Is Friendship an Unconditional Love?

Last weekend I had the privilege of speaking to the Harvard College Faith and Action student ministry (which, incidentally, makes the Boston Marathon bombings feel so much closer—I sat next to two runners on my flight there). Rarely have I encountered such a vibrant, passionate group of Christians, and I was honored by their sharp, creative responses and questions.

(One of the most moving parts of my visit was hearing a student give a testimony about being gay and Christian and wrestling with what that means for his future—celibacy? marriage? community? Afterward, it was hard to avoid tears as student after student came up and embraced him. I thought of Brandon Ambrosino’s story and how these kind of loving expressions often fly under the radar in our public debates about sex and marriage but are no less sustaining for going unremarked.)

The first talk I gave was on “Renewing Friendship,” and I borrowed a lot of ideas from folks like Alan Bray, Ben Myers, and Eve Tushnet.

Several students approached me afterward with comments and questions, but one question in particular stood out. A student recounted to me a conversation he’d had in which his friend questioned whether Christianity really has room for friendship, since the Christian ideal seems to be an unconditional love that perseveres in loving even when the beloved becomes (or remains) unlovely. How is that really friendship rather than simply blind goodwill? How does that kind of love actually respond to the particularity and unique dignity and value of the friend him- or herself? If Christian friendship is unmerited, then it’s not really friendship.

(In a way, this objection is the counterpart to Samuel Johnson’s worry about friendship: “All friendship is preferring the interest of a friend, to the neglect, or, perhaps, against the interest of others… Now Christianity recommends universal benevolence, to consider all men as our brethren; which is contrary to the virtue of friendship, as described by the ancient philosophers.” The friend of the student I spoke with thinks this “universal benevolence” is problematic for Christianity, whereas Johnson think it’s precisely what recommends Christianity over and against Greco-Roman ideals of “friendship,” but their thinking about Christianity and friendship is strikingly similar.)

This is a fascinating question, and the answer, I suspect, has to do with the way Christian love among friends is indeed unconditional and persevering but also, at the same time, a love that never gives up precisely because it’s responding to the unique worth of each person who is made in the image of God and for whom Christ died.

In my Christology class yesterday, we discussed the following passage from Augustine’s commentary on the Fourth Gospel:

God’s love is incomprehensible and unchangeable. For it was not after we were reconciled to him through the blood of his Son that he began to love us. Rather, he has loved us before the world was created, that we might also be his sons along with his only-begotten Son—before we became anything at all. The fact that we were reconciled through Christ’s death must not be understood as if his Son reconciled us to him that he might now begin to love those whom he had hated. Rather, we have already been reconciled to him who loves us, with whom we were enemies on account of sin. The apostle will testify whether I am speaking the truth: ‘God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us’. Therefore, he loved us even when we practiced enmity toward him and committed wickedness. Thus in a marvelous and divine way he loved us even when he hated us. For he hated us for what we were that he had not made; yet because our wickedness had not entirely consumed his handiwork, he knew how, at the same time, to hate in each one of us what we had made, and to love what he had made.

I said to my students that this paragraph is remarkable for how it holds together both the unmerited gift quality of God’s love—God loves us in spite of the unloveliness and misery of our sin—but in so doing God restores us to our original created dignity, what he first planned for us to be and has never stopped loving in us.

Thinking along these lines is, I suspect, the answer to those who are skeptical about the practice of Christian friendship. It is not that Christian friendship is blind to the unique, unrepeatable, supremely valuable identity of each friend. But by loving with a radically committed love that will never give up on the other, even when the other becomes unlovable, Christian friends imitate God who loves not only creatures made in his image but loves fallen creatures and only thereby makes us lovely in the wake of our ruin.

6 thoughts on “Is Friendship an Unconditional Love?

  1. Pingback: Is Friendship an Unconditional Love? » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog

  2. Pingback: Friendship and the scandal of particularity | Spiritual Friendship

  3. Excellent post.

    If there’s one book that has changed my life (I’m going to be cliché and say “besides the Bible”), it would be Works of Love by Søren Kierkegaard. He does a fantastic treatment on friendship/enemy-ship/etc. by throwing them all into the Universal category of ‘neighbor’, but he keeps the Particular alive through the idea of individuality.

  4. Thanks so much Wes.

    There’s an eschatological tension regarding friendship, isn’t there? The friendships of this age seem almost selfishly particular when compared to the universal, unconditional love of God – universal love that will be perfected in us in glory.

    It can seem that the reason we form particular friendships in this age is our lack of capacity for universal love. And that they are therefore ultimately second-best.

    But how about if we see friendship as a covenanted choice (in our limited capacity) to scratch the *depth* of unconditional love as opposed to its breadth? A covenant that has many things in common with marriage.

    And the link there helps illuminate the eschatological tension. When God’s universal, unconditional love is fully expressed in us in glory, there is no longer the need to be married or given in marriage (if I haven’t misunderstood Jesus’ statement there). And so similarly our ideas of friendship in the not-yet will be finally transposed.

    (I also wonder about both marriage and friendship whether God won’t beautifully recognise the particular choices and bonds we have made here, even if in a now-incomprehensible way.)

  5. Pingback: The Games Christians Play - Fall And Die...

  6. “If Christian friendship is unmerited, then it’s not really friendship.”

    What we generally mean by *friendship* is a deal or a trade, in which I offer my time and attention in exchange for your time and attention. It is a mutual exchange which has some of the aspects of bargaining and which can sometimes lead to the doubt that I might be giving more than what I am getting in return. If this is what we mean by friendship, then Christian friendship is not friendship.

    Christian friendship is rooted in unconditional love; I give my time and attention to you as a totally free gift, because you have need of them and because it reflects what God has done for me. Giving while expecting nothing in return is a key to overcoming selfishness and living authentic Christian friendship.

    How is this not simply universal goodwill? Because God does not give every person to us in the same way, and so receiving a person ‘in the way they are being given to us'; as a fellow human being, as a friend for a time, as a lifelong friend, as a spouse, as a child, as a parent – is part of the experience of Christian friendship.

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