The longer we roll around in the Christian circle, the more we’ll realize that people aren’t always grateful for our friendship. Whether political differences or misunderstanding or, worse yet, unspoken reasons, it’s easy to cut off friendship in this social media age. The thread of friendship is thinner than ever even when we have the pretense of being more social than ever.
How often do we think that we cared for this person in his time of need or helped that person in that search for a job or that we have promoted that person’s work to others or that we took care of one of their family members or defended them when people were criticizing that person? The list of favors comes into our minds when someone cuts ties with us. The more we feel like the person owes us, the more we feel indignant. The worst of course is when we try to figure out or find out directly from the other person and that person ignores us or gives us some lame passive aggression, “We ARE friends. What do you mean? You misunderstood me.” How should a Christian deal with that kind of rejection?
I think of the patron-client society of the New Testament. NT scholars have often noted that the society of the Romans, patrons would do favors for those in a lower class than they and those recipients of favors were to repay with obligations. If they didn’t and decide to be ungrateful, they would suffer reprisal from the powerful patron. While there were many exceptions, this model of describing the NT society is probably commonplace among the sociological interpreters of the NT. In such a society, grace was always filled with unspoken obligations. When you cut the strings of obligations, you also cut the ties of friendship. Powerful patrons could withhold any future favors if such a thing actually happened.
The kind of grace the NT advocates however is beyond this system, though it still works within that system. The grace of the Bible is completely free. The disciples of Jesus were the best examples of grace. As followers, they were dire failures. They failed Jesus repeatedly, but Jesus allowed them to carry his ministry on earth. Paul was one of the greatest enemies of the faith and grace allowed him to become one of the greatest influencers of the early church. What does this have to do the situation when people you have done favors for fail your friendship?
First, we have to look at what wars against grace to get a better picture of how we should respond to betrayal by those who were supposed to be friends. Obligatory transaction is the enemy of grace. Grace that’s freely given isn’t grace. Obligation ruins grace. Using others is the enemy of grace. Some see friendship as a transaction between two parties. Some purely see friendship in those transactional terms. They only show up when they need something from you, by going over the top to act as your best friend. This transactional model of friendship isn’t grace. Yet, when we first meet people, we too can fall into the thinking pattern of “Now, you owe me one.” It’s easy to think like that when we live in an age of cheap transactional friendship. However, if we think “He owes me one, but he’s so ungrateful,” then we fall into the transactional model of grace. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t learn lessons about whom to trust and distrust from life’s harsh realities, but treating friendship as means to an end (even professionally) tarnishes the relationship God had originally designed for humanity. I experience often in my professional relationships. There may even be people who want to befriend you because you have something they want. They could act like your biggest fans because by associating with you, they get what they want. They get to say, “Did you know I know so and so?” This too is a form of relational transaction. Such things reduce the beauty of relationship to a cheap self-interest or frigid judicial procedure. How do we restore the beauty of grace in light of our terribly tarnished and often selfish relationships?
These situations remind us of two things. First, it reminds us that when we do favors as a gracious Christian act, we should expect it to be completely free. Someone once told me that if I were to lend money to someone, expect to never be repaid. I suppose that’s just helping without expecting returned obligations. It seems stupid, but grace can be quite foolish in worldly standards. We Christians, as people of grace, should live graciously, but quite often, we create threads that link the recipients to our obligations of friendship and loyalty. Expect nothing! That’s grace. When we are faced with the choice between valuing grace or loyalty from others, we ought to choose grace. Second, at the same time, our hurt feelings can often be a reminder that we should value loyalty to our friends by giving loyalty. Quite often, we too fall into the trap of cheap exchanges that lack deep ties. Our hurt feelings shouldn’t cause us to be jaded. Instead, we should be more ready to give favors without expectation of returned loyalty while building loyal friendships by being loyal to our friends. If they don’t repay us with loyalty, we aren’t part of the problem. Instead, we become part of the solution. If we preach grace, we should live in grace.