God has given me incredible friends. Even so, I don’t think happiness is the primary function of friendship, or of any relationship, for that matter.
I recently enjoyed the first of many reunions with my closest college friends, nearly two years after transferring our tassels to the left.
It was rejuvenating to have quality time together, to get down into the heart places that aren’t always be addressed over the phone.
Friendships should be fun, but also intentional. Especially in a season of stepping out into careers and callings, where time off work and opportunities to connect are rare, time together is precious. It should be used to refuel and reinvigorate, to leave each other more equipped and encouraged to show up in the unique spheres God has positioned us in.
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Over lunch one day during our reunion, we decided to spend time on each person, where everyone else would go around and call out the growth they’d observed.
There’s power in telling people who they’re becoming. It reinforces the transformation taking place, allowing them to step more fully and boldly into their new identity.
As we reflected on the restoration and renewal God had brought to each person, I was overcome with the beauty of it all. Not only was the transformation itself beautiful; I was thankful because I knew that for each person, God had given me the privilege of playing part in the transformational process. Even more, I understood how instrumental each of them had been in my own.
The thing is, cultural rhetoric would love to have us believe that the primary purpose of relationships is one’s own personal happiness. Implicit in this sentiment is the idea that the best relationships, whether friendships, dating relationships, or even marriage, are easy, free from conflict.
But my experience suggests that the richest relationships aren’t the ones that have never seen conflict, or produced times of tension, hurt, or frustration. They’re the ones that have.
As my friends and I affirmed each other’s growth, it was easy to see how, in many cases, the friendships themselves had been a catalyst of that growth.
You see, while culture would tell us the purpose of relationships is happiness, I’ve come to see that as secondary, embracing another purpose as primary: holiness.
When Jesus died and rose again, it wasn’t just to secure our tickets into heaven. It was to restore us to a relationship with God now, and to refine us continually into His likeness. This includes the healing of hurts, freeing from fears, and stripping of sinful tendencies.
His primary vehicle for this work of sanctification?
Within a close relationship, all aspects of who you are will become visible for another person to see. There’s no hiding.
I remember when, back in college, one of these friends sat me down and nervously told me I’d been defensive, and that it’d hurt her. Internally, I panicked. I didn’t want her to see me that way, and I felt that if I took ownership of this negative behavior, I would somehow be less worthy of her friendship.
Her speaking the truth was a risk because I could’ve responded in the same manner of defensiveness that’d hurt her before.
Instead, her courage brought about colossal change in my life. It forced me to confront the fact that I was more sinful and flawed than I’d wanted to believe, which terrified me.
But my fear exposed an underlying, false presupposition: that my worthiness of love and acceptance was predicated on my perfection.
The moment my imperfection was exposed was the moment I recognized how loved and accepted I was in that imperfection. In fact, her courage to speak truth was itself, an indication of her commitment to me.
God uses relational closeness to unveil the layers we adorn for the world, to surface our hurts, fears, and sinful tendencies. The exposure of these rugged edges can sometimes poke and prod at each other, and our natural reaction is to defend, withdraw, or even retaliate.
If my friend had believed the primary purpose of friendship to be happiness, she could’ve walked away the second I hurt her. But in recognizing God’s design for relationships to bring about our holiness, the exposure of my flaws suddenly had another purpose:
As hurt, fear, and sinfulness are met with love, grace, and truth in the context of committed relationship, healing, freedom, and cleansing begin to occur.
Growth is the moment of hurt when forgiveness is chosen. It’s the moment when silence would be safer but instead, courage is chosen, and truth is spoken in love. It’s the moment an annoying tendency tempts a reaction, but instead, understanding is sought, and an opportunity is gained, to learn why another person is the way they are. It’s the moment of endurance during difficult seasons when resolution seems far off, and the shared enjoyment of fruitful seasons.
Growth is beautiful because it reflects the Gospel: a collision of radical love and commitment with broken and sinful humanity.
Pursuing holiness over happiness gives grace to our relationships. It also provides safety, a freedom from the fear that if too much of our messiness is seen, the other will leave.
“Perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18).”
None of this is to say there aren’t appropriate times to step away from relationships because there certainly are. It’s to simply suggest a reframing of the way we view conflict in relationships where commitment and love are present. Instead of seeing it as an indication that something’s wrong, perhaps we should view it as evidence that something’s right, that the restorative and refining essence of God’s Gospel love is being demonstrated in the very relationships He created to serve as manifestations of that love.
The irony is, when we hold happiness as the standard for relationships, we’re left wanting. But when we view holiness as the ultimate goal, we gain as a byproduct more than happiness; we gain a deep joy that abides independent of circumstance.