I will never forget the gift I got on July 13, 1982, the day I first walked through the gates of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. When I shuffled down stairs that morning I was greeted by a large “Monmouth County #6” road sign resting on our couch. My friends – many I had known since kindergarten – had dropped off a parting gift during the night. During our senior year we talked about each of us finding the county road sign that matched our football number and “borrowing” it. We never got around to it, but because I was the first one leaving for college they did it for me as a surprise.
Good friendships like the ones I had growing up are such a rich part of life. Friends often sustain us through difficult times as much as they help us appreciate joyous times. However, good friendship is so nourishing we often want to control it in a way that actually diminishes its value.
In my work with teens, I frequently hear of their strong desire to have a “best” friend. Teenagers can convince themselves that they are doing something wrong if they don’t have that special friend, when in fact a best friend can become an idol that obscures God’s desire to nurture our faith through a variety of people.
Because we are worshippers by nature, we will worship anything, including friendship. We were made to revolve ourselves around someone bigger (and better) than ourselves. Because the Lord will not be controlled or managed, worshipping him involves adoration and surrender. That is good worship. However, because God is unmanageable, we often find something seemingly more manageable that we can build our life around. We develop unhealthy relationships with a substance (e.g. alcohol, food), an activity (e.g. working out, shopping), or a best friend. Instead of giving us life these ‘best friends’ can end up sucking life out of us.
When our worship revolves around something good, like a friend, and not clearly damaging, such as alcohol, it can be hard to discern where the good stops and harm begins. I find this radically true with friendships.
Through the decades since that sign showed up in my living room I have been blessed with many good friends. I can’t say I always handle them well or that I am a consistently good friend, but as I have aged and grown in my worship of the Lord, my friendships fall in a more gracious place. The good has increased and the strain has decreased. I enjoy friends more. There is more freedom in my friendships, and they are more redemptive.
However, as a younger man, I approached friendships as an idol, trying to take what I needed. In the search for a best friend, teens try to boil God’s kindness down to one person. This is what we need to help teens discern: the more they think their pain will be solved by a perfect friend, the less they will experience the Lord through the friendships they have.
A healthier (and more normative) approach to friendship recognizes that a couple of friends that come in and out of your life over time. Other friendships exist just for a season. Ideally we all have several human (i.e. limited) friends who each provide different aspects of good friendship, but there just isn’t that one friend we expect to meet all our needs.
Teens need to know that some friendships will end naturally after a season; as parents we can share our own experiences with friendships. For instance, there are times I will see a post from a high school or college friend on Facebook that I don’t get to see face to face because they live so far away. In passing, I miss the unique way that friend helped me taste an aspect of the Lord I can’t taste without them. Our distance reminds me I am not yet home, where I will experience all of who God is, including the part my friend helped me encounter. Thus, I feel a groaning when I think of them.
Teens do not yet realize this feeling is normal and evolves from the shifting rhythms of life that bring friendships to an end. Because they often don’t do sadness well, they confuse that sadness with guilt, wondering what went wrong to end the friendship when it was only meant to be there for a season. We can help kids see their groaning simply tells the truth that they are experiencing pain as an alien in a foreign world longing for their true home where God’s full glory reigns and nothing ends.
In focusing on having a best friend, teens also miss the healthy dynamic of having several friends. When I am with several friends I find the difference in one friend highlights an aspect of another friend that I don’t see by myself. I have friends who may help me hope in a way that other friends help me grieve. I have friends that are not so serious (different than me) and they help me enjoy life and laugh differently than friends who are more like me. Help your teen value their friends’ unique gifts. Even though being together in a group can be challenging, it is worth wading through the mystery of ‘otherness’ to experience the life that comes in diversity.
Friendships are such a central part of our Christian life. As the Psalmist noted, “How wonderful and pleasant it is when brothers live together in harmony!” (133:1). It is easy for teens (and adults) to think we should befriend according to some prescribed pattern. When we are open to what the Lord wants to do, trusting Him through seasons and circumstances we can’t control, the joy and harmony we find with our friends increases. If we help teens dismantle the idol of a “best” friend they can be present to and enjoy the friends the Lord brings into their life.