Stacey Lovett spent 13 years mentoring young people at the University of Illinois, served as a missionary in Japan, and now works as a missionary coach for SEND. In this last article in our Flourish series, she tackles the spiritual significance of friendship.
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“By now we have learned how to wax eloquent about the idea of community, how to cast vision for it and how to help others experience it, but we have lost it for ourselves.” — Ruth Haley Barton, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry
Hebrews 10:23-25 and 2 Timothy 2:22 are key verses about the role of the Body of Christ. I would summarize them like this: People in the Body come alongside one another and help one another hold on to the hope of Christ and follow Christ more obediently.
Friendships that are consistent and very honest can help fuel deep spiritual growth, but can be hard to develop on the mission field, where your pool of potential like-minded friends likely will be much smaller than it is in your home country. To find such friendships, you’re going to need courage and patience.
One trick: I “date” my potential confidants. When I showed up in Japan, I had lunch regularly with a variety of women there — some with SEND, others outside of SEND. Some of those friendships quickly grew deeper than others, and eventually a few became so close that we started a women’s group together.
When it comes to spiritual growth, I particularly like friendship groups. Sometimes people get busy and disappear for seasons of your life. But if you have a solid group of three or four friends connecting together, then if one of them can’t attend for a month because she’s in a different country or all her kids are sick, you can still meet consistently. Also, sometimes one of your friends will have something really major happen in her life — unfaithfulness in her marriage, a miscarriage, a scary diagnosis. That’s a heavy weight for one person to bear, but with a small group, you bring different perspectives on how to be encouraging and can help carry that burden together.
How to make friends
Be confident: I’ve known a lot of people who struggle to believe that they would make a good friend. It’s important for us to realize that we all have something to offer in friendship. It’s as simple as just being people who care about growing in Christ and want to do that with others.
Choose carefully: I look for people who have the potential to really hear me and not shut me down or communicate quick truths to try to fix me. I don’t want a solid, core friendship where every time I share something honest, I get overwhelmed with advice. Then again, some people that I would call advice driven make great confidants for other people. Find someone that YOU feel safe with, that YOU feel open with.
Make sure it’s mutual: In the friendships that I’m describing, you should be receiving as much as you’re giving. I’ve been in women’s groups where one person really needs a lot and communicates that well, and then it becomes all about that person. That’s not the ideal.
Get your spouse involved: Free up your husband or wife, giving him or her time to meet with a tight-knit friendship group. When you watch the kids and send your spouse off to develop these deep friendships, they’re coming back to you hopefully encouraged to love you more and to work through whatever issues are going on with your family. You definitely want to find friends who encourage and support the marriage and you as parents.
Ask God to provide: Who is God putting in your life to be your good friend? “It is important that we resist the urge to cling or to grasp unwisely at those who may or may not have the spirit to walk with us,” Ruth Haley Barton writes. “But by carrying our loneliness into the solitary place first, we encounter the caring presence of God, who hears our cry, and we open ourselves to receive those whom God is giving to bear the burden with us. These we watch for and welcome as a gift from God, so that together we can be open to God’s life-giving Spirit among us.”
Don’t assume: When I joined the ministry at the university, there was only one other woman who joined the staff with me, plus we were about the same age — so I assumed she would be my close friend. This caused a lot of tension because she wasn’t at the same place. We have to be careful not to assume where our close friendships will come from, but to keep an open mind and trust that God will provide. Most of the women I’ve been in women’s groups with, I would not initially have picked as my type of friend, yet these have been valuable relationships in my spiritual walk.
What should deep friendship involve?
Consistent connection: My core group of friends in Japan lived two hours away from each other. We met face-to-face just once a month, but we created a text group to share daily prayer requests, and on rough days we would Facetime.
Accountability: If we’ve fallen in some way spiritually or we’ve fallen into an addiction, our tendency often is to blame others for not holding us accountable. While we all have a responsibility to ask hard questions, I want to suggest that it should be our goal to tell people when we need accountability. We have to be honest with our friends, telling them, “I struggle with ______, please ask me every time we meet if I’ve done _________.”
Listening and empathy: Because our tendency is to fix people and give advice, we must intentionally prioritize listening and empathy. The Book of Job is like a men’s group gone wrong. Job’s friends have some theological misunderstandings, some unfounded assumptions, and an absence of patience. They grow particularly impatient when Job starts to share with them about his frustrations with God. But I’ve had things that I’ve struggled with for years. Our role in Christ-centered friendships is to listen, encourage and pray for each other in empathetic ways, even over long stretches of time.
God doesn’t intend you to do life alone. Deep and consistent friendships are critical to your spiritual health. It’s important that we be humble, realize that we need others and allow others into our lives.
More in the Flourish series
- Step 1: Honest evaluation — Spiritual self-assessment isn’t about guilt. It’s a starting point for growing in intimacy with God.
- Developing a prayer life that goes beyond ‘popcorn prayers’ — On the field, a missionary learns the value of boldly praying God’s Word for confession, spiritual growth, protection and salvation.
- Sabbath: A gift that helps us set boundaries on our busyness and adds rhythm to our weeks — ‘Setting boundaries can be particularly hard for missionaries, because we’re also called to sacrifice. Sabbath helps us regain perspective.’
- A menu plan for staying spiritually fed — Ways to keep your devotional life fresh and consistent — especially when you can’t be part of a thriving church community.
- To connect with the Lord, you do you — Recognizing your spiritual temperament — and realizing it might not be the same as those around you — can make for a closer relationship with the Lord and with other believers.
- Your body, your soul: The health of one affects the other — Seeing health as something that includes the spiritual, the emotional, and the physical helps us correctly prioritize caring for our bodies so that we can serve.
- Why it’s better to store God’s Word in your mind, not just on your iPhone — Even in this digital age, Scripture has more potential to transform, guide and encourage when it’s committed to memory.
Banner photo by Thomas Verbruggen