A friend is one who knows you and loves you just the same – Elbert Hubbard
There are two questions that seem to come up often in Christian circles; “Can I be friends with an atheist?” and “Can I be friends with someone of the opposite sex?” I have always answered “Yes, absolutely” to both of these questions and I have cited the fact that my closest friends (aside from my fiance) are women and atheists.
There are those who will cite passages like 2 Corinthians 6:14-15 and 1 Thessalonians 5:22 to argue against being friends with atheists, as well as being friends with people of the opposite sex (that, and issues regarding temptation, but I’ll come back to this issue later). There have been many great articles written about both of these subjects, including explanations of the relevant Bible passages (such as those stated above) arguing for both sides. This is my attempt at looking at this issue, but I’m not going to give my view on what I think these passages mean, though I will refer to them. Instead I’m going to come at this topic by sharing my experiences of my friendships, how I’ve gotten through potential pitfalls, how myself and a friend have got to grips with our differences in religious beliefs, and how my fiance and I have built up trust regarding these friendships.
I first met one of my friends through an online dating site. We didn’t meet up again until about 6 months later but since then, we’ve met up every 2-3 weeks like clockwork (with the occasional gap). During those 6 months, I was seriously wrestling with faith and had recently become a Christian. The more I met up with her, I began to realize that I really liked her and would like our relationship to progress beyond friendship. Sadly (from my perspective), it became more and more apparent that my feelings were not to be reciprocated on her part. At times, this proved very awkward and sometimes I would raise the possibility of us becoming more (hey, can’t blame a guy for trying), but I was always rejected (it wasn’t as harsh as it sounds). I accepted the answer she gave me, but I always harbored hope that she would change her mind. Our religious differences took some balancing though, especially because of me; being a new Christian, I wanted to tell everyone and that can get very annoying. Sometimes I’d overstep the mark and have to backtrack or apologize. You only get through/over such things if both parties are willing to, and her unspoken commitment to keeping the friendship going is something what would be put to the test.
As I said, we were meeting up often and the difference in religion wasn’t really an issue. It provided us with some great conversations. I decided that it would be cool if we went somewhere for the weekend. I suggested the east coast so we ended up in Cardiff (yes, I know, my geography abandoned me that day). It was weird in many ways right from the off; the B & B I’d chosen was run by a Christian couple, who seemed extremely surprised that we were not sharing beds (or indeed rooms). They described our relationship as one of integrity and gave us £20 off the bill; which was extremely nice but it set the tone for the trip.
The major event was when we had dinner in the restaurant on our first evening there; my friend got the brunt of my disorganized, raw thoughts and I was still harbouring that private hope whilst simultaneously wrestling with whether I could have a relationship with a non-Christian. This combination resulted in me telling her that I loved her, but then admitting that I couldn’t be with her 20 minutes later. The evening ended with me having an early night, being oblivious to the impact of what I’d just done had had. The next day we went sightseeing and kept running into people handing out religious leaflets about the end of the world and ended with a heated discussion in the Hard Rock Cafe; and to top it all off, there was a Vicar sat opposite us on the train home.
It was such a weird and intense couple of days that left me with an emotional hangover that lasted a while. We tried to have a conversation over MSN, but it became heated due to multiple misunderstandings. We didn’t speak for over a month after that. It wasn’t until the movie ‘Green Zone’ came out that I asked if she would like to meet up. In Pizza Hut that evening, everything came out from both sides and it became a ‘make or break’ situation for our friendship; we could either deal with our issues there and then, or our relationship had to end. Fortunately, it was the former. For everything that happened in Cardiff, it showed us that we could be bluntly honest with each other and talk about anything (as patrons of various eating establishments who have walked out very quickly will be able to testify to). But most importantly, a deep level of trust has been built between us and I wouldn’t go back and change anything. I doubt we’d still be friends without Cardiff. I learned a lot of harsh lessons about feelings and human expression, as well as about sharing my faith and bringing it into conversations. It’s never been my way to walk away from something or someone just because things get tricky.
I get the argument against having friends of the opposite sex because of the romantic element, or more accurately the temptation element, to a point. I didn’t have the temptation problem as I wasn’t seeing anyone at the time, but not everyone is in that position and there is a risk that things might happen. On the other hand, it’s an odd argument, because what exactly is the difference between being friends and being more? The dictionary describes a friend as being; a person attached to another by feelings of affection or personal regard and friendship as a friendly relation or intimacy. That covers a wide spectrum of relationships including my friendships and my relationship with Sarah (my fiance). Does it come down to what the people involved think and for them to define the terms and definition of their relationship? As for temptation, desires do not justify actions and Christians are told to resist temptation. Christian or not, it’s very patronizing to suggest that people can’t control themselves and will merely give into feelings at the first opportunity. Resisting temptation is just one part of it though.
If you have a close friend of the opposite sex but are dating/engaged/married to someone else, there is the trust issue. If anything was going to happen between my friend and I, it would have done long before now, but that didn’t ease Sarah’s fears straight away. Her experiences of men being “just friends” with another woman were not good. I was just honest with her about what had happened between my friend and I, basically telling her everything you’ve just read. The rest comes down to her trusting me as her fiance and my friend not to do anything that breaks the boundaries. It really does all come down to honesty, trust and setting (and sticking to) boundaries that you set. I can quite happily sit in a restaurant with my friend (not in a groups setting, just me and her) and there’s not a problem with me having to resist urges or anything. I’m not suggesting everyone needs to have an experience like Cardiff to get there though.
So what about the differences in religion? Obviously they don’t believe but they’ll quite happily sit there and listen to my faith related struggles because that’s what friends do. There’s an underlying assumption that atheists are all out to take people from Christ. There are some and I’ve met them, but the majority don’t. The majority are more interested in how you treat others and how you treat them, especially if they’ve been treated badly by the church in the past. Another one of my closest friends, who has known me for over 6 years since we first met at a TV and movie convention, has been treated pretty shabbily (to put it mildly) by many Christians because of her sexuality. I didn’t initially do much to change her views when I became a Christian, as I was questioning whether I could still be friends with her because of it. She put me in contact with another Christian friend of hers to help me work through it. She worked to keep the friendship going and I still have the response to do this day. She is the reason I am as passionate about the same-sex marriage discussion as well as the wider discussion of homosexuality in the Bible. We’ve had many disagreements over religion and I’ve sometimes just done things without thinking; but getting a hug in the middle of the hotel restaurant to know I’ve been forgiven is a great way to start the day though. I can be a bit accident prone and/or have back issues, but she’s always been at my side in the Accident & Emergency section of the hospital, and I’ve been at hers when she needed help after coming out of hospital after surgery. She also keeps me in check and stops me getting too carried away with things by gently mocking when needed. But we still spend time together because we’ve worked at it. It’s what friends do and I’m incredibly grateful and blessed to be able to call her my friend. I probably don’t tell her that enough.
There seems to be a key component that often gets missed in these discussions; what actually makes a good friendship? It’s not about agreeing on subjects; if I stopped being friends with people over disagreements, I’d have no friends left and that would include Sarah. It is about shared interests to an extent, but anything can be a shared experience; religion, conventions, scaring people out of restaurants with discussion topics, you name it! It could be how you treat others and whether you take time to get to know them. Whatever the reason, you’ll just click with some people. Doesn’t mean you’ll agree on everything or have to do everything they do, but I’ve never been overly concerned with how it all looks from the outside. If I didn’t do something because of how others may take it, I doubt I’d even leave the house.
Regarding appearances, am I giving the appearance of evil by going out to dinner with them without my fiance? People often assume that 2 people having dinner together must be dating/married/sleeping together in order to be doing that. That’s society’s problem not mine. Anyone who knows me who sees me out with them will know what’s going on. Those who don’t know me won’t know I’m engaged to someone else anyway. They may assume I’m dating the person opposite me but they won’t assume I’m being adulterous. Similarly with religion. Unless they’re eavesdropping in on the conversation, they’re not going to know I’m a Christian and I don’t announce it every where I go. Even if they did know, they’re not going to give it a second thought. The greatest appearance of evil would be to end these friendships purely on the basis of a difference in religion; or to shun someone on the basis of religion. You’re essentially saying “you’re not good enough to be my friend” Whilst friendships can be a great way to spread the gospel, that can’t be your only reason for being friends with someone. That comes across as having an agenda for being their friend and that’s not a friendship at all.
Looking back through all this, there were many pitfalls I fell into (it’s not like I could plan ahead) but there were all overshadowed by the deep friendships that have come out of them. Next to marriage, friendships are the greatest relationships God created for people. They will never match what a marriage is, they’re not designed to, and men and women do have different needs that only other men and women understand. They do transcend all boundaries though, that’s their beauty, and it’s a beauty that can quite easily get muddied if the focus is on what type of people you can be friends with.
As part of this piece, I invited my friend to write a few words about this. She’s very graciously provided the below:
According to the saying, “friends are the family that destiny forgot to give you“; and this appears to hold especially true of those we consider our best friends. With Graham, I have a strong albeit slightly unconventional friendship, forged over a number of intense events over the years. It is a friendship that I treasure deeply and am hugely appreciative of. This is not just due to the friendship itself, but also our freedom to have such a relationship, that is only frowned upon by some who are socially confused by it; and not prohibited by law in the society that we live in. Friendships like so many things in life are what you make of them; and require thought and effort to truly reach their full potential. In this case we are both committed to the friendship and have found a way to make it work despite our differences in both gender (and the associated potential romantic issues) and religious thinking.