You’ve (Still) Got a Friend in Me

The Charming Gravity of ‘Toy Story 4’

We need friends like we need air, food, and shelter. We may survive a few more years without friendship, but we will not truly live — now or forever — without finding a good friend.

That basic emotional (and spiritual) need runs, like a Randy Newman soundtrack, under every frame of animation in the Toy Story series. Now Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the toy chest have returned (with some new friends), almost a quarter century from the day we met them in the first Pixar film back in 1995. The fourth installment in the beloved series (which some of us feared because we didn’t want them to ruin what we loved about the first three) is actually really good.

What makes Toy Story 4 successful (no spoilers here!) is what has made them all successful. Pixar makes films that wrestle with the complexities of life that humans wrestle with, making us think, laugh, and inevitably cry. Toy Story 4 is no different, wading through sorrows only adults have known, while capturing the heart and imagination of children. I was a wide-eyed 9-year-old the first time I heard Buzz say, “To infinity and beyond!” This weekend, I took my own family. I now see (and feel) the layers of storytelling, and yet I realize I also somehow see less than my 3-year-old.

All of the important characters — a pull-string cowboy, a talking space ranger with built-in laser, a Little Bo-Peep doll, and a dozen others — are made of manufactured plastic, and yet they often feel more human than the flesh and blood we interact with each day. They wrestle honestly with their purpose and identity. They risk, and fail, and risk again. They experience anxiety and pain through life changes. They sacrifice. They make new friends, and they say goodbye.

Friendships make the movies — and friendships make (or break) our lives — because God made us to love and be loved.

Life Is About Friendship

Woody has marshaled this toy story all along, from that first staff meeting during the dreaded birthday party (the day he met Buzz Lightyear), through harrowing adventures at Pizza Planet, Al’s Toy Barn, and Sunnyside Daycare, to the day they said goodbye to Andy and met their new owner, Bonnie. Woody leads as a friend, the very best of friends — first to Andy, then to Bonnie, and to the many toys in between (including a skittish, insecure, and needy spork, who’s introduced in the new film).

Woody never abandons a friend in need, and he never leaves a friend behind. The pull-string sheriff stands out, again and again, for his selflessness, often putting himself on the line for others. Others may be smarter, bigger, and stronger than he is, but there’s no friend like our cowboy. We love Woody because we all need Woody. We all feel how closely friendship sits to the heart of humanity. And friendship sits close to the heart of humanity because of God.

It was God who said, at the very beginning, that it was not good for man to be alone (Genesis 2:18). Then, at the fullness of time, God sent his own Son into the world, not only to be a friend (John 15:13), but to make and have friends (Mark 3:13–14). Jesus befriended the lowly and despised in society (Matthew 11:19). He shared the deepest intimacy with twelve disciples, and especially Peter, James, and John (Mark 5:37; Matthew 17:1; Matthew 26:37). Those three saw him lifted high on the Mount of Transfiguration, and they watched him kneel down to plead with the Father the night he was betrayed. And then, most remarkably, Christ himself turns not only to his twelve, but to us all, and says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you. . . . I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:14–15). Even before God, in the flesh, made friends, he knew a profound and mysterious kind of friendship within the eternal Godhead — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit forever loving and being loved by one another.

The Christian gospel is that God himself is our friend in Christ — and he calls us to be faithful friends. Jesus says, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34–35). Friendship, ordinary as it may sound, is not peripheral or supplementary to reality but rests near the core of who we are and why we exist.

In his best moments, Woody has been a whisper of the friend we have in heaven and a faint replica of the love with which we’re called to love our friends on earth.

Life Is (Not) About Friendship

Yet, for all our admiration of how Woody loves his friends, he’s a complicated cowboy. He oscillates in the films, sometimes wildly, sometimes indiscernibly, between risking himself for others and doing whatever necessary to be the most loved. He often strives to find himself — his identity, his purpose, his worth — in the adoring eyes of a child. Isn’t that, after all, what a toy was made for?

As we watch the films, we get lost in the blurriness between loving others at great cost and simply hazarding himself to be loved. Where does loyalty end and vanity begin — in Woody, yes, but also in us? Can we discern Christlike love from simply loving to be loved? In marriage, and now parenting, I have felt this tension in myself far more than I ever had before. Am I really dying to myself to lift others up, or just trying to lift myself up? The distinction can make friendship subtly dangerous.

Followers of Christ are not at all shy about the depth and beauty of real friendship. The apostle Paul writes in one place to his converts, “My brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved” (Philippians 4:1; see also 1:7–8). But as joyfully, sacrificially, and affectionately invested as Paul can be, he remains remarkably free from those he loves and serves. He says elsewhere, “Am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10). The beauty of true friendship, godly friendship, Christ-exalting friendship is in the seeming contradictions — immense affection and consistent correction, real dependence and yet freedom from one another, great love and yet courageous truth.

The danger for Woody, or Paul, or you and me, is in letting our friendships define us. Do you have worth and purpose apart from what your spouse thinks — or your children, or your coworkers, or your friends? We were made for friendship, but not only for friendship. When our friends become our life, it is only a matter of time until they ruin us, either in this life or when they die. As we enjoy friendship, and pour out our hearts to one another, we each must be rooted and grounded in Christ — our highest purpose, our deepest joy, our greatest love.

Woody’s greatest joy was being Andy’s favorite toy, which may be just fine as far as toys go. But his animated turmoil and restlessness can serve as a warning to those who long to feel loved. If God’s love for us in Christ does not put our hearts to rest (Matthew 11:28), our friendships become fertile soil for temptation, and eventually for our destruction.

Our Friendship Will Never Die

The secret ingredient, however, to Toy Story’s success is the sorrow of goodbyes. The energy in the very first scene of the first movie comes from the fear of having to say goodbye. Will Andy forget us for his new toys? Every significant relationship throughout the series carries the tension of finite and temporary love, of the inevitable farewell.

Woody fears losing Andy over Buzz. Andy fears losing Buzz, and then Woody too. The toys mourn the thought of losing Woody to a toy museum in Tokyo. Then they all fear what will happen when Andy goes off to college. Arguably the most poignant moment (at least so far) was in the incinerator at the garbage dump, while the familiar toys reached out, in their last moments together, and held hands (before being suddenly rescued). Then, Andy’s goodbye. Unsurprisingly, the new film often rehearses the same minor key.

Sorrow seeds the animation’s stunning power because we all are acquainted with grief. We all know the searing pain of loss — or the fear of one day losing a husband or wife, a parent or child, a close friend. And none of us was more acquainted than Christ. He lost every single friend on the road to the cross (Matthew 26:31). When Judas, most painful of all, came to betray him, Jesus said, “Friend, do what you came to do” (Matthew 26:50).

However friendships end, whether by life changes, betrayal, or abandonment, even death, they all will end — at least for a time. All but one. When God befriended us in Christ, he befriended us once and for all. When the credits of this creation finally roll, we will meet our Creator, Savior, Groom, and Friend.

Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. (Revelation 21:3–4)

This friendship will never, ever die. It will only grow, and deepen, and widen throughout eternity — no restlessness, no uncertainty, no obstacles, no fear. If Christ has called you his friend, you always will have a friend in him. And along with him, a family of blood-bought eternal friends — our favorite fellow toys from all the years. And we’ll never have to say goodbye.