When Disease and Disability Threaten Friendship
When I turned sixteen, I handed out more than sixty invitations for my birthday party bonfire. I was quite the social butterfly, and “friendship struggles” were not frequently on my radar. But all of that changed by the middle of that school year when my hearing loss began to quicken due to a progressing neurological disease. Little by little, I slipped away from the social scene, quietly dreading group gatherings and growing frustrated when my friends didn’t understand. Suddenly, relationships got very complicated. Conversations demanded an amount of concentration and effort that I didn’t always want to give. Meeting new people was awkward and always required an initial explanation.
It was in the years that followed, when I eventually went completely deaf, that I began to see the beauty and value of true Christ-centered friendships. These were friends who wanted more than a birthday party invitation or a sidekick for the Friday night football game. They wanted to know what God was teaching me through my trials and tell me what He had been teaching them in their Bible reading. The Lord graciously brought along several of these treasured friends, and my twenties abounded with long, edifying coffee dates and faithful prayer partners. Adjusting to life without hearing was still hard, but these sincere friendships were an encouraging breath of fresh air.
Somewhere along the line, however, “adult life” happened. Suddenly, my friends had husbands to care for and homes to decorate. And then, within just a year, I was engaged, married, and pregnant with my first son. Years flew by, and I am now in my thirties, a mama of two boys, and trying to figure out how to homeschool. Evenings out with friends have been replaced by laundry, meal prep, and dates with my dear husband.
Needless to say, adulthood has brought about a myriad of changes. But as different as my life may be now compared to a decade ago, one thing has not changed, and that is my desire for solid, edifying friendships with sisters in Christ. When marriage and mamahood snuck up on me, I didn’t realize that I was going to have to “figure out” friendship all over again. Suddenly, I had no idea what my expectations ought to be. Are occasional evening coffee dates with friends okay, or should I stick to daytime playdates with other moms? Does she even have time to go on a coffee date? Does anyone else want to move past all the “adult life” small talk and talk about what the Lord has been doing in their life?
This lingering desire for relationships is not surprising, for it is a desire God created us with. The kingdom of God is a “one another” kingdom, in which we are not meant to live in isolation. Rather, we are to:
- Love one another (John 13:34)
- Admonish one another (Rom. 15:14)
- Serve one another (Gal. 5:13)
- Bear with one another (Eph. 4:2)
- Comfort one another (1 Thess. 4:18)
- Edify one another (1 Thess. 5:11)
- Confess our sins to one another (James 5:16)
And as we do these things, we “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Eph. 4:15–16).
How Can We Be “Hindered but Fruitful”?
Though friendship can be difficult and confusing to navigate when we’re older, we should not be ashamed of our desire for it or try to pretend that desire isn’t there. Rather, we should approach it with biblical thinking, necessary effort, and a lot of prayer. It’s an area worth wrestling through, no matter what bumps we experience along the way.
Sometimes, however, there are “bumps” that are not so easily passed over. I have been deaf for more than ten years now, and even though I’m used to it by now, there are still times when it feels like a mile-high hindrance that will never move out of the way. Many women experience this in various forms through encumbering disabilities, medical conditions, and debilitating diseases. These conditions are different than going through a one-time surgery and missing a few Bible studies and the monthly girls’ night out. They are long-term conditions, and even though they eventually turn into the daily “norm,” they can still feel like burdensome chains that keep us from freely enjoying all the sweetness and sanctification of deepening relationships within the Body of Christ. We know the Christian life is not meant to be lived alone, and when a physical hindrance threatens to isolate us, we naturally and appropriately feel the pain.
How, then, do we overcome in these situations? How do we approach friendship in a way that will help us to be “hindered, but fruitful” in a sense? I would like to share five brief suggestions for those who are ready to throw in the towel, for those who are tempted to idly sit by in discouragement and envy, and for those who expect friendship to show up on their doorstep in a box tied with a perfect pink bow.
These suggestions will not give you the perfect and “normal” friendships you may be envisioning, nor will they magically take your obstacles away. But they may change your perspective a little, and encourage you to take action sooner rather than later.
Five Suggestions for Overcoming Obstacles to Friendship
1. Think “Door” not “Wall”
Rather than thinking of particular obstacles as walls we can’t get past, we can think of them as doors of opportunity, opened to us by our sovereign Creator who wrote every one of our days in His book before we were even born (Ps. 139:16). Some of life’s most bitter providences are the very circumstances God uses to make us more fruitful in the Body of Christ. Rather than dwelling on the question, “In what ways does this condition hinder me?” we can instead ask, “How might God want to use this condition to comfort and encourage someone else?” and “How can I encourage the friends I already have by speaking to them about what God is teaching me through this?”
2. Learn to Think Biblically
We often have a narrow vision of what we hope to experience in friendship, and a large chunk of our discouragement comes from the fact that our reality doesn’t match that vision. We need to be careful to found our hopes and expectations upon Scripture, not the relationship self-help book at the library or the short-sighted friendships we enjoyed in middle school. If you think you need more clarity and soundness in this area, Messy Beautiful Friendship by Christine Hoover and Closer Than a Sister by Christina Fox are two great places to start.
3. Ask Good Questions
When our daily lives are characterized by a unique hardship, we naturally appreciate it when a friend asks questions, shows compassion, and offers a shoulder to cry on when we are particularly wearied by it. There’s nothing wrong with talking about how our long-term struggles are presently affecting us, and we needn’t pretend they aren’t there. But when we remember that everyone has a “unique situation” in a sense, we can seek to grow in the art of asking good questions—particularly questions that seek to better know and understand the other person and have nothing to do with our own situation.
4. Buy Some Stamps
I’ve learned a little secret over the years: a hand-written card sent in the mail can go a very long way in initiating or strengthening a friendship. Being deaf can make first-time conversations awkward. Sometimes there is someone particular I would like to reach out to or get to know more, but I am nervous that I won’t yet be able to read that person’s lips. The simple solution I have often turned to is to send that person a card, in which I hope to express sincere encouragement and a desire to get to know the person better. This is not a magic friendship formula, but in my own experience, it has been a great help.
5. Pray Often
This one is a no-brainer, but perhaps it’s one we are quick to forget. When we pray over this area of our life, we are not just praying that God would give us a “really great friendship” with so-and-so. We can pray for that, but we can also be praying that God would give us realistic, biblical expectations in our friendships. We can pray that God would use our trials to make our friendships stronger and more Christ-centered rather than more me-centered. We can pray that God would help us to not be bitter or resentful toward someone who makes no effort to understand or never asks us how we’re getting along. We can pray that God would give us eyes to see open doors. We can pray for a more intimate relationship with Christ so that we do not make an idol of earthly friendship and expect it to fill a void that only He can fill. And of course, we can ask our friends how we can pray for them and then be intentional to bring those needs before the Lord.
The above suggestions can certainly be helpful and fruitful when we are seeking to initiate and deepen friendships despite physical hindrances. But let me be honest—more often than not, it is my own sin, not my deafness, that serves as the real hindrance. Pride. Resentment. Fear of rejection or being misunderstood. Apathy. Though sin does not reign in the believer, it still remains and often gets in the way of growing God-glorifying friendships marked by selfless and sincere love within the body of Christ. And that is why we cannot leave God out of our friendships. We will not be or have perfect, sinless friends this side of heaven, and we will constantly stand in need of God’s forgiveness and grace to press us on toward godliness.
Dear sisters, whatever physical hindrances you are facing in life, I pray that the Lord would encourage you to not give up in seeking out the sweet blessing of friendship with other sisters in Christ. And in those moments when you are frustrated by that mix of legitimate struggle and your own ugly sin, run to the sinless Savior whose blood paid for that sin in full, the Father who works all things for your good, and the Spirit who enables you to be strong in weakness.