True Friendship (Part 1)

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True Friendship (Part 1)
The following article is the first in a 7-part series that’ll be looking at the topic of True Friendship.

True Friendship – Article Series
1. True Friendship (Part 1)
2. True Friendship (Part 2)

3. Friendship is hard
4. Why Friendship matters
5. What is distinctive about Christian Friends
6. Forgiveness (Part 1)
7. Forgiveness (Part 2)

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“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. ~ John 15:9-15 (NIV)

When the word ‘friendship’ or ‘friend’ is heard, any number of emotions and images may arise. I imagine that there are a wide range of names we would classify as friends, but within that range we make distinctions. Some friends are closer than others, and some people whom we may call friend may not necessarily feel the same way towards us. Meanwhile, there are some people whom we think of who evoke feelings of sadness and disappointment – they may have once been close with us, but for one reason or another no longer are. Over the next few articles I want to explore some aspects of friendship, from a Christian worldview, and see how the Lordship of Jesus Christ shapes what we think, feel, and do with it. It is my prayer that we would not only be challenged to think about the topic itself but also reflect on our own friendships, changing our approach and conduct where necessary.

What is friendship?

In the next few posts we’ll explore what it is that friends do, and how they express their friendship with each other. But what exactly is friendship? My goal with this question is not to set the boundary markers that will explicitly allow us to divide everyone we know into ‘friends’ or ‘non-friends’, but rather it is to consider what “true friends” might look like while drawing from biblical wisdom.

Proverbs 17:17 says that “a friend loves at all times”, and Proverbs 18:24 contrasts unreliable friends with “a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” From these two verses alone we see that there is some notion of commitment and love that is expected, such that a friend can even be closer to someone than a blood relative. When we look at John 15:13, we see that Jesus Himself says that the greatest love that can be demonstrated by a human is to lay down their life for their friends. In this context Jesus is speaking the night before His death on the Cross, and so what is in view here is His own laying down of His life for the sake of His friends. Jesus was saying that He was utterly committed to them, loving them, and sacrificing Himself for them. This is how He demonstrates the supreme example of love in acting towards His friends.

So what are we to make of this? Here are two definitions for us to consider:

Acquaintance: a person whom you know, and who also knows you.
Friend: a person whom you make a deliberate commitment to love.

Now, at this point it must be said that the definition I have given for ‘friendship’ is primarily drawn from my interpretation of the Scriptures, but I am surprised to find that this definition does seem to be intuitive from a non-Biblical worldview (at least, in my context and demographic). Let me explain.

I suspect that much of our conception of what a ‘friend’ is has been shaped by the prevalence of social media. A person may have 800 Facebook friends, but the reality is that of those 800 they may only really know 300 people in any true level of depth. And of those 300 they may only really spend time and converse with 100 people in a year. (I recognise that these numbers are somewhat arbitrary, and different for each individual). But on top of the social media influence there is the use of ‘buddy’ or ‘mate’ in casual discourse, which complicates things because words like these are seen as being synonymous with ‘friend’. Perhaps we should call more people ‘acquaintances’ instead of ‘friend’?

These uses of ‘friend’ break down when we consider the sorts of expectations that are set when we call ourselves someone’s friend. I have often known the pain of verbally acknowledging to people that “I have not been a good friend to you.” What am I communicating in such a statement? In the instances that I have said this it has ranged from:

  • not being there for them when they needed it,
  • talking about them, or to them, unlovingly,
  • only taking, or using, the relationship for my own benefit,
  • not even trying to stop them from doing something that I knew would not be good for them

In all of these personal examples I failed to live out a commitment to love and give myself to the person whom I had said that I was a friend to. For whatever reason it happened (and we’ll look more at this in the third article), I recognise that my relationship with this person doesn’t match the sort of features that we find characterise a ‘good friendship’. So even though the word ‘friend’ has a lot of baggage and usage in questionable circumstances, upon further reflection it makes sense that it is too strong of a word to use for absolutely everyone we know. And, in agreement with the biblical evidence, I think it’s clear that friendship is not the same thing as just knowing someone (and having them know you).

What does this look like?

Let’s try and break down some aspects of this definition of ‘friendship’. Once again, the definition I’m working with is that a friend is “a person whom you make a deliberate commitment to love.”

The first part is that it is a person whom we are acting deliberately towards. There is an intentionality to our relationship with them. Here it is pivotal to say that there is a difference between ‘being a friend’ and ‘having a friend’. If I am being a friend to someone else, then I am deliberately making a commitment to love them. And if I have a friend, then they are deliberately making a commitment to love me. Some of us know the disappointment of wanting to be a friend to someone, and wanting them to be our friend as well. But the truth is that friendship must be a deliberate act towards another, and we can’t control whether or not another person will want to return our commitment towards them. Just because we wish to ‘friend’ someone it doesn’t mean that they will want to ‘friend’ us. And we need to accept this.

I think that a big reason why we have difficulty accepting that not everyone we wish to be a friend with will want to be a friend to us is simply that if we want to love someone then we also want to be loved back. But what we are freed to do in Christ is to love without expectation, giving up ourselves for a person (or people) who have no intention to return it, just as Jesus did for us in laying His life down for us on the Cross. Surely, there will be some disappointment if the desire is not reciprocated, but if we do get angry that someone doesn’t then that may reveal that we feel some sense of entitlement. I speak as someone who has both seen and done this, where my desire to friend a person has been rejected and I’ve subsequently felt resentful and anger at another person. “Don’t they understand that I just wanted to be nice?”

In offering friendship to another person we are extending a hand (as in a handshake), or opening our arms (as in a hug), or raising our hand (as in a hi-5). And the other person can choose to meet us and reciprocate the action, or not. Most certainly, we really want people to return the action! However, if they don’t then that isn’t the end of all things.

To make a commitment to love is to make a decision to give ourselves for the good of another, without a preoccupation with our own good. It isn’t a definite strategy, but if we do want to have more loving friends around us then as followers of our Lord Jesus Christ we can surely model what it means to be a loving friend to others, loving like He did, and witnessing to the power of the Cross and the self-lessness of God who is perfect relationship in and of Himself. And even if that doesn’t mean that others may return the offer of friendship, we can know that we have a Lord who calls us friend who does. In fact, we love because He first loved us (1 John 4:19).

continued in ‘True Friendship (Part 2)’

James Chen

James is a Philosophy graduate from the University of Sydney and is currently a teaching and learning manager of a senior high school tutoring centre. James is a member of St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Carlingford and loves reading and teaching the Bible.

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