More than one-fifth of Australians rarely or never feel they have someone to talk to or turn to for help, and more than one quarter feel lonely for at least three days every week according to research conducted by Swinburne University and the Australian Psychological Society just last year.
All sorts of publications have labelled this development of loneliness, an ‘epidemic’: the ABC news website; the Victorian health service; Marie Claire online; even Better Homes and Gardens. And there is an Australian Coalition to end loneliness, with a website full of scientific experts able to tell you the cost of loneliness and the tools to make a difference. If you feel lonely, then I have good news for you: God has provided exactly what we need to respond to this problem.
Our society has embraced a collective lean towards individualism. Not every society around the world does this – other cultures will put emphasis on the whole group as being more important that the individual. But we, in the West, have leant into the idea that the individual is more important.
One of the consequences of prioritising the individual is that we feel less connected. And so we act less connected: we have less community groups and less involvement in the ones that do exist. But the church of Jesus is a community of people who push against the trend – we say that the whole group is more important than any one individual member. In Scripture the metaphor of the human body is a powerful image for the people of God. Just as your body needs all the parts (parts that would struggle to survive on their own), so the body of Jesus needs all the parts. And the parts work best when they work together.
In our church community there is a quiet power-house of ‘holy friendship’. It is a quiet force, because churches often talk in terms of family relationships; the language can often be about parents; or about supporting marriage between a man and a woman. In all that noise we can fail to acknowledge the friendship factor. This makes holy friendship a quiet force – but it probably operates better as a quiet force. Somehow, launching a program to make everybody find a friend doesn’t gel right with how friendship works. It’s good that it’s quiet. Never make the mistake of thinking that the quietness around friendship means that it is unimportant to God or unimportant in the church.
For all its quietness, Holy friendship is a power-house – it gets people connected at church; it gives us people to confide in; people to talk to. It gives many of us a reason to come to church. Like the loving friendship between King David, before he was king, and Jonathan, King Saul’s son, there is a quiet power in the holy friendship. And these human friendships point to something much, much greater.
Psalm 25 has a beautiful verse in it. Verse 14, as expressed by the English Standard Version, says: The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant. Other translations say, ‘the secret of the Lord is for those who fear him’ or ‘The Lord confides in those who fear him’. What all the translations are capturing is the closeness of an inner circle of a group of friends.
There are those times in life when you sit around with those you are closest to – people with whom you can pretty much share anything, people you would welcome advice from. This is what Jesus does for us, when he dies in our place – he welcomes us into his inner circle. He invites you into the private conversation, the one where he talks about his plans; what is on his heart.
You can have divine friendship. You can know the heart of God and be included in that inner circle. This is what Jesus is talking about in John 15, when he moves his disciple from the status of ‘servant’ to the status of ‘friend’. He welcomes all who come by faith into the quiet power-house of friendship. Although you may not parade the fact, there is a closeness in your relationship with God that can best be named as friendship. If the epidemic is loneliness, then the antidote is coming to the God of friendship, who makes us to thrive in human friendships and rest in divine friendship.
By Reverend Jonathan Holt