“No man is an island”, declared John Donne. We are made to relate to others. “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen 2.18 NRSV) declares the Lord God in the ‘second’ creation account. We are made for friendship.
But what is a friend? I shall never forget asking one couple I was visiting as to who their friends were in the church: they thereupon listed all those they knew in the church, yet none of these acquaintances had ever been in their home. Friendship surely is a sharing of life together. Many people today on their Facebook sites list hosts of so-called ‘friends’ – here they share photos and experiences, but often this sharing has no real depth. True friendship is surely about being real with one another.
“Friendship”, said Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “is one of the sweetest joys of life. Many might have failed beneath the bitterness of their trial had they not found a friend”. How true that is. I thank God for the friends who have been with me in the tough times of life. But I also thank God for friends who have been with me in the good times of life – there is something wrong in drinking champagne alone!
Various attempts have been made to define friendship. For instance:-
- “Your friend is the man who knows all about you, and still likes you” (Elbert Hubbard)
- “A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him I may think aloud” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
- “A real friend is one who walks in when the rest of the world walks out” (anon)
- “Love is blind; friendship closes its eyes” (anon)
- “When we honestly ask ourselves which person 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” (Henri Nouwen)
Interestingly, the Bible doesn’t actually say very much about friendship. Two verses from the Book of Proverbs stand out in particular. First Prov 17.17: “a friend loves at all times” (NRSV); or in the words of the GNB, “friends always show their love”. Secondly Prov 18.24: “Some friends play at friendship, but a true friend sticks closer than one’s nearest kin” (NRSV); or in the words of the GNB: “Some friendships do not last, but some friends are more loyal than brothers”.
Jesus called his disciples friends (John 15.14), but it always seems to me that the friendship was a little one-sided. In that context Jesus then goes on to say: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15.15), but as William Temple commented, the word “friends” here does not represent those who love Him but those whom He loves”.
The Bible does, however, provide one great example of friendship, viz. the friendship between Jonathan and David. I find it significant that as part of their friendship they made a “covenant” together (1 Sam 18.3,4 NRSV); or in the words of the GNB: “Jonathan swore eternal friendship with David because of his deep affection for him. As a result of that covenant with one another, Jonathan and David were to strengthen their relationship with God. So we read that when David was under pressure due to opposition from Saul, Jonathan went out to him and “strengthened his hand in God” (1 Sam 23.15,16 NRSV).
By contrast the naming of Winne the Pooh as the United Nations Ambassador of Friendship in 1998 seems incredibly trivial, even though Winnie the Pooh once said: If you live to be a 100, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day, so I never have to live without you.”
I thank God for real friends – not ‘Winnie the Pooh friends’, but ‘Jonathan friends’. Many of these friends are of long-standing, and their friendship has been tried and tested over the years. Others are new friends, who God willing will prove their worth. In this respect the words of Jesus, the Son of Sirach, come to mind: “Do not abandon old friends, for new ones cannot equal them. A new friend is like new wine; when it has aged, you can drink it with pleasure” (Ecclesiasticus 9.10 NRSV).
Friends make all the difference to living. Indeed I cannot imagine life without them. To quote Jesus, Son of Sirach again: “Faithful friends are a sturdy shelter; whoever finds one has found a treasure. Faithful friends are beyond price; no amount can balance their worth. Faithful friends are life-saving medicine; and those who fear the Lord find them” (Ecclesiasticus 6.14-16 NRSV).