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The Gospel and Friendship

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So many of us have read good books on marriage and on discipling, but I wonder, how many of us have read a good book on what it means to be a friend? Not many, is my guess. It surprises me that few books on friendship are read or, perhaps, that so few books on friendship are written. Not all of us are called to be husbands or wives, but we are all called to be friends.

I am never surprised when television programs like Friends or Seinfeld or Cheers skyrocket in the ratings. Television can be like a potent drug, giving the viewer a brief and intense taste of something he longs to experience. The theme to Cheers captures the longing in our hearts for a community of friends:

Sometimes you want to go Where everybody knows your name And they’re always glad you came 

I loved to watch a program called The Courtship of Eddie’s Father—the tale of a little boy and his friendship with his dad. I remember the opening line of it’s theme song as well: People let me tell you about my best friend . . . We may be hard-pressed to define friendship (for those interested in an ancient attempt, see Plato’s Lysis) but we know it when we see it. Friendship exists where there is love and affection and trust and encouragement. But this is a clumsy answer. They say a dog is man’s best friend. It is true that a man may direct love, affection, trust, and encouragement toward a dog and even receive the same from a dog. But when all is said and done, I think most of us want friendships that are deeper and richer than that which the best dog can provide.

For a better understanding of friendship, I turn first to John 15:9–15, where Jesus said to his disciples:

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father, I have made known to you.

In these verses Jesus taught what he went on to model: true friendship requires sacrifice.

The overarching concern of Jesus in John 15 is that his disciples persevere in the faith. In verses 1-8, Jesus teaches that true disciples will produce spiritual fruit: “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples” (8). In verses 18–26, Jesus taught that spiritual fruit consists of bearing up under opposition from the world—the world which does not consider Christ to be a friend: “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (20).  Again, the point of this chapter is that those who follow Jesus by obeying his commands will face persecution from the world. These are marching orders from Christ to live as friends to God.

Friendship is sacrificial love. Verses 12–14: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.” In other words, friends of Christ are those who love one another. Those who love one another are those who are willing to lay down their lives for one another. At the heart of friendship is love and sacrifice. Jesus, of course, was primarily concerned that his disciples willingly endure the sacrifice and suffering that would come when they obeyed his commands.

The disciples, however, would not truly understand Christ’s teaching until they witnessed his death and were transformed by his resurrection. Jesus willingly laid down his life. He bore the excruciating pain of the cross and the wrath of God as he died in the place of sinners. We have never seen, nor will we ever know, a more profound and powerful act of love than this. As John put it in his first letter, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16).

The import of this truth for a Christian understanding of friendship should not be missed. There is much wisdom on friendship throughout the Bible, and the best wisdom comes from the gospel itself. Look at your own friendships and ask yourself the following questions:

“Do I take the initiative in my friendships?”

It is very easy to wait for someone else to make the first move, to make the first phone call, to send the first note, to offer the first invitation. The fear of rejection stimulates inaction. Thankfully, God did not wait for us to approach him, “We love because he first loves us” (1 John 4:19). If there is a friendship in your life that is smoldering like an ember, rekindle it by taking the initiative.

“Do I sacrifice in my friendships?”

The cost of following Jesus is supposed to be reflected in our relationships. This is true for families—biological and spiritual—but it is true of every friendship. Consider what costs you bear to keep a friendship alive. It may be as simple as a willingness to spend an hour on the phone when part of you would rather be sleeping. It may be as trying as driving miles out of your way to be an encouragement. I remember when a friend did just that for me. I needed some counsel and he was in the midst of a road trip. Though I wasn’t on his route, he changed his plans to talk in person. That is a friend.

“Do I appreciate my friends for who they are or what they can give me?”

Friendship is not an exact science; it is unclear why we gravitate to some people over others. We undoubtedly want to be around people who energize us, and this is appropriate. Nonetheless, if our standard for friendship is always what someone else can do for us then the gospel is missing in the relationship. God did not love Israel because of his people’s inherent worth—he simply chose to love them (Deuteronomy 7:7). Shouldn’t our friendships be marked by a similar, deliberate commitment?

“Do I want close friends?”

I don’t assume that everyone wants close friends. We are not all like Plato’s Socrates who said, “I have a passion for friends; and I would rather have a good friend than . . . the best horse or dog. Yea, by the dog of Egypt, I should greatly prefer a real friend to all the gold of Darius, or even to Darius himself; I am such a lover of friends as that.” No, we don’t all have such a passion for friendship. Some prefer time alone in a book or in front of a movie. Others find sufficient encouragement from their immediate family to keep them from seeking out friendships elsewhere. Nonetheless, we should observe that though Jesus enjoyed perfect friendship and community in the three-ness of the Godhead, the incarnation showed his desire for others to become his friend. Through that work on the cross, Christ allowed us to become his friend. This is a wonderful motivation for evangelism, yes! But it is also a motivation for seeking out friends to love sacrificially.

“Do I have godly expectations for friendship?”

Several years ago I was walking with a friend through the streets of New York. He kindly offered to help me. I kindly turned him down. His offer was so gracious it seemed too much for me to accept. He disagreed. Though these aren’t his exact words, his message to me was clear: “I can tell that you don’t want to receive my help. It is a very humbling thing to accept help from a friend. You are allowing them to serve you when you have nothing to give in return. But isn’t that what friendship is about? Moreover, shouldn’t you be willing to ask friends to sacrifice for you as a symbol of your dependence upon them?” He was right. When the gospel is at the heart of our friendships it will lead us to have godly expectations for our friends.

“Do I bear with my friends?”

We are often hurt by our friends. Our patience is tried by our friends. We wonder if it is worth the fight, if it is worth the pain. Once again, the gospel provides our answer. Looking forward to the grace and mercy of God on display in the cross, Jesus taught his disciples that their lives should also be marked by grace and mercy: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you” (Matthew 6:14). Forgiveness is a pillar in the Christian life that will keep more than one friendship from collapsing.

“Do I turn to God for friendship?”

Friendships can be some of the most rewarding and most discouraging relationships on earth—especially when we commit ourselves to godly expectations. It is noteworthy that though the Bible speaks a great deal about our need for others, it speaks even more about our need for God. Consider the psalms. They are a testimony of God’s affection and tender care toward his people. They are songs of God-reliance: “O LORD, I call to you, come quickly to me. Hear my voice when I call you” (Psalm 141:1). This is a prayer of a man who counts the LORD to be his friend. Abraham, too, was called God’s friend (James 2:23).

We must be careful. First, we must be careful not to downplay the transcendence of God. He is not the kind of friend that we expect to find in our neighborhood or in our church.  As Don Carson noted, commenting on these verses from John, “Mutual, reciprocal friendship of the modern variety is not in view, and cannot be without demeaning God.” Carson pointed out that our relationship with God is unlike any other. He is our Lord and our Master—we are his slaves and happily so. Second, we must be careful not to downplay the uniqueness of the marriage relationship. The relationship between a husband toward his wife which displays service and sacrifice is an especially profound picture of the gospel.

Nonetheless, we ought to embrace the truth that God has befriended us in Christ. He is all we need. Though he intends some to marry and many more to have rich friendships, he alone satisfies. We can search for friends all day long, but we will never find anyone who loves us and helps us more that God had done and continues to do in Jesus Christ. Our quest for friendships should never outstrip, outshine, or outwork our quest for God. He alone will never, ever let us down.

The Bible says much more about friendship than has been mentioned here. There are many other questions to be answered. For example, is there a difference between befriending someone and discipling someone? Nonetheless, for now, it is sufficient to note that Christians really ought to be the best friends to others because we have been befriended by the Savior.

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