On my reading list this year are a number of books on friendship. This stems from both a personal and ministry interest. The older I get the more I recognize the value of meaningful friendship. I have experienced the joy of these friendships countless times over the course of my life. I have also experienced the fading of many friendships due to distance and time. In fact, at times it feels that it is more and more difficult to develop meaningful friendships now than it used to be. Additionally, my experience in ministry has shown me both the struggle of loneliness and the value of meaningful friendships among students. Two questions I am asking myself as I approach these books:
- How can I be a better friend and develop more meaningful friendships?
- How can I foster more meaningful friendships among students both outside and inside the church?
Vaughn Roberts’ little book True Friendship provides a solid biblical understanding of the topic and practical insight for developing healthy friendships. Roberts covers friendship in six brief chapters, each addressing a characteristic of true friendship. True friendship is crucial (ch. 1), close (ch. 2), constant (ch. 3), candid (ch. 4), careful (ch. 5), and Christ-centered (ch. 6). You can read the book in one sitting if you have about an hour and half. There is much to commend and little that I would critique, other than desiring more of the rich insight Roberts offers.
Friendship and the Gospel
Roberts points to the relational nature of God and his purpose in making humanity in his image as foundation for understanding true friendship. In fact, Roberts shows how the theme of friendship gets at the heart of the Bible. God made us to enjoy an everlasting, personal relationship with him and to reflect his image through our relationships with one another. What sin has distorted, God has determined to redeem. That redemption ultimately comes through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which gives us the privilege of being called friends of God. Furthermore, our redemption not only restores our friendship with God, but introduces into a new community of friends called the church.
“God’s plan of salvation is designed not only to restore our vertical relationship with God, but also to create horizontal relationships of loving friendship between human beings in his family. He calls us to himself, not as individuals, but as members of a new community. Deep relationships can, and should, develop as we grow together in the church into the likeness of Christ, and serve together in mission.” (16-17)
Proverbs on Friendship
Throughout Roberts mines Proverbs for God’s wisdom on friendship. Citing Hugh Black, Roberts states, “[T]he book of Proverbs might almost be called a treatise of friendship—there is no book, even in classical literature, which so exalts the idea of friendship and is so anxious to have it truly valued and carefully kept.”
Doing life well, according to Proverbs, begins with rightly understanding our most fundamental relationship—our relationship with God—but also in journeying along in life with others. Thus, true friendship is best when friends journey shoulder to shoulder seeking to walk in the way of wisdom. While friendships can be formed around various interests, the deepest and most lasting friendship is grounded in a mutual commitment to follow Jesus Christ. This is because of the strength of the common bond we share—faith in Jesus.
Index: Proverbs 15:28; 16:28; 17:7, 9; 18:13, 21, 24; 19:4, 7; 20:19; 25:12, 17, 20; 27:10, 14; 29:5
Friendship for Married Couples and Singles
Roberts addresses the call to pursue friendship for all types of people—men and women, single and married, and all personality types. As a single male, Roberts provides a helpful perspective for understanding the importance of friendship both within and outside of marriage. In short, friendship precedes and outlast marriage. This should cultivate deeper friendships between husband and wife within marriage and should guard singles (and married people) from viewing marriage as the source of ultimate significance.
For married couples, Roberts shows that a healthy marriage is built on true friendship centered on Christ. For those pursuing marriage, Roberts highlights the importance of building friendship first rather than seeking romance. Additionally, Roberts cautions married couples from isolating themselves from other friendships. No relationship is sufficient to fulfill all of our relational needs. It requires wisdom and discern to make and sustain any friendship, this especially applies to friendship within and outside of marriage.
For singles, Roberts shows that marriage is not the ultimate source of significance and meaning in life. The idolatry of eros tells singles that true intimacy can only be found in a sexual union of a couple. Thus, singles often feel destined for loneliness and isolation. Roberts argues that singles should seek the greater gain in being found faithful to Christ, which means rooting their identity in their foundational relationship with Him and their relationships in the church.
Challenges to Friendship
Roberts also addresses some of the challenges to true friendship in today’s culture. He notes two in particular: mobility and technology. In many major cities, people live closer than ever before but feel increasingly isolated, have “proximity without community.” Additionally, it seems increasingly rare to live and work in the same area for prolonged periods of time, which adds to the difficulty of making and maintaining friendships. Another significant challenge is presented by technology. While it can facilitate communication and allow for greater intentionality in friendships, it can also distort our friendships and distance us from genuine friendships. Roberts reminds us of the difference between friending and friendship, in the latter quality is more important than quantity.
Characteristics of True Friendship – Constant, Candid, Careful, and Christ-Centered
The first two chapters speak most directly of the nature of true friendship and the various contexts in which it is experienced. The last four chapters are more characteristics of true friendship. First, true friendship is constant in that it demands maintaining and strengthening. This requires us to be selective as we cannot have deep friendship with everyone, open as friendship requires trust, interested as friendship is never one way, and committed as friendships require intentionality.
Second, true friendship is candid in that it requires us to be open enough to receive criticism and speak truth in love. Roberts explains, “If true intimacy is to develop, we must be willing to be honest in talking to our friends not only about our own failings but also, when appropriate, about theirs.” (58) Roberts offers some helpful advice for responding to criticism: expect it, examine it (i.e. do not be so quick to defend yourself), and endure it without resentment.
Third, true friendship is careful in that it is discerning. Roberts reminds us of the importance of listening and patience, which allows us to both affirm others and restrain ourselves from misspeaking. He cautions against the destructive nature of gossip that breaks trust. He encourages us towards humility when confronting a friend or addressing an issue in their life. He also highlights the importance of emotional sensitivity, discerning the right thing to say at the right time and in the right way.
Finally, true friendship is Christ-centered because we all fail to be the friends we ought and only Christ can satisfy our deepest longings. Applying the gospel to our friendships means that we will find security in our relationship with Christ not our relationship with others. Yet, because of this security, we will be freed to love others as Christ has loved us. We will not look to friendships to satisfy our deepest longings because only Christ is sufficient. Roberts is right, “If we know him, we already have the most precious thing life affords.” (88). He concludes:
“In him we receive complete forgiveness, absolute security, and the certain hope of being with him for ever. We will still experience many difficulties in this broken world, but we face them with the most faithful friend imaginable. The assurance and peace that comes from knowing him enable us to reach out to others, not looking, above all, to take, but to give sacrificially as he has given to us. He is the perfect friend who enables us to be true friends ourselves.” (88-89)
If you want to be a better friend and have better friendships: look in the mirror and look to Christ. Becoming a better friend and making friends requires us to look in the mirror. We must ask, “What kind of friend am I?” True Friendship provides a great place to start in answering that question. In the end, seeking to become a better friend and have better friendships should push us back to Christ. Christ forgives our greatest failings and fulfills our deepest desires. He is the ultimate friend and only by knowing him can we become the friends we ought to be.