgive.
Are We Thankful?
Paul concludes, “And be thankful.” Thankfulness to God for the imperfect people He’s placed in our lives is essential. We’re prone to focus on the lack in others and on the way they respond to us in friendship, but through Paul, God says, “Notice what you can thank Me for in your friends.” Our friends may be wildly different from us in personality, gifts, skills, convictions, and the way they extend and receive friendship. Are we allowing them to be who God has designed them to be? Are we intentionally and specifically thanking God for who they are and the way He’s made them? Let us not step back from a friendship because we are ungrateful.
Is the Peace of Christ Ruling in Our Hearts?
We need safeguards to keep us within truth and to keep us from being drawn away from Christ by those who aren’t ruled by him. In Colossians 3, Paul says our safeguard is letting the peace of Christ rule in our hearts. In other words, peace comes from Him and must reign over any sort of harmony we experience or desire in our relationships with others. When the peace of Christ rules in our hearts, God is God and people are people. We don’t expect people to respond as God does, and we don’t believe God responds imperfectly the way people do. This is really the foundational truth that enables us to bear with one another, speak truth to one another, forgive one another, be sanctified by God through one another, and be thankful for one another. Let us not walk away from a friendship because we expect our friends to give us something only Christ can give.
Is the Safeguard Being Circumvented?
If with the Lord’s help we have obeyed His commands in Colossians 3:12–15 and still discern that something feels “off” about our friendship, it may very well be that the safeguard of Christ’s peace is being circumvented. Aside from extenuating circumstances such as church discipline or abuse, this is when I believe God not only allows but commands us to step back from a friendship, because circumventing Christ in order to look for peace in a person or relationship is idolatry.
If a friend is consistently trying to circumvent this safeguard, we must not play toward their idolatry. We can gently point out what we think may be happening and then direct them toward the true peace Christ offers.
However, the opposite holds true as well. If we find ourselves consistently circumventing Christ, trying to make others our peace, or believing we’re the rescuing peace for others, we must take a step back, confess and repent of our idolatry, and reorient ourselves under the reign of Christ’s peace.
Friendship is a gift. Sometimes that gift hurts because it’s sanctifying, which is a lesson I learned from my neighbor and now-restored friend. Friendship, however, should never hurt because we’re seeking satiation in a dry well. It should never hurt because we hold out empty promises of our own ability to give our friends drink. Friendship is a gift because, in its best form, it turns our focus toward the God who chose us and has made us holy and beloved. This is the Friend who will never leave nor forsake us, and we do well never to leave nor forsake Him.