The author opens by telling the stories of three pairs of friends. A confident extrovert befriends an insecure introvert named Maddie and helps Maddie feel more well-rounded and confident. Maddie grieves when the extrovert moves away.
A college student, Leslie, clicks with her affirming new roommate and they do everything together.
A single woman feels called to a mentoring ministry position, and values the friendship that develops when a younger woman accepts her guidance. She finds that she considers this relationship more important than dating.
All three of these relationships, the author tells us, are modelled on an idolatrous secular ideal, encouraging people to seek meaning, purpose, and belonging in another person instead of God.
To further muddy matters, the author then gives a list of “warning signs” that bear no resemblance to her earlier examples. Many of these warning signs would fit right in on a secular list describing signs of codependency: excessive jealousy, possessiveness, isolation, speaking for another, permission-seeking, loss of self.
Also on the list are some items that made me scratch my head: sharing expenses, having sleepovers, verbal praise and affirmation, nicknames, physical affection, and frequent texting.
“If you answered yes to more than one or two of these questions,” the author counsels, “your friend likely is becoming, or has become, something to you only God should be.”
The author goes on to describe what she believes Christian friendship to be: “A Christian friend understands that, ultimately, she has nothing irreplaceable to offer you and that you have nothing irreplaceable to offer her. Instead, you can link arms together with the goal of pushing each other toward the wellspring of Christ. A friendship functioning as God intended is beautiful because it’s about making much of God, not one another.”
That’s where my personalist alarm bells started going off.
Here's the thing: I don't see anything particularly dangerous or unhealthy in the three examples of friendship given at the beginning of the article. It is right and good to grieve when a friend leaves us, because each person does have something irreplaceable to offer us. That is how God has created us—each person has a unique and incommunicable worth, an identity and a place in the world and in our lives unique to the person they are and the person we are.
It is perfectly normal for young people to form intense friendships when they are forming their sense of self in high school or college, and learning to recognise the deep good in a bosom friend (as Diana and Anne Shirley called it) is good practice for learning to recognise and value the good in the people who will become important to us later in life.
It is right and good to recognise that sometimes God answers our prayers and gives us purpose through our relationships, and that every relationship based on self-gift has dignity and worth, not merely the romantic ones. Persons are ends to themselves, not merely vehicles to get closer to God.
What I think is more disturbing, though, than this reduction of individual persons into interchangeable pieces is what the author unwittingly implies in her diagnosis of the errors in the truly dysfunctional traits contained in the list portion of the article. She suggests that the presence of these traits indicates that a friend has been put in God’s role in your life.
So let’s take another look at some of the (less specific to physically present friendship) items on that list and consider whether they describe the rightful place God should have. As a quick test, we’ll do this by replacing “your friend” with “God”:
Do you experience jealousy when [God] spends time with others? Do you feel a sense of possessiveness toward [God]? Do you prefer to spend time alone with [God], and are you easily frustrated when others join in? Have you lost interest in other friendships? Do you lack a desire to make new friends? …Do you feel free to “speak for” [God] with others? Do you avoid conflict with [God] for fear of losing intimacy in the relationship?
Is this God's rightful place in our hearts? That we're jealous when He does things for other people, that we speak on His behalf without checking in with Him, that we fall apart when He doesn't offer us constant consolations/affirmations?
That doesn’t exactly describe a healthy spirituality, does it? What those particular items describe, whether in relationship to God or to a friend or spouse or spiritual leader, is a kind of codependency that fails to recognise both the full worth and dignity of the self and of the other.
We’re not supposed to use other people as though their only value is in their good-for-us.