Genuine Friends

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).

Friends are Friends

I’m sitting here wondering… who are the people in your life you trust, and why do you trust them? I know that’s a deeper question than it sounds. Each of us has people in our lives we’ll trust for one thing but not another. Still, there are those we keep close in everything. They are second selves in a way—people we’ll lean on no matter the circumstance.

I’m guessing that for many of you, it’s your family that best fits within the boundaries of this description. Speaking for myself, I can certainly affirm that my wife, Jennifer, is the one person I trust unreservedly with everything. She’s also the person I can trust to not pester me when there are situations happening that, while I need to keep them confidential, are clearly weighing me down. She never pries, but instead, does what she can to cheer me up, all the while encouraging me to keep pressing forward, especially when she can clearly see that I don’t feel like I can. This, again, is an aspect of her trustworthiness.

I have a trustworthy Bishop, too. He’s more than an ecclesiastical supervisor. He’s a friend. Even better, he’s a pastor’s pastor to all in the district. What I mean is that for any of the church professionals out there within reach of his supervision, if they have no one else to trust aside from Christ, they can trust him. I’m glad for that.

Since I mentioned the idea of confidential things, in contrast to those you’d trust, there are those around each of us who display a tendency for handling secrets in the same way they handle cash. They circulate them, using them to buy and sell with others. By the way, those folks are often the first ones to pester for secret information, ultimately betraying their lack of intention or ability for ever keeping to themselves whatever it is you may share. There’s another term for those people: Gossipers. For the record, I keep gossipers at arm’s length. In fact, anyone who knows me will know I have a tendency to come down hard on gossipers. Gossip is poison to the Church and it should never be tolerated.

Of course, keeping confidence isn’t the only thing that makes a person trustworthy. Again, speaking only for myself, the people I keep closest are the ones I know will receive my words honestly—easy or hard—and in turn, they know I’ll do the same with theirs. I hope Jennifer doesn’t mind that I’m repeatedly using her as an example, but this reminds me of something she articulated so wisely a few years ago. In fact, I mentioned it in The Angels’ Portion, Volume III. I may have shared it with you before. Either way, here’s what I wrote:

“‘Friends are friends until they’re not,’ my brilliant wife has observed. And the substance of her meaning is a direct outflow of her life as a pastor’s wife. She knows all too well that her husband is always just one decision, action, conversation, or sermon away from ticking someone off and seeing that which once was become a thing of the past. She knows all too well that if she shows up on Sunday and gets the cold shoulder from someone who only last week was as fresh and friendly as a springtime sprig, it’s because of something I did.”

Friends are friends until they’re not, which is why I’m guessing that like me, the people you trust the most are the ones who continue to prove the long-lasting nature of real friendship that can withstand being over-taxed by mistakes, careless words, or whatever else might cause division between people. Most often the first action of a trusted friend, at least the kind I’ve described so far, won’t be to attack you, but rather will be to seek peaceful ways to fortify his or her friendship with you through faithfulness to Christ.

I appreciate the phrase, “True friendship is never serene.” Marie de Sévigné said that. She was right. And her point: True friendships are not without turbulence. Still, I’m guessing they have something that other relationships do not: Humility and forgiveness.

Humility will always be a sturdy bridge for carrying heavier issues over from one person to another. And if forgiveness is there waiting on the other side, the friendship will be proven capable of withstanding what breaks all other relationships.

Christians, in particular, know these things very well. And why wouldn’t we? We know that even as we were God’s enemies, completely dead in our trespasses and sins, Christ humbly submitted Himself to death on our behalf (Ephesians 2:1; Romans 5:6). The forgiveness He won for us by His death is the foundation of our very identity as human beings. From this, we know without question that He is the absolute epitome of “friend,” having made clear to us that there is no greater love to be found among friends than that one would be self-sacrificing, that one would lay down his life for the other (John 15:13). When Jesus speaks this way, of course He’s referring to Himself as the only One capable of being the truest friend. And yet, He certainly gives this faithful Word in order to establish the same selfless relationships between His people, knowing that by the power of the Holy Spirit, we would be found emitting to each other in much simpler ways what He first demonstrated to us in the greatest of ways.

You may have other criteria behind your determining of trusted friends. I certainly have others I’ve not shared. Nevertheless, what I can tell you with relative simplicity is that when humility and forgiveness are present in a person, the rest of what we might consider to be not-so-likeable qualities are most often barely noticeable—which makes complete sense. It’s a lot harder to see the bad stuff when Jesus is blocking your view.