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3 July 2023

This article was first published on “Soundings” — a series of essays that, like the waves of a sonogram, explore issues in society, culture and the church in light of the Gospel and Christian understanding.

One of the many issues that the coronavirus pandemic has brought to our attention is the importance of what some sociologists have called social well-being of human flourishing.

In their contribution to the World Happiness Report, published in 2021, Karynna Okabe-Miyamoto and Sonja Lyubomirsky state: “The reduction in the physical availability of social connections is concerning, as over a century of research has proven how crucial social connection is for well-being.”[1]

Apart from close familial relationships, friendship is also extremely important for our social health.

In fact, ancient philosophers such as Aristotle have underscored how essential friendship is for human development, describing it as necessitudo—necessary. Cicero could speak of friendship thus: “And with the exception of wisdom, I am inclined to think nothing better than this has been given to man by the immortal gods.”[2]

The Christian tradition also has much to say about the importance of friendship. The great theologian and bishop of Hippo, Augustine (354-430), describes in various places in his penetrating spiritual autobiography Confessions that friends are given to us by God for his providential purposes.

A distinction is made, however, between worldly and spiritual, or holy, friendships. In his treatise entitled Spiritual Friendship which is regarded as a spiritual classicAelred of Rievaulx describes worldly friendships as essentially self-serving relationships which do not seek the good of the other.[3]

Spiritual friendships, in contrast, are formed by a mutual love for Christ, a mutual commitment to seek the good of the other, and a mutual desire to grow in Christ. A holy friendship is profoundly Christ-centred. It is not just a relationship between the two friends but always includes a third party, Christ.

This is profoundly portrayed in the opening sentences of Aelred’s Spiritual Friendship where the author says to Ivo, his fellow monk: “Here we are, you and I, and I hope a third, Christ, in our midst.”[4]

In his remarkable spiritual work, On the Love of God, the revered Catholic Bishop of Geneva, Francis de Sales (1567-1622), grounds holy friendship in the triune God in whose image we have been made. “Just as God created man in his own image and likeness,” Francis writes, “so also did he ordain a love for man in the image and likeness of his divinity.”[5]

The holy friendship between two (or more) Christians, Francis maintains, mirrors or images the friendship of the three divine persons of the Trinity, which the Genevan bishop regards as the holiest kind of spiritual friendship. Thus, he writes: “…if friendship is to be loved and desired, what friendship can be so in comparison with that infinite friendship which is between the Father and the Son…”[6]

Francis emphasises the importance of communication in friendship, the transparent and authentic giving and receiving of love. Again, he alludes to the Trinity: “From all eternity, there is in God an essential communication by which the Father, in producing the Son, communicates his entire, infinite and indivisible divinity to the Son.”[7]

In the same way, God communicates himself to the human creature in the Incarnation of the Son. It is because of this communicative act of God, which is a divine initiative motivated only by love, that we are capable of being the friends of God.

This communication is never only one way—by God to the human being. It is always a dialogue, a conversation, and never a monologue.

The human creature responds to the divine initiative and so communicates with God in a lively reciprocity which must characterise every friendship. Francis writes: “We are in constant communication with him, who does not cease to speak to our hearts by inspirations, attractions and sacred movements.”[8]

Holy friendship among Christians is analogous to the relationship of the divine persons in the Godhead and grounded in the Christian’s relationship with God.

Holy friendship is important not just for the social well-being of Christians, but also for their spiritual health.

Holy friendship has been rightly described as the school of Christian love because it teaches and encourages the Christian to live the truly ex-centric life, that is, a life that is not centred on the self but is always lovingly oriented towards others. For to love an other is to surely to be called out of ourselves and to be attentive to the needs of that other.

Additionally, as a morally and spiritually significant relationship, holy friendship is also vital to the growth of the Christian. This is because our friends can sometimes discern things about us that we fail to notice or refuse to acknowledge.

True spiritual friends can show us to ourselves.


[1] Karyanna Okabe-Miyamoto and Sonja Lyubomirsky, “Social Connection and Well-being During Covid-19”, World Happiness Report 2021, 133. https://worldhappiness.report/ed/2021/social-connection-and-well-being-during-covid-19/.
[2] Marcus Tullus Cicero, Laelius De Amicita, http://faculty.sgc.edu/rkelley/Laelius%20de%20Amicitia.pdf.
[3] Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship, translated by Mary Eugenia Laker, S.S.N.D. (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1977).
[4] Ibid., 1:1.
[5] Francis de Sales, On the Love of God, translated by John K. Ryan, (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1963), I:170.
[6] On the Love of God, I: 196.
[7] On the Love of God, I: 111.
[8] On the Love of God, I:160-1.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.