Spiritual friendship provides an important context for relating to God in ever-maturing ways, which gives glory to Him by fulfilling His original purpose for humankind’s creation. It can be defined as a close relationship between two Christians with the purpose of pursuing Christ as they pursue each other.
“Ordinary friendships are generally characterized by intimacy, trust, and mutual enjoyment of one another,” said Mindy Caliguire. “Spiritual friends share those qualities, of course, but are also characterized by another element: spiritual friends actively help us pay attention to God.”1
Unlike family relationships, spiritual friendship provides a unique perspective on dynamics of intimacy because it is a mutual relation- ship, where love bridges power differentials and both parties maintain the relationship by choice. Therefore, friendship love specializes in mirroring the spiritual concept of mutuality in the areas of trust and intimacy, choice, and safety.
Contribution to Spiritual Formation
In friendship love, one learns the powerful lesson of mutual trust and intimacy forged through self-disclosure.
“Friendship, a reciprocal and mutual love, recognizes this truth about nature: that we need not only to give ourselves in love but also to receive love in return,” wrote Gilbert Meilaender.2 While charitable love gives with no expectation of return, it also does not require mutual self-disclosure. Spiritual friendship is predicated upon mutual intimacy.
A friend is called the guardian of love or, as some prefer, the guardian of the soul itself. Why? Because it is proper for my friend to be the guardian of mutual love or of my very soul, that he may in loyal silence protect all the secrets of my spirit and may bear and endure according to his ability any- thing wicked he sees in my soul. For the friend will rejoice with my soul rejoicing, grieve with it grieving, and feel that everything that belongs to a friend belongs to himself.3
Through the special revelation of Scripture, we see that God is a self-disclosing God, inviting humans into an intimate relationship.4 The means of becoming self-disclosing back is developed through spiritual friendship.
While there are other sources of self-knowledge, “friendship does seem to have features that make it a privileged source of self-knowledge and even, perhaps necessary for adequate self-knowledge,” wrote Neera Badhwar.5
For spiritual growth, the investment of oneself in spiritual friend- ship promotes not only the goal of unity in the body of Christ, but also maturity in the bond of human-divine love. For it is through self-knowledge that we learn to disclose our true selves to God and understand the important contrast of who He is to who we are.
As we get in touch with our true selves, especially our weakness, the reality and supremacy of Christ become more than head knowledge. We are desperate for Christ’s power to be perfected in us through the experience and disclosures of our human finiteness and weakness.6
Knowledge of self and disclosure of who we are, which grows in spiritual friendships, become important tools that God uses in spiritually forming us and conforming us to the image of His Son.
The second area that spiritual friendship promotes is that of choice.
Friendship, since it is not a legalized institution, requires only the formality of mutual choice.7 The ontology of spiritual friendship deems that it cannot be forced onto anybody—two interested and willing parties must pursue it.
The idea of mutual, ongoing volition is the only guarantee of deep friendship. The importance of choice in one’s relational dynamic with God is foundational to the sanctification process.
Relationships, if they are valid and authentic ones, are characterized by a sense of partnership and mutuality. So it is also in the Divine-human relationship. In terms of Christian Spirituality, mutuality means that the grace of God, received through faith in Jesus Christ, must be received and acted upon by the human will.8
While God’s love is freely given to all people (John 3:16), his friendship love is offered to those who attach themselves to Jesus and are called his disciples.9
The depth of friendship is predicated upon choice. The lesser interested party determines the level of intimacy experienced by both. God’s desire for friendship with His people is “at the mercy” of individual choice to respond back to Him. When looked at this way, we see that intimacy with God is limited when humans desire to remain hidden.
Mutual choice in friendship love provides a window to an important spiritual reality, the power of choosing to love and be loved. Each human has a choice to make in terms of how close they will let God into their lives. Friendship love models the reality of this dance.
The last area that spiritual friendship models is safety.
Safety allows for authenticity and a free exchange between the two parties. As John says, “Perfect love drives out fear.”10
The experience of spiritual friendship allows earthly realities to mirror heavenly realities that are desired by God and for which humans were originally made.
The work of the cross is highlighted in this friendship paradigm. God as the superior has condescended toward the inferior, making a way for love to flow between the two parties. What separated humankind from God, rebellion from God’s rule and unrighteousness, is now no longer a barrier. By being in Christ, an individual now has Christ’s righteousness imputed to his or her account.11
The gap of righteous inequality has been bridged by the initiating work of Christ on the cross and safety has been established. “There- fore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”12 The incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus give hope that God truly desires intimate friendship.
“Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”13 Safety provides a new motivation behind compliance. Fear of punishment is exchanged for the joy of intimate relationship. Obedience is given not out of begrudging duty, but out of love for the one who has set us free.
Spiritual friendship on the human level develops mental, emotional, and social paradigms for the dynamics that God enlists in service to greater ends in friendship with Himself, the true nature of progressive sanctification.
Spiritual growth is what spiritual leaders desire to promote. In order to understand and encourage spiritual growth, spiritual friendship is seen as a spiritual discipline that promotes and enhances one’s relationship with God. Deep, intimate spiritual friendships are an important investment of time and energy, for they can be working models through which God discloses Himself to His people. — by Christy Hill
Editor’s Note: Christy Hill, Ph.D., is professor of Spiritual Formation and Women’s Ministries at Grace Theological Seminary.
1 Mindy Caliguire, Spiritual Friendship (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 17.
2 Gilbert Meilaender, Friendship: A study in theological ethics (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), 4.
3 Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship, 59.
4 2 Peter 1:4.
5 N. Badhwar, Friendship: A philosophical reader (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), 8.
6 2 Corinthians 12:9
7 D. Morrison, “Friendships in religious life—A formational issue,” Pastoral Counseling 22, no 1 (1987): 77-86.
8 J. Tyson, Invitation to Christian Spirituality (NY: Oxford University Press, 1999), 2.
9 John 15:1-15.
10 1 John 4:18 (NIV).
11 2 Corinthians 5:21.
12 Romans 8:1 (NIV).
13 Hebrews 4:16 (NIV).