The Gift of Grace in Being Friends with Sinners

Justin Whitmel EarleyBy Justin Whitmel Earley9 Minutes

Excerpt taken from Made for People: Why We Drift into Loneliness and How to Fight a Life of Friendship by Justin Whitmel Earley


Practicing the habits of apology and forgiveness means taking a lifetime of moments that would otherwise be the undoing of relationship and turning them into entry points for deeper relationship.

Put otherwise, our failures do not have to be roadblocks to friendship, they can become the building blocks of it. Grace, as it turns out, is a much sturdier foundation for relationship than perfection. Grace means that the failures of friends can be the cause of our coming together, not the cause of our falling apart. Here are four ways that grace should change the way you practice friendship:

  1. Grace Frees

First, grace is freeing. When forgiveness is an art of friendship, you and your friends can bring the real versions of yourselves. One hundred percent of the time, that is a flawed person. There is no version of yourself that you can bring except the deeply flawed one that you actually are. Likewise, there is no version of your friend that you can expect except the deeply flawed one that he or she actually is.

  1. Grace Reforms Expectations

Second, grace delivers you from the burden of unhealthy expectations of others. “True friendships do not demand perfection.”¹ If you seem to be constantly disappointed with your friends, the first thing to do is not to look for new ones or wonder why they are such idiots who don’t seem to understand relationships. The first thing to do is examine your expectations of relationships. Because it is very possible that our bitterness about the relationships around us speaks more to our pride than their flaws.

  1. Grace Allows Us to Practice Friendship

Third, grace allows us to “practice” friendship in the truest sense of the word. Without forgiveness, we live in a world that demands perfection, and friendship does not exist in that world. But when we live in a world that instead offers grace, friendships can finally bloom.

This is particularly true of covenant friendship. Consider what we’ve talked about up until now: to be real friends with someone is to put your whole emotional life—and more—at risk. When you are vulnerable about your secrets and honest about your fragile hopes, you essentially give a friend the weapons with which to wound you. Friends are already like bulls wandering into the delicate china shops of one another’s lives—add promising, and it is like asking the bull to live there. It all but guarantees that something will go wrong and someone will get hurt. Probably really hurt. Without forgiveness, we will never even risk the pain of covenant friendship. But with forgiveness, we are free to be hurt and try again.

This may not be the easy life, but it is the good life.² If you’re not willing to get hurt, you’re not willing to have relationships. If you want to stay safe, never be hurt again, and protect yourself from the serious and inevitable pain of relationships, then you need to stay out of friendships. Especially covenant friendships—because these friendships have enough time and history and expectation and hope to really hurt us. No one can hurt us like the ones we love most and love longest.

But remaining safe from the pain and conflict of relationships also means remaining hard, or remaining bitter, and always remaining in the restless wandering of loneliness. If Aristotle is right that a life without friendship isn’t worth living, that means a life without pain and frustration is not worth living either.

Friendship may make us live longer, but it does so in the same way exercising does. By hurting you in the right way. Friendship is the exercise of the heart. Over time our hearts grow bigger, stronger, and more able to love more people.

  1. Grace Forms Us into the Image of Christ

Finally and most important, grace is how friendships form us into the image of Christ. This cannot be overstated.

Consider the friend that Jesus was. He was, famously, the “friend of sinners.” What do you suppose it was like for him when he sat down in rooms of liars, cheats, and prostitutes like us? Do you think they suddenly behaved? Do you think some of them didn’t mock him? Do you think some of them didn’t ignore him and talk only to the one they thought they could get in bed with that night?

But the very character of Jesus is to be drawn to those who would hurt him and push him away. Our calling in friendship is the same.

Friendship hurts. And like most fundamental truths, this one may be as obvious as it is overlooked.

We are not called to friendship to simplify our lives, we’re called to friendship to sanctify our lives. And this necessarily means the friction and pain of iron sharpening iron.³ This friction of friendship is a gift, not a curse! Iron does not sharpen iron without a great deal of noise, heat, and colliding. You will know a true friend by such noise and heat and, yes, even the pain of colliding.

If it were the opposite, Jesus never would have invited suffering into the Trinity by coming to be with us. But in the incarnation, Jesus showed us that the way to divine friendship is not around pain, but through it.

If you want to pursue happiness, then stick with companions. People who like the same things you do. And make sure to leave them whenever things start to turn toward real friendship.

But if you want to pursue holiness, then find covenant friends and stick around long enough to get hurt, forgive, and get hurt and forgive again. In the pursuit of happiness, you’ll find neither happiness nor holiness. In the pursuit of holiness, you’ll find both.

So yes, this kind of friendship involves pain. But we imitate Christ in our friendships by facing that pain.

Being like Christ means being a friend like Christ. So it is our call, too, to go to people who are broken up, worn down, half put together, and entirely flawed and act out the ethic of Christ: “You are broken, and that means I’ll get hurt, but I’m sticking around to love you anyway.”

¹ David Benner, Sacred Companions: The Gift of Spiritual Friendship Direction (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 82.

² “A good life [is] forged from precisely the things that make it hard.” (Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz, The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness [New York: Simon and Schuster, 2022], 3.)

³ Proverbs 27:17.

Taken from Made from People by Justin Whitmel Earley. Copyright © August 2023 by Zondervan. Used by permission of Zondervan, www.zondervan.

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