Why Broken Friendships Hurt | Christianity Today
This piece was adapted from Russell Moore’s newsletter. Subscribe here.
As I headed off to California for the installation of my old friend Matthew J. Hall as provost of Biola University, I commented to my wife, Maria, “I wonder what the most-repeated sentence I’ve ever said to or heard from Matt Hall would be.” And what we landed on was “Well, that was crazy.”
Matt and I have had many opportunities to say that to each other since we first met—back when he was a call screener for a talk-radio show I sometimes guest hosted. His job was to filter out the people who wanted to make a relevant comment from those outraged after I said something positive about, say, Willie Nelson or Harry Potter. (Those were simpler times, reader.) And in the years since, we have often looked at each other whenever some explosive debate on the floor of our denomination was gaveled out of order and said, “Well, that was crazy.”
For 20 years, I’ve been able to laugh with Matt about some display of craziness or another—and I can always count on him to know what qualifies as “crazy.” In the two days I visited with him recently, I found myself laughing at stories we would tell and retell, with lots of sentences starting with “Remember when … ?”
In the past, I might have considered memories of such moments as “nostalgia,” but now I see them as a grace. And I no longer take them for granted.
New friendships are often made from stories. Whenever you meet someone new, that person may ask you, “So what’s your story?” Even when it’s not directly said, it’s an unspoken question. We tell pieces of our life stories to each other and are often happy to find those stories overlap. As C. S. Lewis put it in one of the most often-quoted passages of The Four Loves, we say, “You too? I thought I was the only one.” Without new friendships like these, our lives can become stagnant and boring.
Even so, Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers were on to something when they sang, “You can’t make old friends.” Old friendships are rooted in shared experiences that accumulate over time.
When you tell something of your story to a new friend, you are saying something akin to “Here’s who I am. What about you?” When we spend time with old friends and tell remembered stories, we’re doing something different. We aren’t communicating information; we’re reliving our experiences. We’re saying things like “Can you believe we got to see that?” or “Can you believe we survived that?” or “Don’t you miss that?” or “Aren’t you glad that’s over?”
It’s just another way of knowing one another—and of being known.
Over the past several years, hundreds of people have spoken to me about the pain of broken friendships in their lives. Sometimes those friendships were split apart by politics—maybe because of different views of Trump, the COVID-19 vaccine, critical race theory, or any other real or imagined divide.
For some, a friendship fractured over some kind of “deconstruction” or church split. For others, friendships blew up in the fury of argument. In some cases, the friendship simply fizzled out. In carefully observing the demilitarized zones of things “safe” to talk about, some friends just couldn’t cobble together enough shared stories anymore.
Whatever the reason, broken friendships hurt. For those of you who ever moved as a child, your mom was right when she said, “You’ll make new friends.” Still, what you knew then—and, deep down, you still know now—is that you can’t replace old friends. Broken friendships hurt because friendship is so important.
People often criticize evangelical gospel songs about friendships with Jesus. “Jesus isn’t your girlfriend,” they may say. “Jesus is your Lord, not your buddy.” Jesus is Lord, but part of how he defines his lordship is by calling us friends. And Jesus grounds that friendship in a shared story. Servants can obey their masters, but they don’t know what’s going on beyond their immediate tasks. But Jesus said to his disciples, “I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15).
Shortly after making that statement, however, Jesus experienced the breaking of certain friendships. When he was arrested and put to death, some of his friends didn’t want to share the story anymore.
One of those broken relationships was irreparable (in the case of Judas), but Jesus sought out the others after his resurrection. He met with Peter—who had denied even knowing Jesus—while Peter was fishing, which is right where Jesus had first called him (John 21:1–19). Perhaps the charcoal fire Jesus prepared—the same sort of charcoal fire where Peter had cursed out his denial—was Jesus’ way of signifying, “I know all about it, and I love you anyway.”
Jesus then repeated the very words he had spoken to Peter when he first found him: “Follow me!” (v. 19). Maybe that was partly Jesus’ attempt to remind Peter that they still shared a story—a way of saying, “Remember when …?” What a friend we have in Jesus.
About once a day, I see or hear or think about something that reminds me of a story that would make sense only to one of my old friends—say, an inside joke or news about a mutual acquaintance. I start to call that person but then realize I can’t.
Sometimes it’s because that old friend has passed away. Sometimes it’s because that old friend thinks I’m a “cultural Marxist” now or whatever. And at other times it’s because I’ve just lost touch with that old friend in the whirl of our busy lives and it feels kind of awkward to reach out after so long.
Maybe some of you have never experienced a broken friendship, but I’ll bet most of you have. And I’ll bet it hurts more than you want to admit. In many cases, there’s nothing you can do about that.
But there is one thing you can do: Thank God for new friends and keep making them.
And while you do, hold on with gratitude to those old friendships, to the people with whom you share stories. Consider calling one of them. Perhaps say out loud, “I love you” even when it’s awkward—or maybe especially when it’s awkward.
Take the time to retell old stories with those friends who will know exactly what you mean when you say, “Remember when…?” Let it point you to the shortness of life and beyond that—to a day when all that was broken will be mended and when all that we have lost will be found. I suppose we will all feel like old friends then.
And as we look forward to the ever-expanding glory of eternity, we might catch each other’s eye as we look backward—just for a moment—to say, “Well, that was crazy!”
Russell Moore is the editor in chief at Christianity Today and leads its Public Theology Project.