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Biblical friendship (part 2): Being a friend

In part 1 we looked at John 15 and saw that a friend is loving, sacrificial and outward looking.

The book of Proverbs fleshes out this picture of what it means to be a friend. Proverbs is immensely helpful in thinking through the issue of friendship, which isn’t surprising because it’s a book of wisdom that tells us how God’s creation operates. So let’s look at what we can learn from Proverbs about friendship.

A friend is close 

One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother. (Prov 18:24)

A friend is someone who is close to you. There’s a deepness to your relationship. You have lowered down your wall of defences and made yourself vulnerable. They know the real you, warts and all. There is real intimacy.

In my twenties I lived in a different town to my family, and after a few years I realised that my friends had become like family. It was my friends who knew my fears and where I was at. And they knew this because I had let them in. I’d been intimate with them about my hopes, dreams, fears and emotions. They knew me deeply. 

You don’t need to be geographically close to be a close friend. Friends may be separated by time and space but can still be close, especially with the help of technology. I speak on the phone every week with one of my close friends who is in Canberra. I use a week of annual leave to visit another friend in Darwin. These things have enabled me to still be honest and vulnerable and continue to go deep in these friendships. 

Over the years I’ve come to appreciate that there’s a difference between a friend and an acquaintance. Drew Hunter describes it as the difference between snorkelling and deep-sea diving.[1] When you go snorkelling, you hover on the surface and kind of bob along. You see things from a distance through metres of water. It’s beautiful and fun, but you don’t get to see things up close. Deep-sea diving, on the other hand, is quite different. You go down, you go into depth, you get to see things up close and personal.

I read a story about a man at his 50th birthday party who, when he got there, realised that in this room full of people the only person who knew the real him was his wife. There was no one else who knew his deepest hopes, dreams and fears. He was in a room of acquaintances. So he took some steps to go deeper and began to experience real friendship. 

It’s totally okay to have acquaintances. I have lots of them and when I see them I have lots of fun. But it’s helpful to know that they are not friends. On the flip side, if you only have acquaintances, does something need to change? Do you need to allow people in? Do you need to change some things in your life that may be costly? 

A friend is constant 

A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity. (Prov 17:17) 

There are several beautiful examples of the constancy of friendship in the Bible. Two of my favourites are probably the most well-known. With David and Jonathan, even though Jonathan’s father wanted to kill David, Jonathan remained steadfastly loyal to David. We learn that Jonathan loved David as himself (1 Samuel 18:1). Similarly, Ruth and Naomi had a friendship that led Ruth to leave behind her family and culture; they were so close they were like family. Ruth says these profound words to Naomi: 

“Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.” (Ruth 1:16-17) 

These friends were there for each other through thick and thin. It’s helpful to think about constancy as stickiness, because friends stick with you no matter what. A friend is there in the hard times more than the good. This means that biblical friendships are not disposable or fleeting. No matter the obstacles thrown at your friend, you remain stuck to them like glue. 

Of course, the opposite of this is the fair-weather friend—one who is only there in the good times. You may have some laughs but as soon as things get tough they disappear. If a friend disappears in the hard times, are they really a friend? 

A friend is candid 

Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy. (Prov 27:6) 

Perfume and incense bring joy to the heart,
and the pleasantness of a friend
springs from their heartfelt advice. (Prov 27:9)

As Oscar Wilde said, “good friends stab you in the front”. 

Friends talk honestly: they council, they rebuke, they speak well. Friends speak the truth in love. Friends don’t always tell you want to want to hear. They tell you what you need to hear. 

I have a friend who is really good this. Sometimes it’s the small things—for example, I have no sense of smell, so she lets me know when I should put deodorant on. Sometimes it’s the bigger things, like when I was treating another friend badly. This honest friend pulled me aside and said I needed to apologise for my appalling behaviour. I didn’t want to hear that, but I needed to. 

And this brings up an important point about being candid in friendship. I could listen to the hard words because there was trust. Friends are trustworthy. They won’t share what you’ve told them. There is no fear. Friendship should be a safe space where there is honesty and trust. 

It’s really important that we have Christian friends, as they will be the ones who build, equip and rebuke us because we have the same foundation. Of course, if the purpose of friendship is to point others to Jesus, it’s really important to have non-Christian friends too, as these are amazing gospel opportunities. And, as another friend once said to me, if we really love our friends we will pray for them to know Jesus. But I listen to the advice of my non-believing friends differently. They are coming from a different standpoint so I filter it through my Christian worldview. 

A friend is careful… 

…careful with their words 

A perverse person stirs up conflict,

and a gossip separates close friends. (Prov 16:28) 

Friends are careful with their tongues. How many friendships do you know that have been damaged by idle gossip or a loose tongue? Friends don’t repeat what has been told to them in confidence. This overlaps a lot with friends being candid: we need to be careful in how and when we use our words. Friends are careful to use their words to build people up and not tear them down; to encourage and not demotivate. 

…about friendship and sin 

We are all sinful people. And sin can destroy friendship. It can turn friendship into an idol; we can become jealous of people’s friendships; we can love our friends more than other people at church. 

And then the devil can start to tempt us. We come to church and say, “Where are my friends? I have no friends at church so I’m not going to come.” And at his most deceiving, the devil can make us think we have no friends and are unlovable. 

As Christians, we are called to love all our brothers and sisters (Col 3:12-14; Heb 13:1). So don’t go to church to make friends; go to church to serve and love your brothers and sisters. And as we love others, these relationships can often turn into the unlikeliest of friendships. When I was a student minister I decided to read the Bible one-to-one with a girl from church who I absolutely nothing in common with. We really were like chalk and cheese. But as we spent the year reading God’s word together we became closer and closer, and she is now a friend. 

At this point you may feeling rather overwhelmed. Who can possibly live up to this? Who among us can be a friend who is always truly close, constant, candid and careful? 

And the simple answer is: no one. But the more accurate answer is: no one but Jesus. Remember, he is the perfect friend. He is the one in whom all these marks of friendship are perfectly fulfilled. So don’t despair or give up; you are not Jesus. 

Having Jesus as our model of friendship reminds us there is grace and forgiveness. We won’t achieve the four Cs all the time.[2] We will keep spoiling our friendships by our self-centred, thoughtless words and actions.

But when we when we fail, we can apologise, seek forgiveness and move towards reconciliation. In doing so we become more like Jesus and our friendships become more Christlike. In doing so, we will point each other to Jesus. 

Look out for part 3 of this series next week, where Caitlin will explore how we can cultivate friendships.

[1] Drew Hunter, Made for Friendship, Crossway Publishing, Illinois, 2018. 
[2] The concept of the Cs of friendship is quite a common structural understanding of friendship in Proverbs. These headings were made most famous by Vaughan Roberts in his book True Friendship. They are also used by several other authors and speakers such as Matt Fuller and Tim Keller (with a slight variation).