One of the deepest needs we have as human beings is our need for companionship. It is not good for us to be alone all the time. We were made in the image of God. Being made in God’s image does not mean that we look like God but that we can become like God. We can act like God acts. We can manifest the virtues and qualities that are innate in God’s own being. We become like God when we learn to live a shared life—a life of soul friending.
We live in a world that makes soul friending hard. There’s not enough time to be a friend or have a friend. We are busy trying to survive—to make the ends meet with the threads of our lives that we are trying to bring together. One of the great costs of living in an always on; always available culture is that we neglect the deep needs of the soul—the need to share our lives in meaningful and momentous ways. Our attempts to merely survive through life’s demands and pressures is to ignore the deepest part of our selves—the part that seeks connection—the part that says, we are not alone, after all.
By living an isolated, hurried, lonely existence, we leave our inner lives barren—emaciated from all that nourishes us in our lives. We are told in the Scriptures, that we do not live by bread alone. So, why then, are we killing ourselves to make bread and sell bread with such urgency and grandiosity that we forget that in friendship, we, literally become the bread, that the other is seeking? So, why then, are our inner lives often barren, starved for affection and siloed with heavily fortified walls so that no one can find their way into our hearts?
We settle to co-exist. We pass by one another. We wave. But off we go retreating into our lonely worlds.
Soul Friending is the act of living a shared life from the core of our inner worlds. From that shared place within, we meet. We connect. We exchange our thoughts, feelings, desires and emotions. There is a flow of something that the Bible tells us is love. Since God is love, it only makes sense that when friends meet, love is experienced. We may not say these words but by our mutual presence, we exchange this most sacred of all commodities in life: love.
Five Crucial Ingredients in Soul Friendship
I have come to understand that there are five elements that are crucial, vital and needed to experience soul friendship.
Soul friendship involves companionship. Our word for “companion” is rooted in the French word composed of two terms: “com” means with and “panion” means “bread”. It is the beautiful image of two people searching for the same thing—namely bread. Soul friendship is two people looking for bread that will satisfy their inner cravings. We become companions throughout our lives when we realize that we need more than money to make life work. Sure, money helps. But the rich need companionship as much as the poor people do. If we live long enough, we realize that money, position and success are not the things in life that satisfy us and make us feel content. What makes us content as men and women is when we know, that we know, that we are not alone.
Someone cares. Someone truly wants my happiness. Someone gives a damn. Someone cares. Someone loves me. Someone accepts me for who I am with all my flaws and flaws intact.
One of the most beautiful texts in the Scriptures describes the intent of Jesus was to simply be “with” his friends. Mark tells us plainly, “He ‘called the twelve that he might be with them’” (Mark 3:14). Jesus wanted to simply “be with” his companions. To be with another human being is to step into the transcendence of what happens when we share life and do life with another person. It is a spiritual act to share time and it borders on something closely equivalent to sharing the bread and cup in worship.
When I call a soul friend and say, “Hey! Can we have lunch?” I am not asking them to go get food with me. I am asking them for time. I am asking them for companionship. I am asking them to show up as I show up. I am asking them to assuage my inner restlessness; my inner unshared and perhaps unexplored anxieties. I am asking them to share in the sacrament of a shared life with me.
Soul friendship requires the relationship to be reciprocal. If a relationship is not reciprocal, it is work—it is not friendship. As simple as that is to say, it has taken me years to figure out. To be reciprocal means that there is a mutual exchange of sharing. It is not lop-sided. It is not one-sided. It is not selfish. To be reciprocal means a relationship by it’s very nature is “give and take”. Sometimes we give. Sometimes we take. But it is always monitoring that flow—that this deep exchange of our sharing is taking place; to make sure that both voices are heard; both stories are listened to; both hearts have been probed and explored.
As someone who has lived my entire professional life as a care giver, I have learned to bring this aspect as the test of whether my relationship with someone is a friendship or my work to care for them. If there is no exchange; no questions back to me which says, “And what about you, Steve? How is it with your soul?” If that question is absent; if the table is never or rarely turned to ask me anything about my life, then I know I am working; I am not soul friending. Soul friending is being intentional about time—to make sure there is “enough” time for my friend to share; to explore their own hearts; to tell their whole story—not just the surface part that is about our actions and our calendars. This has helped me lay down my expectations about work relationships; team and the health of who I am to my co-workers. To expect my team-mates to be reciprocal is to lay on them a heavy burden—a burden they cannot possible meet. But to have a friendship where I feel safe to share; safe to get some things “out” of me; safe to just be or say what I need to say, not as the president or manager or leader is to wade into the warm waters that having a reciprocal friendship offers me.
Soul Friendship involves honesty. Honesty in friendship is about feeling the freedom to mirror back to the other person what you see in them. Honesty is often mis-understood for truth telling. I have learned the hard way that too much truth is abusive. To be told often and to be told with brutal strength of our short-comings, our failures; our mistakes is something akin to abuse. We are told by one of the closet companions of Jesus, the Apostle John, that Jesus was a “man full of truth and grace.” Here, we find the core prerequisites of honesty. Honesty is about grace as much as it is about truth. I’m so thankful that my soul friends have given me grace which often looked like giving me more time to figure something out myself than telling me what I should do. Honest is not about convincing someone. Honesty is about being with someone who may share another perspective; a different conviction. Truth and grace is a loving expression to monitor our interactions in soul friendships. Too much grace is another short-coming we can fall into. Soul friendship is striking that difficult space of accepting, showing kindness and at the same time being able to “speak one’s mind.”
Soul Friendship involves listening. It is a mistake and simply wrong to believe that some of us are good listeners and some of us are not. We can all become better listeners—better friends through learning to listen more deeply to one another. Listening is a skill that is developed as we practice to lay aside our own opinions, convictions and platitudes on behalf of the other.
After 38 years of marriage, Gwen and I felt the need to get some outside help in our own marriage. We asked a trusted counselor to step into our marriage to help us grow the ears of an elephant towards each other. Even at our place in life, we both had untold stories to tell and to share. We needed to “learn” to listen more deeply than ever before. We learned to listen to the untold stories of childhood experiences of abandonment. We learned to hear each other out. By hearing the other one out, a strange thing happened, our capacity to hold each other’s stories only grew.
Hearing those stories fostered a deeper compassion than we both ever thought was possible for the other person. Learning to listen helped. Listening always helps. Learning to listen meant: that we need to stop interrupting the other person. Learning to listen meant we needed to stop thinking of our response, when and as the other one was speaking. It meant, we needed to be long-suffering towards the other person, as an attempt was made to share something that was too deep for words. Listening means to lean into the other person not to be co-dependent but to become truly available to and for the other person. Listening means to hold what is said as sacred deposits that need to be valued, held and could be safe without judgment or eliciting a response. To be listened to is the most basic form love. To listen to someone is the greatest act of love that is possible. To be listened to is receive someone into your own soul and to become completely safe for whatever that person is going to share.
Soul friendship is about love—only love—because love is the greatest of all human virtues. Love is more than a feeling. Love is more than emotion. As the great Swiss psychologist, Walter Trobish, said, “love is a feeling to be learned.” In the ups and downs of my friendships with many people through the years, it is me coming to understand, what love is and what love is not, that has held me in the place to remain courageous when I wanted to run and vulnerable when I wanted to protect my inside world. To love and to be loved is the greatest of all spiritual exchanges in life. To love is to accept. To love is to lay down my efforts to change someone into my own image. To love, is trust that my friend is an imperfect as I am. To love is to put on a shelf my urge to teach my friend something that I suspect they do not know yet—some spiritual insight; some information that I somehow, feel the need to offer them. To love is to accept my role as their companion—not their teacher. To love is the ease of being with a kindred soul that I intuitively know that I am connected—that I am not alone when we are together. To love is to treat my friend as I would treat a sacrament—to acknowledge their dignity; their battles; their inner demons; their capacity to hold my story as sacred as I am attempting to hold their story.
This is not a complete list—far from it. But these establish a sort of lane that I can have to give me guard rails in my friendship to keep me moving in the right direction. To keep us moving so that we don’t have a train-wreck in our friendship as often is the case.Take a moment to read this again. What strikes you as really important? Who comes to mind when you are reading this? Could you send this to a soul friend and express the desire to simply recognize the gift that you share? What would be it be like to use this in your small group or class as a springboard of discussion and building soul friendships?