Scott Black Johnston: In the Presence of My Frenemies


As the parent of a teenager, I enjoy eavesdropping on the ever-fresh vocabulary of high school students. One of the most evocative and fascinating terms that my daughter uses is frenemy.

Frenemy, of course, is a mash-up of friend and enemy. It describes a person who is a helpful companion some of the time and a rival at others. It can also refer to someone who pretends to be a friend, but is actually an enemy: the proverbial "wolf in sheep's clothing."

Spite NYTIMESAll in all, the word frenemydemonstrates that today's teens are pretty savvy when it comes to the fickle nature of human relationships. The friend who talks you through a bad experience on Monday can become the enemy gossiping about your troubles on Tuesday. The person privately encouraging you to seek a promotion at work can undercut you in chasing the same promotion. That's a frenemy.

In my day, the high school terminology about relationships included the quaint "going steady." It was an optimistic thing (and a big commitment!) to assert that you were "going steady" with someone. To openly refer to people as frenemiessounds more jaded, but it is also more realistic. Our relationships with other people are not always, or even mostly, "steady." They can fluctuate from warm to cold, from supportive to combative.

Life teaches us that our closest friends - people we have leaned on in times of personal struggle - are also those capable of wounding us most deeply.

Somebody once asked me, "Why, in Psalm 23, does the psalmist say, You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies? Who wants to sit at a table with their enemies?" I replied that I thought this famous verse was a taunt: "I am having a feast, and my enemies can only look at me enjoying myself and lick their lips."

Recently, though, I have been considering another interpretation. I have begun to think that the psalmist was acknowledging something that contemporary teens know quite well: Every day we study with, play sports with, work alongside and sit at table with frenemies.

In a famous sermon, "You are Accepted," theologian Paul Tillich described the imperfect dynamics underlying even the strongest friendships. He wrote, "There is something in the misfortune of our best friends which does not displease us. Who amongst us is dishonest enough to deny that this is true?" Ouch.

If Tillich is right, sin factors in all of our relationships. All of them. Even those we value most highly. Hearing this, we may want to protest: Surely we don't feel the same way about our next-door neighbors as we do about the Taliban? There are enemies, and then there are  enemies. Right?

From Scott's blog, Sharp About Your Prayers.