We had a saying about family when I was growing up: “You can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your relatives.” While this saying is meant to indicate the value and permanence of family, it also captures our culture’s understanding of friendship. Friendship is the freest of all relationships. Unfettered by obligation, it exists only for the mutual benefit and pleasure of its participants. However, the ‘free’ nature of friendship also means it can be fragile and often under-valued.
In his short volume, Spiritual Friendship, Wesley Hill seeks to reclaim friendship as a committed, long-term relationship. He laments how friendship has changed and been weakened in modern times. Hill, a celibate gay Christian and author of Washed and Waiting, notes that his initial interest in a reexamination of friendship came as he sought community and intimacy outside of sexual relationships. The traditional place for intimacy – marriage – is not a faithful option for him, but he does not believe this relegates him to a life without true intimacy. Instead, he argues that all of us – married or single, gay or straight – need the kind of intimacy we find in friendship. However, he perceives that friendship has been weakened in our culture as intimacy has been reduced to sexual intimacy.
In the first section of the book, Hill traces the history of friendship and its eclipse in modern western culture. He then points to historical resources in the culture and in Christian tradition that advocate strong, intimate, yet platonic, friendships. Finally, drawing on the stories of Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan, as well as the words of Jesus, Hill demonstrates the biblical foundations and shape of friendship.
The second half of the book explores some of the more practical challenges of friendship. Hill speaks of the constant desire for greater intimacy that we all have, and of how that can be complicated and painful for gay Christians. He repeatedly speaks hopefully about the joys and benefits that come with intimate friendships, but, in a sobering chapter, also recognizes that friends are called to suffer for one another. He concludes by outlining some practical steps to strengthen and encourage friendship.
I have been anticipating a book like this for a long time. I was hopeful that Hill would be able to articulate a powerful and biblical vision for friendship to a culture starved for meaningful relationships. Spiritual Friendship delivers on this promise. With accuracy and artistry, Hill’s work echoes many of my own concerns about the state of intimate, yet non-sexual, friendship, and my hopes for its recovery. The church needs to recover and reestablish ways of speaking about non-sexual relationships, particularly as we are brothers and sisters to people for whom sexual intimacy is not a present reality. Even for those who are married, non-sexual relationships are vital for being part of the body of Christ. Spiritual Friendship pushes this vision even further as it challenges the church to see friendships as a commitment equal to, but different than, marriage.
While Hill speaks with hope and joy about friendship, he is also refreshingly honest about its challenges. It won’t fix all our insecurities nor will it ease all our fears. We will still live with longing until Christ returns. Even our friendships will be marked by sacrifice as we await Christ’s coming. Jesus himself said that the greatest love is expressed in laying down your life for your friends (John 15:13). Sacrifice and suffering are part of friendship this side of Christ’s return.
Spiritual Friendship is a book for all of us who long for deeper friendships. It speaks wisely, accessibly, and hopefully about the possibilities of friendship. In a world where you can make ‘Friends’ with the click of a button, we all need more of Hill’s vision for a renewed commitment to life-long Christian friendships.