Enduring Friendship: Sticking Together in an Age of Unfriending Available March 12 from IVP

“Telling the truth is essential in human relations, but unless truth is handled carefully as a scalpel to bring healing to a relationship, it can turn out to be more of a knife, which can kill. Truth is just that — a very sharp object that must be handled with great care.”

In her memoir The Liars’ Club, Mary Karr tells of a time when her aunt and uncle got into an argument and neither side was willing to give in. Unable to resolve the issue, the husband took out a lumber saw and cut the house in half, and he and his wife lived on opposite sides for the next 40 years. It’s hard to believe this is a true story, especially because a sugar package precipitated their fight.

The graveyard of friendships is not always brought on by some cataclysmic event like an affair or a betrayal. Rather, the demise of many relationships is over life’s “sugar packages” — those seemingly small things that have their way of derailing us.

Sometimes, what feels like a sugar package to one person is more like an earthquake to another. Confession: I’m horrible with names, and this has gotten me in trouble over the years. After service, Korie would often come down to the altar while I talked with people. There have been times when I was engaged in conversation with someone and didn’t introduce them to my wife standing beside me. I readily confess I should have, but in most cases I didn’t introduce them to Korie because I had forgotten their name. As a pastor who should know everyone’s name in the congregation, saying, “Tell me your name again,” would mean I’m a horrible pastor, right? Besides, making introductions just didn’t seem like that big of a deal to me. In our attempts to get at the truth, Korie had to accept my reasons and realize I wasn’t trying to leave her out. On the other hand, I had to acknowledge that what feels small to me isn’t necessarily small. Left unresolved, however, these sugar packages could have become a wedge in our friendship, sending us emotionally to either side of our home.

You may have your own recollections of estranged friendships. Your friend didn’t acknowledge you publicly. You were not invited to the event at their home. There was a spat over a card game. That quirky habit or eccentricity drove you nuts. They didn’t respond to your call or text when you thought they should have. They still owe you the money you let them borrow even though you told yourself it was a gift before you lent it, and what you gave them only amounted to the price of a sugar package compared to the value of the relationship.

“Be slow to make friends, and even slower to walk away from them,” I was once told. Sound advice I didn’t always follow in my sprint up Mount Significance. I had no concept of losing, so when people did or said things that made me feel like a failure, I bludgeoned them with the truth, showing them how wrong they were and how right I was. My obsession with success wreaked chaos on my friendships because I was always bent on winning. This led me to steward truth in such a way that my objective became winning the argument rather than preserving the relationship.

When Paul writes Philemon, we should keep in mind that Paul is an apostle, part of a small fraternity of leaders selected by Christ to give oversight to the church. Paul is a pretty big deal, and Philemon knows it. How could he not when the church that meets in his home was started under the oversight and direction of Paul? When Paul places himself in the role of mediator between Philemon and Onesimus, he does so endowed with a lot of power. Paul could very well have made the book of Philemon even shorter by saying his version of “Take Onesimus back as a brother, because I said so.” And that would be that.

But this is not Paul’s way. In a move worthy of mimicry, Paul says, “Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you — I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus — I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment” (Phil 8–9, emphasis mine).

Paul doesn’t throw his weight around or slam his apostolic authority on the table. Yes, he wants Philemon to heed his appeal, but this is secondary to his ultimate aspiration: the bonding of a friendship around the table of brotherhood. So what if Paul wins the argument? It means nothing if he loses the relationship.

Telling the truth is essential in human relations, but unless truth is handled carefully as a scalpel to bring healing to a relationship, it can turn out to be more of a knife, which can kill. Truth is just that — a very sharp object that must be handled with great care. This is why we need to be careful with verses in the Bible that instruct us to “speak the truth in love” (Eph 4:15). Oftentimes, when we come into a situation where a wedge has driven people apart, we only have an idea of what happened — meaning we have perspective but not truth. Humility says we should come in seeking truth, not just declaring truth. Seeking truth changes our entire approach.

We get a glimpse of this in how Paul communicates with Philemon. The letter has a warm, familial tone. Again, he refers to Philemon as his brother multiple times and Onesimus as his son. Paul is self-deprecating, referring to himself as an old man. The letter to Philemon is a masterclass in how to wield truth, because the first thing Paul models to us is how we say something is just as important as what we say.

This is really key if we want to win the person more than the argument. We have to be careful with our words. How we say something is as important as what we say.

Part of the reason why Paul is able to craft his words carefully is that he uses a medium called letter writing. It probably took him days to gather his words and write them down. Maybe he crafted several drafts, removed words, and inserted others. In our digital age where we can send the email, tweet, post, or direct message with a second’s notice, we would do well to take a moment and get our words together.

Paul also stewards truth well because he affirms the good before he deals with the difficult. You don’t need to spend a day studying Greek to know that verses four through seven come before verse eight in the book of Philemon. Paul begins by affirming some admirable things about Philemon — his faith and love, and how he has refreshed the hearts of all the saints. This is hardly flattery. Paul is being genuine. I can imagine Philemon unfolding the scroll and taking in Paul’s words. It’s not every day one gets correspondence from an apostle of the church.

We would do well to follow Paul’s example. Instead of going straight for the jugular, let’s pause and give pointed encouragement on the positive things we see in the person seated across from us. Again, I’m not suggesting flattery. Gossip is saying something behind a person’s back we would never say to their face. Flattery is saying something to a person’s face we would never say behind their back. If you would not say it to anyone else about them, then don’t say it to them. But because we are all complicated people with good and bad traits, let’s put in the time and effort to speak words of life before we get to the business at hand. In fact, if I read Paul right, affirming the good is very much a part of the business at hand.

After Paul speaks some very hard truth, he says to Philemon, “At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you” (Phil 22). I always chuckle when I read this verse because Paul seems to be saying, “Let me stay in your home because I want to make sure you did what I asked you to do by taking Onesimus back.” However, we know Paul does not intend to be passive aggressive in the least. Quite the opposite. His request to stay at Philemon’s home is his way of saying, “I want the relationship.” To Paul, connection has always been greater than correction. In fact, where there is no connection, there will be little likelihood of correction.

When you’ve been wronged by another and muster up the courage to sit down and have the conversation, what do you really want? If it’s all about winning or proving a point, then truth will become a weapon, a knife, and you will win and lose at the same time.


Adapted from Enduring Friendship by Bryan Loritts. ©2024 by Bryan Loritts. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press. www.ivpress.com.