‘The one blockbuster set of movies that has ever been made, not about romance, not about family, but about friendship is The Lord of the Rings. The film takes the beauty of friendship as its main theme.
‘However, if you read the book itself, you’ll also know the romantic stuff is relegated to the appendices. The love affair between Aragorn and Arwen wasn’t in the centre of the book, but it was put at the centre of the film. For Hollywood, we had to pull that out of the appendices, and we had to stick it at the centre.’
That’s the view of Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York. He argues that our culture isn’t turned on by friendshipand instead puts erotic love, romantic love and sexual love first. Glossy magazines don’t report on who is best friends with whom. It’s always about who is sleeping with whom.
But friendship brings something into our lives that romance, and even family, can’t bring.
In the following adapted extracts from Keller’s sermon on friendship, the preacher argues that Christians need to recapture a truly biblical approach to an overlooked relationship.
CS LEWIS ON FRIENDSHIP
The uniqueness of friendship is that it’s the only love that is absolutely deliberate. It will not push itself upon you. Friendship requires an affinity, a common love or a common vision that can’t be created, but can only be discovered.
CS Lewis in his essay on friendship puts it like this: ‘The typical expression of opening friendship would be something like, “What? You too? I thought that no one but myself…”’ That’s the beginning of a friendship.
Lewis writes: ‘Though we can have erotic love and friendship for the same person yet in some ways nothing is less like a friendship than a love affair. Lovers are always talking to one another about their love; friends hardly ever talk about their friendship. Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each another; friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest.’
What makes a friend is not, ‘Oh, do you want to be my friend?’ but, ‘You too? You think that’s important too? You love that too?’ That creates a friend.
"A FAIR-WEATHER FRIEND ISN’T A FRIEND"
It brings something unique into your life. Lewis goes on to make it very plain. He says, ‘That is why those pathetic people who simply “want friends” can never make any. The very condition of having friends is that we should want something else besides friends.’
It is easy for friendship, which takes incredibly deliberate amounts of intentionally spent time, to be squeezed out of our busy lives. Yet as the book of Proverbs says, we won’t make it without friends. Proverbs says that you’re not going to be a wise person unless you are great at choosing, forging and keeping terrific friendships.
FOUR MARKS OF TRUE FRIENDSHIP
It can be easy to sideline our friendships. Proverbs not only explains why friendship is vital for us, it gives us four things we must do in order to create true friendships.
Proverbs says ‘A friend loves at all times…’ (17:17). Does that mean if you’re friends, you spend all of your time together? No, because Proverbs also says, ‘too much of you, and they will hate you’ (25:17). A friend is there during all kinds of times: good times, bad times and ordinary times. You can’t be a friend without constant availability.
One of the major reasons that we form relationships is because other people are useful to us. When your life is collapsing, useful companions will at best say, ‘Call me if you need anything.’ But a friend is there already, because a friend does not see you as merely a means to an end. As far as your friend is concerned, you are an end in yourself. A fair-weather friend, of course, isn’t a friend.
Ruth and Naomi
Ruth and Naomi suffered unimaginable loss after the death of all the men in their family. Naomi, stricken with grief, instructs her daughter-in-law to return to her family, but in an act of friendship and loyalty, Ruth follows Naomi. Ruth’s friendship combined with Naomi’s counsel led to the joy of becoming part of a new family through Ruth’s marriage to wealthy landowner, Boaz. Ruth went on to give birth to a son, Obed. Their friendship and loyalty were rewarded by God.
Job and Elihu
Job is stuck in a mindset of woe and bitterness after the loss of all of his children and possessions. His three friends come to visit him and try to change his mindset, but to no avail. One of Job’s younger friends, Elihu, acknowledges his youth but pleads with Job to see that God is full of wisdom (Job 32:6-8). After this, the Lord speaks and Job humbly acknowledges God’s ability to do anything. Job prays for his friends and the Lord restores what he had lost.
Elizabeth and Mary
Described as cousins in the Bible, the friendship and joy shared between Elizabeth and Mary was reciprocated by the baby in Elizabeth’s womb ‘leaping’ as they greeted each other (Luke 1:41). Mary spends three months with Elizabeth. God brought the women together in pregnancy so that Mary could return home carrying Jesus and nourished by the friendship and wisdom of Elizabeth.
There’s a little saying my wife Kathy and I try not to tell other parents, even though it’s true. ‘Here’s the essence of parenting. Once you start to have children, you realise for the rest of your life you’re only as happy as your unhappiest child.’ The reason for this is, whether you want to or not, you are emotionally connected. You can’t sing songs when their heart is heavy. In friendship too, you give the gift of emotional connection voluntarily.
This is how you can tell whether that person is really your friend. They can’t get on with their own life when you’re collapsing. A friend is committed to your emotional flourishing because they can’t flourish without your emotional flourishing as well.
The third thing you need for true friendship is candour – truth-telling. Proverbs says: ‘Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses’ (27:5-6). A ‘friendly wound’ is a metaphor for words that your friend needs that are going to be painful for that friend to hear, and yet they have to hear them.
You may say, ‘I love that person too much to confront them. But hiding and covering up the truth out of love isn’t true love. When you say, ‘I love the person too much to tell them the truth,’ what you really mean is, ‘I love myself too much to have to go through that.’ In that case you’re not being a friend.
Candour is: ‘I’m telling the truth.’ But carefulness is: ‘I am so emotionally connected that the painful words I’m going to tell you are going to create pain for me.’ This is the reason why it’s so hard to be a friend. You can either be careful and just shut up, or you can be candid and not really care. Either of those ways isn’t painful, but to be a friend is constant pain because you have to be careful, candid and constant all at once.
Proverbs says ‘the sweetness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel’ (27:9, ESV). The word ‘earnest’ means from the heart. The word ‘counsel’ means secrets. It means to tell someone a secret. It means to confide in somebody.
Very recently, a friend of mine called me up. We spent quite a long time talking. When he spoke to me, he was more emotionally vulnerable than he has ever been, telling me about his own weaknesses and yet at the very same time reading me the riot act about the ways in which my life needed to change or I was going to be in a lot of trouble.
When I started reflecting on that very probably life-changing conversation, I realised how unique that is. A therapist needs to give you advice, but if the therapist or the pastor gets too self-revealing every time you get advice, that’s not right.
This is something only a really close friend can do, and you desperately need it. You’re never going to become the person you can be without it.
THE FRIEND WE NEED TO BE
When you read the description of a perfect friend, you’ll find two things happen to you. On the one hand, there’s a feeling of longing. We live in a culture in which our friends are taken away from us faster than we can forge them. It’s called mobility. They, or you, move away.
The second response to reading about this profile of a true friend is a crushing one. We need to admit one of the reasons we do not have the friends our hearts need is because we aren’t the friends we should be.
How easy is it for you to be transparent, and really let a person in? How easy is it for you to give the gift of emotional vulnerability and connection? It’s hard.
"IN ORDER TO GROW, WE MUST BE FRIENDS WITH THOSE WHO ARE NOT LIKE US"
Where are we going to get the power to be the friends we need to be so we can have the friends we need to have?
The night before Jesus Christ died, he was desperately trying to get across to his disciples the meaning of what he was about to do. He says to the disciples, ‘Tonight I no longer call you servants. A servant does not know his master’s business.’ He’s letting them in. ‘Tonight I call you friends. Now love one another as I love you. I am laying down my life for my friends.’
Jesus is the ultimate friend who loves at all times. He is the one born for adversity. He is going to cleave to you at infinite cost to himself so you will not be ruined. Jesus Christ, on the cross, lost his friendship with God so we could have friendship with God. There he experienced what we should have experienced so he could prove he is the perfect and the ultimate friend.
When I am liberated to be the great friend I ought to be by the great friendship of Jesus Christ on the cross, then I will find myself paradoxically gaining the great friends I need to have.
We tend to gravitate towards friends who have the same passions, the same loves, the same affinities as us. But in order to grow, we must also be friends with those who are not like us.
Jesus breaks into the lives of all kinds of people: corporate and creative, black and white, downtown and uptown.
When you become a Christian and join a church, you encounter people who are different in every other way – except the deepest passion of their life is to love Jesus Christ, who saved them through an act of radical friendship. Think of the potential! Christian friendships are radical, exhilarating and enriching.
You may think that you choose your friends, but as CS Lewis said, ‘… we think we have chosen our peers… But, for a Christian, there are, strictly speaking, no chances. A secret Master of the Ceremonies has been at work. Christ, who said to the disciples, “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you,” can truly say to every group of Christian friends, “You have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another.”’
Make Jesus the friend your heart desires, and you will have all the friends your heart needs.
Adapted from a sermon by Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York gospelinlife.com