Baker Book House
People are longing to rediscover true community. We have had enough of loneliness, independence and competition. -- Jean Vanier
Anna had never felt so alone. Her husband, Herman, needed minor surgery to repair a hernia, but the fact that he also suffered from Alzheimer’s made it anything but minor. The doctor had just visited Herman’s room and informed her that after surgery they would have to put her husband in arm and leg restraints. They were concerned he would wake up disoriented and pull out his IV or harm himself in some other way. They didn’t have enough staff to keep someone at his bedside throughout recovery.
Anna tried to envision the restraints that would hold her husband immobile. She knew the insurance wouldn’t pay for a private nurse, and given his condition he might not even remember it, but the image tormented her nonetheless. What could she do?
A few moments later Anna turned when she heard a knock at the door of her husband’s hospital room. Mike and Carol were thirty years younger, but in the last few years they had become good friends through their involvement in the same home fellowship group. Carol noticed the stress in Anna’s eyes and was finally able to draw out the cause for her concern. “I know it’s probably stupid, but I just don’t want him to go through that.”
Mike and Carol had no idea what could be done either, but they were on their way to meet with the group and promised Anna they would share her concern and pray about it.
Almost an hour later the phone rang, and Anna grabbed for it before it could awaken her husband.
“Oh good, you’re still there.” It was Carol.
“After we prayed for you tonight, someone asked why they couldn’t just have the nurses keep an eye on Herman. When I explained that the hospital didn’t have the staff to do that, she asked if we could do it. Everyone thought that was a great idea, and people started volunteering to take time slots. Anna, would Herman have to be restrained if we had someone in the room with him every moment during recovery?”
“I can’t ask you people to do that,” Anna said, overwhelmed by the offer.
“You haven’t asked—we’re offering. Can you find out?”
Anna put down the phone and walked out to the nurses’ station. When she returned she told Carol that as long as someone who was awake and alert was with Herman, he wouldn’t need to be restrained. Before she could add, “But I don’t want you to go to all that trouble,” she heard Carol relay the information to the group. The cheers in the background were all she needed to hear.
That night more than a dozen people volunteered for around-the-clock shifts at Herman’s bedside while he recovered. When family members heard what Herman and Anna’s friends were doing, they volunteered for shifts as well. For the next three days someone was at Herman’s side the entire time. As a side benefit Anna had constant companionship through her long hours at the hospital.
A few weeks later Anna tried to thank the group for their incredible demonstration of kindness. Every time she began to speak she was freshly overcome with gratitude. Though everyone in the room appreciated how deeply it had touched her, no one felt like it had been a great sacrifice. They simply had wanted to help a friend through a tough spot.
That group had discovered the simple power of one anothering.
With our ease of transportation, deluge of cell phones and pagers, and unlimited reach of the Internet, we have more ways to connect with people than ever before. So isn’t it ironic that people feel more isolated today?
We work alongside people we don’t enjoy, live next door to others we don’t know, and even gather in worship services where many feel like just another face in the crowd. Even with close friends many of us can’t seem to steer the conversation beyond our children, jobs, weather, or sports to share the depth of our spiritual lives. And when we hurt the most it seems like everyone scatters into the busyness of their own lives.
Anna’s story ranks as one of the best examples of friendship among a group of believers that I have ever witnessed.
Unfortunately, this is a great story in part because it is so unique. I could tell far more stories of people going through desperate moments with no one to extend the love and care they needed most. Sometimes it is hard enough to find people who will help you move on a Saturday, much less sit overnight in a hospital with a man who wouldn’t recognize them or remember what they had done.
Wittingly or unwittingly, many of us protect ourselves from the kind of friendships that connect us deeply with others. We learned in grade school how fickle relationships can be. Classmates would pretend to be our friend one minute and turn on us the next whenever it would help them get into the “in group” or climb higher in it. Any weakness or dissimilarity became fodder for teasing.
Though the pain of gossip and betrayal becomes subtler in adulthood, it can be just as destructive, if not more so. You would think that our congregations would provide a safe haven from this pain, but too often the opposite is true.“I’ve never had people in the world treat me as badly as I’ve been treated by Christians” is a lament I’ve heard far too often.
Surprisingly, a Sunday morning service can be one of the loneliest places on earth. Who hasn’t tried to build new friendships, only to be frustrated by the inability to find one’s way into an existing clique? We offer to help others when they are in need, then feel exploited when they are unavailable to help us. Add to that our misplaced expectations, and it is no wonder that many regard relationships as liabilities rather than treasures.
We end up conflicted. Even though we want close relationships, we subvert the desire by holding people at arm’s length. Poised to protect ourselves from hurt and disappointment, we think the best solution is to look out for ourselves. There is no better strategy than this for ending up alone and isolated while comfortably blaming others in the process.
Healthy relationships, however, are not created by sitting together in the same building or participating in the same activities, but by capturing Jesus’ heart for life-changing relationships. Throughout Jesus’ ministry he demonstrated that the simplest acts of love and friendship could reach the most hardened souls and transform them.
Zacchaeus was hoping for a brief glimpse of Jesus, but as it turned out he was not alone. Arriving at the center of town, he could see the street was already lined with people as far as the eye could see. It seemed everyone wanted to see the man from Galilee about whom so many rumors had been spread. Had he really healed the sick and made dead people live again? Could this be the Messiah?
Zacchaeus finally scaled a tree to gain a vantage point. Moments later the Miracle Worker approached. Imagine how fortunate Zacchaeus must have felt when Jesus started to come closer to that tree; and then imagine his utter shock as Jesus paused beneath the tree, told Zacchaeus to come down, and invited himself to Zacchaeus’s house for lunch.
The offer itself scandalized the crowd. People turned to one another wondering why Jesus would choose to spend time with someone so despicable. Didn’t Zacchaeus consort with Romans to take taxes from his Jewish brothers and sisters? Certainly anyone else in the crowd would have been worthier to spend an afternoon with the Teacher from Galilee.
Zacchaeus knew they were right. Jesus risked ruining his own reputation by befriending him. Yet amazingly Jesus didn’t seem to consider it a problem. Zacchaeus had met someone who was truly focused on others—someone who took an interest in him without trying to manipulate him for his own purpose.
Zacchaeus had never seen anyone act that way before. The Romans used him to do their dirty work, and his own countrymen loathed him for it. He had learned long ago that to succeed in life he had to take care of himself even at the expense of others. But this approach to life had left him a lonely man. Jesus penetrated his loneliness with a simple invitation to lunch.
That was the only miracle Zacchaeus needed. As far as we know, he didn’t see any blind eyes opened or any lepers healed that day. The simple acts of one anothering—an offer of lunch, an opportunity for a new friendship, and a few hours of conversation—rocked his entire world.
How shallow Zacchaeus’s selfishness had to look in the presence of someone who had his eyes focused only on others. Before Jesus moved on, Zacchaeus had promised to give half his possessions to the poor and pay back everyone he had cheated at 400 percent interest.
Every encounter Jesus had was like that. He did not engage people for what he could get out of them, but for what he could give them of God’s life. Because he was not focused on himself, he was able to touch people with the deepest treasures of God’s love. And that made all the difference.
Unfortunately, most of us, like Zacchaeus, are more familiar with the other kind of relationships—people who say they love you but only so long as you benefit them. Because their relationship with you is based on their needs, they can be warm one moment and cold the next.
A friend of mine defines typical relationships as the “mutual accommodation of self-need.” He doesn’t intend it
to be flattering. What he means is that our friendships last only as long as we can satisfy some deep need in each other for security, acceptance, or status. That is why most friendships with other believers are task-oriented and survive only as long as we work on the same task together. As long as you go along with the program, you will find acceptance. However, if you ask the wrong question, miss a few meetings, or even (God forbid!) leave to attend another fellowship, the friendships suddenly stop or turn hostile.
Despite such painful experiences, I am continually amazed at the resiliency of our thirst for genuine friendships. Often we bury it with our busyness, but in the moments when our life slows to a crawl, the craving for friendship emerges. Even people who have been betrayed by those closest to them and have withdrawn from others in a desperate attempt to escape the pain will find themselves in time thirsting again for deep friendships.
We may only experience our desire for friendship as an overwhelming feeling of loneliness, but the reason we have it is because we somehow intuitively know we were created for relationships. It is as if God has wired into our very nature the desire to be connected to his family, so we keep searching for fulfillment even beyond our bitter disappointments. We want people with whom we can share the joys and hurts of our journey and pool our wisdom and resources. We really don’t want to make it on our own.
Everywhere I travel I see that thirst throughout the body of Christ, and it often goes unquenched. People have many acquaintances yet few real friendships. We don’t know how to make them, cultivate them, or enjoy them and often end up doing the best we can on our own. We can escape this trap only by living the way Jesus did, not trying to get love for ourselves, but learning how to share it with others.
Whenever I read through the Gospels I am amazed at how little Jesus said about the church. Only Matthew records him using the word and then only twice. Why didn’t he tell his followers more about how to organize a church, run its ministries, and plan its services?
I think I know why. He didn’t talk about it because he was too busy living it. He became a friend to Zacchaeus, James, John, Peter, Mary, Martha, Lazarus, Nicodemus, a rejected woman at a well who remained nameless, and countless others who came into his proximity. Look at the ways he engaged them, built relationships with them centered in the Father’s love, and served them with no thought for himself. That was the power of his kingdom and the secret to living in the joy of his family. With the simple declaration, “I no longer call you servants. ...I have called you friends” ( John 15:15), Jesus identified the nature of the relationship God has always desired with those he created— intimate friendship.
So when Jesus walked among people as the only one who could truly treat others selflessly, the whole world was turned upside down. At the end of his ministry, all he needed to do was tell his followers to go and treat others the same way he had treated them. They knew exactly what he was talking about because they had watched him. We see the marvelous fruit of that in the earliest stages of the life of the church. Jesus’ followers were not focused on liturgy, tradition, or growth strategies, but on the power of simple God-centered friendships, both with believers and with those still trapped in the world.
The early believers didn’t see themselves as an institution; they saw themselves as a family. Church wasn’t something they went to; it was a way of living in relationship with the Father and his other children. Indeed, having learned to love one another, they were unable to restrain themselves from treating others in the world with that same love. It marked them exactly as Jesus said it would—as children of God in a hostile world.
The world marveled at the early church’s ability to live selflessly. They had become others-focused like Jesus, and the world was transformed by it. When the apostles summed up the early believers’ lifestyle in their letters, they didn’t mention much about their organization or their meetings. Instead, they wrote about their relationships and the joy of treating one another the way God had treated them.
Sown throughout the New Testament are the one anothering Scriptures that defined their life together. Many of these are repeated multiple times, but there are twenty-two unique references to their shared life using the words “one another”or “each other.” Through the course of these pages, we will examine each of these specific references and see the incredible joy and freedom that results from recovering the lost art of one anothering.
If you have ever shared friendships with others-focused people, you know what a treasure those friends are. They take an interest in you just because they care. Their concern is not tied to their own needs and desires in the relationship. Their care for you demands nothing in return and rejoices just to see you blessed. They open their life like a book and let you read it freely. You don’t ever have to guess what they are thinking, because they will come right out and tell you, and they make you feel safe enough so that you don’t have to pretend with them. They offer their counsel freely but never demand that you follow it. They give you the freedom to disagree and the flexibility to do things differently from how they would do it without ever compromising their love for you.
Almost without thinking they would give you the shirt off their back if they knew you needed it, but they won’t always give you everything you want. They look past your faults and celebrate your promise and offer their help to get you there. You may not see them for months or years at a time, but the next time your paths cross, you will feel as though you have never been apart. When they say they will pray for you, you know they will. When you go through your darkest moments, they will stay by your side. They will let their presence comfort you even when the right words escape them.
Such friends find their origin in God’s heart. No one can love so freely whom God has not first loved deeply. Discover the power of his love, and you will never be lonely again.
1. Think of one of the most significant relationships you have had in your life other than immediate family. Share about that person briefly and tell what made that relationship so special.
2. Think of one incident in that relationship that illustrates what you valued most about that person. What about friendship did you learn from that incident?
3. Make a list from these stories that defines what your group has already learned about the attributes of friendship.
4. How does this list reflect the ways God has expressed his love to you? Which of these would you like to see in your relationships with other believers as well?