What Is True Friendship?

Preston Sprinkle

The following post is written by my friend Nick Roen. (He really is a friend, not just a fishing buddy…) 


The word “friend” is thrown around a lot these days.


In our culture, it is not uncommon to refer to a new acquaintance as “my friend so-and-so”, or to boast of one’s “friend count” on Facebook. Did we go fishing together once? Friend!


Of course, every friendship will not contain the same depth of relational intimacy or commitment. Casual friends are inevitable and can be good, joy-filled relationships. However, my concern is that we use the term “friend” so willy-nilly these days that we have become unable to imagine something richer. There is a level of deep, biblical friendship that I fear has become totally lost in our modern, transient, superficially intimate context.


More Than A Fishing Buddy

Take Proverbs 17:17 for example: “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.” Couple this with Proverbs 18:24, “There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother,” and a different picture of friendship begins to emerge. This friend is someone who is there through thick and thin. More than a fishing buddy, he or she is someone who loves and serves and supports during the toughest circumstances of life.


Better yet, this biblical friendship implies self-sacrificial love. Contrary to the cultural impulse to discard a friend when it gets hard or messy, this relationship will cost something. It will cost time, energy, comfort, even our very selves. Jesus himself said, “Greater love has no man than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Indeed, this type of friendship language in the Bible is reserved for contexts of deep, self-sacrificial, loving commitment.


Friendship In A Covenantal Context

It should therefore come as no surprise that we see friendship appear in covenantal contexts throughout the Bible.


Perhaps the most thoroughly described friendship in all of Scripture is between Jonathan and David. Far from being romantic in nature (as some progressive scholars have suggested), nevertheless their love for one another was so strong that “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Samuel 18:1). It was because of this deep love and even delight in one another (1 Samuel 19:1) that “Jonathan made a covenant with David” (1 Sam 18:3). Their love was so devoted and sacrificial that Jonathan gave up his right to his father’s throne and defended David’s life and Kingship (1 Samuel 20:13-16). Jonathan describes the ongoing effects of this covenant, saying, “The LORD shall be between me and you, and between my offspring and your offspring, forever” (1 Samuel 20:42).


Or, as my friend Ron Belgau has helpfully pointed out, it is even more significant to note that Abraham and Moses—the chosen representatives through whom God ratified two of the most significant covenants in scripture— are both referred to explicitly as enjoying friendship with God (2 Chronicles 20:7, cf. James 2:23; Exodus 33:11). Similarly, when Jesus establishes the New Covenant in his blood during the Last Supper (cf. Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25), he says to his Disciples, “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made know to you” (John 15:15, emphasis added).


Friend Of God In Christ

Within this framework, consider again Jesus’ words from John 15:13, “Greater love has no man than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” Who are these friends for whom Jesus laid down his life? In John 10:14-15, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep” (emphasis added). In other words, every member of the New Covenant—those who belong to the fold of God and have been purchased by his blood (Luke 22:20, cf. Jeremiah 31:31-34)—can say, “I am a friend of God in Christ.”


Of course, friendship is not the only—or even most prominent—way the Bible describes our relationship with Jesus. In Ephesians 5, marriage is said to be a profound mystery, picturing the way the Church Universal relates to Christ as a bride to a groom. But as Ron again helpfully points out, “It is interesting to note, however, that the Bible never explicitly speaks of a particular person as ‘married’ to God…Instead, the Bible describes those who are closest to God as His friends.”


If we only consider our culturally superficial definition of friend, then friendship with God would hardly be worth noting. He’s simply someone with whom we enjoy a few laughs or an amusing anecdote. But if we consider the biblical scope, then friendship with God in Christ means the totality of every blessing and promise secured for us by Jesus’ blood (2 Corinthians 1:20). It means that he will never leave us nor forsake us (Hebrews 13:5), that he will be with us until the end of the age (Matthew 28:20), that he will help us and uphold us with his righteous right hand (Isaiah 41:10), and countless other promises found in scripture. He is truly a friend who loves at all times.


Simply A Given

So what does this mean for our earthly friendships? Well, at the very least, it means that we need to make room in our definition of friendship for this type of commitment. It won’t be every friend, and that’s okay. But are we able to work toward a small number of friendships that move past the cultural norm and become sites for self-sacrificial service and love?


Maggie Gallagher has spoken of two different types of relationships: Those that can be described as “You’re mine because I love you” and those that are more “I love you because you are mine.” By the first, she means relationships free from obligation. This is where much of our culture places the entire concept of friendship. The bond may seem strong, but when the love lessens or becomes difficult or inconvenient, we are free to walk away.


The other “I love you because you are mine” type of relationship is different. My friend Wes Hill describes it this way:


“Here, my love isn’t the basis of our connection. It’s the other way around: We are

bound to each other, and therefore I love you. You may bore me or wound me or otherwise become unattractive to me, but that doesn’t mean I’ll walk away.”


He goes on to wonder whether we have the ability to consider friendship in this light. Can our concept of “friend” contain a relationship that is simply a given, a deep commitment where we need not worry the other will up and leave when we become difficult to love? Perhaps then, we might get closer to a friend that “loves at all times” (Proverbs 17:17).


Perhaps then, we might more accurately mirror what it means to be a friend of God in Christ.

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