One of the strongest friendships in my life is the most unorthodox. It’s the one where we’ve rarely had a real-time conversation. Instead, we swap voicemails–these detailed, emotive, startlingly-honest monologues–and we have for nine years now. Currently, we live 3,065 miles (i.e. one very expensive airline ticket) apart. This is also one of the deepest, safest relationships I’ve ever experienced, and I never would have imagined it.
Another dear friend of mine lives literally on the other side of the world. She works in Africa, with limited resources and technology, so we can’t even swap rambling voicemails. We send intermittent messages, and occasionally manage a phone call. But, her dollars and minutes need to be rationed carefully. So, 95% of the time, we just pray for one another, asking God to provide for our friend what we can’t, practically and emotionally. Our hearts are with each other deeply, but we’ll never be able to spontaneously meet for coffee.
I’ve spent a large portion of my life without local friends.
Going to movies together or having girlfriends drop by my home weren’t woven into my fibers. Already by age 13, I budgeted monthly for long-distance phone calls and had flown by myself multiple times to visit faraway friends; you’d think I’d be good at this by now. But, no. I still often feel throbbing loneliness despite decades of practice.
Military life obviously perpetuates this. Last night, I couldn’t muscle back the tears, while saying yet another batch of practiced farewells. Sometimes, my whole world feels like a cycle of goodbyes, aloneness in the next season, forging fresh friendships, then saying goodbye again – or maybe never finding friends in that location at all.
And what do you do when you simply can’t find friends, but you really need some?
Several years ago, my husband glanced over at a despondent me and suggested innocently, “I think you need to make some friends here.”
Defensive, I flung sarcasm, “Oh, okay! I’ll just go down to ‘The Friends Store’ and pick up a couple!” Then, I crumbled genuinely: “Don’t you think I’ve been trying?!”
See, I’m no introvert. I readily introduce myself to people, try to “show myself friendly,” (Proverbs 18:24) and not talk too much (I do fail at that last one a lot). I exchange contact information with women I just met. I join as many activities as my young kids can handle, and try to connect as much as possible with our neighbors.
I’ve even gotten desperate and left watermelons on front doorsteps, along with smiley-faced introduction notes–the adult equivalent of shyly knocking and asking, “Hi, do you want to be friends?”
Sometimes, I gain new, amazing friends. But sometimes, I don’t click with anyone despite my very best efforts, and find myself without any close, local friendships.
And during these seasons, there are eight truths and tips I keep returning to, and needing to etch afresh onto my own soul.
1. Remember, God ultimately establishes the boundaries of where we are, how long we stay, and when we go to the next place (Acts 17:26).
When you feel persistent loneliness, it’s natural to think, “We must have made the wrong decision moving here” or “Maybe my husband shouldn’t have taken this job after all.”
But, this instinct to pin blame can be a clutch for control, a backhanded quest to find the ultimate cause-effect equation so that I can change my outcome.
And here’s truth: Sometimes the outcome is simply beyond us. Sometimes, we don’t get to affect it, and had you done ‘X’ instead of ‘Y’, that does not mean you would have gotten ‘Z’. Sometimes, you just get ‘A’ when you wanted ‘Z’ and that’s really, really hard.
Moreover, we serve a God who can steer the hearts of pagan kings like He directs the water channeling down a mountainside (Proverb 21:1). So, He could have easily re-routed you if that was essential to His plan..
2. Unorthodox friendships can actually be excellent.
Don’t assume that your friendships have to take traditional forms (i.e. proximity, coffee dates, shared activities) in order to work, long-term. Technology really can serve us here, if we use it deliberately.
I especially appreciate social media. I know, it can totally be a slippery slope of wasted time and falsely “perfect” posts. But, let’s all remind ourselves: Facebook and Instagram and Twitter aren’t alive–they’re websites, and a smart ones, too. They’re customizable. They can be trained!
So, set personal boundaries, accept “friends” and block others, “like” and “un-follow” and “hide” until your Facebook newsfeed is an edifying place, full of uplifting statuses, thought-provoking articles, photos that cheer you, and helpful group discussions. Make social media work for you.
Don’t just cry “drama!” and then yourself dramatically “leave” when too many people post something you object to. Scroll past, sure, and even adjust your “friends” list, if you must. But, don’t trick yourself: Isolation is a greater risk to your soul than being annoyed is.
3. Reach out and try to re-stoke old relationships.
Remember that first friendship I mentioned? The voicemail one? That’s Jennifer. We actually attended college together, but never clicked with each other there. It was only years later that parallel seasons of hope followed by deep grief bonded us together.
And ultimately, it was because we were so far apart that we were free to confide in each other deeply. Our social circles were completely separate, so we could speak openly about struggles and prayer requests, confusing dynamics and shattered relationships without ourselves gossiping. Our geographical distance ultimately became a huge, unforeseeable blessing to us.
But, it all started with a polite Facebook message, prompted by a typical Facebook photo.
4. Human rejection can be God’s protection.
I feel discouraged every time a friendship dies off instead of flourishing like I’d hoped. This is the normal stuff of life, I know, and I’ve gotten better at accepting it. However, I’m now starting to upgrade my passive acceptance to an active awe of how God is often shielding me from something inferior.
Maybe that friendship would have been great, but would have kept me away from another growth opportunity. Maybe that friendship would have fed a particular sin in my heart, or lulled me into smug selfishness. Maybe I would have become too secure or self-focused. Maybe that friendship would have displaced another friendship, or maybe God wants me to seek more from Him and less from humans.
Only He knows exactly why, but the longer I’m at this, the more I’m able to trust His goodness. This I know for sure: God doesn’t waste the pain and suffering in our lives; He’s always recycling it somehow.
5. Friendships can last only for a season and still be deeply fulfilling.
As a military wife, I’m super aware of how rotten it is to lose friends shortly after meeting them. Our human tendency is to flinch away from likely loss, to shield ourselves from getting close to someone who is about to go away. But, God can use a month, a week, or a single conversation equally to reorient and encourage us.
Betsy was my neighbor only briefly, but we now maintain a solid dynamic through texting. We became friends because she simply kept inviting me over for dinner while my husband was deployed. She cooked their normal foods, and for two hours each week, my daughter and I got to participate in a typical family mealtime–something that’s nearly impossible to create for yourself when your husband never comes home–and that was huge.
Allison was my walking partner in Idaho, a fellow military spouse displaced from her own Singaporean home. And I was so embarrassingly honest with her, and she spoke such incisive, tender, godly wisdom into me during those windy, prairie walks that although we rarely talk now, I still consider her my friend and can’t wait until Heaven for us to catch up properly.
Hannah and I met just ten weeks before our family abruptly moved cross-country again. But, when I admitted we’d be relocating soon, she leaned in earnestly and pressed her hand on my arm, vowing, “I’m going to be your friend. Even if it’s only for the next couple of months. Hopefully, God will keep our hearts close after that, but even if only for now, let’s be friends. God can do amazing things with two months.” I teared up because this kind of fast-embracing, freely-releasing, selfless love is hard to find.
It’s instinctive to pull away from someone who is leaving soon. This even tends to happen even between me and my husband before every deployment.
But, if you can choose to be that forbearing friend who leans in and stays deliberately present until the very last farewell, that’s an indescribable blessing–and a rare gift.
6. Be willing to grow roots a little faster than is comfortable.
It’s an act of faith to re-introduce yourself for the 418th time, to open up to a new church, to venture a genuine prayer request. The risk is real, and exhaustion coaxes us to stay on the edge.
When my husband arrived at his eighth, new, military assignment, he confessed, “I’m not planning to make any friends here, just so you know. I’m too burnt out. Beyond work, I’ll be a loner–I’m fine with that. It’ll minimize the pain, keep my life simpler. You know.”
I do know. I’ve done that myself. Consciously keeping my soul aloof, less attached. Polite and pleasant, but not vulnerable. It’s easier to eventually leave, that way. And we do just keep leaving, endlessly, it seems.
But, I pled with him that day. “Please don’t. It might feel nice for a while, safer and less emotionally cluttered. But, God didn’t wire us to live detachedly. You were made to care deeply, and grieve deeply. Please don’t cut that off. Your heart will callous. God may have put specific people here for you, and you here for them – don’t shut your heart to that.”
He listened to me. And happily, it turned out that I was right.
7. Pray and ask God to give you friends.
I forget this often. I mourn and labor and brainstorm and network, completely neglecting to ask God to bring me friends. But, when my daughter was lonely for months, I prayed. And one day, as I pulled weeds in our front yard, a blonde schoolgirl wandered by, politely nodding at me.
“Hello,” I waved. “Do you live on this street?”
“On the next street over,” she replied, brightening at my interest.
“Do you need help?” I ventured, trying not to seem like a scary stranger.
“No,” she sighed, “I’m just looking for a friend.”
I blinked. “So is my daughter. She’s about your age. Would you like to meet her?”
They were instant, tender, sweet friends. It was a pointed lesson for me.
Prayer isn’t magical. It’s not a formula. But, it is how God often chooses to interact with us. So, ask God for friendships when you’re lonely. He may say “no,” or He may send Ali to your street.
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8. Remember, only God can create friendships for us.
Just as with marriages and babies, no amount of our effort or desire or positioning can create something new and good in life. Only God can knit life together, and that includes all our relationships.
Don’t let Satan sneak in and convince you that if you were only different or better somehow, people would flock to befriend you. No human relationship is an accurate reflection of your worth and love-ability. God alone crafted you, and He will continue to be your sole giver of good gifts.
Elisabeth Elliot wrote in The Path of Loneliness, “God has promised to supply our needs. What you don’t have now, you don’t need now.”
So when the ache is deep, and the famine season feels just-too-long, lean your head against the window and cry without shame, because we belong to the Ultimate Comforter who has felt every pain Himself, and keeps exact count of all our tears (Psalm 56:8).
And He will never forsake us.
Photography: JenniMarie Photography