“A friend loves at all times…” (Proverbs 17:17). And, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend…” (Proverbs 27:6). The constancy and honesty of true friendships is a treasure to all who have it—and without this steady love life grows very cold.
Yet thinking about friendship raises questions: What is a friend? How many friends can we support at a meaningful level? And how strong is a given friendship?
I’m asking for a couple of reasons. For one it’s a question we all need to ask throughout life to stay grounded—to be what we were made for. From the Bible we learn we’re made to love and to be loved. Love, in turn, grows friendships. The second is more practical. I’ve been asked to talk about friendship to a group of college student—non-Christians—in just over a week!
The question is complex. In part because true friendship takes at least two to exist. I can’t tell someone, ‘I enjoy our friendship,’ if he or she doesn’t say the same thing. Even if I have a host of affiliations—“friends” on Facebook, for instance—it doesn’t mean that many are meaningful friends. It’s also true that friendship can’t be engineered. Devices meant to draw others—food, entertainment, gifts, and more—never ensure authentic bonds.
Sin is a problem here. As Jesus suggested in John 9:39, we may think we see a relationship clearly when we’re actually blind. So a supposed friendship might, in fact, be a pleasant but temporary convenience for one or both participants. Martin Luther spoke of sin as incurvatus in se—of being “curved in on self”—so it follows that two self-concerned people may connect in loops of temporary mutual benefit. Once the benefit ends, so does the tie. And our inaugural proverb, “a friend loves at all times,” exposes this infidelity as the stuff of relational blindness.
Self-concern has been a life priority for people from Adam onward. And that means many of us may have never known anything but conditional and temporary commitments. So the hurt of losing friends is normalized into low-grade relational toughness. Hearts are hardened as people do to others what they’ve always had done to them. Few people even know better.
Only a truly lasting and unconditional friendship defeats this cycle of broken bonds. And for that to occur an altogether different love—something opposite to self-love—is needed.
Jesus pointed to two features of such love. First, a real friend offers unrestricted devotion. And, second, a friend shares freely from his or her deepest resources. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” [John 15:12-15].
The “command” Jesus had in mind here was his call for followers to embrace the love of God and neighbor that every human was made for. To receive it as our ultimate priority—as also expressed in John 13:34-35—rather than as an option. His love then begins to move our hearts. What’s more, the devoted friendship he births in us becomes a compelling attraction to others.
This true and lasting friendship in Jesus can become a cascade in the fountain of his spreading goodness to the world. How many friends can we have, then? Just as many as those we meet who share in his enduring selfless love. Others are also welcome, of course. Invite them in!