Lesson 8: Self Denial

Friends at DinnerThe model for friendship is found in John 15: 12-17, right in the middle of Jesus’ words about love. He claims we are now friends, because he has shared all he knows with us. He then goes to say the epitome of love is someone who gives his life for his friend.

Jesus recognizes sharing involves some form of sacrifice in a healthy friendship. You hear the same when Thomas Aquinas defines friendship as a creative and joyful “playfulness” that depends on a “disciplined austerity.” He believes true friendship necessitates rejecting those enjoyments that distract from or are destructive of personal relationships. You have to give up some things in order to accommodate what your friend wants.

You don’t hear much of that kind of thing in our day. People talk about friendship being good for you, bringing happiness and health to your life. They usually speak of a friend as someone they love, because she gives them what they want or need. Self-denial has become a bad word.

Of course, that has led to the brittleness of so many personal relationships. If I am not satisfied, I move on. Many of us realize radical individualism is at the heart of many contemporary troubles. We simply will not face up to the self-denial that is necessary to solve most of our problems. We even pretend we can fight wars without making any personal sacrifices.

From a Christian perspective, radical individualism could better be described as self- absorption. Friendship provides a congenial way to check self-absorption, especially in our day when the checks once provided by extended family and community has been terribly weakened.

The ancient treatises took for granted that some self-denial is part of friendship. Their discussions involved how far this went. Often they mentioned it did not mean sacrificing moral or spiritual principles. Just as honoring a parent does not give them a blank check, so you do not commit a crime, because your friend asks you to. It, also, does not include allowing your friend to get away with a crime. I live in a college community where you sometimes hear of lying in order to protect your brothers.

Self-denial and sacrifice can involve suffering for another. And it was this kind of suffering that was regarded as redemptive. The Church Fathers spoke of denying yourself to help your friend achieve a more perfect physical, moral, or spiritual life You shared with and sacrificed for your friend in order that they might come closer to wisdom and God and ultimately achieve eternal life.

You see how central this was when many of treatises were set at the death of a friend. This gave the writers not only a chance to lament the profound loss of a loved one, but also an opportunity to answer the question, “Is friendship that has endured over a lifetime eternal?” To speak of eternal friendships sounds strange in our world where friends often come and go. We are more inclined to ask if we shall be with our pets than our friends in heaven. And perhaps that says something about modern life that Christian faith can heal.

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