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Biblical friendship (part 3): Cultivating friendship

In part 1 and part 2, we looked at what a true friend is, and how Jesus is the ultimate friend. Now we’re going to think about how to cultivate biblical friendships through the lens of one of the great friendships recorded in the Bible: Jonathan and David. We won’t look at their story in any depth here, but I’d encourage you to read it for yourself in in 1 and 2 Samuel. It takes place in the midst of royal jealously, violence and manipulation. You would not be remiss to mistake it for the plotline of a soap opera, probably The Bold and the Beautiful if I had to pick one.

Jonathan and David’s friendship faced great trials and tribulations. Jonathan’s father, King Saul, tried to kill David no fewer than eight times. Jonathan saved David’s life twice. Although their friendship was greatly threatened, it stood firm right up until Jonathan’s death. And their friendship affected how David lived out the rest of his life. 

I hope our lives are not as dramatic as the lives of Jonathan and David. But their friendship does raise the question: how do we cultivate biblical friendships? There are many answers we could give but I think most fall into just three categories, which we’ll look at below. 

Take initiative 

It’s so easy to think that friendships just happen; that we just fall into them. This may have been the case when we were at school, but as I think about my friendships as an adult I realise they have all started because someone took initiative. 

One of my friendships began because I invited this friend to my house over the Easter weekend. She was from Perth and would have otherwise been spending the long weekend alone in our college residence. We laugh about this story now but I was really awkward when I asked her and apparently said “only if you want to” about 10 times. 

In some of my friendships I have taken the initiative; sometimes it’s been the other person and I am so thankful that they did. My life is richer because they chose to be vulnerable. 

To cultivate friendship we have to take initiative and walk towards another person; we have to open ourselves up to awkwardness. For Jonathan and David to realise that they loved each other as their own soul, one of them needed to approach the other and at least say hello. Jonathan consistently took initiative with his friend. Jonathan’s initiative and the counsel he gave saved David’s life on more than one occasion (1 Sam 13:3ff; 19:11ff; 20:1ff). 

Open your mouth and then your heart 

We know God because he is a God who speaks. We are created in his image and one of the main ways we know each other is through conversation—through self-revelation. Friendship grows when we talk and ask thoughtful and personal questions. One of the best ways to get to know someone is to ask them to share their story about how they met Jesus. On your way to meeting someone, think about what you can ask them. What do you want to find out about? How can you encourage them? 

It’s not always easy to meet face-to-face so think about other ways to speak with friends. Maybe when you’re in the car you could use that time to make a call, or just set aside time each week or fortnight (or whatever works best). It’s helpful to have a few friends in your speed dial so you can call them easily.

Jonathan and David talked. They talked about God’s plans for their lives, how to be faithful to him, and they encouraged each other. They opened up their mouths and their hearts to each other (1 Sam 20). 

Open your home 

When Lachlan and I got married we had all eight of our godchildren in the bridal party. These children are our godchildren because their parents opened their hearts and homes to us and, over countless meals over countless years, we lowered our defences, had deep conversations and became close friends. 

Throughout the Bible, meals play an important role in the lives of God’s people. There are meals for celebrations and remembrance (Exod 24:11; Deut 12:7; John 2:1-11; Luke 22:15-16). Jonathan and David shared many meals together as they lived and served in the palace. And heaven is described as one big banquet with people from all nations (Isa 25:6; Rev 19:7-9). 

So how do you open your home to share meals with others? Opening your home can be scary but it doesn’t need to be Martha Stewart calibre hospitality. Some of my fondest memories of times with friends have been around a take away pizza, surrounded by piles of clothes still to be folded. 

Maybe as you leave church on a Sunday you could invite someone round for lunch. Ask them what they found encouraging about the sermon or church generally. Or maybe you could intentionally keep one evening a week free to have someone over for dinner. Another idea is to have dinner as a regular part of your Bible study group. 

Please don’t hear me saying that you can only do hospitality in your home. For some of us there are good reasons for not doing this. Going out for dinner is good too. The point is that friends eat together. 

Open up your life 

As a child I watched movies like the Sandlot Kids and The Mighty Ducks and wanted to be in a gang of friends like that. It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I became part of a gang. Like all gangs, it has a silly name: the Paddle Pop Gang. As a gang, we go to the cricket each year, which gives us an excuse to get together, to hang out and talk. 

Doing things together can help sets up rhythms for your friendships. It forces you to think through when you will see each other and make time in your calendar. But how do we open up our already busy or full lives? 

Maybe you could build friendship into what you are already doing. So, if you’re going to watch a movie or TV show, invite a friend to watch it with you. Or read a book with a friend and arrange times to discuss what you’ve been reading. If you’re a parent with young children at home, invite someone to join you on a walk or at the park. If you’re married, plan with your spouse how you can help each other make time for friends and don’t begrudge your spouse for spending time with friends. 

The best advice for cultivating friendships is not to find a better friend but to become a better friend. We do this by taking the initiative and opening up our mouths, hearts, homes and lives. 

Name your friends 

It’s hard to know how to build a friendship if you don’t know who you need to work with. So I encourage you to get out a piece of paper and write down the names of your friends. This is one of the most helpful ways to cultivate friendship. 

When we name our friends, we can see that we do have friends, that we may need to put some more effort into certain friendships, reassess some friendships and maybe free ourselves up to pursue some new friendships. 

Naming our friends also allows us to pray for our friends and thank God for them. I’ve been convicted that I don’t pray regularly enough with or for my friends. I need to be a bit more like David. When we read David’s eulogy for Jonathan in 2 Samuel 1 it can break our heart. David named his friend, thanked God for him and said publicly what he appreciated about him. 

“Jonathan lies slain on your high places.
I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
very pleasant have you been to me;
your love to me was extraordinary
surpassing the love of women.” (2 Samuel 1:25-26)

Be proactive 

Drew Hunter says that cultivating friendship is like building a railway line. You have to think through what rails your friendship will ride along as we go through life in a broken world.[1]

In part 2, I mentioned my friend in Canberra who I speak to on Wednesdays. When we finished college she said, “how are we going to keep this friendship?” We suggested we speak on the phone once a week. We laid down the rails that our friendship would run along and put in place the steps we would take to sustain and keep building our friendship.

What are the things you need to put in place that will allow your friendship to start, grow and thrive? 

It’s worth it 

Maybe you’re thinking that this whole friendship thing really is a lot of work and you’re just not sure if it’s worth it. 

But remember that biblical friendship is about people bound together by their common faith in Jesus Christ.[2] People who are intentional and vulnerable. People who are pursuing Christ and his kingdom by pointing non-believers to him and helping believers to grow in their love of him. Friendship is a great gift that God has given us in his mercy to bear fruit for his kingdom.

Esther Edwards Burr captures the worthwhileness of friendship beautifully in one of her letters. Esther was the wife of the second president of Princeton University and she earnestly sought to know the presence of God in the craziness of daily life. In her letters, we see her appreciation of friends as a divine gift in her walk with the Lord. Look at these words penned in 1755: 

I should highly value (as you my dear do) such charming friends as you have about you—friends that one might unbosom their whole soul to… I esteem religious conversation of the best helps to keep up religion in the soul, excepting secret devotion, I don’t know but the very best—then what a lamentable thing that ‘tis so neglected by God’s own children.” [3]

While she cherished her daily quiet time with God, it was particularly through her biblical friendships that Esther found strength and encouragement for living as a believer. Let’s heed Esther’s warning not to neglect this great and precious gift that God has given us, his children and his friends. 

[1] Drew Hunter, Made for Friendship, Crossway, Illinois, 2018.
[2] Jonathan Holmes, The Company We Keep: In Search of Biblical Friendship, Cruciform Press, Minnesota, 2014.
[3] Carol F Karlsen and Laurie Crumpacker (eds.), The Journal of Esther Edwards Burr 1754-1757, Yale University Press, New York, 1984, p. 112.