Friendship is one of the many good gifts God has given to the human race. Two or more people come together over a shared interest or activity and a relationship starts to grow—one that can become just as strong as the relationship between brothers and sisters. Those kinds of friendships are a major source of happiness in life.
Ancient cultures praised friendship as something that had a really good effect on people. It taught them virtues like loyalty, faithfulness, and love. Ancient literature is filled with examples of best friends like David and Jonathan, Damon and Pythias, and Roland and Oliver. In modern times romantic love seems to have taken the spotlight, yet we still celebrate friends like Frodo and Samwise, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, and Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. Jesus himself had a group of twelve disciples (students) who were close to him, and out of that group, three were particularly close: Peter, James, and John.
Yet friendship isn’t always the wonderful thing it should be. There are breakups, coldnesses, and betrayals. People get hurt feelings and ghost one another. There are even friendships that center around something evil: friendships between serial killers, or the friendships that give birth to a movement like Nazism. On a more mundane level, we’ve all seen the friendships at school or work that we call “cliques”—two or more people who use their friendship as a tool to cause pain to other people, either by excluding them or by actively bullying them.
All of these are corruptions of friendship. Christians believe that this is not what God intended friendship to be, but that just as with so many other good gifts, human evil has infected friendship and twisted it away from what it was meant to be.
What Makes for a Good Friendship?
Christianity has a lot to say about what makes for a good friendship. One of the most important things, curiously enough, is not making the friendship more important than it ought to be—making the other person bear the whole weight of your hopes and fears. Most people will fold under a weight like that. Have you ever met one of those lonely people who is forever talking about how much they would like to have a friend, any friend, and yet they seem perpetually doomed never to make friends? Sometimes it’s for this reason—that when a friendship starts to open up, they latch on to it with the strength of desperation, and the other person is frightened off by the intensity of their need. Friendships are so important, but they were never met to bear the whole wait of a person’s neediness. That is what God is for.
But what about more ordinary circumstances—where two people just like spending time together, without a lot of drama or demands? Christianity has a lot of great stuff for that healthy situation, too. People being what we are, there is always going to be a need for the virtues God wants us to grow in—patience and courtesy, for example. Most friendships are going to go through rough patches occasionally, and there will be times when one friend doesn’t understand what the other one is thinking or doing. In those cases, there’s a real value to patience and courtesy—and humility! Humility says, “Hey, maybe I’m missing something, and I don’t really understand what’s going on with my friend fright now.” Courtesy says, “I’m going to give my friend space to deal with his or her issues, and if there’s other support I can give, I’ll do that, too.” Patience says, “Take the time that you need to deal with this, and I’ll wait for you to get it back together again.” All of this leads to spiritual growth—not just for the person under stress, but for the patient, caring friend who stands by him or her.
You can see that in all these cases, it’s about putting your friend first and not your own needs and desires. That is so important in any healthy relationship, including friendships. To be sure, a time may come when you have to draw a line—when the situation is actively destructive to either you or your friend, and can’t be let continue. But this is not the usual situation. Most of the time there is a natural give and take in friendships, where the person who needed a hand last year is now in a position to care for you during your time of trouble.
You want to be sure your friendship is a good thing, a blessing, for both of you—particularly your friend, but you too. It’s no good if one person is doing all the taking, all the time. It’s also not a great situation if the friendship is enabling one person to become less of a human being than he or she ought to be—for instance, by building an unhealthy dependence, by allowing that person to practice abusive behavior, or similar unhealthy patterns. In a case like that, if the friendship can’t be refocused, it’s better for it to end. Even out of such endings, we believe God can work to bring healing and new beginnings for one or both parties.
Friend of God?
Oddly enough, God himself sometimes calls human beings his friends. We usually think of friends as equals or near-equals; but who could ever be God’s equal? Yet God refers to the man Abraham as his friend in Isaiah 41:8, and the Bible tells us that he spoke to Moses face to face, “as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11). Jesus does much the same thing when he talks to those who follow him. In fact, he gained a reputation for being “a friend of tax collectors and sinners”—that is, low status people, the kind our culture would call bottom-feeders. And his enemies were right to call him this, because that’s exactly the kind of people he spent time with and cared for—the ones nobody valued.
Jesus explained what God’s friendship with people is like. He said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:12-15).
Jesus calls the people he loved and was about to die for his friends. Like him, they obeyed God, the Father whom Jesus loved so much; and Jesus had told them everything God had said to him. In Jesus’ heart, they were truly friends.
Being a friend of God is what Jesus wanted for them, and it’s what he wants for us too, now. Christians believe that anybody who wants to be a friend of God can be, and one way that friendship can start is by getting to know Jesus himself in the Gospels.