I’ve been thinking about the way that Christians, particularly singles in their late teens, 20s, 30s, think about opposite sex friendships and been wanting to write a blog post on the topic for some time. The other night a male friend of mine (let’s call him Andrew) was telling me he was going to go hang out with a female friend of mine. The guy is happily single, not looking for a girlfriend or wife at this point, and not interested at least not at this point in dating the woman in question. The gal (let’s call her Samantha) is someone who has very openly talked about her desires to be married at this stage in life and her disappointment that she is still single.
Andrew and Samantha understand that Andrew’s visit with her is only for the purpose of friendship; that Andrew is not interested in Samantha as a romantic partner. (In fact, they became friends when Samantha was “safely” dating someone else, but that relationship didn’t work out.) But Andrew mentioned to me, “I do have to be really careful here, there is a real danger that she could develop feelings because she is looking for someone.”
Therein lies an issue. Somewhere along the line, singles in the church have developed this idea that it is their responsibility to worry about whether or not their friends might develop feelings for them. Often a guy won’t hang out with a girl if she wants to date him and he doesn’t, or worse yet, he won’t hang out with her (or her with him) if he’s not hoping she’d be interested in dating. And what I have seen goes like this:
A guy thinks it is dangerous for a girl to like him if he isn’t feeling the same way. So when he walks into a room full of new people, and a girl he doesn’t instantly feel physically attracted to comes up to talk to him, he’ll have a few standoffish small talk words in her direction and then quickly move on to talk to the gals he finds attractive, making long and sustained connection with them.
WHAT ABOUT OUR RESPONSIBILITY TO WALK AS SISTERS AND BROTHERS?
On one hand, there is nothing wrong with investing energy towards finding a spouse, and that would include spending time talking to people of the opposite sex one finds intriguing. But the problem with this as a general way of being is that the body of Christ is more than this — whether one finds someone attractive or not the fact is that we are all sisters and brothers in Christ.
This doesn’t get enough airtime from pulpits, and Christians don’t tend to approach other Christians on that level — they don’t tend to think about the spiritual relationship they already share with someone as being the most important aspect of any interaction they have, and then things like “mate possibility” as secondarily important. But this is to the detriment of the body of Christ.
In “the world” — outside of the church — people who are in groups form “in-crowds” and “out-crowds.” Many times this has a lot to do with social desirability, and mating desirability. People cluster around charismatic, attractive, powerful, or affluent people. Being in the “in-crowd” increases one’s odds of getting a highly attractive date. And so on. When Christian guys (or girls) only invest time, attention, and energy into friendships with girls (or guys) that are romantically or socially desirable, this cluster or “clique” dynamic appears in the church. But the church isn’t supposed to reflect the value system of what flesh and blood tends to value.
The church is supposed to reflect a higher value system — that is, the worth of every individual to God, and the familial relationship that we all share in Christ of being true sisters and brothers to one another.
This familial relationship transcends even blood relationships — which is a fact that often doesn’t get taught or preached except in whacked-out cult groups that want to dissolve family bonds and reestablish the only important bonds as that of the cult group. But while the cult groups are wrong in devaluing the importance of flesh-and-blood family as an important realm of relationship for folks, they are not wrong in recognizing that the Bible doesn’t speak of believers being “sisters and brothers” as some sort of unrealistic platitude, or just some feel-good short-hand for “members of the same Sunday morning club.”
WHAT DO WE REALLY WANT TO EXPERIENCE?
Our sister and brotherhood in Christ is true, and it is every bit as “real” as the blood connection we share with our families of origin. In this case, Jesus’s flesh being ripped apart and his blood actually flowing down to touch the Earth is the “real” blood connection that binds the family of God together. We are all made of dust of the Earth, and as His blood dripped down to the dust we are all made of, it bound everyone who would believe in Christ into one bloodline — Christ’s bloodline. Of course, not having his actual blood cells in our veins, it had to be made more apparent so thus we are also “adopted” into God’s family.
But these aren’t just pleasant platitudes, for eternity we will be the Lord’s family and brother/sister to one another. Other generations and those in persecuted nations had a deeper grip on this, as so many of our brothers and sisters throughout history have mixed their blood together as they died for the Lord together in bloody shows of martyrdom. And in those moments, no one cared whether they had the same sense of cool clothing style, or whether they liked the same authors, or whether they found each other’s hairstyle or body shape attractive. We are one in Him in a way that goes radically beyond all that, and this becomes apparent when the same mice in a prison are nibbling on your toes together, or when our blood runs down into the dust as one together at the executioner’s sword.
In some sense, this is what we all want — not to be persecuted, but to experience this communion with one another. At least those who truly have believed in Christ, somewhere in our souls beats this desire to see the body of Christ look like more than a nice, safe, “oh I know that person, I see them at church on Sunday” sort of relationship with one another. Whose hearts are not moved by reading Acts about the believers selling their homes to be with one another, having all things in common, eating and praying together from house to house? We want to share in the communion of saints in late night conversations, bearing our hearts, feeling the presence of God together and being rocked in the fear of the awe of the Lord; we want to make huge sacrifices for each other, to feel a little counter-cultural and radical and knowing that in a very real way we have each others’ backs and we would die for one another.
This doesn’t happen if our friendships are based merely on who we think we might want to have sex with one day and whose DNA seems pleasing to make children with. If none of these lofty ideas cause one to consider being friends, real friends, with those they aren’t wanting to date, then consider this: often the person you aren’t attracted to might have friends that you would be attracted to. Sometimes in our human weaknesses lofty ideas don’t cut it but practical down to earth ones make more sense.
Where am I going with all this? No, it’s not good to lead someone on, to take up all their time and keep them off the dating scene because you, their opposite sex friend, want to hang out everyday and yet you’re not interested in dating them, but they have no idea. Yes, that’s unkind and irresponsible friendship.
But while irresponsible friendship across gender lines does certainly exist, we need to get around this thing that says we wouldn’t want to be friends with someone we’re not attracted to because, gosh, they might develop FEELINGS for us and then we’re in the middle of a relationship we don’t want to be in. I’ll ask the same question I asked above: Where did singles get the idea that it’s a terrible thing if your opposite friend falls for you and you’re not into them? Where did we get the idea that we need to hold each other at a distance, and run away at the first sign that someone we’re not attracted to is attracted to us?
MATURITY in FRIENDSHIP
I want to call us up to a more mature view of friendship if I may. A few years back I had this guy friend (we’ll call him Randall) who I developed a serious crush on. Randall and I were fairly deep, heart to heart friends. We had a sense of commitment to one another, that we were there for each other to walk each other through some pretty intense stuff we were both dealing with.
Eventually I told him I was seriously becoming attracted to him, and I think Randall’s attitude towards me was a gift of divine proportions. He said, “Heather, I just don’t feel the same way towards you — though I certainly appreciate this, this, and this about you. (Awesome when guys build their sisters up in the Lord.) So I don’t know what you’re going to do about how you’re feeling towards me but I’m going to leave that between you and the Lord to sort out. In the meantime, I am still 100% committed to being your brother and your friend.”
Randall gave me a gift of steadfast friendship commitment by realizing that my feelings weren’t his responsibility and they weren’t his to deal with….so while he wasn’t unmerciful like, “Don’t even talk to me about this…” he didn’t run away screaming either. And I in turn took a bit of time away from him to get my heart somewhat clear (you don’t have to have “no feelings” to be clear enough to still be friends), and able to be around him again in a way that we could still reflect Christ to one another.
For a long time I have wished I could tell all the singles I watch running away from each other: Guys, you don’t need to worry if someone you find unattractive finds you attractive. You don’t need to hold them at arms length as long as you don’t deceive that person about how you are feeling and don’t take advantage of their feelings. And gals, the same thing goes on our end – we don’t need to run away from a guy who “likes us” if we’ve been able to be honest and tell him we don’t feel the same way, and IF he is willing to respect our boundaries and not refuse to take our, “No, I just don’t see a dating relationship in our future” seriously. The only guy I ever had to cut out of my life on this level was one who doggedly refused to take “no” for an answer, insisting God had “told him” I was his wife and that I was in rebellion to God for not listening. I told him that no means no, and if he couldn’t respect that we couldn’t have a friendship. But most of the guys that I have ever had a thing for, or who have ever had a thing towards me, still have an open door of friendship in my life to one degree or another.
But of course folks who have been “friend zoned” sometimes find themselves mutually falling for one another despite the fact that one or both of them originally felt that only friendship was in their future. It’s OK to revisit a friendship conversation respectfully, in something that might sound like this: “Josh, I am not wanting to make you uncomfortable as I really value our friendship, I know we talked about this a year ago but I wanted to know if you still feel we are better off not pursuing a romantic relationship — but if you ever did want to date each other, I’m still open to that. But if not, I’m still going to be your friend and sister and I can’t wait to bless you and whoever you marry if it’s not me.” And it’s also important to not keep hanging on to a friendship if you’re only secretly stalking someone waiting for them to change their mind, especially if you are getting in the way of them dating other people. A really good test of whether or not a friendship is honest is whether or not you can introduce your friend to someone else they might want to date. If you can do so, you might end up lifelong friends with someone you really value, married to someone else you really value — a win-win recipe for lifelong friendship that will have deep rewards for both you and the Kingdom.
This is maturity. And it brings maturity to the body of Christ when singles — and married people who are friends with singles (another topic for another day) can still experience the richness of brother/sister communion in Christ.
(As a footnote I especially want to recognize Dan Brennan’s writings about how in the ancient middle east, a brother was often the most significant and close relationship of a woman’s life, a concept we don’t generally consider when reading Paul instructing Timothy to treat young women as his sisters. Sisters and brothers were not mere distant acquaintances. Instead our relationships with the opposite sex in the church tend to be more like the way we relate to the cashier at the grocery store — pleasant, casual, and without any shred of intimacy. The difference is extreme and fear-based. But that’s for another blog post.)