Friendship is the common, everyday name we give to the profound human experience of love. It is the most powerful and empowering gift we can give to one another, yet it seeks nothing in return, nothing for itself. Friendship is an absolute necessity for our mental and spiritual health and wellbeing. Without it we wither and die more surely than a tree without water. It is what liberates us from the desert of selfishness by calling us out of ourselves in care, compassion, concern, and forgiveness for the other.
To have a friend is to be rich indeed. But more importantly, in order to have a friend, one must be a friend. It is quite simply a relationship of love. Here is what the great spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen says about friendship:
“When we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”
This quote from Nouwen gives us a very important hint into the dynamics of friendship too. That “hint” is written between the lines and is the most important part of the equation of friendship: that we ourselves need to be this kind of person for the other. We must be willing to suffer a friend’s pains and enjoy their joys without expecting anything in return. Good friends, in other words, have good friends.
The bible makes this plain in many ways, especially in the Old Testament book of Proverbs. But it does it in an interesting way: with words of warning. For example: “Do not make friends with a bad tempered person, do not associate with one easily angered, or you may learn their ways and get yourself ensnared” (Proverbs 22:24-25). Or in another place: “Walk with the wise and become wise, for a companion of fools suffers harm” (Proverbs 13:20). The beauty of Proverbs, of course, is that they are rooted in that great universal gift we know as “Common Sense.” They do not need explanation. They are very clear.
We are shaped by the friends we keep. When we’re still growing up, we feel a pressing need to belong, to be part of the “in” crowd, often driving us to form relationships with people who are not good for us, just so we will not be alone. We may even do what we know we ought not do, just to be acceptable to a certain friend or group of friends. This, of course, can happen at any time in our lives. Inevitably, such relationships end in disaster, because they are not planted in good soil. The German existential philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, in one of his wiser moments, wrote this: “It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.”
This is a good insight into the priceless gift of friendship. It is at the core of love, not just between us and our spouses, or our friends, but it is at the core of our relationship with God. God has offered his friendship to us in Christ Jesus. He gave us everything he has, his very self, even unto death. He offers us a relationship like no other, one that is completely generous, completely forgiving, and completely free. And he challenges us to do the same with one another: “My command is this: love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay one’s life down for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13).
In 70 years of life, I have had just two friends who could truly be described in the ways that are listed above: one, a friend from high school, has walked with me for 53 years and is the very model of what Henri Nouwen wrote above – he has shared my pains, walked with me through the difficult times, he has silently stood with me in moments of confusion and despair, especially after my return from Vietnam, and so much more; the other is, of course, my wife of 43 years who has loved me, forgiven me, and helped me to grow into a better person.
And here is the thing that we must all remember: I have been empowered, through my relationship with God and my ever-deepening love for them, to do the same for them. After all, “we love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Be a friend in order to have a friend. We do not grow into these transformative friendships and love at the same pace as each other. There were times when my friend and my wife were far more mature and far more able than I was to be friends in this loving sense. Because of their love for me and their friendship toward me, they were able to be patient and forgiving toward me. At other times in our long relationships the tables were reversed. But in every case, we did this for one another out of loving friendship. It was never to get something in return. To borrow from Robert Frost: We “took the road less traveled by and that has made all the difference.”