Can you be friends with people at work?
I’ve been interested in this question ever since I heard a lecture on Christians and friendship while working towards my PhD.
You see, when I was doing my PhD work, I had to pass an exam in theological French. There was a course at Harvard Divinity School that virtually guaranteed you being able to pass the exam. While there, I audited another class on the “History of the Philosophy and Ethics of Friendship.”
The first lecture was “Can Christians be friends?” The answer is yes, of course, but it is not always as simple as that.
Our professor pointed out that the Greek ideal was friendship, philea, while the biblical ideal, love, was agape – other-centered love.
John Stott defines agape as the sacrifice of self in the service of another. In pursuing friendship or romance (eros), you are drawn to that which is virtuous or lovely about your friend. In a way, it is love for the lovely.
In agape, we are called to love even those who are unlovely. As demands or opportunities come in life, it is easy to spend more and more time as believers giving ourselves to those in need in a sacrificial way, and less time with those that we enjoy and benefit from being around.
Friendship is motivated by attractive qualities, and agape is shown even when unmotivated by anything intrinsically attractive in the person you are serving.
Can You Be Friends with People at Work?
With all this in mind, you might ask, “Can you be friends with those at work?”
Of course. But again, it is not so simple as that.
Aristotle wrote in his Ethics about three kinds of friendship: utility, pleasure, and virtue. The first two are based on changing circumstances, and the last is based on that which is unchanging.
Thus, only a friendship of virtue can be trusted to rise to the heights and last throughout the challenges of life.
Let’s look at each type of friendship.
Friendships of Utility
Friendships of utility are based on a common situation, such as working in an office together (or being on a sports team, in a choir, at summer camp, etc.).
These friendships can be of great value, leading to productivity, accomplishing goals, and meeting challenges.
But, it is unrealistic to expect that all these relationships will continue beyond the common context in which they grow.
When the situation changes and you get a new job, you may not stay in touch with many of the former employees. Perhaps when you get back together, all you can talk about is the old work situation. In some cases, when the situation changes, the friendship changes as well.
Friendships of Pleasure
The second category that Aristotle discussed is a friendship of pleasure, based on common good times you have had together.
You can have fun times at work, at lunch, or after work with your co-laborers that can create some good memories. Dennis Baake has written a book Joy at Work that shows how he tried to create an environment where work would be not only productive but fun.
However, if friendships are not based on something more than pleasures commonly enjoyed, then years later you may only be able to talk about the good old times.
Of course, it is good to have friendships of utility and pleasure, as long as you don’t expect more from them than they can deliver.
A true friend is with you and for you despite changing circumstances and situations. When good times change to times of adversity, a true friend continues to love.
Proverbs 7:17 says,
A friend loves at all times and a brother is born for adversity.
When hard times come, it seems that the true friend is “born” for that time. But that is not true of all friendships.
Friendships of Virtue
The third kind of friendship is a friendship of virtue.
Because the friendship of virtue is based upon that which is eternal and unchanging – the true, the good, and the beautiful – it lasts no matter what.
If Aristotle pursued such lasting friendships of virtue, then how much more should believers seek friendships based on the unchanging Christ?
In Hebrews, it says that Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). When you base your friendships on the unchanging, then they can transcend circumstances or adversity.
If you meet your friend years later and you have both been pursuing the unchanging Christ, then you pick up right where you left off.
I have had many such encounters with friends that I had not seen for a number of years, where we could jump into the depths, quickly sharing what we have learned and experienced about our faith during the intervening years. It is easy for conversation to flow to eternal things, permanent things – first things.
Only friendships based on the unchanging can consistently withstand life’s constant changes.
So enjoy, as far as possible, all your friendships at work. Appreciate the common circumstances and fun times you have together.
But don’t necessarily expect that all those relationships will be equally lasting.
Unrealistically high expectations can be a cause of much sorrow. But a capacity to enjoy each relationship for what it is can be a source of much joy.
It is great to have friendships that are simultaneously ones of utility, pleasure, and virtue.
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