The earliest messages are often the longest-lasting messages. Charles Spurgeon said that the voices of childhood echo throughout life so that “The first learned is generally the last forgotten.” This can be a tremendous blessing when truth is taught early and when it sinks in deep. It is for this reason that Christians have valued catechizing their children, teaching them the foundational truths of the faith while they are young. But this same principle can prove troublesome when the first lessons learned are poor ones, because those lessons are hard to correct and harder still to erase.
From a young age boys invariably receive one very unhelpful message: that men can be friends, but that there are strict, though unwritten, limits on how close a friendship they can have. Boys are taught that friendships are good, but that friendships can only grow to such an extent before they are good no longer.
From my youngest days, I knew that it was good to have a friend, but that a friendship could only be so close before our closeness would “out” us. If that happened, I would be called “Sissy!” at best, “Queer!” or a host of other degrading synonyms at worst. We could play rough and tumble games together. We could play with the approved toys together. But we had to be very careful with relational closeness or dependency because the other boys were watching with suspicion and judgment. The fathers may even have been watching with a wary eye, wondering if relational intimacy might just portend sexual intimacy. We had to be strong, independent, and self-reliant, knowing that every close friendship walked near a cliff and there would be fearful consequences if we came too close to its edge. We could be pals, we could be buddies, but we couldn’t love one another.
In his excellent little book True Friendship, Vaughan Roberts quotes James Wagenvoord who describes the messages men absorb:
He shall not cry. He shall not display weakness. He shall not need affection or gentleness or warmth. He shall comfort but not desire comforting. He shall be needed but not need. He shall touch but not be touched. He shall be steel not flesh. He shall be inviolate in his manhood. He shall stand alone.
This is the idea of manhood we assimilate before we are old enough to think for ourselves before we are able to evaluate for ourselves. This is the idea of manhood we absorb before we are capable of going to the Bible to learn for ourselves that it teaches something very different and so much better.
It is not difficult to see Satan’s hand in it, is it? He sees that if he can keep men from forming close friendships, he can keep men from forming close spiritual friendships. If Satan can keep men from acting like friends, he can keep them from acting like brothers.
I have been thinking a lot about friendship recently and realizing the truth of Spurgeon’s statement. Those early lessons really are hard to forget. They are difficult to overcome.
But I’m trying.
In my adult life, I have been blessed with some dear and intimate friends. I have come to depend on them in some way, to rely on their counsel, to covet their prayers, to savor the times we spend together, to miss them when we are apart—in short, to love them, and to enjoy the very things I was told I should not enjoy.
But it has not come easily. It has taken a commitment from them to push past my defenses and it has taken effort from me to see that this is okay. It has required fighting against the tide, so to speak, bringing truth to bear against old errors. And biblical truth really does counter than ugly nonsense that claims that men shouldn’t have close friendships, that they should not be committed to one another, that they should never say, “I love you.”
But I have found, and am finding, that friendship is worth the fight. It is worth the fight in finding men with whom I genuinely enjoy spending time and with whom I love to share experiences, but even more, it is worth the fight in finding men who will make me a better man. Gordon MacDonald says it well:
There is a certain “niceness” to a friendship where I can be, as they say, myself. But what I really need are relationships in which I will be encouraged to become better than myself. Myself needs to grow a little each day. I don’t want to be the myself I was yesterday. I want to be the myself that is developing each day to be more of a Christlike person.