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  • Writer's pictureAdam O'Neill

The shortcomings of modern friendship.

Updated: Aug 3, 2023

The shortcomings of modern friendship.

It pains me to say, because I love and respect his writing so much, but C.S. Lewis got friendship wrong and I think he knew it. In his classic, The Four Loves, he describes his theory on the role and purpose of friendship, “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art.... It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” To his credit, the remainder of his chapter on friendship describes a more complex view, but it remains that, he viewed friendship as an added benefit. His life betrays his statements; time does not permit to describe the close friendships which guided him through his young adulthood, through war, and the death of his wife. Biblical text also refutes this view of friendship. Within a medical context, far from unnecessary to survival, friendship actually proves to be more necessary than we ever believed.

A study conducted by Cigna and Ipsos in 2018 of 20,000 adults in the United States last year revealed that nearly half of respondents reported feeling alone (40%) or left out (47%), 43% feel that relationships are not meaningful. This is concerning, not only because of its psychological implications, (loneliness is associated with increased rates of depression and suicidal ideation) but also because of its effects on our physical bodies. The study noted that loneliness was correlated to earlier mortality, higher rates of smoking, increased obesity, and higher levels of bad cholesterol. The causes of the United States’ loneliness epidemic is likely multifactorial but what is clear, however, is that in an age where we are more connected than ever, where friends are available nearly all the time through phone, text, Facebook, and Instagram, it seems that frequency of connection is not the remedy to loneliness.

“As soon as he had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.” 1 Samuel 18:1 (ESV)

We were made to live in community, not vacation in it several times a day through social media. I love going away on vacation, but every time I go, there’s a sense in which what I am experiencing is both temporary and manufactured. This isn’t my house or my pool, I’m visiting to enjoy it for a moment and then it will be gone. After some days away another feeling emerges, the need for a “vacation from my vacation”. I long to be home in my bed with my bathroom and to drive my car again. Not because my bed is nicer but because it’s mine. Not because my car is cleaner but because I don’t have to return my car to Hertz at the end of the week. I wonder if this is a little of what is described in 1 Samuel when discussing, perhaps, one of the most iconic friendship: David and Jonathan. 1 Samuel describes Jonathan very soul as being knit to David. So much that “Jonathan loved him as his own soul.” This wasn’t a friend for a season, this was a friendship for life. Their souls knit together meant this wasn’t friendship to vacation in, it’s one that lasts.

“Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul.” 1 Samuel 18:3 (ESV)

Many of the relationships we make today require very little long-term commitment. Friends we make on Facebook are easily unfriended, coworkers frequently move away or retire, even church small groups regularly restructure. Yet the lifegiving friendship described by scripture requires commitment. After Jonathan’s soul was knit to David, he “makes a covenant” with David. Covenants were binding, legally and spiritually, within the culture of the Old Testament. If we utilize previous covenants described in the Old Testament it likely contained a promise from one party to the other, rules for continuing this covenant, and a statement of what should happen to the promising party if they fail to uphold their agreement which could even include death. In Genesis 15:17 God makes a covenant and passes between the sacrificed animals’ pieces, in effect saying, “let what happened to these animals (death) happen to me if I fail to uphold this covenant with you”.

Then Jonathan answered Saul his father, “Why should he be put to death? What has he done?” But Saul hurled his spear at [Jonathan] to strike him…” 1 Samuel 20:30-33 (ESV)

Jonathan upheld his covenant with David even though it cost him. If there was something to lose in their relationship it was surely Jonathan. His father, being King, made Jonathan crown prince, yet he fights for his friend and works to establish David’s throne rather than his own. He does so at the risk of his very life. His father hurls a spear at him in anger in an attempt to kill him. Later Jesus would say in John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” Friendship, the kind that lasts and that reflects the love of the Father requires sacrifice. A modern friendship may not require you to give up your life but it may require deep sacrifice. For whom would you drop everything to fly across the country, to sit at a hospital bed, or stand beside as they walk through marital conflict? If that person, or persons, aren’t currently in your life don’t despair. Ask God for them; it was He who said in His Word, “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10). While you wait, become that friend you desire to have, and in so doing, make this world a little less isolating and a little more like the Kingdom of Heaven to which we belong.

Though he preceded him in death, I imagine J.R.R Tolkein was met at the gates of heaven by his close personal friend C.S. Lewis. Their friendship results, for Lewis, in the most significant life change he could ever experience; it was through this friendship that Lewis came to know Christ. Perhaps Tolkien would say as he wrote in his famed trilogy, Lord of the Rings, "I am glad you are here with me. Here at the end of all things...".

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