On Sunday we looked at the need to build good, solid spiritual friendships. These are the people who are friends for life and are always there for you. As we continue to look at spiritual friendships and belonging to the local church through relational connections, I thought it would be good to look at some of the characteristics of a true friend…
The New Testament talks about friends and friendships, and it’s mostly positive. Albeit, friendships can be unhealthy and compete with the Lord and His interests. They can be based on co-dependency and be a real burden to some. But, I want to look at friendships in a positive light, as the New Testament mostly does.
- John the Baptist is called “the friend of the Bridegroom [Jesus].”
- Jesus called His disciples His friends.
- Lazarus is called Jesus’ friend.
- Abraham was the friend of God.
- John in his third epistle greets his friends.
- Paul went to his friends to refresh himself on his way to Rome.
So what characterizes a true friend?
Three types of “friendships” or maybe four…
Definition: “Friendship is the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person, having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words.” ~George Eliot
Let me first say that friendship is paramount to me. I cherish friends, and I’m always open for God to forge new friendships in my life. For me, friendship is one of the most treasured things in life. They are so important that I believe that one only has the time, emotion and strength for two or three real friends at any given time.
Jesus once said to His disciples:
“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” (John 15:15).
So what makes a true friend?
According to Aristotle, there are three kinds of friendships: friendships of utility, friendships of pleasure, and friendships of the good. I think these categories work, but I’m going to put Aristotle’s ideas in my own language.
Three Types of ‘Friendships’ considered valid by many (the familiar use of the word friendship)….
- Friendships of Usefulness: You can have friends who you never hear from except when they need something. Usually it’s once a year. I’ll get an email from them asking me to prophecy over them or to interpret a dream they have had. That’s about as deep as it goes. They are “friends of usefulness.” I’ll admit, I sometimes find such annual requests irritating as I’d like to be better friends with some of these people. But it is what it is. Business partners, coworkers on the job, and classmates often fit into this category.
- Friendships of Mutual Interest: The glue of this kind of friendship is a particular kind of shared enjoyment. Think of fishing buddies, or exercise buddies, or golf buddies. You and your friend share a common interest or pleasure, and that’s where your friendship is rooted. If you lose interest in that common pleasure, the friendship ends.
- Friendships of Virtue. The glue that holds this sort of friendship together is the mutual respect you have for one another. Such respect may even rise to admiration. You value one another as people, and you enjoy one another’s company. You are their friend, not for how they can benefit you or how they can bring you pleasure, but simply because you like them. This is the highest form of friendship.
Going beyond Aristotle’s three categories, there’s a fourth kind of friendship. It’s what I call a “close” friendship. Others would use the word “true” friendship to describe it. Though I don’t think the kinds of friendship listed above are “false.” Not all friendships of virtue are close friendships. But all close friendships are also friendships of virtue.
Five Characteristics of a Close (True) Friend
- A close friend rejoices in your joys and sorrows over your pains. A true friend is not just sympathetic, they are empathetic. They share your feelings, weeping with you when you weep and rejoicing with you when you rejoice.
- A close friend won’t defriend you if you disagree. Friendships are tested when there is a disagreement. But true friends don’t cut you off because of it. They may tell you what they think you need to hear and vice versa. But they will do it in such a way where you can receive it. The reason is because you know they love you unconditionally more than they love their views.
- A close friend stays in regular contact with you.I have others who consider themselves my friend who contact me a few times a year. But a close friend this doth not make. Close friends communicate fairly regularly and share about themselves when they do – leaving time and interest for inquiring into what is happening in your life. It is always a two way street and never just one way.
- A close friend is someone whom you trust implicitly. They have earned your trust. Consequently, you don’t doubt that they have your back. And you don’t fear that they will stab you in the back. You trust them enough to confide in them about highly private and confidential matters. Close friendship brings with it disclosure (John 15:15).
- A close friend will stand by you, defend you, even take a bullet for you when you’re under attack. To my mind, this is perhaps the highest measure of friendship or one of the rock-bottom “tests.” The posture of a true friend is, “If you hurt my friend, you’ve hurt me.” It is never, “Well, that person never did anything to hurt me, so it’s not my issue.” This attitude is what separates goats from black sheep. True friends stand with and stand up for each other.
As you look and pray for a close friend remember that true friendships take time. This is especially true when it comes to spiritual friendships. As you relate to someone be careful that what you are sharing is in line with the developing level or depth of the friendship. As the trust and respect between you and your friend develop and deepen then what you are free to share can also deepen and become more personal. I see relationship as going through three levels – each relationship moves through these levels at a different speed.
- Level One – ACQUAINTANCE This is when you are simply starting to come to know the person and so you are relating on a somewhat surface level. You talk about sports, the weather, the latest sports game, and how your day at work went. You conversations are not deep and you do not share personal and private issues, thoughts, and feelings. You are simply building trust and seeing if this is someone you would like to be friends with and relate to on a regular basis and if they are confidential with what information you are sharing with them.
- Level Two – BROTHERLY This level is deeper than the ACQUAINTANCE. Here you are still becoming friends but you have decided that this relationship is worth pursuing and investing yourself in. The level of sharing becomes more personal and you share thoughts and feelings cautiously but you are sharing them. This is where you begin to unwrap who you are and allow this person to see the “real” you without all the masks and proper social and political correctness that is often so necessary in the everyday world. Again, remember, you are still building trust and mutual respect so don’t jump in with both feet – continue to test the waters.
- Level Three – CLOSE This is the stage in the relationship where you can be 100% yourself and are free to share who you really are and how you are really feeling and doing. The relationship has been tested and proved to be solid. You know this person is there for you and will continue to walk with you regardless of what transpires in your life. They have your back. At this level you can share intimate details of your life as you feel comfortable because you know this person will understand, love you and accept you regardless.
So, as you build your spiritual friendships – remember that every relationship goes through each of these levels and share accordingly. Allow the relationship time to develop.
There is a great book with a wonderful chapter on Friendships – “Boundaries” by Dr. Cloud…