How to Maintain (Imperfect) Friendships
- Jennifer Slattery JenniferSlatteryLivesOutLoud.com
- 2014 7 Jul
I felt like I wanted to hurl. Or scream. Or find the nearest closet to hide in for the rest of the night. I certainly didn’t want to be there, with her, the woman who invited me as a friend but soon turned catty. Worse than catty; more like mean. Her words, whether spoken casually or in frustration, cut deep. Deep enough that it left me wincing well into the awkward silence that followed them.
Though I smiled and tried to mask my emotions, my queasy stomach refused to settle. I felt judged. Attacked, and unjustly so. This triggered a “fight or flight” response: flight—to retreat within myself, raising walls of self-protection, or fight—to react in anger.
Luckily, my friend and I were close enough that my desire to remain friends overrode my initial reaction.
But that didn’t mean those words didn’t hurt. The more I thought about our altercation, the more upset I became. Until one morning, the Holy Spirit got my attention.
In essence, God asked me, “Will you allow your friend to be imperfect. To say and do unkind things on occasion? To have times of callousness and selfishness, as you have?”
Ouch! It was the last part that got me, because I’d been longing for a close, transparent, authentic relationship. One where I didn’t have to pretend, where, if I acted like a jerk—which I can do on occasion—the relationship would be strong enough to withstand my failings.
Isn’t that what we all want? For people to accept us, remain close, despite our quirks, character flaws, and poor behaviors? Someone who chooses to see the best in us, even when we act our worst?
Because we will.
Grace. Why is it so much easier to receive than it is to give? And yet, we experience such freedom relationally when we allow our friends to behave like the imperfect people they are.
Close, authentic relationships take work, and most often, that work must begin with us. The first step is understanding our own failures.
According to Tracy Wainwright, director of the Abundant Life Conference for Women, this realization makes us more able to both give and receive grace. “It also helps us realize friendships aren’t just to serve our purposes and desires, but give us opportunities to pour love into other’s lives.”
Because according to the Bible, it’s not about us. It’s all—every game night, potluck, and girls’ night out—about knowing Christ and making him known. We do this, in a large part, by loving one another, for as Jesus said in John 13:35, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples" (NLT).
As followers of Christ, our love for one another should look different than that which we often see in the world around us. It should be intriguing and contagious. Alluring. It should be patient, kind, humble, and self-sacrificing.
Even if our love isn’t reciprocated.
Philippians 2:3 tells us, “Do nothing out of rivalry or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves” (HCSB).
Imagine how our friendships would change if we consistently lived out that verse. So many problems arise when we get this flipped—focusing on our needs and desires to the exclusion of everyone else’s.
Consider the example I provided earlier. My first reaction was entirely me-centered. I thought about how painful my friend’s statement had been, wondered why she made it, and contemplated the injustice of it all!
Not until God did some major heart-cleansing did I pause to consider what might have been going on within her or what she might have needed from me. (It’s hard to think of the “offender” when we’re busy being offended.)
Was she stressed?
Had I done something to hurt her? Did she harbor unresolved feelings?
Was I making too much of her reaction?
With prayer, I began to understand that my friend’s behavior had very little to do with me. More importantly, I discovered, if I wanted our friendship to thrive, I’d need to let the matter go and allow Christ’s love, not the offense, dominate our relationship.
According to 1 Corinthians 13:4, love always protects—protects the recipient and the relationship. To do this, one must assume the best, not the worst, in others.
For example, if we haven’t heard from someone in a while, we could assume they’re busy rather than callous. If they never sent a thank you for a gift, we could assume they’ve merely forgotten, rather than being ungrateful. Through practice, prayer, and determination, we can suppress our tendency to jump to negative conclusions and strengthen the tendency to assume the positive.
Although truthfully, it’s quite dangerous to assign motives. More often than not, we’re merely assigning our typical motives to our friend rather than accurately assessing the situation. And even if their motives are faulty, even if they’re behaving like the fallible creatures they are, we can choose to offer them grace.
In other words, as Colossians 3:13 says, we should strive to “make allowance for each other's faults” (NLT).
Many things just aren’t worth getting upset over, and yet it’s often those little things that lead to broken relationships. When a minor offense arises, before getting upset, we should take a step back, pray, and ask God to realign our thoughts in accordance with his grace.
Occasionally, however, we’ll encounter issues that can’t be ignored or overlooked. These are deeper or recurring problems that, if not resolved, threaten our friendship. When this happens, we’ll need to do everything we can to address the problem in a biblical way.
In Matthew 18:15-19, Jesus tells us exactly how to do this:
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (NIV).
Expanding on this verse, Matthew Henry’s Commentary says: “If a professed Christian is wronged by another, he ought not to complain of it to others, as is often done merely upon report, but to go to the offender privately, state the matter kindly, and show him his conduct. This would generally have all the desired effect with a true Christian, and the parties would be reconciled. The principles of these rules may be practiced everywhere, and under all circumstances, though they are too much neglected by all.”
Oh, how many issues would be resolved if we’d practice these wise skills. How many friendships could be saved?
Now, before anyone zeroes in on the latter portion of this passage: (“…if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector”) let’s discuss this further. I doubt Jesus is encouraging us to act ugly, because he told us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, right? Rather, I believe this statement indicates a change in intimacy level. Though we can and should love pagans, we won’t connect with them as deeply as we do with believers. Similarly, when we aren’t able to reconcile with our friend, we’re still to show love and grace, though we may not be able to maintain the previous intimacy level we once shared.
Most times, however, conflicts can be resolved, and when handled in a Christ-like manner, the friendship will actually be strengthened.
Here’s why. Conflicts often follow a typical pattern:
Whether from stress, fatigue, or downright sinfulness, Janice does or says something hurtful.
Karen either becomes distant or reacts. Janice feels guilty and ashamed of her actions and pulls away. Neither of them communicates with one another or attempt to resolve the issue. Their friendship is shattered, and both friends take that brokenness into their next relationship. Their actions and reactions become influenced by an increased desire not to hurt or be hurt. This leads to shallow, conditional friendships characterized by doubts and insecurities.
When friends resolve difficulties, however, their relationship actually becomes more stable and secure. Resolution takes the fear of rejection and abandonment off the table and therefore allows the two to be more relaxed and real with one another. They also become more adept at resolving issues in the future.
No friendship will ever be perfect, nor will you ever be a perfect friend. But that doesn’t mean friendships can’t be awesome and close. When we acknowledge that we and our friends are imperfect, it becomes easier to offer grace for the small things and lovingly resolve the big things in a Christ-like manner. This in turn enables our beautiful, imperfect friendships to grow ever stronger.
Jennifer Slattery lives in the midwest with her husband and their teenage daughter. She writes for Christ to the World Ministries, Internet Cafe Devotions, and maintains a devotional blog at JenniferSlatteryLivesOutLoud. Her work has appeared in numerous publications and compilation projects, and currently writes missional romance novels for New Hope Publishers.
Publication date: July 17, 2014