A wonderful article on Biblical Friendship from Joseph E. O ‘Day.
At the end of the classic movie It’s a Wonderful Life, Clarence the Angel leaves George Bailey a copy of Mark Twain’s adventure story, Tom Sawyer. Surrounded by scores of friends singing in celebration of Christmas, George smilingly opens the front cover, and we see what Clarence has wisely written: “Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.”
Friendship experiences are universal. Many of us have known the satisfaction, security and benefits of good friendships. We have also known people who we thought were friends, only to have them betray us, hurt us or disappoint us. And if we were brutally honest with ourselves, most of us would have to admit that at sometime in our lives, we too have betrayed, hurt or disappointed our friends.
We all have our own ideas about friendship. Children usually think of friends as those with whom they play or have fun. Teens often define their friends as the kids they cruise around with on a Friday night or whoever is available to do things with. Others consider their friends to be the people they know. But maybe a real friend is something more: perhaps it’s one who is willing to do things for you even if it’s inconvenient, someone who will stick up for you, someone who really cares.
The Bible has quite a lot to say about friendship, especially in Proverbs. But its perspective is different from what we might think. Our preoccupation is usually with having friends. The Bible’s focus is on being a friend. This subtle shift of simple participles creates an antithetical view of staggering proportions. The difference in perspective is paramount, and the implications are life-changing.
When I’m concerned with having friends, my focus is on myself and my own needs. But when my desire is to be a friend, I’m thinking about other people—I’m caring more about others than I do about myself. The simple and ironic truth is that those who want to have friends must first be a friend to others. Those who are true friends to others will never lack for friends. True, many people will never reciprocate with friendship in return, but many others will. The wounds will be many, but so, too, will be the rewards.
Unfortunately, our society has watered down the concept of friendship so much that many people have never had a true friend and therefore do not know what it means to be a true friend. In his book Making Friends and Making Them Count (IVP®), Em Griffin calls friendship an art. More than ever before, we each need to learn, or relearn, the art of being a true friend. This is the perspective we must bring to bear on our lives, and we can find this perspective in the Bible: “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity” (Proverbs 17:17, NIV).
A frequent element of Hebrew poetry is parallelism, and we see such a device used in this verse. The first line makes a general observation which is qualified, explained or expanded by the second line. We learn several things from this verse. First, a friend is someone who continues to love, and to show that love, whatever the circumstances. Second, a friend is born for adversity—not his or her adversity, but yours. In other words, the true test of a friend is whether or not he or she is there for you in the bad times, the tough times. Third, a friend is like a brother—short of death, you can never get rid of him.
WHAT REAL FRIENDS ARE
A true friend is someone who helps you when the need is very great, jumping willingly into the fray, possibly suffering harm, just out of love and friendship. In this respect, a true friend may prove more dependable than a real brother. Blood is supposed to be thicker than water, but many of us have experienced siblings who would rather not be bothered with our problems. Some of us have found friends to compose a much better family than the one into which we were born. Such is the teaching of Proverbs 18:24 (NIV)—“There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” But wait . . . Proverbs has more to say:
Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.
Perfume and incense bring joy to the heart, and the pleasantness of one’s friend springs from his earnest counsel.
Do not forsake your friend and the friend of your father. . . .
As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another (Proverbs 27:6, 9–10, 17, NIV).
It’s easy to remember those movies or books where the main character is fooled both by the kindness of an enemy and the effrontery of a friend. This is the whole plot of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Lear’s two older daughters tell him how much they love and honor him, when in reality they despise him. Meanwhile, his youngest daughter refuses to boast of her love for him, so he believes her to be a disloyal and unfaithful daughter. Therefore, he divides his kingdom between the older daughters but throws out the youngest. Later, the two older daughters betray him, depose him and put out his eyes. It is then that he realizes his folly and who it is who really loves him.
Sometimes friends can fool us, too, just like King Lear’s youngest daughter. For they are the ones who care enough to hurt our feelings if it means we will be better off for it. After all, who is going to tell you that your breath smells like a dog’s except your best friend or your worst enemy?
friendship isn’t easy
Sometimes it’s tough to be a friend. But a real friend does not shy away from the abrasiveness that comes from rubbing iron against iron, as the proverb describes it. Though it may grate on our nerves, we have to take a risk and hope that our friend of today will still be our friend tomorrow.
Jesus shows us the ultimate commitment of friendship when he says, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Have you ever risked your life for a friend? Are you enough of a friend to anyone that you would dare to risk injury or death for them? These are hard questions, but such questions are the ultimate measure of friendship. Jesus met the test; he went the distance for his friends.
Another person who went the distance for his friend was Jonathan. His friendship with David is one of the most outstanding and moving stories in all of Scripture, perhaps in all of literature. We are introduced to Jonathan’s great friendship to David in 1 Samuel 19. In that chapter the jealous king Saul issues the order to kill David. But Jonathan defies the order. Not only this, he finds David and warns him of Saul’s plot. This puts Jonathan into a position of family disloyalty, but he manages to convince Saul to countermand his order.
In chapter 20 we find out that Jonathan loves David “as he loved himself.” He risks his very life to be David’s friend, because when Saul finds out that Jonathan would be happy to let David become king, he tries to kill Jonathan with a spear, just as he frequently did with David. Jonathan’s commitment to David was such that he defied and betrayed his own father. In Hebrew culture, this was unthinkable. Jonathan was faced with a tragic choice: to remain a faithful son to his treacherous and ungodly father and thus ensure David’s death, or to remain a faithful friend to David, the “man after God’s own heart,” and thus end the reign of his own family. It was a hard decision, but he chose the latter.
Jonathan got up from the table in fierce anger; that second day of the month he did not eat, because he was grieved at his father’s shameful treatment of David. In the morning Jonathan went out to the field for his meeting with David. . . . Then they kissed each other and wept together—but David wept the most. Jonathan said to David, “Go in peace, for we have sworn friendship with each other in the name of the Lord, saying, ‘The Lord is witness between you and me, and between your descendants and my descendants forever’” (1 Samuel 20:34–35, 41–42, NIV).
Later, when Jonathan was killed in battle with the Philistines, David lamented his passing: “I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women” (2 Samuel 1:26, NIV).
Few are the people blessed enough to know a committed friendship such as Jonathan’s. David calls Jonathan his brother, reminiscent of the verses from Proverbs. Jonathan was closer to David than a brother. He was closer than a wife. Such analogies speak deeply of commitment, for the fundamental bond between brother and brother, or husband and wife, is commitment. Commitment is the word that unlocks the real meaning of friendship.
David wrote a psalm which describes the person who loves both God and his neighbor. It also speaks pointedly of friendship. Psalm 15 summarizes the characteristics of the true friend.
Friends “speak the truth from their heart [and] do not slander with their tongue.”
Friends “do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors.”
Friends “stand by their oath even to their hurt.”
Friends “do not lend money at interest.”
Friendship is love expressed in acceptance and commitment. It is acceptance of another person and commitment to another person regardless of the consequences. Friendship is not a flippant relationship. It is consistent and unfailing love. It is being there when you’re needed and making no excuses. To be a true friend is to be a person someone can count on.
Joseph E. O’Day is Marketing Editor at Trinity International University and an elder in his church. Besides numerous articles, he has written Discovering Your Spiritual Gifts (IVP) and Imperial Guard, a science fiction novel available online at http://www.amazon.com.