[Friendship Gone Wrong] 15 Questions to Diagnose Idolatry
updated on 6/6/2017
DEPENDENT ON A PERSON
This sin of idolizing a friend is often called “emotional dependency” or “codependency” in the counseling world. D’Ann Davis from Living Hope ministries describes it this way:
“Most typically, those who struggle with emotional dependency are looking for a super intense, one-on-one relationship with a best friend who will meet all of their needs and will make other relationships unnecessary. A struggler typically loves to fuel all of her need and longing to connect into one person who can be her all-in-all (essentially her idol, or god, little “g”). She will be very entrenched in relational idolatry, whether or not she realizes it. She does not want to waste all of those precious seconds developing a friendship slowly over years; she wants intimacy, NOW, so she exchanges it for intensity.”
When your emotional sense of well-being is tied to another person, when your security is found in a friend instead of God, it is sin. Biblically, this is idolatry, giving more weight and value to a person than to God. And it can happen in any relationship: parent-child, husband-wife, boyfriend-girlfriend, or two friends.
This kind of sinful dependency is harmful when it goes one way. But is even worse when 2 people are mutually dependent on each other. If you idolize a friend, but they don’t reciprocate your feelings, you are often forced to deal with your insecurities and misplaced hope. But when your friend reciprocates those intense feelings of neediness, the emotional dependency often goes unchecked (e.g. "if my friend who loves Jesus thinks this is fine, then it must be fine"). Unfortunately, to the world, a mutually dependent friendship is often just called “best friends.”
This sinful idolatry may even appear godly at first. Two co-dependent friends may pray together, talk about Jesus a lot, and be extremely supportive of one another. The spiritual conversation and activity of the friendship may give a false sense that nothing is wrong. But it matters little how much we talk about Jesus or do things for Jesus if our hope and trust isn't in Him alone.
SYMPTOMS OF FRIENDSHIP IDOLATRY
There are some common symptoms of this type of idolatry. I have put together a list of questions based on a list created by Lori Rentzel to help differentiate between the normal interdependency of healthy friendships and the unhealthy and sinful dependency of an idolatrous friendship.
As you read the list below, be aware that these are general commonalities among unhealthy friendships. This is not a foolproof checklist and some of these things may result from other root causes.
So, how can you know if a friendship is threatening to take God’s place in your heart? Here are a few questions you could ask about your relationship:
- Do you experience jealousy when your friend spends time with others? Do you feel a sense of possessiveness toward her?
- Do you prefer to spend time alone with your friend, and are you easily frustrated when others join in?
- Have you lost interest in other friendships? Do you lack a desire to make new friends?
- Are you hesitant, or even unwilling, to make plans (short-term or long-term) that don’t include your friend?
- Do you feel free to “speak for” your friend with others?
- Do you avoid conflict with your friend for fear of losing intimacy in the relationship?
- Do you often pay for each other’s meals and expenses, or make large purchases together?
- Do you have frequent sleepovers, often preferring to share the same bed?
- Are flattering words or praise common in your friendship? (For example, “You are the only one who understands me” or, “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”)
- Do you use nicknames or special language with each other?
- Do you operate like a couple? Do others see you as inseparable?
- Do you frequently ask permission from your friend to do things?
- Are you more physically affectionate toward this friend than other friends? Are you physically affectionate in a way that makes others uncomfortable?
- Do you stay in constant communication with this friend (texts, phone calls, snapchats, emails)?
- Do you feel like you couldn’t live without this friend? Do you sense that you need them to thrive?
If you answered yes to some of these questions, it is worth considering whether your friend is becoming, or has become, something to you only God should be. But take courage, Jesus is a capable and compassionate Savior to all who turn to him. No situation, however complicated it may seem, is too much for him. Owning our sin, and confessing it to him, is where healing begins. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
Remember, the things listed above are not the problem, but symptoms of the problem. The primary issue is one of misplaced worship: giving more weight and value to a person than to God. When we feel like we need another person more than we need God, we have an idolatry problem. Because we are sinners, there is always a temptation to look to creation for the joy that only the Creator can offer. Every one of us needs to be aware of this tendency in ourselves and be on guard.
DANGER OF SEXUAL SIN
When we idolize one of God's good gifts to us (marriage, family, children, friends, food, jobs), we distort the purpose of the gift. All the good that God intended for us to have through the gift of friendship is expelled by our worship of it. Idolatry in friendship perverts the design and function of friendship, making it no longer a help to our walk with God but a hindrance.
One way this distortion manifests is in unnatural physical affection and often sexual sin. Considering the passages we studied from Romans earlier, this should not come as a complete shock to us. Sexual sin of this nature is the result of misplaced worship: worshiping the creature, not the Creator. Misplaced worship is at the heart of any sin.
It’s usually hard for others to believe that a friendship between two Christian girls who have never had homosexual thoughts could ever become sexual. But it happens more often than you think. It has been heart-wrenching for me to walk with some close friends through the wreckage of sexual sin that began in an idolatry-infected friendship.
Let me clarify: I’m not talking about a struggle with same-sex attraction or a gender-identity issue. But rather the sin of idolizing a friend and becoming dependent on her, which can lead to intimate physical affection and sexual behavior. Most of the time, the girls in these friendships never had homosexual feelings before and often still desire a romantic relationship with a man. Sometimes women who are married to men find themselves in sexual sin with a friend. How is this possible? Because they began to find their desires for intimacy and security met in a friend, not in God. And when we elevate a friend to the place only God should hold in our life we open the door for this kind of sexual sin to come in. This is not a gender-identity issue. This is not something only a certain kind of person struggles with. We are all sinners, and therefore all susceptible. We are all sinners, therefore the seed of every sin resides in our hearts. And, like all sins, it begins by refusing to go to the Fountain of Living Waters, God Himself, and choosing instead to run to a broken cistern for life, for joy, for peace. (Jeremiah 2:12-13)
In an idolatrous friendship, normal physical interaction between friends (hugs, walking arm in arm, holding hands for brief periods like when praying), can grow into more: holding hands a lot, holding hands with interlocking fingers, sleeping in the same bed by preference, cuddling together, or just feeling the need to be constantly touching each other. If this physical intimacy is prolonged, it can easily lead to sexual activity before you even realize what’s happening.
There are weighty consequences to entering into any sexual relationship outside of marriage. This is not to say that God cannot redeem all of our sin and turn it for good. But we cannot treat any temptation toward sexual sin lightly. If a friendship is tempting you toward any sexual expression, then flee! (2 Tim 2:22, 1 Thess 4:3) Run quickly from any friendship that tempts you to be too physically intimate. It is better to cut off a once useful and even good thing than to allow it to lead you into sin (Matt 5:29-30).
Read the rest of D'Ann's article, referenced earlier, here.
Get Lori Rentzel's booklet, "Emotional Dependency" here.