When I was in graduate school in 1995-97, the decade-long TV show “Friends” was at its height of popularity. Having heard so many students talk about the show, our mentor and professor’s wife Mary Morken decided to watch and see what all the buzz was about. I was fascinated to hear her take on the (then) racy plot, wardrobe and conversations of the six singles who lived in Manhattan. “What did you think?” I asked her. “They have a thieves’ ethic,” she said. “They’re loyal to each other when it suits them. And when it suits them, they turn on one another.”
She pointed to the book of Proverbs for examples of friends who agree to share the spoils and cover for one another’s crimes, until they’re found out. They entice with promising words:
we shall find all precious goods,
we shall fill our houses with plunder;
throw in your lot among us;
we will all have one purse” (Proverbs 1:13-14, ESV).
Solomon urges his son to resist their offer: “[M]y son, do not walk in the way with them;” he says, “hold back your foot from their paths ” (Proverbs 1:15). What they offer sounds good. But Solomon knows “they set an ambush for their own lives” (Proverbs 1:18). He urges his son, and us, to avoid such impostors. Such “friends” are not friends at all. And yet a whole generation of Americans have been raised on situational, self-serving friendships.
In another day, the word friendship was rich with meaning. Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language defined friend as “one who is attached to another by affection; one who entertains for another sentiments of esteem, respect and affection, which lead him to desire his company, and to seek to promote his happiness and prosperity.” Webster then listed Proverbs 17:17 and 18:24 as examples: “A friend loves at all times” and “there is a friend that sticks closer than a brother.” Paul echoes these verses in 1 Corinthians 13 where he writes, “[Love] endures all things. Love never ends.”
True friendship is for the benefit of another. This seems a nearly lost understanding in our social-media-driven world where “friends” number in the hundreds or more and count as proof of popularity. Amidst several definitions of friend in The New Oxford American Dictionary is this narrow construction: “a contact associated with a social networking website.”
Facebook may downgrade the meaning of friend in virtual reality, but Scripture shows us that in real reality, friendship is gloriously and perilously complex. It is fraught with danger and ripe with possibility. On the one hand, friends can lead to our downfall (see Haman), our hurt (see Job) and even our separation from God (see James 4:4). On the other hand, they can be a source of great love and encouragement (see David and Jonathan in 1 Samuel 18-23, 2 Samuel 1), a help in times of trouble (see Paul in Acts 24:23, 27:3). Whom we befriend will set the course of our life and life ever after (see John 15:14-15).
Distinctly Christian Friendship
Friendship is no small matter; it matters greatly whom you pursue for friendship. You will become like the people you spend time with: “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals'” (1 Corinthians 15:33). Tragically, Solomon’s son rejected his father’s wisdom. Instead, Rehoboam listened to his peers, ignoring his father’s proven, trusted advisers. It cost him the kingdom (1 Kings 12).
The TV show “Friends” was wildly popular because it hit on one key truth: Friendship is a huge part of life when you’re single. In our day, with the time between the home where you grew up and the one you’ll establish if you get married stretching to a decade or more, it’s essential that we know what friendship should look like in the life of believers. To borrow from Colossians 3, “if then you have been raised with Christ,” your friendships should look very different from those in the world around you. Scripture sets forth many ways our friendships should look different. Here are some of them:
Friendship should span all ages.
We know from 1 Timothy 5:1-2 that our friendships should be diverse by age and experience: “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity.” Titus 2:1-8 shows us in more detail why: We have much to learn from those who are ahead of us. Then, as we gain wisdom and experience, we will have much to teach those who are coming behind us. Sometimes the ones who have the most to teach will be younger in age.
One of the most practical benefits of having friends at different stages of life is their ability to help us in the season we’re in (they’ve been there in the past) and the one we’re heading toward (they’re there now). A big part of vital friendship is the help we give to one another. Proverbs 27:9 says, “Oil and perfume make the heart glad, and the sweetness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel.” How much better when that counsel is infused with the wisdom that comes from experience! Peer friendships can be a source of needed empathy, but we ought not limit ourselves to them. Often the wisdom we so desperately need comes from friends who are ahead of us in life.
We have much to learn from older believers and much to give to younger ones. Even those terms older and younger can be unhelpful if we think of them only in terms of birthdays. We need friends who are more mature than we are, and we need to be available to help those who are less mature than we. That may find us learning much from someone who was born after we were. Paul told Timothy, “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching ” (1 Timothy 4:11-13).
Regardless of physical age, we should seek to befriend spiritual peers, as well as those who are younger in the faith and those who are spiritually ahead of us — all with a goal of reaching spiritual maturity.
Friendship should lead to spiritual maturity.
God calls us to love one another in such a way that we build one another up “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12-13). Reading this passage helps me realize that often I don’t take my friendships seriously enough. We make much of friends in our culture, but too often we do so in a self-serving direction. Our friendships are a gift from God to help us mature. Verse 15 continues, “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”
Our friendships ought not to be for entertainment or even for how they make us feel, but for serving one another. That’s not to say they won’t be enjoyable and even fun, but that the overarching purpose of Christian friendship is for building up the body of Christ and for growing in spiritual maturity. Proverbs 27:6 says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” It’s easy to be drawn to people who only tell us what we want to hear; to mistake someone who heaps us with compliments and affirmation for a friend. But such “friends” disappoint, especially when hardship comes. A true friend will speak the truth in love for our benefit.
Next time I’ll show from Scripture how such counter-intuitive, counter-cultural friendships are possible and why they’re so glorious.
Copyright 2013 Candice Watters. All rights reserved.