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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Humility in Friendship // Reflections on John 15:12-15

This is the third in a four part series on Friendship. The topics are inspired by each of the four verses in John 15:12-15 addressing friendship but are by no means an exegetical study. Instead, we can let each verse serve as a springboard for discussion:
(12) This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. (13) No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. (14) You are my friends if you do what I command you. (15) I do not call you servants any longer because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I call you friends because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.

"You are my friends if you do what I command you." -- John 15:14

I once heard a couple speak to a group of Catholics about marriage. The remarkable moment I will never forget from that involved our discussion time. A girl in the class started to speak about the topic, the husband speaking to our group went to correct her, and the wife quickly, firmly, but quietly, gently put her hand on her husband's thigh and he stopped himself immediately. They both continued to listen attentively, and it was as if the wife had communicated the right course with that simple gesture; it wasn't a time to interrupt and correct.

Why does this stand out? Why does it continue to seem so profound to me? I think it's because it was a perfect example of humility on the husband's part and he allowed himself to be corrected, to be told he was wrong, and yet you could see on his face how little this affected his ego. It was the first time I ever saw or ever allowed myself to see that type of true humility in a relationship. In that moment, the husband wasn't trapped in what he wanted or needed. He could accept the external.

Now, this isn't a conversation about egalitarianism or even marriage. But Christ in the above verse gives us a model for friendship: You are my friends if you do what I command you.

If we think of this as purely an issue of obedience or submission, we miss the point entirely, especially concerning friendship. Following Christ, listening to him and putting the Truth of his being into practice requires humility. This is not a new Christian concept, and it's the very reason we are taught to die to ourselves. The gospel leaves no room for ego.

In friendship it's the same. We have to be humble enough to put the other person first. This is always done with healthy boundaries, of course, and many people who seem amazing when they "just give and give" are actually giving precisely because it props up their own self-image as the great, selfless friend. The humility that the husband I saw displayed that day was completely devoid of such a need. He was neither proud nor embarrassed at his wife's correction. He was simply present (my conclusion from verse 13) - acting in the moment out of humility, and then he moved on to the next moment. We can and should all emulate this in friendship.

Real World Humility

It's tempting in the context of friendship - or any relationship - to actually claim a literal interpretation of what Christ says in verse 14: you're my friend only if you do what I tell you. We might rephrase it in our own relationships to say, "You're my friend only if you do what I want you to. You're my friend only if you behave in the way I expect you to."

Though I'm still considered a fairly young adult, I've already learned some hard lessons about friendship. One is that the above interpretation is a complete lie. Often friendships work because two people do have compatible expectations, but practically, I think some of my most mature friendships have come when I have been humble enough to let go of getting what I wanted out of it.

I have friendships with people who I wish I spoke to weekly but only communicate with a few times a year. I have other friendships where I might prefer more space but the other person doesn't. I had one friendship in college that was a struggle because I clearly wanted more interaction than the other person. After months of disappointment my girlfriend at the time said, "You know, Sam, that person really does care about you." I finally had to admit that she was right: our friendship was meaningful and built on care, even if the other person couldn't express it the way I wanted them to.

That was at least my experience of humility in friendship. And is this the only thing Christ is saying with verse 14? No. But it is a part of the layers of meaning in those words and a principle to live by. I never got anywhere with a friend by refusing to be humble. "I gave," "you owe," "I want," "I deserve," - they're all fantastic sparks for burning bridges and hurting relationships.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about verse 14 is that Christ says that if we do what he commands us, then we are his friends. Not "followers" or "disciples" or "saved" or "worthy." How do we make sense of this? For me doing what Christ or your friend or anyone else demands means letting the external become internal. Rather than engage relationship from a point within yourself, Christ is saying to engage relationship by seeing outside yourself!

God, Reality, religion, meditation, and so many other forms of revelation have the same underlying script: God wants to draw you out of you! God wants to draw you out of the smallness of your being into something so much larger and more beautiful. As G.K. Chesterton wrote, "How much happier you would be, how much more of you there would be, if the hammer of a higher God could smash your small cosmos." The only way there is 'dying to self.' The only way to maturity, to seeing, to true friendship is humility. How extraordinary that this is written into the nature of the universe and that friendship is a microcosm of the Divine Reality itself.

Related Posts:
(reflection 1) Intimacy in Friendship // Reflections on John 15:12-15
(reflection 2) Presence in Friendship // Reflections on John 15:12-15


  1. Thank you for your thoughts, Sam. They are elegant and very timely for me as I try to stretch myself to make friends in a foreign land (not easy!). You're a great friend, among other things :)

  2. You're too kind! Haha. I imagine cultural differences would add a whole new element to living out some of these principles in friendship. I'm excited to hear more from you.

    Others interested can follow Richelle's quite charming moving-to-Sweden escapades on her blog, "Slanted Light," found here: