The Heart of Friendship

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Throughout July we’re taking an in-depth look at Proverbs, the Bible’s one-of-a-kind book about our never-ending need for wisdom.

“The best things in life are…not things.” 

The secret of human happiness is no big mystery.  It’s relationships – close, healthy, and enduring relationships. 

The first thing about creation that God said was “not good” was the aloneness of the first human being.  The reason solitary punishment is such an awful penalty is that it isolates us from the human contact we all need to thrive.

When people describe the primacy of relationships, marriage deservedly gets a lot of attention.  Friendships tend to be overlooked – an oversight that prevents us from recognizing the emotional, spiritual and even physical wellbeing that comes from walking with close companions.

Consider the friendship landscape of our culture. 

Imagine a triangle.  The base represents the number of individuals that the average person living in our society knows by name.  That tally falls somewhere between 500 and 2000.  The middle of the triangle represents core acquaintances – people whom we know well enough to meaningfully meet and greet.  That number stands between 20 and 100.  The top of the triangle represents close friends.  It’s going to be a single digit – somewhere between one and seven.

So here’s the good news.  Remember back in high school when it seemed that certain people – “the cool people” – hogged all the best friends?  The simple truth is that they were merely collecting acquaintances.  They were filling up the middle of their triangles.  Most human beings are capable of sustaining only a handful of truly close friendships.

And you don’t have to be beautiful or insightful or popular or rich or athletic to make and to be a true friend. 

Many of us suffered through nights of inner dread wondering if we would ever find close companions or if they would ever find us.  The reassuring discovery is that no matter what our age or stage in life, friendship is God’s equal opportunity relationship.

Unfortunately, friendship as a way of life appears to be in decline.  Twenty-five years ago, Americans revealed that on average they had three close friends.  Today that number has sunk to two.  Two decades ago, 10% of Americans admitted that they had no friends at all.  Today that number has skyrocketed to 25%.  Preliminary evidence from the pandemic suggests that numerous people are emerging from “sheltering in place” feeling more lonely than ever.  Men are especially vulnerable.  Two thirds of males cannot name a best friend.

The book of Proverbs is Friendship Central on the pages of Scripture.  Here’s just a smattering of the relational wisdom it presents:

“Some friendships do not last, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (18:24).  “An honest answer is the sign of true friendship” (24:26).  “Friends always show their love. What are brothers and sisters for if not to share troubles?” (17:7).  “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (27:17). 

So how do friends come into our lives? 

Friendships just seem to happen, often when we don’t expect it.  We discover a shared understanding with another human being.  You feel that way, too, huh?  It may be the things that he finds funny, or the fact that she is always stirred by the same author you love.  Friendship has been described as a long conversation with lots of space in between.  You find this person easy to listen to – and miracle of miracles, he or she actually wants to listen to you.

For 16 years I was blessed to serve on the same church staff as Bob Jordan, a fellow pastor.  It’s interesting that Bob and I became good friends, because while our hearts beat strongly together on numerous important matters, we were also quite different from each other.  Sometimes we drove each other crazy. 

At one point while Bob and I worked together on a long-term strategic project, I became exasperated.  I could not understand why he kept clinging tenaciously to certain perspectives, failing to recognize the inherent brilliance of my way of seeing things. 

One day I was sitting in my office, rehearsing my next remarks to him.  You know, you can practice being right or you can practice being gracious.  But rarely can you do both at the same time. 

All of a sudden Bob stuck his head around my door.  He said, “Are we all right?”  Now he wasn’t asking, “Do we agree on these issues, and do we see things exactly the same way?”  He meant, “Is our friendship secure?”  And just like that all my concerns melted away.  Our deep bond overrode our momentary sticking points – which, by the way, I wouldn’t be able to remember today if I tried. 

What we learn in Proverbs is that friendships are treasures.  They represent a shared heart, a consistent rooting for each other, and a gladness to sacrifice for each other. 

But as important as they are, we need to acknowledge that friendships cannot bear too much weight.  If we look for our security and significance from our friends – if we entrust them with the huge tasks of helping us feel loved and important – we will ultimately be disappointed. 

Close companions cannot rescue us or infuse our lives with meaning.  Friends matter – but they’re not our saviors.

Amazingly, the One who identifies himself as our Savior also wants to be our friend.  In John 15:13, Jesus quite simply takes friendship to a new level: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends.”  And then he did just that – not only for the disciples, his closest friendship circle, but for the rest of humanity.  He became the ultimate fulfillment of Proverbs 18:24.  Jesus is the friend who sticks closer than a brother.

Even close friendships, unfortunately, can be fragile. 

Moving away can bring an enriching partnership to an end.  So can changing circumstances – a new job, a new marriage, a new baby. 

But the number one reason that friendships fail to thrive is neglect.  We forget to call.  We fail to remember an important anniversary.  We take the treasure for granted and forget to make investments of time. 

When a friend physically dies, there’s usually a service and specific ways to mourn.  What’s sad is that no one brings casseroles to your house when a friendship dies.  All too often, even those at the center of that relationship don’t notice until it’s too late.

So what can we do?  Before this day is out, consider renewing a neglected friendship.  You may want to reach out and say, “Our friendship really meant a lot to me.  And I miss it.” 

Maybe some humility will need to come into play.  Or an apology.  Or an expression of forgiveness. 

You may end up experiencing nothing more than a brief reconnection.  But it could become something more.

You may discover that, by God’s grace, an old friend can become a new friend all over again.