Someone recently wrote to me about relationships – comparing the various kinds of human relationships we have in terms of our different kinds of friends; including our peers and mentors/mentees.
The dictionary says that a friend is a person known well to another and generally regarded with liking, affection, and loyalty; an intimate. It may also include an ally in a cause, or an associate. I think most of us have three kinds of friends. We generally have a few people who constitute a small group of our intimate friends who become very, very close to us. This may, on one level, include only three or four people, perhaps a few more. These people share life with us at the deepest level through bonds of affection that are without sexual overtones in any sense of the word. The second kind of friendship is one that I personally enjoy with scores of people, maybe even a hundred or more if I stop and count. These are friends that I regularly communicate with via meals, telephone and the social media. I love to hang out with these friends and “catch up” on what we are doing, how we are learning, what God has taught us, what has happened in our lives since we last spoke, etc. Finally, it seems to me, there is a third circle of friends which includes hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people. These are those people that we know by meeting them in person or via the social network. We recognize one another, pray for each other, care for the other and even pray when we remember to do so. We enjoy being with such people, even having numbers of them around us now and then, and count them as a part of what our modern society calls “our social network.” We try to stay in contact with these friends, as much as possible, and we will generally see them from time-to-time. It is here, so I think, that the social media serves an even greater role in modern life.
Some of my friendships/relationships are peer-to-peer. This is usually with someone in the same life stage, or someone who is in a similar position of leadership and shares many of my interests and needs. The purpose of these relationships, scripture says, is for iron to sharpen iron (Proverbs 27:17). In these relationships you will share mutually, teach mutually and advise mutually. This is a different way to understand friendship in the modern social context.
Other relationships are what we properly call mentor/mentee relationships. These are generally teaching relationships, where one person (the mentor) is in a position that the other (the mentee) desires to be in through experience and learning. The purpose of this relationship is primarily for teaching and learning. One listens, asks questions, pays attention, and solicits wisdom. The other teaches, admonishes, advises (but rarely, if ever, confesses or asks for guidance in return).
Having made a valid distinction between mentors/mentees, I believe this distinction can be, and very often is, overblown by excessive use of categories. I have more than a few mentor/mentee relationships that are also deep friendships. I think too sharp a distinction here is not always warranted. It might be me but I approach my younger friends in dual roles, as both mentor and true friends, though they are not friends in the same way as people closer to my age and life experience. But in reality, some younger adults are as dear to me as many of my older friends. They are like adult children (I mean this in the most affectionate of ways) and yet they are my peers in another extremely important way.
The truth is that I hardly ever think about these categories as they have been defined and described. I just think of the blessings of all my growing friendships and how important these are to me as a Christian. If I complete my book on love I have another book in mind and it is on friendship. (That is a few years down the road I feel sure!)
The Free Dictionary (online) reveals the historical development of the word friend. I find this very interesting.
A friend is, quite literally, a lover. The relationship between the Latin amīcus “friend” and amō “I love” is clear, as is the relationship between Greek philos “friend” and phileō “I love.” In English, though, we have to go back a millennium before we see the verb related to friend. At that time, frēond, the Old English word for “friend,” was simply the present participle of the verb frēon, “to love.” The Germanic root behind this verb is *frī-, which meant “to like, love, be friendly to.” Closely linked to these concepts is that of “peace,” and in fact Germanic made a noun from this root, *frithu-, meaning exactly that. Ultimately descended from this noun are the personal names Frederick, “peaceful ruler,” and Siegfried, “victory peace.” The root also shows up in the name of the Germanic deity Frigg, the goddess of love, who lives on today in the word Friday, “day of Frigg,” from an ancient translation of Latin Veneris diēs, “day of Venus.”
If friendship is rooted in divine love, as it should be for a Christian, then such friendship is the highest expression of true love between humans. Sexuality has little or nothing to do with this kind of relationship. My wife is my dearest friend but I share deep friendships with many other people. No one has more of my heart than my wife but others share a part of me that is different from my relationship with her and this makes me more whole. (I believe she has friends like this in her life as well.)
All of this provides the rich texture with which I read a text like John 15:12-17:
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 have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another (NRSV).