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Much spiritual growth happens while we are alone: prayer, meditation, or perhaps nature walks appreciating God’s beauty.
In those times, free of distractions, we accept God’s love and presence deep in our souls.
We examine our hearts and perhaps discern a new direction in life.
Solitude, quiet, and deep reflection can be rich opportunities to deepen our spiritual lives.
Spiritual growth also takes place in community.
We attend a church service with a congregation around us, and we might be inspired by a sermon and by the voices of praise and song in the room.
During a difficult time in our lives, we might feel lifted up and encouraged by joyful and hopeful singing alongside others.
We might attend a spiritual retreat where we interact with other people of faith and learn from one another.
Being amidst a gathering of others expressing their faith and prayers can energize us and strengthen our spiritual resolve.
Sometimes, however, we don’t want to be alone, and we don’t want to be in a group.
We desire companionship that engages our spiritual longings, and we want that companionship to be more intimate than a large gathering provides.
We want to share our thoughts and feelings with someone outside ourselves.
In those cases, we need friends with whom we can speak honestly and know we will be accepted and loved.
If we express our doubts, we will be accepted.
If we share a celebration, if we share our anger or happiness, if we share our confusion, our pleasure and displeasure—all of those.
Friends who love and accept us in that unconditional manner and who appreciate the value of a spiritual life are valuable in our efforts to grow in our relationship with God.
Early in my time in seminary, I experienced deep doubts about the Christian faith because of a bad experience my father had with a church where he was pastor.
Prior to that crisis, I had an idealistic, unrealistic view of what it meant to be a pastor, and that image was blown apart.
I was angry and confused.
Eventually, I would realize that church people are as human as everyone else and, in addition to being loving, can be hurtful—just like anyone can be.
But at the time I was naïve about that, and this friend helped me by listening compassionately and asking thoughtful questions about the experience and my reaction to it.
That conversation calmed my troubled soul and helped me release some bitterness.
A key part of that relationship is that we shared a Christian faith and intended to continue that faith, but we were also open and honest about the disappointing and hurtful things that can happen even in a community of faith.
He and I shared a number of things as friends: playing basketball, reading similar writers, laughing at jokes, and eating good meals.
(There are, of course, many good friendships that don’t include a shared religious basis, and I value those friendships dearly, but in this case, our shared spirituality enriched the relationship.)
In this kind of friendship, a conversation may never mention God or faith or church or religion, but the connection between the persons is deeply spiritual nonetheless because the relationship is based not merely on getting along well and enjoying similar interests but has the added element of being bound together and rooted in the love of God.
It is grounded in God’s unconditional grace.
Friendships in which we share a religious basis reflect the transformative grace we receive from God.
That relationship with God is mirrored in the relationship between friends.
Liz Carmichael, in Friendship: Interpreting Christian Love, described well the spiritual resources found in Christian faith that undergird healthy and meaningful friendships:
Christians have the essential counter-cultural calling to be friends on earth, to offer love which may be in the truest sense sacrificial, to build community, to be peacemakers and healers, to seek and promote compassion and justice, to walk with the oppressed and help their voice to be heard, to celebrate with all. It is God who gives the courage and determination to open up paths of reconciliation. In each circumstance we can begin simply from where we are, with the poverty of what we are and the little that we understand, learning to walk forward in faith, allowing Christ’s love and peace to remove our fear and point the way forward. Should it not be a priority in the formation and training of all Christians, ministers and laity alike, to nurture this vision and the practical abilities to know how to reflect on it and to act in the love of friendship?”
That “calling” to which Carmichael refers is one way among many that Christians engage the world transformatively—by modeling healthy, and healing, friendships.
Deep friendships sometimes develop quickly but usually percolate and steep over time as people get to know each other and appreciate each other’s gifts.
When those friendships do develop, they can become a valuable source of spiritual growth—as well as fun and companionship.
Time spent with such friends—over a meal, watching a ball game, shopping, playing tennis—can help us grow in our faith and in our intention to be followers of Jesus.
Spiritual Director and Writer