I grew up in the type of Christian community that would frequently say things like: “Work on your relationship with God above all else” and “If you let anything come between your relationship with Jesus, then your faith is off track.”
While the intention of such teaching was probably something like, “Make your faith life as a priority” – which is probably something that would come out of my mouth, even today – what I heard in my head as a child was, “You can’t have friends who you’d count closer to you than God.”
As if friendship was some sort of divine versus human competition. It was as if God could not be present to us in my friends.
But as much as I grew to love the divine presence in my life as a teenager and college student, sometimes Jesus’ presence (in a spiritual sense) wasn’t enough for me. I needed friends, and I didn’t think Jesus made me to be so lonely.
I’ll say it again: I needed friends. Having Jesus in my life didn’t take this from me as hard as I tried to believe it would. But the church seemed to keep saying “Pursuing close friends would make Jesus jealous.”
When I was in seminary and the relational bolts within me began to shift, I had a spiritual director who provided a light-bulb moment. She kept noticing how uncomfortable I became when friends got too close to me. And she was right.
I didn’t like the vulnerability that it required. I was scared in fact. I thought, “Was I somehow ‘cheating’ on Jesus if I really loved my friends? Would people really like me if they actually knew me?”
But then this was the sticking point that she offered: “You can only be as close to God as you allow yourself to be to other people.”
Of course, this is not an “always true” statement – there are countless faithful folks called to the ministry of monastic life or even hermit life for the reasons of prayer and uninterrupted communion with God – but I think there’s great wisdom in it.
We can only be as close to God as we allow ourselves to be with other people.
There’s power in community, isn’t there?
In deep and abiding community with others, the real stuff of our life comes out. By this I don’t mean community with friends you have dinner with causally once a month or friends from the bleachers at your kids’ soccer games.
I mean authentic friendship. Those who know what makes you afraid, who have seen you cry uncontrollably and vice versa, and who can look in your eyes and know you’re stewing about something even without you having to utter a word.
With people like this, there’s no hiding. There are no major missing puzzle pieces as to what makes you tick that are withheld from the other. There’s no shying away from the most unlikable parts of our personalities.
It’s really honest living, for sure. And when we get this honest, I believe our God, who is the author of all truth, shows up.
Roberta Bondi in her book, “To Pray and To Love,” writes this: “The fulfillment of our deepest purposes and profound longings for God can never be separated from our love of God’s own images among whom we live.”
We learn about God, Bondi says, as we abide in relationship with those closest to us. In fact, we are missing out on parts of the personality of God when we don’t get close to others.
Bondi even goes so far as to write that the lack of intimacy many of us have in prayer occurs because we’ve never really learned how to talk openly and honestly to others.
If we can’t talk honestly with another human being, how could we talk honestly with God?
The bottom line is this: One of the most spiritual acts you and I could pursue right now and in the weeks to come is deepening our friendships. It might be the single greatest thing we could do to learn how to be closer to God.
It has taken me many years to shake off the baggage of my childhood in this regard. But I’m so glad I’m in the process of rewiring all of this within me.
In friendship, we both get to learn about and practice what it means to abide in God’s love.
So, does anybody have a friend they need to call today? Or meet for lunch soon? I know I do.
Elizabeth Evans Hagan is a freelance writer and minister dividing her time between Arlington, Va., and Oklahoma City. She regularly blogs about the art of pastoring at Preacher on the Plaza, where a version of this column first appeared. You can follow her on Twitter @elizabethagan
Elizabeth Hagan is senior minister of The Palisades Community Church in Washington, D.C. Other hats she wears are as a preacher, author and executive director of Our Courageous Kids, a foundation dedicated to orphan care.