I know I’ve broached the subject of friendship before, but I’ve been wondering lately what constitutes a genuine friend. So many in history, most especially the philosophers, have attempted to define the term “friend.” Cicero called a friend a “second self.” Aristotle said so famously that a friend is a “single soul dwelling in two bodies.” I think his is one of the better depictions. This is about as close as it gets to what I was feeling when I asked Jennifer to marry me. I knew that without her, I was only half of what God made me to be.
Of course, the poets serve us just as well. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s reminder that “the only way to have a friend is to be one” has adorned the walls of elementary school classrooms for who knows how long. Jaques Delille insisted that while fate chooses our family, we choose our friends. There is great truth in that statement, along with the reminder that both fate (tongue-in-cheek) and free will have a sense of humor. Anaïs Nin wrote with incredible profoundness that a “friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.” This is profound in the sense that so much of who and what we are, both good and bad, would never have been stirred into existence without the prompting of others. Perhaps that’s why Marie de Sévigné warned, “True friendship is never serene.”
If we’re willing to be honest, we can agree with her. Indeed, friendships can be a source for some of the most joyful times we’ll know this side of the grave. They also hold the potential for some of the most agonizing moments we’ll ever experience, some resulting in painful and penetrating wounds that injure in ways few other things can.
I mentioned at the beginning I’ve been wondering lately what makes for a true friend. Perhaps more precisely, I’ve been wondering which hurts more, a friend standing against me or a friend who deceives me.
I suppose before even arriving at such a question, it pays for Christians to be mindful of the caliber of the ones we’d call friends—that is, what they believe, the language they use, how they live, and so many other determiners. And, yes, this is being judgmental. Even Saint Paul warned pragmatically that “bad company corrupts good character” (1 Corinthians 15:33). Paul had good reason to write these words, especially since one of God’s wisest—King Solomon—already insisted a thousand years prior with the same practicality, “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (Proverbs 13:20), and “Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man, lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare” (Proverbs 22:24-25). In other words, no matter how secure in your identity you might believe yourself to be, the ones we surround ourselves with will influence us. They will change us. Since this is true, let the ones we call friends be inclined toward righteousness, not unrighteousness.
And so, back to my question. It’s one worth answering, not necessarily in a theoretical sense, but because no matter how hard we try to do what Paul and Solomon suggest, we’ll always find ourselves in broken relationships. We’re human, and all humans are broken, which means practical self-analysis is always a good thing. In this regard, I’m still wondering which is worse, an opposing friend or a deceptive friend?
I’m of the mind that a lying friend is likely to generate the most pain. Being lied to or about harms in ways other sins cannot. On the other hand, a friend taking a position against me might be doing so for my good. Again, Solomon, having a good grasp on the nature of Godly friendship, reminded that wounds caused by a true friend are faithful and worthy of our acceptance (Proverbs 27:6). Having never read any of the books, that reminds me of something I saw in the only “Harry Potter” movie I’ve ever watched. An element of this truth found its way into a scene in which the character of Dumbledor, while awarding house points at the end of the film to a young boy, said something like, “It takes courage to stand against one’s enemies. It takes more to stand against one’s friends.”
Not as profound as Solomon, J.K. Rowling’s point is still a good one. Faith at work through genuine self-analysis will discern the dimensions of the offending friend. What he’s saying, is it leading you to Christ? If so, give thanks to the Lord for his courage. He cares enough to put himself in harm’s way, namely, the possibility of your rageful retribution. Now, repent and amend. On the other hand, is what he’s saying coming from ill-intent designed to lead you away from Christ and into harm? Are his words being crafted to give credence to his own Sin? If so, mark and avoid him. He’s not a friend—at least not in this particular episode.
By contrast, a deceptive friend—one who betrays or dupes those closest—is a completely different story. A deceptive friend has parentage, namely, the devil (John 8:44). Such a friend grows gross tendrils, all reaching out in countless directions with moldable excuses, all designed to preserve the self. I feel sorry for this kind of person. Self-analysis seems beyond his or her reach. I suppose I have equal sorrow for the people ensnared by such folks, especially since there’s little examination needed for deciding if the behavior is good or bad. It’s bad. If you can’t see it, then your deceptive friend has changed you, just as Paul and Solomon warned.
And so, what to do?
Well, for starters, align with truth, putting your trust in the One whom Solomon fore-described as sticking closer to you than a brother: Jesus (Proverbs 18:24). No one knows us like our siblings. No one knows us like the divine sibling, Jesus. Let Him be your lens for observation. Holding fast to Him, remembering His description of the truest compatriot (epitomized in Himself) as the one who lays down His life for his friends (John 15:13), you’ll have all you need for discerning a true friend from a false one. Finally, heartened by your friendship with the greatest Friend, Jesus, enjoy the newfound freedom for facing off with the sinful world around you. Enjoy the Spirit-endowed voice of faithfulness to call out and gather other allies into your collegium, shouting as Iachimo did in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, “Boldness be my friend! Arm me, audacity!”
A friend with the bold audacity for faithfulness to Christ, no matter what, is the best kind to have and be. Although, if you find yourself averse to such people, it might be time for self-analysis, that is, if you haven’t been changed by others in a way that has made you incapable of such things (1 John 1:8-9).