Difficult Friendships Are Good for You

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How does a Christian woman love another sister in the church who she finds difficult to love? Euodia and Syntyche, for instance, had a strained and difficult enough relationship for the apostle Paul to remind them “to agree in the Lord” (Philippians 4:2).

The call to share life with church family blesses the soul, but also comes with complex burdens. God expects us to walk together in brotherly love (1 Thessalonians 4:9; Hebrews 13:1; 2 Peter 1:7). Loving one another is an incredibly high calling — an impossible one to do alone. Satan’s schemes and our own flesh often make genuine love feel like a pipe dream. While some relationships are so easily sweet, refreshing, and challenging, others are often hard, confusing, and even draining.

Many frustrated women I love experience these kinds of relationships in their churches. The relationship aggressively disrupts our feelings, leaving us critical and bothered. When warmth is not reciprocated, then feelings of neglect or indifference tempt us to resent the sister. Sometimes we are mean to each other. We are ashamed of feeling this way. We feel misunderstood by the sister. Husbands, family, and friends may get caught in the middle.

With these sanctifying relationships, God kindly exposes our pride, while reminding us of his love. It’s disheartening to see other women with these issues lack strategies to deal with them. Here are a few thoughts to help you love other women well, and enjoy the supremacy of God in the midst of complicated friendships.

1. Give thanks for your sister.

God lovingly commands, “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). All circumstances? Yes, thank God for this friend, by faith in his goodness, even when you can’t see why this friendship is good for you. James commands us to count all our trials as joy (James 1:2–4).

God has strategically placed you in this particular friendship for some reason. One thing is for sure: it is refining you and your faith (1 Peter 1:6–7). It hurts to be refined, but it is necessary for all of us. And ultimately, it really is good for us. By developing a thankful disposition, we will remember that this situation is not a mistake, but is meant to produce praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

If this sister is a believer, this is emphatically not a competition. Thank God that he’s actively working in both of you to make you more like him.

2. Be honest about the relationship being hard.

Admit that the relationship is complicated and tough. Ignoring or downplaying the difficulty doesn’t do anyone any good. Admit it to yourself, to the Lord, and to the sister. Speak with her privately and directly, as that often clears things up (Matthew 18:15). As you speak with her, remind her that you care for her and love her. Tell her that having this relationship is good for you, and that you want to be consistently vulnerable and honest. Just because the friendship is difficult doesn’t mean bitterness or anger is inevitable. You can still genuinely love each other in the midst of hurt and pain.

Make peace with the reality that the complexity might be here to stay. The relationship may never be rainbows and butterflies; it may be consistently stormy. God may have ordained that this relationship will not get better until heaven. Spiritual maturity lies in understanding that happiness is not based on how good of a friendship you have (or don’t have), but how much Christ is being experienced and enjoyed through this.

Christians enjoy Christ even in sorrow — “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10) — since we still live on this side of the final resurrection. Let us beware of idolizing and demanding comfortable relationships from the God who is infinitely wise and good, and who loves us and knows what’s best for us (and who is best for us).

3. Pray.

The Lord cares about this. He isn’t expecting you to merely toughen up. He knows the struggle personally, as he walked with and discipled the twelve.

Be honest in your prayers — tell him where and how you are struggling to love your friend. Ask the Lord to help you love her — to help you see more of Christ and less of yourself. Pray he enables you to die to your preferences.

Ask God to reveal your sin. Everyone has blind spots (Hebrews 3:12). Examine your heart for sin. How does it manifest itself in your interactions with this particular friend? You may have to ask her for forgiveness. This will humble you, but humility is always the Christian path forward (Philippians 2:3). What a beautiful display of the gospel: sinners repenting and asking God and each other for forgiveness. This helps build your life and church into a community of grace and not division.

4. Take baby steps toward her.

Seek little ways to improve the relationship. Don’t hold on tightly to your ideal friendship. Initiate interaction. Don’t lose heart when you get the cold shoulder.

Greet her warmly every Sunday. It’s interesting that Paul commands us to greet one another with a holy kiss (Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:26). When sin divides relationships, greetings are often the first thing to be neglected. Think of every greeting as a baby step in improving the relationship so far as it depends on you (Romans 12:18).

5. Ask for help.

Together, ask a godly woman — one who is unafraid to speak the truth in love — to mediate. When unhealthy and bitter thoughts fester, speaking to a mediator helps you hear your own thoughts out loud and evaluate them. By combating unclear, unhelpful, or sinful thoughts, the third person blesses the effort to kill sin and to bring love to the struggling friendship. If helpful, include your husband. Your husband may guard you from reading into things and assuming the worst.

6. Encourage other women.

Your own struggles present a unique opportunity to model God’s work for others. Carefully, without making yourself a hero and without sinfully gossiping, use your relationship to encourage other sisters who have similar struggles. Encourage them to rejoice in God, examine their hearts, and ask for help so that they too may experience the goodness of God in Christ.

Though we all have difficult relationships, God’s grace is always sufficient. Be especially prayerful, strategic, and gracious in your difficult friendships, guarding vigilantly against indifference and bitterness. Take heart, rejoice, and persevere in love, knowing that God is able give us the grace we need in each relationship.