We need community. The number of monthly active users on Facebook has grown to over 1.5 billion. Studies have shown friends in the workplace are an indicator of happiness and productivity. There is a social element to depression that psychologists suggest can be just as powerful as its chemical component. None of this should come as a surprise. Theologically we know the only thing God declared “not good” in creation was Adam’s lack of companionship. We have been created for community.
But I wonder if we really understand our need for deep friendship. We need a sense of belonging, but in the deepest parts of our souls, we need more than simple connection. Every one of us needs a friend of the soul. We may have a lot of friends, but how many of us have someone who knows our deepest thoughts and feelings, our joys and our pains, our victories and struggles? How many of us have someone who loves us despite our shortcomings? How many have a friend who speaks truth, and all the while is helping cultivate a greater relationship with God?
A friend who does these things is a spiritual friend, a friend of your soul. Not all friends are soul friends, and just because a friend is a fellow disciple does not make him or her a spiritual friend. It takes more than a shared love of Jesus to make a spiritual friend.
A spiritual friend is committed to joining us on the journey of discipleship, to walk side by side and help us live in the presence of Jesus. Spiritual Friendships by Mindy Caligure is one of the best books you can read on the topic. In it Mindy writes, “Spiritual friends actively help us pay attention to God. Similar to the way other spiritual practices connect us to God, our soul friends help us sit with him. They have the capacity to help restore life to the soul.”
History of spiritual friendships
Spiritual friendships have existed since the beginning of creation. When Adam called Eve “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” he was saying, “We are the same. We are partners in this journey.” The Bible is describing more than their physical state when it says they were naked and unashamed. This kind of intimacy, being fully open and loved, is one of the key characteristics of spiritual friendships. David and Jonathan, Naomi and Ruth, Paul and Barnabas, are all examples of spiritual friends in scripture.
One of the first people to teach about spiritual friendship as a discipline was an English abbot in the twelfth century, Aelred of Rievaulx. He wrote De spiritali amicitia (“On Spiritual Friendship”) and taught that spiritual friends help one another grow in love, love for one another and love for God. Aelred called spiritual friendship a sacrament of God’s love. He compared it to the Holy Trinity saying our relationships become spiritual friendships when, like the Trinity, they are based on “mutual dialogue, exchange, sharing, and self-giving.”
Aelred referred to a spiritual friend as “a guardian of love” or “a guardian of the spirit itself.” He said spiritual friendships will “begin in Christ, continue in Christ and be perfected in Christ.” Unlike the one-way relationship with a spiritual director, Aelred emphasized the mutual nature of spiritual friendship. Each person gives, and each one receives.
In the seventeenth century, Francis De Sales built on Aelred’s teaching in his book Introduction to the Devout Life. Francis described spiritual friendships as relationships that involve “mutual and reciprocal communications related to charity, devotion, and Christian perfection.” Like Aelred, he wrote about valuing the friendship itself, not just what one could gain from it. There is a difference between friendships based on what we can gain (concupiscence) and ones based on the desire for the others good (benevolence). Only a benevolent friendship, De Sales taught, has the potential to become spiritual.
What is a spiritual friend?
The soul is the substance of who we are. It encompasses every part of life, spiritual, physical, emotional, and so on. Your soul is the essence of the person God created you to be, and a spiritual friend is a companion of your soul. He or she connects to the person we really are, not the false person we so often present to the rest of the world. A spiritual friendship is a deeper relationship than most.
Spiritual friends bring us into the presence of God
A spiritual friendship is more than a relationship; it is a spiritual discipline because it cultivates a greater awareness of the presence and activity of God in our lives. This is the first mark of a spiritual friendship.
The journey of a disciple cannot be walked alone, and spiritual friends help guide one another into deeper relationship with Jesus. They remind each other God is present and active in every area of life and help one another see God in every experience.
This may never be truer than in difficult times. Friends of the soul will grieve together in a way other friends cannot. They care for one another in painful times, but a spiritual friend does more than listen and empathize. Spiritual friends help us lean into God when pain and struggles come.
Spiritual friends know and love one another
Spiritual friends don’t just know about each other, they really know the deepest parts of one another’s stories. There are things they know that no one else does, and because of this knowledge, their love can be deeper than others. This is the second mark of a spiritual friendship.
You may have heard someone suggest this kind of intimacy, being “naked and not afraid,” should be the goal of every Christian relationship, but that is not realistic. Soul friends are more rare than that. Some friends don’t connect to us on deeper levels. Others are not the kind of people we can trust with every detail of our lives. That’s okay. We need friends at different levels of connection.
But we cannot let the rare nature of spiritual friendship be an excuse for not seeking one out. I don’t think a spiritual friendship ever begins without someone being willing to risk that scary first step of sharing deeply. It is risky to remove your mask with someone, to really allow him into your story. But if we don’t take the chance we will not experience the beautiful support, transformation, and love available in these relationships.
Opening ourselves us to a spiritual friend is scary, but it is safe. It is safe because a true spiritual friend gives grace and love. She knows your whole story and still loves you. He is someone you can count on for whatever you need. Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 explains,
“Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble. Likewise, two people lying close together can keep each other warm. But how can one be warm alone? A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken.
Spiritual friends are there to pick one another up when they fall. They sacrifice and give whatever is needed, be it warmth or support in battle. And three is even better than two. I imagine Aelred of Rievaulx was thinking of this passage when he described a spiritual friendship as a relationship between two people and Jesus.
Men, let’s be honest. This can be difficult for us. The kind of relationship I am describing is not something our culture considers masculine, but we need it. Too many of our battles are fought in solitude. We need a sword brother, not just someone who “has our back,” but someone who knows us. The journey to become the men we are created us to be is greatly opposed. It’s not important to have a sword brother; it is essential.
A soul friend, or a sword brother if you prefer, joins your battle. He will stand at your back and fight back your attackers as if his own life depended on it. He will put his life on the line. Not because he is tough or a good friend, he is driven by love. He knows your struggles and shortcomings and is still willing to put his life on the line for you.
There is honesty associated with being known and loved. Without honesty about the deepest places in our lives, we cannot find a friend of the soul. Our spiritual friend will know us fully, warts and all. We can be honest because we are known and loved for who we really are. There may not be anything more transformational than sharing your deepest self, the things you keep hidden for fear of rejection, and finding yourself loved and accepted in the sharing.
The love and acceptance of a spiritual friend opens up a level of honesty rarely found elsewhere. Soul friends are motivated by love to be honest with one another. Mindy Caliguire says they are like a mirrors, helping one another see who they are, the people they are created to be and where they fall short. This is the third mark of a spiritual friend.
Our wounds often blind us to the people we are created to be. We struggle to see our gifts or where we are falling short of God’s calling. Because spiritual friends know one another’s story so deeply and they place God in the center of the relationship, they are uniquely positioned to help discern who God created the other to be.
A spiritual friendship is a perfect place to confess sin and receive grace. Their love and support mirror that of God’s in our lives. Soul friends loves one another where they are. They see the person God created each other to be and encourage one another to become that person.
A spiritual friend is far more concerned with his friend becoming the person he is created to be than his passing happiness. This means she knows when her friend needs a kick in the pants and is there to love and pick her up afterward. A soul friend will be honest even when it hurts, because he has the long view of our transformation in mind. It is a spiritual friend Proverbs 27:6 describes when it says, “Wounds from a sincere friend are better than many kisses from an enemy.”
Finding a spiritual friend
Spiritual friendships rarely happen without intention. Unlike a spiritual director where the relationship is built from the ground up, a spiritual friendship will begin from an existing relationship, but not every relationship has the potential to become a spiritual friendship. Mindy Caliguire offers helpful advice when discerning if a relationship is fertile ground for cultivating a spiritual friendship.
Think about your friends. Which ones give you the most energy? There are some people you hang out with who are great and fun people, and then there are those people who seem to put an extra spring in your step.
My wife likes to go to bed early. If she wrote Cinderella, the coach would have turned into a pumpkin at nine o’clock. But there are a couple friends she spends time with on a regular basis who keep her out past her bedtime. She waltzes into the bedroom full of energy. I’m already in bed (because I too enjoy an early bedtime), but she is not ready to sleep. She could stay up another hour or two. What relationships give you that kind of energy? They are the ones to explore as potential spiritual friendships.
Is the person you are considering for a spiritual friend a safe person? The depth and details of your story are precious, and they need to be entrusted to someone who will treat them appropriately. Mindy describes an unsafe person as someone who does not listen well, looks to fix you and give you advice, lacks empathy, does not share deeply him or herself, or is manipulating, judging, and gossiping. People like this are not safe to share the journey of a spiritual friendship.
A spiritual friendship is a relationship between three parties, two people and God, so it is important for a potential spiritual friend to understand the journey of a disciple. Is this someone who draws you closer to God? Does he or she understand the life of a disciple is not a spiritual to-do list? Do your conversations veer toward what God is teaching you or where he is moving in your life?
You will also need to ask if the person will love you unconditionally. Will he or she allow you to be yourself, and will they be themselves with you. Do you trust this person desires the best for you and will be honest with you even when the truth hurts? Without a foundation of unconditional love, a spiritual friendship will be stunted and unfruitful.
It is important to also consider if we meet the criteria above. If we long for a spiritual friendship we must consider if we are safe people. Are we willing to love someone unconditionally, show grace, and be honest even when it is hard. A spiritual friendship is mutual. We cannot take from a spiritual friendship without giving.
Finally, is he or she willing to enter into a deeper relationship with you? The intention necessary for a spiritual friendship may mean risking the question. Is he willing to share as deeply as you are? Is she willing not only to give to you, but is she also willing to receive? Remember that a spiritual friendship is reciprocal. It is not a mentoring relationship or spiritual direction. If someone is not willing to build a relationship at the soul level, he or she is not a good candidate for a spiritual friendship.
As we consider potential spiritual friendships in our lives, we must also be willing to commit to being a friend of someone’s soul. Remember that as humans our love is imperfect. The love of spiritual friends is only a reflection of God’s perfect love, and it will take time to develop. Like any relationship, a spiritual friendship will grow and evolve.
What if you don’t have a potential spiritual friend in your life? There was a season of my life, not too long ago in fact, when I didn’t have a solid base of friends. My first step was committing to pray. I asked God to bring relationships into my life. As I prayed I realized I had not been a good friend. There were existing relationships where I had taken far more than I had given, so I began working to reconnect in those relationships. I also started taking some risks to build new relationships when I had the opportunity.
If you look at your friends and don’t think you have a potential spiritual friend, begin to pray. Ask God for direction. Be open to things you may need to change to be a better friend, and be willing to take risks. That may mean taking the first step to build a friendship or attending some gathering where you can meet like-minded people. Trust God to guide you.
Other Spiritual Friendship Resources
Sacred Companions: The Gift of Spiritual Friendship & Direction by David Benner
Spiritual Friendships by Mindy Caliguire
Introduction to the Devout Life by Francis DeSales