Living in a Facebook world is to live in a world with hundreds of “friends,” many more relationships than people can manage. Rather than thinking of them as friends, it would be better to consider them acquaintances, business associates, clients, relatives, schoolmates, or whatever they really are. They certainly aren’t friends in the biblical sense of the term, though doubtless among the number of connections, some may be true friends. I know when I look at my list, I see names I don’t recognize, nor can I recall how we are connected or when we connected on FB. I have argued that a friend in the biblical sense of the term, is one who will stand with us in the hour of our need. A friend is not afraid to give us a kidney or take a bullet for us. There will be some tangible expression of the depth of the friendship that will eventually manifest itself. Jesus declared (John 15:13) that one who gives his life for a friend manifests the greatest kind of love. We could understand this in the literal sense—to give up one’s life through death to save another or in the metaphoric sense—to give one’s life completely in service for another. Either way, both are expressions of true friendship and great love.
So, is the opposite also true? If one is unwilling to expend themselves for another, either literally or metaphorically, is this a marker of a false friend? Well, it is clearly shows the lack of depth in the relationship. I would do most anything for my wife, but less for someone else’s wife. It’s just the way it is. As a Christian, my commitment to my wife should be deeper than my commitment to any other earthly person. This commitment is to be expected in marriage. The caveat here is that Jesus warned us against loving something more than Him (Matt 10:37).
However, a person who will not carry your torch (see my essay last week), who will not give you a kidney if they could and you needed one, really isn’t your friend. This doesn’t mean you cannot have a relationship with this person if you choose, but don’t expect much in the relationship because not much is offered. You may enjoy a cup of coffee or watching a football game with them, but in the crucible of testing, the person will be like Job’s friends . . . he or she will sit back and watch you suffer without doing much to help. The “friend” may even add to the testing by criticizing you for real or imagined error on your part. You do not need more criticism. You need help in the crisis. Alas, no real help will come.
So, how do you cultivate true friends? What should you do to foster a true friend among your relationships? How do you choose someone to be a friend to? How do you maintain friendships across the miles and time? These are interesting questions that I am not sure can be answered in a simple essay. But let’s try to think through some of these issues.
How do you choose a person with whom to cultivate a true friendship? First, is this something that can actually be done in an early connection? You make acquaintances, develop associations, learn of interests, goals, aspirations, opinions, fears, and personal details as you develop relationships. Potential friends begin to emerge as you spend time together. Over time, and in the good providence of God, He brings people into your lives with whom you will have a deep and abiding relationship. Something will click. Not mystically or magically. When I met my wife in the 9th grade, I did not “fall head over heels in love with her.” She certainly didn’t “fall head over heels in love with me” either. We were not really impressed with each other when we first met. Over the next seven years, we grew to become friends and eventually married.
There are some people with whom you can never develop a true friendship. I was asked recently about my acquaintance with a certain academic. I replied that I hardly knew him. I had had a number of opportunities to be in his presence. I heard him speak on numerous occasions and had meals with others that included this fellow. The more I was around him, the less I felt like we would be friends. In every conversation of which we were both a part, he was the focal point of the discussion. Some in the group had known him a long time, but he seldom asked his conversation partners about their journeys. He loved to regale his auditors about his personal stories, his exploits, his life, but seldom was the conversation redirected toward others. It was weird. Who wants to sit around and talk about themselves most of the time? This chap seemed to do this very thing. I don’t think it would be possible to develop a true friendship with him because he did not seem interested in others, only in himself. If we are not careful, we can all be a bit self-centered. You hear your acquaintance tell a fish story; you jump into the conversation with a story about a bigger fish. If you want to be a true friend, you have to listen and learn; you need to seek meaningful conversations. These take hard work in the early stages and through the course of the friendship. You cannot be the center of attention in every conversation. Moreover, some conversations may be unpleasant. Prov. 27:6 reminds us that the wounds of a friend are faithful, while the enemy is profuse with kisses (ESV). Sometimes a friend needs to speak truth into another friend’s life. Are you willing to hear such words or give such words if necessary? With a true friend, you can give and receive these words knowing that their purpose is biblical.
If you seek to be a true friend to others, potential true friends will begin to manifest themselves as you discover common sensibilities. The more you have in common, the greater the potential there will be for true friendship. Therefore, seeking like-minded individuals may be a place to start but it will take work to cultivate and maintain a true friendship. Want true friends? Be a true friend (Prov. 18:24).
As far as picking friends, you should always choose your friends carefully. A young woman or man probably should not date a person they wouldn’t wish to marry. Isn’t dating the way you decide the one you might consider marrying? Perhaps, but a young adult doesn’t merely select a prospect out of a photo array without knowing something of the individual in advance. Especially in college, the dating game should be played with the realization that dating is for keeps. You may be dating your future BFF (best friend forever), so choose wisely. One of the things that drew me to my wife was her commitment to Christ. She wanted to serve Him with all her heart. I felt that she was going the same way in life as I was. Would God have us travel life’s road together? After forty years of ministry, we rejoice that this was definitely God’s will for our lives! But it took us nine years to figure this out!
Friendships emerge over the course of time and life. Your journey intersects another person’s life, and you find yourself making common cause with them in ways that draw the two of you together. Some of my best friends today are men that I went to college with more than forty years ago. We were roommates, worked out together in the gym, took classes together, went on ministry trips together, and went into ministry about the same time. We also shared difficulties together, facing similar hardships or obstacles. The trials brought us closer for conversation and prayer. We wept together and rejoiced together over the years. The longer you associate with someone, the more likely that the two of you will find joy and fellowship together. I use the term fellowship here, which is the Greek word κοινωνία. It means “holding things in common.” Php 1:5 Paul commends the Philippians for their participation in the Gospel (ESV). Kοινωνία is more than going to a ballgame with a group of people. Fellowship may or may not occur at a ballgame but simply having Christians go as a group to an event doesn’t constitute fellowship. Kοινωνία occurs when there is purposeful effort made to edify or build up one another. This does not mean that for a ballgame to be fellowship, it must be accompanied by a Bible study, but there does need to be spiritual purpose in the activity. True friendship for a Christian must include κοινωνία. James 2:23 marks Abraham as a friend of God because he had κοινωνία with God. David expresses the same κοινωνία with God in Psalm 34. True friendship includes κοινωνία—with God and with others. God gives us people with whom we can have κοινωνία.
Need a friend? Joseph M. Scriven, in 1855, was living in Ontario, Canada. He wrote a poem to his mother who was ill in Ireland to encourage her. The poem, “Pray Without Ceasing,” was later set to music and became “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” What a blessing to know that Jesus is our true friend, no matter how earthly relationships unfold.