We know in theory that God created friendship as one of life’s greatest gifts, but we often find making and deepening friendships complicated and complex. Some of our greatest pains involve wounds from others, or the pang of wondering if we have any friends at all. How do we begin unwrapping the gift of friendship?

In my early 30s I finally discovered what lay at the core of my friendship pains and pangs. I harbored what Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together calls a “wish dream”—an ideal (read: perfect and unattainable) picture of community. Because I held my wish dream as a standard over the heads of women in my life, I was consistently disappointed and even embittered with reality. 

My focus was on myself and what others were doing for me. I then began to consider how Jesus models a different focus altogether: He intentionally set his sights on others and how he could serve them. In imitation of Christ, then, we are to be the friend we’ve always wanted.

But how can we, in our pursuit of friendships, shift our focus toward Christ’s example? Here are five practical ways.

1. Release others from your expectations.

So many of our disappointments with others are birthed out of unrealistic—if not idolatrous—expectations that people will love us as only God can. Our value and significance must come only from him. When we demand that others be all-present, all-comforting, all-providing, or all-knowing, we set them up as our Christ, and we set our friendships up for failure. 

When we demand that others be all-present, all-comforting, all-providing, or all-knowing, we set them up as our Christ, and we set our friendships up for failure. 

Instead of hewing out broken cisterns for ourselves that can’t hold water (Jer. 2:13), we must find our heart’s contentment in the Lord, our only perfect friend. Only then can we relate to others without destructive expectations. And releasing others from being our Christ actually positions us to receive friendship as a gift from God as he chooses to give it: through imperfect, in-process people.

2. Be a friend ‘as unto the Lord.’

According to my wish dream, I love and serve others with the hope I will get something in return. But Jesus said we’re his friends if we lay our lives down, looking to serve rather than to be served. In other words, we’re to be a friend toward others without expectation of return. We’re to do it as an act of worship before the One who has so loved us. Being a committed, self-giving person isn’t a friendship guarantee, but it is an invitation. It certainly honors the Lord.

3. Pursue beyond what you can see.

Although it seems obvious—an oversimplification of what friendship requires—moving toward others is perhaps the most overlooked opportunity for friendship. Engaging others begins with believing that all people, regardless of age, life stage, skin color, marital status, or life experience, are made in the image of God and, therefore, are exceedingly interesting. Engaging others is primarily about discovering who they are beyond what we can see. We must be good question-askers and even better listeners—not as busybodies, but as people seeking to honor and value others.

Everyone made in the image of God is exceedingly interesting. . . . We must be good question-askers and even better listeners.

4. Mourn and celebrate.

One of the most comforting truths about God is his willingness to enter our pain. As the psalmist declares, “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted” (Ps. 34:18). God is a friend who isn’t afraid of darkness, depression, sickness, or difficulty; we too must be friends willing to enter the pain of others—not with pithy clichés but with presence, compassion, and a willingness to bear their burdens.

At the same time, let’s be people who celebrate! Our God delights in us, so let’s delight in one another. When a friend wins the day, when her prayer is answered, when a milestone is reached, or when we see God grant her favor, let’s name it out loud (for perhaps our friends can’t see it themselves), throw a party, and brag on our friends. Whether mourning with those who mourn or rejoicing with those who rejoice, let’s do it extravagantly, just as our God extravagantly loves us.

5. Persevere.

Finally, we must persevere. Friendship is born over time, not over one coffee date. It’s born through shared adversity, not just fun game nights. Friendship is deepened through forgiveness and asking for forgiveness, through overlooking offenses and addressing those that need to be addressed, and, above all, through consistent vulnerability. Let’s not easily give up on one another, for Christ will never give up on us.

Friendship is born over time, not over one coffee date.

The friendship Jesus modeled involves risk. Setting “self” aside and engaging others is risky. Entering another’s difficulty is risky. But I’ve discovered a rich secret: On the other side of risk is the place where we get to unwrap the gift of friendship as God gives it.