17 June 2024

If loneliness is the next pandemic, what is the cure?

Picture: iStock

Angela Cook

8 June 2024

Rebecca McLaughlin. No Greater Love: A Biblical Vision for Friendship Paperback. Moody Publishers, 2023.

In November last year, the World Health Organisation launched an international commission into loneliness[1], declaring it to be a pressing global health threat – as bad for you as smoking 15 a day! It’s an issue across generations and locations, from the Hikikomori in Japan to teens in Africa struggling with both their physical safety and increasing feelings of isolation.

If loneliness is the next pandemic, then, what is the cure? In Rebecca McLaughlin’s little book No Greater Love: A Biblical Vision for Friendship she gives us a hopeful solution: friendships of love, based on Jesus’ example of love for his friends from John 15:12-14: “My command is this: love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.”

Read more: St Dunstan’s vicar to encourage friendships, connection as multicultural advisor

Jesus’ call to love each other is ultimately a call to Christian community and friendship. Friendship that will be an answer to loneliness will be friendship that is shaped by Jesus’ sacrificial love, so that it is cross-shaped and sacrificial in nature. McLaughlin is seeking to reclaim the value and dignity of friendship in both the church and wider community. She writes, correctly in my experience, in chapter 7: “The inbuilt differences between marriage and friendship are vital to the health of both relationships. Much pain in our society has come from muddling up friendship and marriage: on the one hand, treating sexual relationships as opportunities for exploration with multiple people and on the other hand, devaluing the role of friendship as a place for emotional intimacy and fulfilling exploration.”McLaughlin seems to be pushing strongly against casual friendships, although she does acknowledge the defining freedom in friendship as opposed to marriage.

The book starts by reminding us of the high call of Christian relationships, including friendship, and then reminds us that Christians are called to be a family. “Healthy Christian friendship grows on the trellis of Christian family love,” McLaughlin writes. This idea of being spiritual brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers does come up again in Chapter 8, as McLaughlin argues for healthy expressions of male-female friendships. But, it doesn’t really feel like the familial metaphor and the overlapping reality of friendships is explored fully or shown how it can work in practice. McLaughlin rather focusses on maintaining the sexual purity of friendships, and helpfully reflects on her own same-sex attraction when considering this topic.

Other chapters in the book reflect on the idea of purpose in Christian friendships as a place to encourage and spur each other on in faith and mission and how we might do that together. McLaughlin also uses the work of C.S. Lewis and Dietrich Bonhoeffer on friendship. In his work “The Inner Ring,” Lewis exhorts Christians to look outward rather than inward in friendships, rather than chasing non-existent relational exclusivity. Bonhoeffer reminds us of the high value of friendship and the need to work hard on love and forgiveness to live together in peace.

Read more: Church targets loneliness with lessons in lasting friendship

The theological vision is strong and inspiring, but the book is not as practical or fulsome as I would like when addressing how to develop and care for different sorts of friendships in the busyness of life. For example, McLaughlin talks about walking once a week in the evening with a young mum friend. I feel like if I suggested evening walks with working parents of young children in my parish they would laugh (or yawn) in my face! There is a real challenge to keep investing in deep friendships as life’s seasons change, geography, marital status, work. These can all be challenges to loving and being loved as friends and it can feel hard to ask people to sacrifice their time for the sake of friendship.

After reading this book I did find myself texting my friends more often, being more proactive to love them without asking for anything in return, and thinking about how I can love my friends as Christ loved me, not just for what they can give me in our friendship. It is a book that is an easy read, full of nice examples and analogies, and reminders of basic biblical truths about relationships. Perhaps its strongest contribution is an encouragement to love your friends and reach out with care, as Jesus our friend has done for us.

The Reverend Angela Cook is vicar of St A’s Merri-Bek and Area Dean of Coburg.

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