Unless you’re a hermit or a saint, you’ve experienced a messy friendship. Maybe it’s rarely, maybe it’s regularly, but most of us know what it’s like to struggle with friendship—whether it’s making friends, coping with change or conflict, or losing a friend. Other relationships—husband and wife, employer and employee, parent and child—come with some definitions and rules, but friendship is more of an open-ended idea we enter into with expectations as varied as the friends themselves. Wonderful friendships are worth the effort... but what about the times that friendship isn’t so wonderful? The times I’ve said something stupid and hurt someone, when I feel left behind by a friend who moved away or moved on, or when I’m in the middle of heartbreaking conflict?
I often think friendship difficulties wouldn’t be so troublesome if someone would just write an authoritative manual on “how to be a friend”. Then I could just look up any problem and find a script for how to fix it. Of course, I’d be immediately skeptical of any book that claimed to be such—rightfully so. No book could possibly cover all the issues we face in making and keeping friends. But there are good books with sound wisdom and advice on how to do biblical friendship well. After considering some recommendations, I gave a couple of them a chance: True Friendship by Vaughn Roberts and The Company We Keep by Jonathan Holmes.
The books were both well-written easy reads with wonderful biblical advice and insight. But, honestly, I wasn’t immediately convinced the content would prove to be helpful. Instead of explaining how to have a perfect, problem-free friendship like the manual I had hoped for, both books directed my focus back to the gospel. They reminded me how friendship is an outworking of how God designed us for relationship with him and each other. This perfect design is now marred by our sin and that sin ruins our relationships. Our only hope then is the gospel. To restore and enjoy friendship, we must first depend on Christ to fill our deepest needs—only then can we have relationships that reflect God’s design and loving redemption.
These were good and helpful reminders, but when I closed the books I still felt a gap between what I read and the everyday ups and downs of friendship. Time passed. I’m reluctant to admit just how long it took before I was able to acknowledge that these “too basic to be helpful” lessons were making a noticeable difference in how I thought, acted and communicated in my friendships.
Earthly wisdom and self-help might appear easier or more practical, but the most reliable route to the deep joy of biblical friendship is through the gospel and a shared goal of glorifying God through loving each other. I’ve slowly realized how immensely practical this perspective is. As we face the challenge of making new friends, or decisions and situations in our friendships, we don’t need specific situational solutions—we need Christ. Biblical friendship stands worldly wisdom on its head. Instead of self-love and fulfilment, Christian friendship is a love for others that overflows from our love for God. This foundation frees us to be the friends that love with Christ-filled, other-centered love.
Of course, this is rarely easy, even if it is simple. Christ-like love is gracious, humble, truthful and selfless. These things don’t come naturally. What comes without effort is wanting our needs and expectations met; flattery instead of honesty; wanting to be made a priority. But, as these books reminded me, the threats to our friendships result from our sin and self-love—and the only reliable solutions come from Christ and his selfless, giving love.
This is a (highly practical!) litmus test I’ve formed for myself after reading the books. When I’m experiencing loneliness, frustration, jealousy, gossip, or anything off my ‘frequent friendship problem’ list, I stop and ask if I’m being a threat or a solution. Even if a problem originated with someone else, my response is either rooted in self-love or other-love.
As I said earlier, the practicality of these reminders came slowly, but now I can look back and see how these short books filled with godly wisdom have influenced my friendships for the better. My perspective on what is important and what is not, my responses to conflict or injury, my self-imposed guilt over things I should let go… these are just some of the many ways I’ve applied the lessons. And I pray I will continue to learn, and to share this Christ-centred perspective with my friends in a variety of ways. Reading and recommending books like these is a great way to start and continue. May we all grow and strive together to reflect Jesus in our friendships—living out the image given to us in Ephesians 4 of the body building itself up in Christ, every part doing its share, by speaking the truth in love.