Thoughts on Friendship in a Facebook World, Part 1

by | Dec 8, 2020 | Spiritual Reflections | 0 comments

How many “friends” do you have on Facebook? It’s not an uncommon question in this social media driven world. Currently, Facebook limits the number of “friends” you can connect with to only five thousand! Only five thousand? What am I going to do about the rest of my friends? Well, I don’t actually have five thousand friends. Or even eight hundred and seventy-five which is the number of connections I currently have on Facebook. I remember when Facebook began back in 2004 as a Harvard student connection. In sixteen years, it has become the largest social media site in the universe, well, in the world anyway.

Started by Mark Zuckerberg and his Harvard roommates, it soon expanded beyond Harvard to other Ivy League schools. By 2006, anyone over the age of thirteen with a valid email address could join. Now with over 2.7 billion users worldwide, it limits “friends” to five thousand. But no one actually has five thousand “friends” though they may have that many connections! Someone might have five thousand followers, or five thousand contacts, or five thousand acquaintances, or five thousand supporters, or she can garner a list of five thousand like-minded individuals, but five thousand friends? I knew a man when I was in college who had a campus job sitting at a desk in a particular building as the information guy. He was there to make sure someone could respond to situations that might arise on short notice. This dear fellow worked hard at knowing people’s names—everyone with whom he came into contact! As you passed him in the hall, he would greet you with a warm smile by your name! Who doesn’t like to hear their name remembered by others? But were we friends? That depends on what you mean by friends.

For my part, I tend to think of myself of having relatively few friends with many acquaintances around the world. During the last two decades, I have taught classes in nine different countries, involving literally hundreds of students, a small percentage of whom I am friends with on Facebook. I am friends with people all over the world! We occasionally greet each other online, follow each other’s lives from a distance, send birthday salutations to one another, rejoice with or pray for each other in times of happiness or sorrow. We follow each other’s journeys through life including marriages, births, jobs, illnesses and finally deaths. We maintain contact at a minimal level through the medium of Facebook, but we are hardly what would qualify as friends; we are more like acquaintances. Like ships passing in the night, in life’s journey, we have associated briefly, and we moved on. Facebook allows us to stay connected but not really. I don’t have a Christmas gift list with their names on it. Nor am I on their gift lists. We remember each other with fondness, and if we were in closer proximity, we might actually become friends in the genuine sense of the term, but really, we are acquaintances, brothers and sisters in Christ perhaps, but acquaintances on the road of life. We remember each other’s names and faces but little flows between us now to mark our friendship more than an occasional “Like.”

What is a friend in the biblical sense of the term? The Greek word that is often translated in our English Bibles as friend is φίλος, a word signifying a “close association” and was used as a term of affection. Jesus was a friend of publicans and sinners (Mt 11:19, Luke 7:34) but he wasn’t their “drinking buddy.” He kept company with them on occasion to show them the love of God. In fact, he was a friend to them in the fullest sense of the word. He wasn’t their friend for what they could do for him, but he was their friend for what he could do for them. Friend is an action word. When Jesus friended someone, they had a real friend.

James called Abraham a friend of God (James 2:23). This is an interesting statement. What could Abraham do for God but love him and serve him? Again, the term is φίλος suggesting devotion and commitment. Abraham’s relationship wasn’t a surface relationship. There was depth and commitment. It was also pretty one sided. Abraham was the major recipient while God was the major contributor in the relationship. Still James calls attention to this relationship as friendship. So too Moses, with whom God spoke face to face as a man would speak to a friend (Ex. 33:11). I want to be a friend of God if I am nothing else!

English often requires us to have a qualifying adjective to explain the kind of friend we have or are. Those who are near and dear to us might be intimate friends. With them, we share our inner thoughts, our aspirations, our burdens, our sins and struggles. We see this modelled in the relationship of Jonathan, son of Saul, and David, the shepherd-turned-giant-killer (1 Sam 18:1-3). They became such close friends that Jonathan sided with David against his own father when he realized that David was the special object of divine blessing. So great was David’s friendship with Jonathan that even after Jonathan’s death, David was looking for ways to demonstrate his friendship with Jonathan through Jonathan’s son, Mephiboseth, for whom David provided in his hour of need. This is also the kind of friend we have in the Lord Jesus, whom we identify as the friend that sticks closer to us than a brother (Prov. 18:24).

At minimum, every married person ought to have this sort of relationship with his or her spouse. We should delight to be in their presence more than anyone else. Occasionally, the Lord brings another person into our lives with whom we can develop a deep friendship, but these are really rare. They take time to cultivate. These sorts of friendships emerge out of a lifetime of shared experiences. Sometimes a shared trial becomes the occasion for establishing a true friend. This kind of a friend would give you one of their kidneys if your life depended on it. They would stand up for you, defend you, support and comfort you in times of sorrow or distress because that’s what true friends do. Prov. 17:17, “A friend loves at all times and a brother is born for adversity.” There seems to be few limitations on the actions of a friend.

What kind of friend am I? I cannot be a friend to all I meet, though I can treat people well. I cannot maintain the kind of intimate relationships that friendship involves without a serious investment of time. Some people don’t want friends for that reason. It takes too much time. It requires too much investment. It involves too much personal sacrifice. It requires too much transparency. You have to be honest with a friend. Perhaps this helps to explain our affection for the world of Facebook. We can have thousands of friends and make little or no effort to cultivate them as friends. Biblical friendship, the kind that Abraham had with God or David with Jonathan, requires much more. Prov. 18:24 reminds us “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” Jesus is the kind of friend we need. This is the kind of friend I want to be. I may not have many friends, but I thank God for the few I do have. They are gifts from God! We will explore more about what the Bible says about friends next time. Stay tuned.

 

Jeff Straub

Jeff Straub

Church Historian

Jeff is an experienced professor of Christian history and theology. He regularly travels internationally to train Christian leaders. When stateside, he publishes in the field of American religion. Research interests include Baptists and slavery, racism, Pentecostalism, and global Christianity. Jeff has taught around the world including Canada where he resided with his family for his first nineteen years of ministry; Romania, Russia and the Ukraine in Europe; India and a limited access country in Asia; and Zambia and Kenya in Africa.

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