Hard-wired into most of us is the desire for such a friend — one who ‘loves at all times’ (Proverbs 17:17). However, having a true friend is often preceded by being one. Be there for others, and you may find them willing to be there for you (Proverbs 18:24).
Friends must be Found
Our friends will influence us for better or worse. ‘He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will be destroyed’ (Proverbs 13:20). This fact should ensure that a Christian ‘choose his friends carefully, for the way of the wicked leads them astray’ (Proverbs 12:26).
This does not demand isolation from unrighteous people. Jesus was called, pejoratively, the ‘friend of tax collectors and sinners’ (Luke 7:34). He spent time in the company of ‘undesirables’. Compassion made Him available to all (Mark 2:15-17; Luke 15). However, His most intimate companions, His closest circle of friends, shared an interest in doing God’s will (Mark 3:35). It was these He took into His confidence, sharing with them His secrets (Mark 4:10-11; John 15:15).
In The Four Loves C S Lewis states that friendship ‘is born at the moment when one man says to another “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself …”’ Friendship commences and develops around a common interest. So, for the Christian to gain spiritual friends he must first nourish a personal interest in spiritual matters. Spending time in the company of fellow-Christians and conversing about such subjects will draw similarly-minded people to him, enabling good friendships to develop.
We all have many interests. Some enjoy a particular sport, others a style of music; in these areas friendships develop naturally. However, the defining interest of the believer’s life is Christ. Our closest friends should share this focus.
Friends may be False
A modern challenge to true friendship is ‘friending’. Although a person may have hundreds of ‘friends’ on social media, many of these will be practically unknown to him, or little more than passing acquaintances. While there may be valid reasons to increase the number of your social media connections, this is often done with the desire to appear popular. In True Friendship: Walking Shoulder to Shoulder, Vaughan Roberts notes helpfully:
We need to recognize that there is a difference between ‘friending’ – relationships which are conducted almost exclusively in cyberspace – and friendship. In friending, more is always better; but in friendship it is quality, not quantity, that matters.
A person can have many Facebook friends yet be miserably lonely. This is not true friendship.
Just as the desire to appear popular on social media may cause people to ‘friend’ you, so ‘Wealth makes many friends’ (Proverbs 19:4) for ‘every man is a friend to one who gives gifts’ (Proverbs 19:6). People sometimes befriend others purely out of self-interest. As false friends multiply, the possession of wealth, popularity, status, or charisma can prove a hindrance to obtaining true friends. However, when the going gets tough false friends will depart. The ‘poor is separated from his friend’ (Proverbs 19:4) because he is regarded as being of no further use.
Friends should be Faithful
By contrast, true friends are faithful companions. ‘A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity’ (Proverbs 17:17). Through poverty and wealth, sickness and health, the friendship is maintained. In fact, times of adversity and trial display and deepen true friendship. When David returned from the defeat of Goliath and enjoyed the approval of Saul, the ‘soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul’ (1 Samuel 18:1). However, the test came when David was hated and hunted. Jonathan risked his own life for David’s protection (1 Sam 20:33) and strengthened David’s ‘hand in God’ (1 Samuel 23:15).
Such friends are precious gifts from God. They are a source of strength when one is tempted to give up. In The Lord of the Rings, when Samwise Gamgee sees that Frodo, the ring-bearer, has no strength to reach Mount Doom alone, he cries out, ‘Come Mr Frodo! I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you and it as well’.
Being a faithful friend involves more than simply being there when troubles arise. ‘Faithful are the wounds of a friend’ (Proverbs 27:6). Giving a warning in good time may keep a friend from sin. Because we all experience temptation, a true friend must be candid, placing greater value on his friend’s spiritual good than on the maintenance of their friendship. Even though the relationship may be threatened, he should not fail, when necessary, to challenge his friend.
Characteristically, the conversation of good friends will lead to the moral improvement and intellectual stimulation of both: ‘As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend’ (Proverbs 27:17). Isolation from different points of view dulls wits and stunts growth.
Friends can be Family
Living in a society which placed tremendous importance on family relationships and responsibilities, the Lord Jesus said, ‘whoever does the will of God is My brother and My sister and mother’ (Mark 3:34-35). True friends can sometimes obtain a place of greater intimacy than family members. There is, after all, ‘a friend who sticks closer than a brother’ (Proverbs 18:24).
Because our families see us at our worst, they know the many struggles which are kept hidden from others.
Sometimes to an even greater degree, close friends are brought into an intimate relationship in which personalities are fully exposed and secrets communicated. This demands trust. When such trust is violated it will rarely be fully restored. We should therefore look after our friendships, for ‘A brother offended is harder to win than a strong city’ (Proverbs 18:19).
Friends will be Friendly
‘A man who has friends must himself be friendly’ (Proverbs 18:24). The secret to having good friends is being one. Christ-like characteristics – such as a desire for God’s glory, faithfulness, self-sacrificial love, humility, forthrightness, sincerity, and compassion – will make you attractive to those who love the Saviour. If you want true friends, take the initiative; look for those who want to please God, and spend time with them. Be willing to reveal your interests and ambitions; someone else may be needing friendship too.
The Lord has made us His friends (John 15:12-17). While we fail, He will never do so, for His companionship has all the hallmarks of true friendship. As the hymnwriter Johnson Oatman Jr wrote:
There’s not a friend like the lowly Jesus:
No, not one! No, not one!