Spiritual Friendships

by Fr. Justin Huang
Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Isaiah 49:3, 5-6

1 Corinthians 1:1-3

John 1:29-34

Let’s deal with two problems regarding friendships. First, what’s called being “unequally yoked,” a term from St. Paul (2 Cor 6:14), which now refers to a marriage or a couple dating where one spouse or person is spiritually stronger than the other. When two animals with a yoke over their shoulders are of different strength and speed, there can be injuries.

Many times a married person has said to me that they know they’re not as close to God as their spouse. Typically, a husband will reveal privately that he’s intimidated by his wife; he thinks something like, “I can’t keep up with her.” Because he doesn’t excel spiritually as she does, subconsciously he gives up the spiritual quest, and focuses on other things. Some of us men may actually feel a sense of inferiority: We’re supposed to lead our family, but because we’re passive, we’re discouraged.

Of course, this happens to women, too, but it’s not as common. When it does, these women sometimes feel unworthy of their virtuous husbands.

Second problem: Someone very holy once admitted to me that he had no friends. His vulnerability struck me deeply. Many of us don’t have spiritual friendships, who challenge and support us in our ups and downs in faith.

The short Second Reading has three insights for us. “From Paul, called to be an Apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes. To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 1:1-3).

First insight: St. Paul had friends and co-workers in God’s vineyard. Many scholars point out that Sosthenes is a co-author of this letter and that his name is mentioned—what’s special about that? Co-authorship is extremely rare in ancient Greek letters: one scholar found that it only happened six times in 645 letters. But St. Paul did it eight times in his 13 letters because he wasn’t a lone ranger. He calls Sosthenes his ‘brother’ because “early Christians understood themselves to be an extended family” (George T. Montague, First Corinthians in Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture).

Every Christian should have spiritual friends, and the litmus test of a spiritual friend is that they talk about… Christ. St. Paul mentions the name ‘Christ’ nine times in the opening part of this letter, and we just heard it mentioned four times. If we don’t talk about Jesus, Who He is, our relationship with Him, and what He’s doing now in our lives, that person may be a friend, but not a spiritual one.

Second insight: What do we know about Sosthenes? Almost nothing. He could be the ruler of a Corinthian synagogue who was beaten when St. Paul first went there (Cf. Acts 18:17), and afterwards became a Christian. But the fact that we know almost nothing is helpful. St. Paul is perhaps the greatest missionary in Christian history, while Sosthenes is just a humble worker, and yet they were yoked together in a mission. Nevertheless, that didn’t stop Sosthenes from growing spiritually! So, if we’re married to someone who’s holier than we are, so what? Like Sosthenes, we should strive to be as holy as we can be.

Third insight: St. Paul writes “to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.” He’s referring to those who have already been made holy in Baptism (Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, 285), but who still have to “strive to be worthy of the opportunity given them” (New Jerome Biblical Commentary, 800, 1401), that is, become saints.

The best kind of spiritual friendship is with another Christian who desires to be a saint. As we said in September 2019, the essence of friendship in Latin in antiquity was idem velle atque idem nolle, to want the same thing and to reject the same thing. It’s hard for me to be spiritual friends with someone who doesn’t want to be a saint. I can be friends with them on a philosophical level because we share a desire for truth, and this is great, but they’ll never truly understand my heart, what directs my whole life.

If we’re in an unequally yoked marriage, here are two solutions:

  1. Divorce. Since that’s not a good option, let’s go to option number two.
  2. Grow holier. Sosthenes’ life demonstrates that our goal is to become a saint according to our own path. We’re not supposed to become mirror images of our spouses.

You know, at every point in my spiritual life, I was always behind. When I arrived at Christ the King Seminary, everyone knew more than I did about the faith. I had to ask so many questions. But by fourth year, I knew as much as they did. When I went to New York, I had so much to learn about the larger American church. But four years later, I was top of my class. Now it was only a class of 11 priests, but as a friend said, “Hey, you’re still top of your class.” So stop complaining that your wife is holier. You can catch up! Be thankful that you’re married to a great person.

One of the most spiritually mature things we can do that will catapult us instantly in holiness is an act of humility. Go to your wife and say, “Will you help me grow spiritually?” Real men admit when they need help and take ownership of their growth, and so grow quickly!

But what if we’re the ones in the relationship who are spiritually more advanced? Pray for them, love them, spend time with them! Don’t try to fix them. We all like to help people grow but sometimes we try to fix people, meaning we try to change them for our benefit.

One temptation, according to Dan and Stephanie Burke, experts in the spiritual life, is to move away from our spouse. We start serving God so much that we neglect them and don’t spend as much time with them. This is a very complicated topic because God comes first and our spouse can never force us to sin, but our love for Jesus and our desire to be a saint should draw us to love and serve our spouse more than before—that’s a compelling witness for them!

There are two resources from the Burkes that will be on my blog regarding this whole topic, including some reflection questions for spouses, such as: Do I harbor a lack of forgiveness for my spouse? Do I give my husband respect even though he doesn’t live or believe as I do? Do I pursue my spouse or am I receptive or responsive to my spouse romantically?

Oftentimes, we want people to grow spiritually, but the reality is we’re not holy enough to help them. Let’s say a husband is 7 out of 10 in terms of holiness, while his wife is a 3. He wants her to get to 7, too. But the only way he’ll help her is by himself becoming a 9! This is important for parents. Parents, if you want your children to love Jesus like you do, you need to grow yourselves because the truth is you’re not holy enough to get your children to where you are now.

For our consideration, what if we have no friendships? Then ask God for them. We have to pray that God will send people into our lives who have the same spiritual desires, with whom we can share our joys and sorrows, who will challenge us, and with whom we click. We can’t be friends with every holy person, because we also have to be at similar stages in life and have similar interests.

Also, be proactive in fostering relationships. A common mistake when we go to a church is that we’re passive and then wonder why we have no friends at church. Friendships develop over time by our getting involved and slowly getting to know others. If we start treating people with love and kindness, they’ll reciprocate, and a friendship might develop.

But don’t emotionally suck people dry. Another mistake in fostering friendships is that we’re so hungry, perhaps desperate, for relationships that when we find people who are interested, we overdo it and start emotionally taking from them, calling or texting them excessively. No. We need to be proactive but mature, and look for signs of interest on their part.

Lastly, we have Faith Studies starting in two weeks, which is an amazing opportunity to grow in holiness according to our own path, to talk to brothers and sisters about Christ, and to grow in our desire to be a saint. We shouldn’t sign up for Faith Studies in order to make friends, but spiritual relationships do form, and sometimes friendships do, too.

I’ve seen spouses who were far from God come alive. I remember one time a couple came to me about getting their marriage blessed. At first, the husband was opposed to it while the wife was trying to carry it through. After some time, he was so open that she said in front of me and him, “He’s changed. I can’t believe it. He now wants this more than I do.”

And that person who told me that he had no friends started making time to get together with his brother regularly, and then started cancelling things at work in order to make time for friendships.

Finally, you should know that Sosthenes is recognized by the Church as a saint. He may not have been as holy as St. Paul, but he reached the goal! His feast day is November 28. God wants us to have spiritual friends, who desire to become saints.