I don’t really believe in friendship.
Those were the words echoing in my mind as I wrote draft after draft responding to Wesley Hill’s new book Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian. Don’t get me wrong, Wesley’s written a beautiful, brilliant book. The church needs to read it. But parts of Wesley’s book felt too good to be true, more fairytale than reality. Maybe the best thing we can hope for in our busy lives is just friendly acquaintances—moments of connection to get us by. Maybe we should just take the advice of a song in The Phantom of the Opera: learn to be lonely.
I tell myself I’m good with the solitude. I’m not a great communicator; sometimes when I’m around people I feel clingy, awkward, unwanted. Whatever. I’ve lived most of my life emotionally alone. I generally accept complacency and apathy over risk and disappointment. Who cares anyway?
Apparently I did.
After college I developed a bad habit of flirting with guys to feel wanted and seen. I craved being the center of someone’s attention, even if I knew it wouldn’t last for more than a few days. Over the years I’ve tried to make social media and long distance “text-pals” replace the adventures and face-to-face conversations I was missing in real life, often because I avoided vulnerability with the people I knew locally. I’ve sent out too many texts and Facebook messages at existential low points and received far too many I’m sorry, buddy and Praying for you responses to last me a lifetime. They did little to assuage the hurt.
This is not enough.
I’ve had some great friends over the years (and still keep up with many of them), but as a gay celibate, there never seems to be anything permanent and immutable about friendship. Friends move on to new priorities and new rhythms of life; they marry and have kids, they move up social ladders, and they move away. Nothing stays the same. Can I really bear the losses again and again? Is life just a cycle of inevitable abandonment?
Perhaps it depends on the relationship.
Wesley discusses two kinds of relationships from Catholic writer Maggie Gallagher in Spiritual Friendship.1 “You’re mine because I love you” and, “I love you because you’re mine.” The first doesn’t include any serious attachments or commitments; convenience and feelings of endearment are all that bind the relationship together. Either person could walk away when the friendship is no longer easy, comfortable, or uncomplicated. But Wesley elaborates on the more hopeful alternative:
“In this latter type of friendship, my love for you isn’t the basis of our connection. It’s the other way around: we are bound to each other, and therefore I love you. You may still bore me or wound me or otherwise become unattractive to me, but that doesn’t mean I’ll walk away. You’re not mine because I love you; I love you because you’re—already, and always—mine. We’ve made promises to each other; we’ve committed to each other, in the sight of our families and our churches, and in the strength of those vows, I will, God willing, go on loving you.”2
Christians expect this level of commitment from husbands and wives, but Wesley offers a compelling question: what if friendships could contain some level of this fidelity and structure? What would that look like?
Maybe we’d see more nontraditional homes—families practicing communal living with other families or with singles like me. Maybe we would be more intentional about extending hospitality and creating regular routines to hang out. Maybe we wouldn’t be so quick to shrug our shoulders and put old friendships in the rearview mirror when people move away; maybe we would make more sacrifices to keep investing in the people who matter.
Yet it’s these same sentiments that feel so unrealistic and hollow. Of course it sounds great, but right now I find myself caught somewhere between neediness and reticence—never able to find a happy balance. It hurts too much to hope for more.
See, I can embrace a life of service to others, that’s not a problem. It’s not hard for me to show kindness to everyone while keeping them at arm’s length. But accepting another person’s love? That’s terrifying; the risks are so great. It’s easier to remain closed off to everyone around me. True, no one can hurt me, but to paraphrase C. S. Lewis, a life without love is just a living Hell. Christ came so we could experience abundant life—including the ability to experience intimacy and belong to a spiritual family. Unfortunately, the abundant life doesn’t liberate us from the crosses we must bear to walk with Jesus. In order to thrive, we’re going to suffer like Jesus did. No prosperity gospel can shield us from a broken world. Maybe loneliness is my thorn in the flesh I will bear to the end of my days. Perhaps God is teaching me to see his power made perfect in my weakness, in my emotional pain. Maybe an insecure guy like me can find strength to persevere another day, knowing it isn’t only me, but Christ working in me to will and do of his good pleasure. My Heavenly Father promises his grace is somehow sufficient. I freely confess I don’t know what that means, but I have to believe I’m going to be ok.
~ ~ ~
I flipped through Spiritual Friendship again and discovered Wesley had already anticipated a response like mine. He knew his words would come across hollow to those who had not tasted the richness of intimate companionship or those who had lost close friendships. But I think Wesley had people like me in mind too, people with beautiful friendships that occasionally dig deeper into the things that matter, yet people who still feel the sting of dissatisfaction. The sting feels especially potent when the best form of connection some of us can attain most days is through texting, email, or social media. But at friendship’s best, even marriage’s best, there’s no way to escape the pain of loneliness. No one will ever feel fully understood or like they completely belong. I love this quote from Wesley:
“Friendship … doesn’t solve the problem of loneliness so much as it shifts its coordinates. Just as marriage isn’t a magic bullet for the pain of loneliness, neither is friendship. It does, we hope, pull us out of ourselves, orienting our vision to our neighbors. But no, … it’s not enough. It’s never enough.”3
This is where the Gospel steps in to redeem our stories. Yes, the fall severed the perfect unity we experienced in Eden with each other and God, but Christ came to restore all things, and that includes our relationships. We still face conflict and misunderstandings, we get busy and neglect the people God has entrusted us to love and nurture, but God is still redeeming his people and still building his kingdom. One day the work will end, all will be made right, and all our suffering will cease—including our loneliness.
In the meantime we need faith—faith God will accomplish all he has promised and will provide for our emotional needs. Faith supplies the motivation to risk disappointment and heartbreak to develop and maintain intimate friendships in order to thrive as social beings. It takes a lot of faith not to become cynical when attempt after attempt has only resulted in rejection. And it takes faith to keep digging with patience when those attempts have only led to superficial acquaintances—while trying not to stifle the potential friendship.
Friendship requires a delicate balance. As the Christian boy band Plus One sang, “If you need love / Take the time and be love / Breathe it out create love / See how things can turn.” Sometimes we need to be more intentional about loving others and proactively pursuing their friendships. But sometimes we have to realize we’ve done all we can do; love can’t be one-sided. We have to step away and give people space believing some will return. And believe me, I know how scary that is when you’re convinced people will forget your existence if you don’t consistently remind them. God help my unbelief, I guess.
I don’t pretend to have this all figured out, nor do I present myself as some poster child for celibate gay Christians. Celibacy sucks, but I think there’s beauty in the pain, any form of pain, when our suffering drives us to each other and to our Savior. There’s something so powerful when we can say, “Hey, me too.” Rachel Held Evans says church should look more like an A. A. meeting than a country club, and I think we’d be far healthier and more joyful if we’d all take more risks and show more vulnerability rather than trying to impress others and pretending like we have our you-know-what together. I feel a sense of connection when Rachel Held Evans talks about her doubts on her blog, when my friend Addie Zierman writes about the darkness of her depression, or when several of my local friends share their struggle to hold onto God’s goodness in their infertility. The loneliness doesn’t hurt so badly when we hurt together.
Most days friendship feels like a fairytale. But you know what? I still choose to embrace Wesley’s vision of friendship in faith. I still believe it’s a model the church needs to rediscover for the benefit of the entire Body. Jesus said not to be anxious about the future, and for me that means not worrying if I’ll end up old and alone because I chose celibacy to reconcile my faith and sexuality. God will provide. Life will never be perfect, but God will never stop offering little reminders to smile and remember how much he loves me. Those reminders often come from the people in my life. Yes, I am scared of disappointment and rejection, but I will continue pursuing friendships until my last day because I intend to thrive.
- Wesley Hill, Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2015, 41-42.
- Ibid, 98.