We’ve all heard variations on the notion that the world is comprised of “two kinds of people.” Coke people and Pepsi people. Dog people and cat people. Beach people and mountain people. You get the idea.
Allowing for the fact that people are complicated and can’t easily be consigned to two camps, I’ve found that when it comes to my friendships, for me at least, they boil down to two kinds. I am blessed to have made many friends from different parts of the world, ages, walks of life, ethnicities, educational backgrounds and religions. And yet, they all seem to fall into one of two categories.
The first kind of friend is, well, friendly. They are cordial. Smiles and pleasantries are readily exchanged. Conversations tend to revolve around how work is going, how the kids are doing, what’s happening in school, whether or not there are any vacation plans.
We know each other well enough, but not deeply.
But there’s the other kind of friend. There’s no shortage of smiles and pleasant conversation, as there is with the first class of friends. But among these friends there has also been conflict, and even the occasional fight. Conversations haven’t always been easy, but are far more substantive. These are friends who have called me out on my hypocrisies and inconsistencies, friends who arch an eyebrow when they can tell I’m not being straight with them.
These are friends I’ve had to ask forgiveness of and, on occasion, they of me.
We’ve moved beyond mere pleasantries to authenticity.
Now that you know this about my two kinds of friends, which of them would you consider the best kind of friend? Who do you think I turn to in struggles and hard times? Which of them are there for me, no matter what? Of course, it’s the second group.
The best friendships are those that get beyond the niceness and into the nitty-gritty. In fact, there can be something quite troubling about the friendship that never progresses further than mere friendliness, failing to push past never the cordialities of pleasant smiles and conversations about the weather.
When friendships fail to deepen, it’s legitimate to wonder if there is some nagging element of mistrust, lack of love, a persistent self-centered quality or some level of disapproval or disdain that has gone undiscovered.
By now you might be wondering what all this has to do with a column in The Kerrville Daily Times “Faith” section? Simply this: I wonder if the very thing we disdain in our friendships — a lack of substance, absence of challenge, avoidance of necessary conflict and the maintenance of pleasant superficiality — might be the very thing we look for in our religion?
Might this be valuable as a kind of test for us? Are you looking for an experience with Christianity that is primarily (or exclusively) one of being affirmed, or conversely, one in which you can avoid conflict and challenge?
If Christianity is confined to that which is only pleasant and uplifting, a cordial faith instead of a deeply challenging one, perhaps we should be more troubled than we are.
If you are a Christian, does your faith and do the claims of the Bible occasionally rankle you? Does it ever bring you to the point of saying, “I’m not so sure about that?”
Has the teaching of the Bible ever caused you to squirm, feel exposed, challenged, called out? Has there ever been that troubling sense that the tables have been turned, and you have ceased to be the interpreter of the Bible, but that it has begun to interpret you?
If you’re not a Christian, and perhaps skeptical about the claims of Christianity (or what you suppose are its claims), have you stayed away from investigating further because you simply will not hear of it? Have you constructed a worldview that ensures that you will go unchallenged? Is it because you don’t want to hear something that doesn’t accord with your way of thinking? Have you become doctrinaire in your unbelief?
I want to ask you to consider that the gospel message of the Bible is not one that will nod approvingly and affirm your life with a plastered smile of assent and talk of the weather. Nor should it.
The Bible would be worthless if it were that kind of book, and the gospel emptied of its power were it not to move us to the core of who we are.
While the message of the Bible is one that embodies and expresses the holy love of God, it goes much deeper. It rankles, pushes, argues and challenges. It also loves.
It is a book that welcomes you as you are, but envisions the glory of what you yet could be through repentance and faith.
It does so for the most faithful of Christians and the most skeptical of inquirers.
Its central concern is not personal affirmation and politeness, but transformative truth and love, just like the best of friends.
The Rev. John Standridge is pastor at Christ Church Presbyterian. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.