I finally completed one of the goals I’ve had for the last decade: to read through Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy in its entirety. I’ve owned the books since I was a small child – it was a gift given to me by my older brother. I avoided the books growing up because they intimidated me (I wasn’t much of a reader). I fell in love with the movies as an adult which has made reading the books challenging (since I had basically memorizing the extended editions of the movies).
But once I got about a third of the way through the second book, the distinctions between the books and their film adaptations started to become more apparent to me. I was able to more easily visualize the books apart from the movies and appreciate many of the new insights as well as the differences in characters and events. While I had come to really value how the movies depicted deep friendships, the books display friendship in a profoundly intimate way.
As I was reading these books, I happened to listen to a sermon by Dr. Tim Keller who used Lord of the Rings to illuminate the emphasis the Bible places on friendship. Keller pointed out how the main story Tolkein’s trilogy is entirely about friendship. If you want to read anything about romance, you nearly have to wait until the very end of the book, and even get into the appendices. But in the Hollywood treatment of the story, they move romance and romantic character motivations to the center of the story.
Keller’s point was this: every culture is going to suppress the value of friendship. In a Western, liberal, and individualistic culture like ours, romance is elevated because it is a means of self-expression. Thus, the importance of friendship tends to be minimized. In traditional and eastern cultures, family honor is elevated to the primary position (think of the well-known lyrics from Mulan: “She’ll bring honor to us all…”). Whether liberal or traditional, every culture will suppress friendship.Because of the time, effort, and vulnerability required to form deep and meaningful relationships, it is often the easiest for us to dismiss and avoid. Click To Tweet
In his famous essays on love, author C.S. Lewis says that friendship is neglected because there is no immediate, biological necessity to friendship. It is the “least natural” of all the loves. While I think this is true in part, perhaps there is a spiritual reason for our neglect of friendship as well. Because of the time, effort, and vulnerability required to form deep and meaningful relationships, it is often the easiest for us to dismiss and avoid.
One of the beautiful things about Christianity is that it has a way of elevating friendship without diminishing the importance of marriage and family. In a proper biblical view, marriage, family, and friendship are all equally important, each for a unique good in our lives. A brief survey of the Bible’s teaching on friendship will show us why it is so important and how we can go about forging godly friendships.
The Importance of Friendship
The book of Proverbs has many insightful things to say about friendship (for more on this, pick up Derek Kidner’s excellent commentary on Proverbs). One of the ways the book stresses the importance of friendship is by contrasting it with the family. In Proverbs 17:17 and 18:24, there’s the repeated refrain that a friend is better than a brother. The Proverbs are not teaching that sibling relationships are bad, nor that all friendships are better than sibling relationships. Here’s the point: the people related to you by blood are going to be there for you because, in most cases, they have to be. There’s family loyalty and bond. There’s a sense of duty. But that does not necessarily mean your family will be there for you because they like you and have chosen you.
There’s an extreme example of this in the play/movie Fences. In one of the drama’s most well-known scenes, the son and the father are in a heated argument. The son asks the father, “How come you ain’t never liked me?” The father basically responds, “I’ve fed you, clothed you, gave you a roof over your head, but what law says I have to like you?”
A family member might be there in adversity, but a friend is there not because they have to be but because they want to. They’ve chosen you.
In Proverbs 18:24, the word for “sticks” comes from the same Hebrew word that we elsewhere translate “cleave” or “hold fast.” This is the word used in Genesis which says, “a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife…” This concept of “cleaving” is generally one that we reserve for marriage. Yet the author of Proverbs applies it in a similar way to how we should understand the importance of friendship.A friend is there not because they have to be but because they want to. They’ve chosen you. Click To Tweet
One of the more well-known friendships in the Bible is that of Jonathan and David. In the narrative of their friendship, it speaks of these two men as having made a covenant with each other (1 Samuel 18:1-5). Elsewhere, David uses the concept of covenant to describe the wounds of a friend who betrayed him (Psalm 55:20). While we normally reserve the words covenant and cleave to stress the importance of marriage, the Bible also applies them to our friendships.
I’m not at all trying to say that friendships and marriages are the same kind of love. However, if we limit our understanding of relational intimacy and deep commitment to marriage and romance then we have completely missed the Bible’s teaching in this area.
Nowhere does the Bible emphasize the importance of friendship more than in describing the kind of relationship we have with Jesus, the eternal Son of God. In John 15, Jesus tells us this: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends…No longer do I call you servants…but I have called you friends.”If we limit our understanding of relational intimacy and deep commitment to marriage and romance then we have completely missed the Bible’s teaching in this area. Click To Tweet
Think about that. The way Jesus chooses to relate to us is by choosing us for eternal friendship and laying down his life for us. How often do you meditate on that? In Christ, you are a friend of God Most High. He laid down his life for you. He calls you friend. The more this reality captures your heart, the more you will properly value and invest in friendships as you should.
Forging Godly Friendships
The Bible stresses the importance of friendships. It also gives us much wisdom in finding and forging godly friendships. Friendship is a chosen relationship that happens when two or more people discover something in common which each person treasures. C.S. Lewis calls this the “You too?” moment. There may be a common love for a sport, a particular subject of study, or a shared hobby. Whatever that commonality is, the deeper it is to our sense of identity, the more meaningful a friendship will be. A friendship can form over a common love for a sports team, but if the friendship primarily revolves around sports alone, it likely won’t be a very deep relationship.
Jonathan and David chose each other, and their souls were “knit together” (1 Samuel 18:1). The Proverbs use the idea of “sweetness” to describe friendship (Proverbs 27:9). Commentators point out that in ancient cultures sweet foods weren’t created, they had to be discovered. Similarly, we discover and choose friendship in a way that we discover and choose sweetened food.
Jesus also stresses the power of choosing friendship when he says that he has chosen us (John 15:16). The beautiful thing about Jesus’ friendship with us is that we had nothing in common with him. It wasn’t because we were like him that he chose to be our friends. It was because he was willing to become like us. If Jesus had this kind of intentionality with us, ought we not to have that kind of intentionality in the way we love one another?
Don’t get me wrong – finding and forging godly relationships is incredibly difficult. The Scriptures are not naïve to this, and stress at least three difficulties in forging new and lasting friendships.
First, the greatest barrier in making new friendships is often the pain from old friendships. David speaks of the deep pain in his heart when his friend betrayed him (Psalm 55:20). This was someone with whom sweetness had been discovered and chosen, and then this friend became the source of great heartache and pain.
Friendships can be broken in a variety of ways. Sometimes it is through betrayal. Other times it is less severe, but through the passing of time and distance we simply lose touch with those we love.
It is this memory of good friendships from the past which can often make us closed to new friendships in the present. There is a kind of relational weariness that can set in. Prior to serving at my current church, my wife and I had been a part of 4 different churches in a 5-year period. Every time we transitioned to a new church, we would have a conversation about how difficult this was for us on a relational level. We often felt tempted to close ourselves off from making new friendships, but we knew this wasn’t what God wanted or required of us. We’ve had to choose to keep our hearts open and invest in new relationships – even when that has meant letting go of older relationships. We want to be all in with the people whom God has put in our path now.
Second, it can often be difficult to befriend others – even other Christians. One of the more well-known Proverbs about friendship says, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). This sounds great – and it is. But what is the image here? What use is a piece of iron to another piece of iron if they’re both already sharp and smooth? Not much. How does iron sharpen another piece of iron? There must be friction.
Biblical friendship requires a healthy clash of personality. This is very different from what our culture typically teaches about friendship. Ralph Waldo Emerson said it this way: “Friendship requires that rare mean betwixt likeness and unlikeness.” The Bible shows us that there must be a healthy level of commonality and dissimilarity for a true, godly friendship to exist.Biblical friendship requires a healthy clash of personality. Click To Tweet
If we only spend time with other people who are our age, who like what we like, and who view things the way we do, then we are limiting ourselves in the kind of deep friendship which ought to be taking place. We need friends who will treasure what we treasure, yet who are very much unlike us in countless other ways.
Third, we don’t really choose our friends. I know that sounds like the exact opposite of what I said above. Yet think about friendship in light of God’s incredible sovereignty. Think of some of your closest friends, even. If there were even a few days difference in your current birth days, or a little more distance in where you had lived, or a different school choice or profession – you likely wouldn’t be friends with that other person. Something more has been at work all along in your life divinely orchestrating your relationships. C.S. Lewis said it this way:
For a Christian there are, strictly speaking, no chances. A secret Master of the Ceremonies has been at work. Christ, who said to the disciples “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you,” can truly say to every group of Christian friends “You have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another.”
One of my best friends today didn’t really like me until he took a chance and invited me to lunch. Another of my close friendships blossomed with a guy who just so happened to go to the same conference as me and sit at the same discussion table. Another started when he moved in next-door in college. In each of these cases, if only one variable had been different then none of my most meaningful friendships would exist today.Our task (and responsibility) is to choose to invest in the people God has given to us; to build these friendships on the pattern and foundation modeled by Jesus. Click To Tweet
At the very least, this means that the members in every local church body have been chosen by God for one another. Neighbors and co-workers have been chosen by God for us. There are no accidents as far as He is concerned. Our task (and responsibility) is to choose to invest in the people God has given to us; to build these friendships on the pattern and foundation modeled by Jesus.