Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Cord of Three Strands: Thoughts on Female Friendships

“Two are better than one,  because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls  and has no one to help them up.  Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.  But how can one keep warm alone?  Though one may be overpowered,  two can defend themselves.  A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

Have you ever experienced a time where it feels like God keeps leading you down the same thought trail- where a certain theme keeps running through your day-to-day experiences? I don't mean the common tasks you face, like diapers or dishes or preschool mama drama... No, I am talking about when you are faced with SOMETHING over and over and over again that you normally wouldn't spend a lot of time thinking about.

I feel like God has been weaving a thread of thoughts through my week concerning Christian friendships of the female variety. Specifically, ways that female friends interact with each other- for better and for worse. Over the course of the week this blog post has been writing itself, but I still feel myself inadequate enough to really capture it (but obviously not unwilling to try). So here is my heart- with a some help from Pinterest. ;)

Friendships are a wonderful thing. A beautiful thing. An important thing. Friends can often be our lifelines- the people who talk us down from the ledge of overwhelming frustrations, who cry with us when our souls feel heavy with despair, and who laugh with us at life's little idiosyncrasies. Proverbs  17:17 says, "A friend is always loyal, and a brother is born for adversity." We have different levels of friends- the people we smile at in the halls of our children's school, the friends we "interact" with on Facebook but not necessarily in "real life", and the true soul sisters that have seen us at our absolute worst. We have friends we'd meet for coffee and friends we'd welcome into our messy homes before we've put on makeup. We have friends who come into our lives for a season, friends who spend a few years before moving on, and then lifetime friends who can tell horrible stories about the things we did as children. Beautiful, complicated relationships often fraught with competition as much as laughter, misunderstanding and miscommunication as well as confessions and coffee.

Lots of thoughts going on here.

On Tuesday I attended a Bible study where we talked about friendships- namely the need to make God our "BFF". The thing I really came away with after the study, though, was not the lesson- but one of the prayer requests. A woman said that she thinks that one area Satan loves to attack is female friendships. He likes to get in there and muck around to mess things up as much as possible. As I drove home I was really struck by the implications of this thought. If two Christian women regularly come together to support each other, pray for each other, and uplift each other in order to glorify God... of COURSE that would be an area where Satan would like to interfere. I truly believe that he uses tools that cause envy and strife in female relationships in order to distract us from God- and from a relationship that is helping to keep us upright and steady on our path to Him. I read a story once that talked about Satan trying to cause a religious man to falter and couldn't... until he realized that the best way to cause that man to stumble was to let him hear something good about a close friend. Immediately that man started feeling envious. Despair took over devotion. Satan managed to use a close friend as a stumbling block that took a devout man's eyes off of God and put them on himself. Score one for Satan.

Women are already so unconsciously competitive with one another that this is a very natural area for Satan to work his dirty deeds. Whether it is his whispered commentary on an innocuous comment that turns it into a hurtful misunderstanding, or the insidious envy of your friend's good news... how easy it is to slip into a position of pain with a female friend! How easy it is to let a tiny weed come up, pushing its way through the concrete of your path on your walk with God, causing fissures and cracks that become snares for your feet!

We also talked about "toxic friends" at that same Bible study. While I am loathe to use the word "toxic"- that is a very harsh word to use for someone who needs God as much as I do- I have had many experiences with friends who take and take and take while only giving back negativity. I have the type of personality that likes to DO for my friends- to serve, to help, to love with actions whenever possible. Whether that means babysitting or party planning or meal preparation, if I have a skill or talent or even time that can be used to ease a good friend's burden, I am happy to do so. I love to be of service to my friends, to serve and minister to them in that way. However... this can be a dangerous personality trait, especially when you continue to choose friends who are "takers". All of that giving and doing can lead to fatigue and resentment- another crack in your sidewalk.

"Toxic friends" can also refer to those people spew negativity and untruth, or even those who have burdens so heavy that you become weighed down with trying to carry those burdens for them. They are not toxic people, but the heaviness that they can bring into your life can be toxic to you. It can choke out a lot of goodness and make your own spirit feel heavy and burdened. However, when these people are good friends, it can be incredibly hard to set boundaries with them that allow you to love on them and still keep your own joy.

My sweet daughter, as I have written before, struggles with some of the same issues that I do in friendships. She tends to pick "BFFs" who aren't quite as... well, let's just say that she is very loyal and often finds herself in a position of pain because the friend who has her loyalty isn't as kind as she is. (Girls can be so cruel to each other.) It is so hard to watch her try and try and TRY to make a friendship work with a person who continues to cause her pain. I finally had to sit down with her recently and tell her that I no longer wanted her to pursue a friendship with a particular little girl because of the hurt she kept feeling at her hands. It led to a great discussion about the qualities we should look for in friends. It is especially important to me to help her to recognize what healthy friendships look like because I am so prone to having unhealthy ones myself. As her parent, it is my responsibility to help her and equip her to make good choices for the people she will "do life" with. Any parent knows this struggle. Friends are such a huge part of our children's lives that we want to make sure that they choose those friends wisely... but we need to be sure to do the same.

The last few years- and especially the last few months- have really taught me a lot about this very subject, and I feel like God has really been working on my heart this week in regards to female friendships. Here are some of the ways I feel like He is directing me to better choices:

-A lot of times, strife in a friendship comes from feelings of envy or inadequacy, even with women we deeply love as friends. I have realized that, if we and our friends are walking down our own paths with God that ultimately lead to communion and a life that glorifies Him... well, those paths don't look alike. At all. You and your friend will have different triumphs and different struggles, all of them necessary to become closer to our Father. One friend's success or personal triumph (which might make us feel envious or resentful)  is a success that helps them get a little bit closer to God or to rejoice in His character a bit more, while that same triumph in your life might have the opposite effect. I can be envious of another friend's financial stability, but if I am being honest... I don't know how well I would rely on God if my finances were secure. It is better for me to trust Him daily for provision and to see Him working faithfully in that area. Realizing that each of our paths are perfectly ordained by a loving Father helps to put it in perspective. Jeremiah 29:11 says, “'For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” If what is best for you would also be the best for me, my loving Father would gladly give it to me simply because He wants the best for me. If He doesn't... well, it's simply because that is not what is going to draw me closer to Him or help me to rely on His grace and mercy most fully. Recently I have had to remind myself that my path is a good path- desiring even a portion of my friend's path is doing nothing but harming me and causing me to sin. A girlfriend just said to me yesterday, "If we all sat at a big table and threw our struggles into the middle, and God told us to choose what struggles we would want to face, most of us would choose our own." I don't want anyone else's struggles- so I should also be content with my own joys. Psalm 16:6 says, “The lines have fallen to me in pleasant places; Yes, I have a good inheritance.”  Envying any part of your friend's path is taking your eyes off of God and, in a way, telling Him that you don't trust Him to do or even know what is best for your own path. Unbelief is a sin that can be confessed and, with His help, overcome... but (at least for me) it is a daily struggle.

-Just like our joys and triumphs are not going to be the same, neither is our pain. Sometimes our friends will have pain that we don't understand or can't relate to... and trying to constantly be the one to build them up, minister to them, and encourage them can start to wear you down. I once read that sometimes you need to take a step back from your friend's rough time, catch your breath, and regain strength yourself- this enables you to come back, restored and refreshed, and be the friend they need you to be. Often, when people we love are struggling with something huge... well, as women, we just want to fix it. We are fixers, caretakers, helpers. It is hard to step back from that role and realize that, many times, our friends need us to love them without fixing them or solving their problem. To be there as they shoulder a burden without trying to shoulder it for them. To encourage them to look towards the Person who can and will help them to shoulder the burden- and who can do it without getting tired. If we are trying to take on a role of "caretaker", our friend might be missing out on truly depending on God and seeing His faithfulness as He carries them through it. Taking that step back will not only help you to be a better friend, but to see what kind of friend you need to be. You should never be the friend who is taking the place of God- and all of your help should be pointing your friend back to Him. Carrying burdens we weren't meant to carry hinders our own walk, and carrying burdens He is meant to carry hinders the walk of our friend.

-I firmly believe that God removes people from our lives for a reason. Just like how, as parents, we want our children to make wise choices in their friendships- so must we. As Christian women we are fighting a million battles, all of them revolving around the basis that all the things we do should have a Christ-focused center. We can have friendships with all kinds of people, but our deepest friendships should be with people who are equipped to understand that need- and point us to it. Women who don't make it a priority in their own life to learn and spend time with God are ill-equipped to remind us of where we should find our center. Women who are lukewarm towards God are not the women who should be getting the bulk of our confession and heart-sharing. Proverbs 13:20 says, "Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm." It is one thing to cultivate friendships to help others to develop a deeper walk with Christ, but it is another to allow those people to have so much influence over us that it can cause a stumbling block for us. If you are looking for these people to help you to bear your burdens and their advice is rarely pointing you to God... you are looking for counsel from the wrong person. Just like I had to step in and intervene in my daughter's friendship, so I feel that God has revealed Himself to be faithful in intervening and removing people like this from my life. The loss of any friendship can be hard, but I feel like God has been tender with my heart by allowing me to see it not as the loss of a friendship, but the loss of an influence that was hindering my relationship with Him. A distraction that was taking my eyes off of God instead of pointing me to Him. Not every relationship needs to end because the person is not walking as they need to with God- but we do need to set boundaries with people who could have an impact on our lives that is not of God. Matthew 7:6 says, “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces." Your deepest friendships should be with people who treasure your pearls.

-I will say this a million times in my life, but I so firmly believe it- we need to be authentic. WE NEED TO BE AUTHENTIC WOMEN OF GOD- women who are not afraid to admit failure and struggle and pain. We need to stop being afraid to be real with each other because of the risk of condemnation- and we need to stop condemning. Jesus died on the cross for ALL of our shortcomings. All of them. Mine, yours, that mommy in your kid's preschool class who looks perfect all of the time... all of our sins and shortcomings. Why are we so afraid to admit our need for that very salvation? Why are we so afraid to admit to other women, "I messed up today, but Jesus DIED for that!" Why are we so quick to roll our eyes at another woman's struggle when Jesus DIED for that struggle? Who are we to make light of that? I hunger for authenticity in my relationships. I strive to be authentic with others. Some of the best conversations- the ones that have left me feeling the most uplifted and loved- are the ones where another woman opens up to me about her own struggle, or allows me to do so about mine. When we can look at each other and say, "I've been there. You are not the worst person in the world, believe me. Can I be praying for you?" Proverbs 27:17 says, "As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another." Sometimes we just need to get those struggles out in the open, out of our head where Satan can play with it and turn it into something devastating- and into the light where God can deal with it and bring healing.

-No relationship or friendship should take the place, or precedence, over our relationship with our Father. Sometimes, rather than complaining to our friends, we should be petitioning our Father. We need to value His opinion more, allow Him to support us more, and trust Him more to be the best friend we have. God already sees our struggles, and understands them, and has given His only Son to die for them. He is uniquely able to understand our hearts. “For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” (Romans 5:10) “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13) We became friends of God through His Son's death- and if we want to measure a friend's love, our BEST friend should be willing to die for us. And He already has. No other friendship should take the place of our friendship with someone who valued us so much that He laid His life down for ours.

Oh, I have SUCH a long way to go when it comes to being the kind of friend I want for myself... but through His work in my life over the last few years, and especially months, and very much this week... I am starting to really identify what that friend looks like. I am so glad that my God is willing and able to meet me where I am and equip me to be the woman and friend I need to be, and to have the relationship with Him and and then others I so desperately need.

Father, I thank You for Your tenderness while pruning this area in my life. I thank You for the obvious work of Your hands as you have opened my eyes and ears this week. I pray that this work will be fruitful- that You  will cultivate healthy relationships in my life, that I can be a healthy friend for others, and that You will be glorified in my interactions and relationships above all else. Thank you for the friends I have, for the friends you have taken away, for the friends I have yet to meet... but mostly, for the friend I have in You. I am a blessed woman, truly. Thank you for loving me that much. Amen.

Other posts you may be interested in:
We Are More
Excellence or Perfection
From the Heart of a Child: Learning to Love Your Enemies
Cue the Rolling Stones
Our Tears, His Bottle

Linking with Faith Filled Friday, Best Posts of the Week, Thoughtful Thursdays, and Grace Cafe!


Cindi said...

What a great post, perspective and reminder!

Becky said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Becky said...

I clicked over from Christian Bloggers on FB. What great thoughts on christian friendship. I know I will be thinking about this and evaluating my friendships now.

ReviewsSheROTE Pamela R said...

"No relationship or friendship should take the place, or precedence, over our relationship with our Father"

This sums it up best!!!!

Kenya G. Johnson said...

This is so good. I'm only a quarter or a way through but I wanted to go ahead and comment. I have it permanently saved in my readability stuff. A lot of confirmation here. I want to start over read it from the top when I get back.

Laura said...

Wow! Such wisdom, full of grace and truth. Thank you for sharing your insights and those awesome pictures. Love this!

And thanks for linking up!!

Army of Moms said...

This is soo good. And strangely enough I just had a very similar conversation about this a week ago. I love your writing on this. Women's friendships are so important.

Mommy LaDy Club said...

Really thoughtful and insightful and very well written:)

Charlotte said...

Excellent post I really like the quote "Comparison is the theft of joy."

Joan said...

Excellent post on friendships!


Sarah said...

Thank you for that post. So helpful!