The surgeon general of the United States recently named loneliness as America’s top health problem, revealing that nearly half of the country’s adults report feelings of isolation and deteriorating mental health. In Made for People: Why We Drift into Loneliness and How to Fight for a Life of Friendship, Justin Whitmel Earley advocates a recovery of “covenant friendship,” marked by commitment, vulnerability, and intentional rhythms and rituals. Aaron Damiani, author of Earth Filled with Heaven and pastor of Immanuel Anglican Church in Chicago, spoke with Earley about making friendship a priority within the church.
What motivated you to write about friendship?
As a high schooler, I had a lot of acquaintances but no real friends. Then, on a youth retreat, I met a guy named Steve while playing Hacky Sack. We discovered a common passion for skateboarding and playing the drums.
A huge turning point came when one of us—I forget who—took a risk and asked an awkwardly intentional question: “Do you want to be best friends?” We agreed we would—and this simple commitment changed my whole life. Suddenly I was facing the world with the strength of a friend. I can see now that the anxiety I had thought was baked into life is actually baked into loneliness.
What exactly is a “covenant friendship”?
The word friend has become diluted in our social media–driven culture. That’s why I use “covenant friendship”—a relationship where someone fully knows you and loves you anyway, just as Jesus does. Covenant friendships are not some elite class; they are just friendships marked by vulnerability and a commitment to stick around. They are characterized by a mutual desire to truly know and support each other, grounded in intentional commitment.
Do you worry that this kind of vulnerability and intentionality might scare off men, in particular?
Regardless of gender, people often find it scary to live with the intentionality that friendship requires, because we’re afraid to admit we’re sinners. But if the Bible is clear that we all are, then why not talk like it? In the end, it’s our flaws, not our virtues, that draw us to grace and to each other. Which is why confession, telling secrets, or just being honest—whatever you want to call it—catalyzes friendship.
I’m familiar with the stereotype of men being hesitant to move beyond common interests and talk about anything real. But in my day-to-day life, I see so many guys longing for vulnerability and a freedom to express themselves genuinely. It’s hard, so we need rituals and activities that pull that out of us. It takes a willingness to sacrifice your own self-image, yet like Christ’s sacrifice for us, it bears fruit.
You use a few metaphors from nature—rivers, plants, and fires—to describe the dynamics of friendship. Which one resonates the most with you?
I would say the fire of friendship, with its inviting warmth. Like a good bonfire, my friendship with Steve brought light into our lives while drawing others in.
I remember a fellow student named Matt who expressed a desire to join our band outings. At first, we merely tolerated him like a third wheel. But true friendship thrives when we invite others in rather than shutting them out. I had to repent and apologize for pushing him away. Surprisingly, despite our mistreatment, Matt eventually became a Christian during that time. It was a powerful testament to God’s grace and providence.
When I reflect on the fire of friendship, I am reminded of God’s offer of a deep and intimate relationship. The Trinity could have remained a closed circle, but God chose to extend his love and invite us in. When we exemplify true Christian friendship, we become like a warm fire that others are naturally drawn to, seeking solace and companionship. In our secular age, many people are coming to Christ not solely through logical arguments, but because they are captivated by the relationships they witness among Christians.
Today’s friendships can seem polarized and homogenous. How can the ideal of covenant friendship break this cycle?
Technology-mediated friendships tend to be tribalized. It’s well documented that social-media algorithms reinforce our preferences and opinions, creating echo chambers. But the beauty of embodied friendships lies in their ability to bridge barriers or race, class, political persuasion, or whatever might otherwise divide us. We can disagree on theology, current events, or presidential politics while still cherishing each other.
In the realm of committed friendships, how can we address toxic people and patterns while promoting forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing?
All friendships have two ingredients: a sinner and a sinner. So they have to navigate the collisions and disagreements that naturally arise when two sinners live in close community. If we can’t do forgiveness, then we can’t do friendship.
That said, it’s important to recognize that while we imitate Christ in our friendships, we are not Christ himself. While friendship should involve a willingness to walk alongside others during difficult times, there may come a point where leaving is necessary. In such cases, it takes bravery and humility to say, “I’ve reached the end of what I can do. I can only pray now for what Christ will do.” I’ve witnessed this in situations involving addictions, for example, where you acknowledge your limitations and seek outside help.
Friendships sometimes drift apart naturally due to life circumstances, and that’s okay. Friendship isn’t marriage. The goal is just to keep moving toward commitment, toward vulnerability.
Most pastors are aware of deep loneliness within their congregations. How can they foster covenant friendships without holding parishioners’ hands?
The churches that foster the best friendships operate like a funnel that moves from big to small. You take people from Sunday gatherings and guide them into small groups or accountability relationships. However, even within small groups, there is a need for more intimate connections. Small group leaders should encourage individuals to cultivate deep and enduring friendships with one or two people, whether it be through accountability groups, covenant friendship circles, or regular front-porch get-togethers.
Also, to state the obvious, it’s completely unrealistic for a pastor or ministry leader to be friends with everyone in the church. Nonetheless, pastors have the opportunity—even the responsibility—to embody covenant friendships in their personal lives. They bear an enormous weight of spiritual authority and responsibility, and they aren’t meant to carry those burdens alone.
What encouragement would you offer to someone who is deeply lonely yet drawn to this vision of covenant friendship?
I’d say welcome to the club! But here’s the amazing thing: A little bit of intentionality goes a long way, which is really another way of saying God is gracious, and he honors our small, half-baked efforts with enormous rewards.
Step one could be clearly voicing your desire for deeper connections. While some may find it odd or push you away, life is like a high-school dance: Most of us are just waiting to be asked. Step two could be making time in your schedule. I recommend an hour a week devoted to covenant friendship—which honestly is very little. But it’s amazing how God uses that time to completely reshape the rest of our week.
In the end, what we’re doing is essentially looking at Jesus and saying, “What a friend to sinners he is!” I want to be more like that.
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