The following book review recently appeared on The Gospel Coalition here.
Raise your hands, women, if these questions feel familiar:
Who are my friends? What purpose do I serve in their lives? How can I get closer to them? How do I handle conflict with my friends? Why don’t I have a best friend? Why do I find myself searching for intimacy with other women and never quite get there? And, as Mindy Kaling famously asked in her 2011 memoir, Is everyone hanging out without me?
Christine Hoover, pastor’s wife and blogger at www.GraceCoversMe.com, manages to address all of these questions in her new release, Messy Beautiful Friendship: Finding and nurturing deep and lasting relationships.
The book is for women. It is full of helpful stories, practical wisdom, and humbling insights that seem trained on the complacent spots in the woman’s heart.
It has come at a crucial time in my own life—just weeks after a weepy session complaining to my husband about how underdeveloped my female friendships are, this book arrived in the mail for review. I was especially tuned and eager to hear what Hoover had to say, but if her interviews with other women are any indicator, I’m not alone in my feelings. Lots of women seem to have trouble finding that sweet spot of contentment, service, and intimacy in their friendships with other women.
To open the book, Hoover tells her own story. She explains that she found friendship easy as a child and young woman, but that it became hard for her as she entered adulthood. She describes seasons of neediness alternated by apathy, and throughout, an elusive idea in her mind of the perfect “one friend to rule them all.”
Hoover exposes this “one friend” idea as a fantasy. She uses Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s term “wish-dream” to describe the desire we all have for a best friend who makes friendship easy, fun, deep, and utterly fulfilling. Instead, she maintains, you’re going to have to be prepared to take friendship as God gives it—imperfect, difficult, and ultimately, sanctifying:
“We must look to serve rather than be served, which means it’s possible that we might not be served in ways we hope. We must be ever willing to broaden the circle, which means we must have an eye for the outsider rather than an eye for how we can be insiders, and it’s possible we might be forgotten in the process. We must be willing to address sin and conflict in an appropriate way, which means it’s possible we might be rejected. We must be willing to be vulnerable, which means we might be misunderstood and grace might not be extended to us” (43).
Practical, almost step-by-step guidance
Hoover doesn’t leave us to wonder what this means in the everyday. The book moves directly into chapter by chapter tips on how to instigate friendship and deepen it.
She uses the analogy of fire in a section called “Threats to Friendship,” saying that fear of being burned can keep us from getting the fire started at all. Then she describes the good friend, someone she calls a “kindling-seeker,” and suggests vulnerability as the key to “sparking” a new friendship.
In the next two sections, she just keeps lobbing ideas and encouragement. Sometimes we have to “get over ourselves and just go for it” (93). Have people in your home, she says. Tell people your story and keep asking questions until you get theirs. Open up space in your life instead of keeping a full dance card all the time, even though it feels safer to look and feel busy. Honor other people with the simple kindness and courtesy that our grandmothers understood.
Especially interesting to me was her chapter on “naming your friends,” in which she suggests making a catalogue of the women in your life as an exercise to show you “who your people are.” She even provides a little list of questions to help you identify these women and see how full of friendship potential your life might already be.
In the final two sections, she continues with more of the godly, practical directive. Some of it is basic, Dale Carnegie type stuff: listen well, be considerate on social media, and demonstrate magnetic joy. Some of it is stuff that only the Christian woman could ever do, and then only in the power of the Spirit: speak hard truth in love, repent when your own sin is brought to your attention, pray faithfully, ask for help, and be ready to enter adversity with your friends.
These pointers are convicting but also revitalizing. I found myself convicted of complaisance, self-serving fear, and sinful assumption in several specific friendships. I put down the book ready to get on the phone, get out the door, and engage with the women in my life.
Necessarily unstructured but immensely helpful
This book is certainly practical in nature. Its sections feel a little forced, and the subject matter doesn’t always fall clearly under their headings, but in the end, this doesn’t matter to the reader. We’re just lapping each new chapter up. Her style is easy and engaging, and her promises are measured and realistic.
The content of the book is actually best summarized by a list of almost proverbial statements placed in the final pages (217-221). Hoover also provides discussion questions and a pretty comprehensive list of friendship-related verses at the end of the book.
Hoover uses scripture as she can (and great quotes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Book Life Together), but on the whole, exegesis isn’t the business of Messy Beautiful Friendship. Instead, it is a field guide designed to utilize sanctified, experiential wisdom and answer a specific need for a specific demographic: I’m a woman. How do I get out there and get close to other women?
As such, the book works, and I’ll gladly be passing it along to other ladies. It’s already provided the impetus for me to go out and light some fires of my own.
If you want to hear more on this topic, check out Hoover’s recent web interviews with several women, including Thabiti Anyabwile’s wife Kristie (http://www.gracecoversme.com/2017/05/kristie-anyabwile-on-friendship-for.html) and Lisa Jo Baker (author of another book on friendship released in April, Never Unfriended) (http://www.gracecoversme.com/2017/03/lisa-jo-baker-on-being-never-unfriended.html).