If you find yourself longing for someone to talk to, a true friend to whom you can bare your soul, you are not alone. Recently, a Duke University researcher concluded that 25 percent of Americans have no one with whom they can have a meaningful conversation. And 50 percent of folks have two or less people of that sort in their lives. The statistics also indicate that the confidante network of the average American is shrinking.
These trends disturb me on a number of levels. In the culture at large, studies show that social isolation leads to greater risks for addiction, criminal tendencies, and depression. It also leaves the fabric of our community threadbare.
For the individual Christian, the amazing disappearing act of deep personal friendships is a tell-tale sign of spiritual malnutrition. Think about it. As Mindy Caliguire asks in her new small-group study guide, Spiritual Friendship, "What do you do when you can't stand the thought of praying, when the words of the Bible seem plastic and false . . . when you have been doing everything 'right' and the bottom falls out?" It's at these times when it is the spiritual friends who throw us a life-preserver. They are, as one Puritan prayer says, God's "hands and fingers taking hold of me."
But having trustworthy, life-giving friendships is also necessary for the ordinary business of spiritual growth in the daily routine. These are the people who can lovingly point out our blind spots, with whom we confess our struggles and our sins, who help us in discerning God's leading in our lives, and who share our everyday joys and sorrows. David had his Jonathan, Naomi her Ruth, and even Jesus had an intimate circle of three among the 12.
The Irish called these special people anamachara, or soul friends. And around 600 A.D., when Christianity was spreading across that land more quickly than clover, soul friends were a mainstay of Christianity. In addition to spending regular times alone, times with the community at large, times with a small group, and times sharing the faith, each Christian had a soul-friend. According to scholar George G. Hunter, this was a peer, someone with whom one could be vulnerable and accountable.
Not only were these soul-friendships seen as the necessary ingredient for iron-sharpening-iron, but they were also a primary tool for spreading the Christian worldview. Any time that seekers, refugees, or aliens found themselves in the midst of these Christian communities, a particular believer in that community befriended them with the intentionality of becoming a soul friend. It began with what they called "the ministry of conversation" and often lead to the miracle of conversion.
A biblical worldview teaches us that God is inherently relational. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit left their relational mark on us when they created man in their image. But today we live among people who, despite their cell phones, instant-messaging, and MySpace "friends," are lonelier than ever. So seek out a soul friend yourself, and more importantly, be one. You can help make sure that a true friend is one thing that never becomes extinct.
From BreakPoint®, September 24, 2007, Copyright 2007, Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with the permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or distributed without the express written permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. "BreakPoint®" and "Prison Fellowship Ministries®" are registered trademarks of Prison Fellowship