Biblical Friendship is the Only Real Friendship (Proverbs 17:17)
Many of the Christians I counsel struggle with the concept of friendship, particularly those who have been let down, abandoned, or betrayed by people they thought of as friends. One of the reasons believers struggle with friendship is they don’t understand what the concept really means. There is a vast difference between how the world views friendship and how God views it. The gap between worldly friendship and Biblical friendship is of Grand-Canyon proportions. It is important that as Christians you and I have a Biblical view of friendship.
I often find it necessary to tell counseling clients that the friends who let them down probably weren’t friends in the first place. It is likely they were just friendly acquaintances who saw some benefit for them in the relationship. Real friends—meaning Biblical friends—are not in the relationship for what they can get out of it nor do they abandon or betray friends in bad times. Biblical friends stick with you even when there is no perceived benefit in doing so and even in the midst of adversity. This is the message in Proverbs 17:17: “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.” The word “brother” in this verse refers not just to siblings, but more broadly to brothers and sisters in Christ.
In the eyes of the world, friendship is a self-centered concept. It’s about what you can do for me. With the world’s definition, people who are really just acquaintances often think of each other as friends because they share common interests or enjoy each other’s company. While sharing common interests and enjoying each other’s company are good things, at best they make for a shallow basis for friendship. You can share common interests with people who wouldn’t cross the street to help you in times of need, and you can enjoy the company of people who care nothing about you. This is why it’s important to understand the Biblical definition of friendship.
In the eyes of God, friendship is an outwardly-focused concept. It’s about service to others rather than service to self. But it’s even more than that. God has specific expectations of what a friend must be willing to do for a friend. These expectations include: 1) remaining loyal and helpful during good times and bad, 2) speaking the truth (tactfully) even when it hurts, 3) demonstrating the kind of love described in 1 Corinthians 13, and 4) being willing to lay down one’s life should the need arise. This final expectation as set forth in John 15:13 is the ultimate test of Biblical friendship.
Think about the people you have considered friends over the course of your lifetime. Now ask yourself how many of them meet the expectations listed in the previous paragraph. Chances are this exercise will reduce the number of people on your list of friends. When you apply the Biblical definition of friendship and factor in God’s expectations, you soon find that a lot of so-called friends are really just friendly acquaintances. They turn out to be casual pals who benefit from the relationship in some way, not friends. Let’s look at an example of an individual who had to learn the hard way about the true definition of friendship.
SCRIPTURE IN ACTION: AN EXAMPLE Miko felt abandoned and betrayed. People she thought were friends now avoided her as if she had a contagious disease. Her friends didn’t stop by to visit anymore, and telephone calls, emails, and text messages to them went unanswered. Miko couldn’t remember a time in her life when she needed her friends more but could count on them less. In truth, just when she needed them most, Miko’s supposed friends abandoned her.
She understood their concerns. They were afraid of guilt by association; not so much with Miko but with her rebellious teenage son, Thomas. When Miko’s husband left, he made a point of blaming her for the breakup and Daniel, who idolized his father, believed him. But when Miko’s husband expressed no interest in shared custody or even visiting him, Daniel had to face up to a hard truth and his world collapsed around him. In school, he became a bully and a truant. Before long he was using drugs. Predictably, run-ins with law enforcement became a frequent part of his life. As things went downhill with Daniel, friends began to back away from Miko. But what caused them to abandon her was Daniel’s arrest on charges of assault with a deadly weapon.
Like many drug users, Daniel began to steal to pay for his habit. It wasn’t long before he was breaking into homes. After barely escaping from an armed homeowner who caught him breaking in, Daniel started carrying a handgun on his late-night excursions. Predictably, he used the gun when a homeowner confronted him late one night. The homeowner was wounded and Daniel—who the homeowner recognized—was quickly apprehended. Following a trial in which Daniel was belligerent and unrepentant, he was sent to prison as an adult. His trial and prison sentence were big news in Miko’s little community. By the time the prison doors shut on her son, Miko was being treated as if she were the guilty party by those she once thought of as friends.
This is where things stood when Martina knocked on Miko’s door. Martina did not know Miko. She knew only what she read in the newspaper, but Martina knew what Miko was going through. She had been through it herself. Martina’s son was also in prison for drug use and armed robbery. Like Miko, Martina had been abandoned by people she thought of as friends. In fact, she had relocated to Miko’s community to escape the shame she felt over her son’s crimes and the hurt that came with being shunned by supposed friends.
Martina introduced herself to Miko and said, “I thought you might need a friend about now.” Miko didn’t understand how a complete stranger would be willing to befriend her when people she had known all of her life turned their backs on her. After revealing her own story, Martina told Miko she decided to reach out to her because of the message in 1 John 4:21: “…whoever loves God must also love his brother.” Then she told Miko, “Don’t worry; I won’t abandon you like your so-called friends did. A true friend sticks with you in good times and bad.”
Miko and Martina talked for hours. They shared their feelings of abandonment, betrayal, and loss. They commiserated over the pain of having sons they loved locked up in prison. They talked about wondering where and how they had failed their sons and the guilt they felt. Miko had not yet been allowed to visit Daniel. Visits were scheduled to begin in two weeks. As Miko walked her to the door, Martina said, “I have to tell you something you may not want to hear, but need to hear.”
Martina told Miko to prepare herself for the first prison visit and offered to go with her. “It is going to break your heart, Miko. Daniel will not be the same little boy you want to remember. Prison changes people. In fact, if we don’t get Daniel into a faith-based program while he is in prison, you are going to lose him. Prison will turn him into a confirmed criminal.” She offered to show Miko how to get Daniel enrolled in a prison-ministries program and Miko agreed to raise the issue as soon as she met with him.
Martina told Miko she was going to need a lot of support. “The only way you are going to survive this ordeal is to join a church where you will get the kind of support you need from people who are really friends in the Biblical sense; friends who will lay down their lives for you rather than run for the hills when you need them most. You are welcome to join me at my church this Sunday. It’s where I found true friends who have helped me through my ordeal and are still helping me.” Miko eagerly accepted Martina’s offer.
LESSONS FROM SCRIPTURE FOR YOUR DAILY WALK To enhance your daily walk with the Lord and be a friend to others in the Biblical sense, learn from Miko’s experiences. There are several important lessons contained in Miko’s story. The first is that God expects his children to be friends to others. If we love God, we must also love our brothers and sisters in Christ (1 John 4:21). Martina exemplified Christian friendship for Miko. She showed Miko that a true friend—a Biblical friend—is loyal and helpful even in the worst of times (Proverbs 17:17).
An extension of this lesson is something else Martina taught by example. If you need a friend or struggle with making friends, try this: Look for someone who is suffering—whether from grief, frustration, disappointment, betrayal, bitterness, or any other factor—and help that person. There is no more effective way to make friends than to help people during their time of need. Fair-weather friends run away when it looks like they might be needed, but true friends run to you. Be this kind of friend and you will never lack for friends.
Another lesson Martina taught Miko is that a true friend will tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear (Proverbs 27:17). A false friend might have told Miko she had nothing to worry about, that her son would be just fine in prison. Even though such a message might be well-intended, it is false. Fortunately, Martina not only knew the truth, but she was also willing to speak the truth to Miko. Martina did this because she knew Miko needed to prepare herself for the shock of visiting Daniel in prison the first time.
Finally, Martina taught Miko that a true friend will lay down her life for a friend (John 15:13-15). She also demonstrated that there were ways other than dying to lay down one’s life. Martina laid down her life by risking pushback from the community for associating with Miko, giving up her time to provide Miko with wise counsel, and by offering to join her when she visited Daniel in prison. These are certainly lesser ways of laying down one’s life for a friend than actually dying, but they please God nonetheless. If you want to have real friends, be a real friend; a Biblical friend.
Dr. Goetsch is the author of Christian Women on the Job: Excelling at Work without Compromising Your Faith, Fidelis Books, an imprint of Post Hill Press and Christians on the Job: Winning at Work Without Compromising Your Faith, Salem Books, an imprint of Regnery Publishing, 2019: www.david-goetsch.com