It’s not only worthwhile, but critical for our emotional and spiritual wellbeing to spend time forming healthy and positive friendships. And yet, it can often seem a good friend is hard to find.
I know that my life is better when I have real, true friends I can count on, and I suspect you feel the same. We know that humans are made for relationship. It’s in our nature to seek out others over the course of our lives, share our time and love, and form families and communities together. A recent Brigham Young University study even showed that people with strong friendships live 7.5 years longer than those with weak or few ties.
This may be trite but a friendship really is a two-way street. Friendship involves both our commitment and openness to others, and the commitment of the other in return. We go even deeper in our understanding of friendship when we view it not only as a pleasant part of the human experience, but as a reflection of the greatest and first love that existed – God’s love for us.
Theological roots of friendship
Earlier this year I had the honor of hearing my friend Deacon Gerard-Marie Anthony, of St. Timothy’s Parish in Chantilly, VA, give a great talk on this subject of friendship. It caused me to consider for the first time just how important friendship is for a whole Christian life. More recently I was able to spend some time talking to Deacon Anthony about the theological roots of friendship.
As Deacon shared with me, human friendship is meant to image the Divine friendship within God: He has sent us two friends – Jesus and the Holy Spirit – to help us grow in friendship with Himself.
First, Jesus reminds us to accept our call to friendship with God. As he tells us, “You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:14-15)
God then send the apostles the Holy Spirit, a powerful “advocate” (John 14:16) to help them in their task of bringing others into friendship with God.
Genesis 2:18 tells us that in the beginning God thought, “It is not good for man to be alone.” Thus the loneliness we may feel is natural, and can be a sign that points us toward others, and to the fact that mankind is made for love.
Friendship in the Bible
The Bible is full of beautiful examples of friendship. Jesus and Mary Magdalene; Mary and Elizabeth; Jesus and John the Beloved; Peter and Mark; Luke and Paul all demonstrated the fidelity of love and friendship with each other.
As a topic, friendship is addressed in both the New and Old Testaments. Sirach in particular pays much attention to friendship, both on what constitutes a good friend and what can be gained from having a good friend. Check out some of the wisdom of Sirach here; I particularly like 6:5-17, which reads like an eternal poem on how to know your true friends.
A pleasant voice multiplies friends, and a gracious tongue multiplies courtesies.
Let those that are at peace with you be many, but let your advisers be one in a thousand.
When you gain a friend, gain him through testing, and do not trust him hastily.
For there is a friend who is such at his own convenience, but will not stand by you in your day of trouble.
And there is a friend who changes into an enemy, and will disclose a quarrel to your disgrace.
And there is a friend who is a table companion, but will not stand by you in your day of trouble.
In prosperity he will make himself your equal, and be bold with your servants;
but if you are brought low he will turn against you, and will hide himself from your presence.
Keep yourself far from your enemies, and be on guard toward your friends.
A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter: he that has found one has found a treasure.
There is nothing so precious as a faithful friend, and no scales can measure his excellence.
A faithful friend is an elixir of life; and those who fear the Lord will find him.
Whoever fears the Lord directs his friendship aright, for as he is, so is his neighbor also.
How can I be a good friend?
What Jesus desires is that we be friends to all, Christian and non-Christian alike. Here, we have the opportunity to experience joy and laughter, exercise the capacity for mercy and forgiveness, and learn more about ourselves while encountering others.
It is possible that we ask too much of ourselves in creating opportunities to foster friendships. In the world of Pinterest-perfect parties and Instagram holidays with your ten BFF’s, a meal with friends at home seems underwhelming.
In her new book, Building the Benedict Option: A Guide to Gathering Two or Three Together in His Name, author Leah Libresco shows that the opportunities to foster friendships are all around us (and it doesn’t matter whether the evidence shows up on Instagram or not). The underlying goal is this: see your friends for who they are, in their struggles and joys.
Board game nights, volunteering together, picnics, outdoor movies, an intellectual talk held in your living room, potluck brunch (never underestimate the power of a shared meal to foster friendship) – no matter how you invite your friends into your life, do so with the Benedictine spirit of hospitality:
Rule of St. Benedict 53:1: “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Matthew 25:35).”
To have a healthy friendship, it is equally as important to be a good friend, as it is to seek out those who will be reliable, trustworthy and similarly-minded. As St. Francis de Sales wrote, “So we see that the highest grace does not lie in being without friendships, but in having none which are not good, holy and true.”
To be a friend does not mean to forgo one’s needs and allow others to walk all over us. Instead, as God desires our happiness and wellbeing, so he desires that we seek out others who will care for us in true love and trust. It is fitting of the dignity which is bestowed on us as children of God.
Some Wisdom From Deacon Anthony
Above all, be yourself. It does not serve anyone – not you, not your friends, and certainly not Christ – to do otherwise. As Deacon Anthony told me, “You can be a good friend – you can just be yourself, and that is the best friend you can offer another human being. Often we compromise ourselves, which is why we find bad friends, or are ourselves a bad friend. Christ is the Truth. That’s why God’s friendship is eternal – it is true.”
One last point: I do not believe that a large number of friends means a higher quality of friendships. We should be so lucky to have one, two, or maybe even three people upon whom we can depend with our lives. Better to have few true friends than many unreliable friends (just ask the book of Sirach!).
Jesus, Our Greatest Friend
All of what we strive for in human relationships mirrors that which we are really seeking in our hearts: to be loved, as Jesus loves us. “Man has not greater love than this, that he lay down his life for his friends,” he tells us. In all of our relationships, let us pray to see, and love, others as Jesus sees and loves us.