In the hit HBO series Insecure, Issa Rae plays a 29-year-old woman who is unsure about her job, her boyfriend, and the direction of her life in general. The only area of her life where she seems to have any stability is in her friendships. Her life and insecurities feel very real to most millennials who’ve spent most of their lives with a clear roadmap—high school, graduation, college, job, marriage, and kids—only to discover not everyone’s life goes according to plan.
Issa’s friendships provide the anchor and sometimes the engine as she navigates the uncertain waters of her life. In Issa’s constant state of insecurity, the only sure thing is friendship. The show accurately speaks to both to the importance of friendship and the necessary ingredients for cultivating authentic friendships that all of us have been created for.We need friends who stretch us, who are willing to help us face hard truths about ourselves, and who love us enough to tell us when we are wrong.
“You Still Trippin’?”
Issa’s most important friendship in Insecure is with Molly, her childhood friend. Molly and Issa have the easy rapport that comes with knowing someone’s inner-most secrets over many years. Molly is a universally adored, romantically inept, confident corporate lawyer, while Issa is an awkward, socially inept, nonprofit worker who is in a long-term relationship but unsure it’s going anywhere. These women each have reason to envy the other’s success, security, and relationship status, but instead genuinely love and support each other.
Their friendship is a model of what the Bible tells us about friendship and its redemptive power in our lives. The oft quoted Proverbs 27:17, “Iron sharpens iron,” is more than the stuff of Dayspring greeting cards. It describes the very heart of Christian friendship: we are meant to sharpen one another into effective tools for the Kingdom.
But, ensuring one another’s effectiveness is not always a pleasant experience. Insecure perfectly captures this dynamic in deep friendships when Issa and Molly help each other through their various dating woes.
Issa’s troubles begin when she starts hanging out with Daniel, an ex-boyfriend—while still in relationship with Lawrence, her current boyfriend. Molly points out that despite what Issa says of her flirtations with Daniel, it is not innocent and she’s putting her relationship with Lawrence at risk by hanging out with someone she has unresolved feelings for. In the same way, Issa points out Molly’s destructive thinking when it comes to her dating relationships.
Toward the end of the series, Molly and Issa have a huge fight. Issa had been cheating on her boyfriend but she suggested it was Molly who needed to see a therapist about her relationship troubles. They part on less than favorable terms. But several days later, they leave for a road trip to Malibu for mutual friend’s birthday celebration. Over the course of the weekend, they aren’t really speaking to one another. But when their other girlfriends begin to pick on Molly for her terrible relationship habits, Issa steps in to defend her. While their other friends point out the same destructive habits that Issa previously pointed out, their intent was not the same. Issa wanted her friend to be better—and the other girls were just interested in making fun.
We need discernment to know when criticism is legitimate and when it is just meant to make us feel bad about ourselves. Just as we don’t need friends that flatter us, we don’t need “frenemies.” The biblical model of friendship is redemptive, it is to build up and make us better. Sometimes authentic friends call us out and it hurts, but their intent is always our good, not their own enjoyment at our suffering or discomfort.
When Lawrence inevitably finds out about Issa’s cheating and dumps her, Molly does not take the opportunity to gloat. She meets her friend in her suffering with a bottle of wine and a lap to cry into. At her most vulnerable moment, Issa knew she could trust Molly to love her first. Real girlfriends see you and know the full, messy truth—and love you just the same. In those moments of vulnerability authentic girlfriends show us the love of Christ (the agape love Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 13:4:6). In a moment when it would have been totally appropriate to say, “I told you so,” Molly chooses the better way. As sisters in Christ, we owe each other the kind of love and loyalty that allows us to be vulnerable with one another and know that showing our wounds doesn’t expose us to further damage, but leads us into wisdom, acceptance, and healing.
Both women are willing to speak hard truths to the other, not out of spite, but out of a genuine desire to see the other happy. Such an end-goal is typical in pop culture, of course. But for Christians, the motivation for speaking hard truths is not happiness, but Christ-likeness, which leads to true joy. Despite this difference, Insecure does point us to this truth: We should all have at least one friend who will speak up when we begin to head in the wrong direction. We don’t need girlfriends who will flatter us and tell us how perfect we are, we need ones who will point us back to life, to the ways of Christ. We need friends who can see our blind spots, who will speak truth we can’t or won’t speak over ourselves. And when iron sharpens iron, there will be friction and maybe even a few sparks—but that’s what removes our rough edges and shapes us into the sort of woman that can be put to some use. We need girlfriends who will help us be refined for our own good and for God’s glory.
“What would James Baldwin say is most beneficial for people of color?”
In addition to Issa’s friendship with Molly, Insecure also features the friendships Issa has at work. Issa’s relationship with her co-worker, Frieda, reveals the discomfort associated with having friends of different racial, cultural, or ethnic backgrounds. Sometimes there is much more hanging on a loaded question or poorly delivered criticism or careless remark in an intercultural friendship, but rather than tiptoeing around uncomfortable topics, genuine friends use those moments of discomfort to develop deeper relationships.
Issa works at a nonprofit called We Got Y’all, an organization started to “help kids from the hood,” founded by a white woman named Joanne who is high on gumption but low on social awareness. For example, one day Joanne asks Issa, “What would James Baldwin say is most beneficial for people of color?” Issa is the only African American among her mostly white co-workers. Such insensitive conversation is commonplace at We Got Y’all, creating an often-strained work environment for Issa. Considering it’s a primarily white staff serving primarily African American children, such dialogue exposes a much deeper divide between the serving and the served populations.
In this strained environment is Issa, who is ambivalent about her job, unsure whether she’s really helping any of the kids she works with in the local public school. The divide between Issa and her white coworkers is highlighted in one episode when her boss, Joanne, gives her a project to present and then asks her to work with Frieda, one of her white co-workers. Issa ignores the request. When it’s time to present their work to Joanne and Issa bombs, Frieda attempts to step in to help—but is rebuffed by Joanne who then questions Issa’s work ethic. Joanne gives her another chance to complete the project. This time, Issa treats Frieda like a partner, and Issa listens when Frieda suggests Issa needs to show more passion to be taken seriously: Issa steps up and their re-vamped presentation is a success with Joanne and the kids they serve.
But it wasn’t all sunshine and roses on their road to professional success and friendship. Insecure shows the challenges and embarrassing moments that come with learning to navigate diverse friendships. Issa calls out Frieda’s participation in conversations with other white staff members about Issa’s failures in organizing an event for the kids. But, rather than getting defensive, Frieda acknowledges her error and asks to make it up to Issa by taking her out for a drink which Issa graciously accepts. Rather than just being an incident of misunderstanding, both women use it as an opportunity to press deeper and begin a friendship.
When things get awkward or uncomfortable in our intercultural relationships, it’s so easy to give up or retreat to the acquaintance zone. It’s more comfortable, for sure—but it isn’t best. We need intercultural friendships. We need friends who don’t look and think like us, who might not share our politics or backgrounds, education or skills. To find a sisterhood among women who are not exactly like us will require that we lean into the awkwardness rather than run the other direction. Just as Jesus said, loving those like us is natural; it’s loving those who are not like us that is supernatural. God the Father adopts all types to be His children. Our sisters will and should be quite different from us. That is the sort of sisterhood we need.
And what does sisterhood look like? If we are sisters, we should know one another, we should laugh too loud together, we should share what the Lord is doing in our lives, we should sit together over coffee, we should pray for one another at our kitchen tables, we should watch our kids play together, and we should invite each other to church.
These friendships can be fraught with discomfort and challenging to navigate, but they are worth every effort. Pushing past just proximity to be in authentic relationship with women of different racial and ethnic backgrounds will require lots of grace-filled conversations full of awkward questions and uncomfortable answers. Issa is the only African American staff person working at We Got Y’all, and yet most of her white co-workers are oblivious to their own racist or culturally insensitive behavior. It didn’t matter that they spent most of their days working with children of color sincerely hoping to improve their futures because they were unwilling to do the work of getting to know Issa or the kids beyond the stereotypical ideas about poverty or African Americans.
Frieda and Issa’s relationship got off to a rocky start, but they were both committed to the work of accepting correction, asking for forgiveness, and pushing toward understanding. The students and the organization benefitted from Issa and Frieda’s authentic relationship just like other people benefit when Christians demonstrate the supernatural unity that is made possible only by the Gospel. The church is most effective in the world when we demonstrate the fullness of who He is and when we have deep, loving bonds across denominational, racial, socio-economic, national, and language barriers.
What we see in Issa and Frieda’s friendship is the sort of sisterhood that Christians should being leading the way in, because the Spirit is working to unify us. This is the beauty described in 1 Corinthians 12, with the Body of Christ made of many parts, connected, but each with a specific function, none greater than the other, arranged just as He wanted for the common good, so that we might bear one another’s burdens, joys, sorrows, victories, and defeats. Just as the Body is not made only of ears or feet or shoulders, the church cannot not be the force it is meant to be in the world if we are all alike. The Body will cease to be what God meant for us to be if we are not connected through authentic relationships with one another.
The New Testament reminds believers repeatedly that once they belong to Christ, they are no longer slaves, but sons and daughters. Once we are adopted into fellowship with God, anyone who also has been adopted becomes our brother and sister in Christ (John 1:12-13, 1 John 5:1). More than an empty platitude, the change in family status meant something to New Testament Christians (Acts 2:42-47) just as it means something for us today. The supernatural sisterhood that God has in mind is beautifully diverse, and in that diversity, He will work wonders to build His Kingdom and love the least in the world.
Will My Real Friends Please Stand Up?
We need friends who stretch us, who are willing to help us face hard truths about ourselves, and who love us enough to tell us when we are wrong. These friends may come in different places and phases of life, they may be girls like Molly who we’ve known since childhood, with whom we share every moment of life. But, they might also be friends like Freida, women who come into our lives at unexpected times and places, with whom we have nothing in common and whose place in our life might be temporary. Like Issa, we need both Mollys and Friedas in our lives to stretch us and help mold us. For friendship to accomplish God’s work in our lives it will mean both laughter and truth and through both we are both anchored and transformed.