[Editor’s Note: Dr. Ant Greenahm is Associate Professor of Missions and Islamic Studies at Southeastern. A specialist on the Middle East, he is author of Muslim Conversions to Christ: An Investigation of Palestinian Converts Living in the Holy Land (WICU, 2011), and co-author (with David Black and Allan Bevere) of The Questioning God: An Inquiry for Muslims, Jews, and Christians (Areopagus, 2012). He is also passionate about helping students see the breadth of the Great Commission. To that end, he writes below about the nature of friendship in the Great Commission. This is the first post in a three-part series. Come back next Monday for part two.]
As we continue our exploration of friendship, let’s consider an insight from Bernard Lewis, the renowned scholar of Islam and the Middle East. Before he left Britain permanently for America in 1974, “an old friend and colleague” had the following to say: “Here in London . . . you have friends. In Princeton you will have colleagues, neighbors and in certain situations, allies, but you will not have friends as you understand and use that word here.” Lewis shares this conversation at a crucial juncture in his narrative, at the point where he began a new life in the United States. I think that’s significant. Almost 40 years later, it seems he hadn’t experienced friendship in America in the way he had before he came here. The reason, I believe, is the nature of activity-based friendship in the US.
Considering the rest of his reflections, it’s fair to say Lewis was involved in valuable academic and institutional activities with colleagues, got along (for the most part) with neighbors at the office and at home, and found allies to help him in battles fought along the way. But it seems that none of these shared activities led to an overarching friendship. In other words, different elements of life, shared in a friendly way, did not (and do not) translate into friendship for the long haul.
Essentially, friendliness and friendship are different. But they may be hard to distinguish because of our use of the word, friend. Colleagues, neighbors and allies call each other friends. Celebrities pursuing an agenda, who don’t know me from Adam, address me as friend. A favorite bakery has a sign telling anyone at the door: “Arrive as a Customer, Leave as a Friend.” And the problem is enhanced by the explosion of “friends,” people you hardly know, on Facebook. Just about anyone can be your friend.
This cultural notion of friend is certainly far removed from the friendship demanded by the Great Commission. When I discussed it in class last semester, a student, Zach, had an interesting anecdote to add. He had been abroad, met a local he liked and then introduced him to someone else as his “friend.” To Zach’s surprise, his new acquaintance immediately corrected him with the words, “I’m not your friend!” What he meant, it seems, is being someone’s friend goes way beyond initial friendliness. A commitment, proven over time, is required.
So how do we get from friendliness to true friendship? I hope to end with three practical suggestions in my third and final post on the subject. Here though, I’d like to linger over a key difference between friendliness and friendship: I believe that friendly expressions easily mask the absence of a deeper relationship.
How often have you used the words “thank you for asking” when a colleague asked you to follow up on a prayer request you shared publicly? Or when you’ve had a decent conversation with someone you don’t know well, ended with “it was nice talking to you?” Typically, such words are sincere, and I have no quarrel with them as they stand. However, they express an element of surprise that person X cared enough to ask, or that conversation with person Y had meaning beyond the mundane.
In contrast, my wife and I don’t say those words in our relationship. We repeatedly express our love for each other, but it’s established that we care for each other’s welfare and enjoy each other’s company. Of course we do—we’re very good friends. In fact, saying those words in a truly close companionship becomes biting sarcasm if something’s amiss. That’s because they are properly reserved for superficial interactions. My suggestion then, when you use them, is to ask yourself whether the surface level is where you want things to stay. Often that is quite appropriate. We can’t get close to everyone. But don’t kid yourself that the people concerned are friends in any meaningful sense of the word—or that this encapsulates disciple-making in the way of Jesus.
Instead, if you want to explore taking the relationship further (and it has to be reciprocated, of course), enquire after the other person’s welfare (and possibly elicit a prayer request) when you thank them for asking. And at the end of a surprisingly good conversation with a mere acquaintance, raise the possibility of having another, not in general terms but at a specific time and place. Finally, if things are going to develop in the direction of true friendship, anticipate, pray for, and work towards that end.
More about all this next time!
 Bernard Lewis with Buntzie Ellis Churchill, Notes On A Century: Reflections of a Middle East Historian (New York: Viking, 2012), 171.