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True Companions: Gospel Centred Friendship

This blog post is based on a workshop presented by James on campus in October 2020.

I reckon that if you surveyed a cross-section of people from all walks of life, backgrounds, cultures and religions, and asked them, ‘What’s the essence of true friendship?’ you’d come up with some pretty consistent themes: things like loyalty, trustworthiness, openness and vulnerability, communication, and sharing of values. That shouldn’t be too surprising, since all of us have been created by God for relationships. Relationships are an essential part of our humanity, because we’re made in the image of the God who is Triune and has for all eternity been in relationship within himself; the God whose essential nature is Love.

Did Jesus need friends?

When I asked this question at an ES workshop, people weren’t so sure. There seemed to be a bit of caution about implying Jesus would be somehow deficient in himself if he needed something. When I pressed a bit further, I realised that it was because people were thinking of Jesus in terms of his divine nature. Of course, God doesn’t need anything - he’s completely self-sufficient - although if you took relationships away from God, he’d no longer be God, because, as I’ve just said, relationships are at the heart of who he is. But when we think of Jesus in terms of his human nature, we must conclude that Jesus did need friends - in the same way that he needed his mother’s milk as an infant, he needed food and water and sleep and clothes, and shoes to protect his feet from stones on the road; he needed to leave places because his life was at risk before his time. As a man, Jesus shared both in our mortality, and in all of the needs and weaknesses of human beings living ‘under the Sun’ (See Hebrews 4:15, 5:7). If Jesus identified with us in our humanity at every point, then it would also have included the experience of, and need for, friendship.

The heart of friendship

In John 15:12-17 Jesus highlights what the essence of friendship is:

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another.

See how Jesus distinguishes between friendship and other relationships (specifically here, servant-master). Jesus can call his disciples ‘friends’ on the basis of his self-disclosure to them, ‘…all that I have heard from my Father I have made know to you.’ He does so both as a fellow human being, and as God the Son who has come to reveal the Father. Later, Jesus will also speak of sending and giving the Holy Spirit, and says:

He will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:14-15)

Jesus calls us friends because when we come to him he holds back nothing of himself or the Father or the Spirit, but shows and gives all to us. In Jesus, we have the Triune God in his fullness!

Friends of God

While the Bible doesn’t explicitly call God our friend, it does speak of human beings who are made his friends. Abraham was called ‘a friend of God’ (James 2:23); Moses had the LORD speak to him as a man speaks to a friend (Exodus 33:11). Both men were models to us of a person who lives by faith - trusting in the goodness and mercy of God, not their own performance, for their relationship with God. And of course, any friendship based upon one’s performance isn’t true friendship. Their position as friends of God was based on the fact that God came and sought them, even when they weren’t looking for him. God’s self-disclosure to us, made possible by His action of justifying us in Christ, renewing us in the Holy Spirit, and adopting us into the Father’s family, now sets the standard for true and deep human relationships.

‘The Michelangelo Effect’

“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” (Attributed to Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni)

Secular psychologists have recognised this inbuilt desire of human beings to live in friendships, and that the thing that makes for lasting and meaningful human relationships is the ability to look at a person and see not just who they are, but also who they could be if given the opportunity. This has been dubbed ‘the Michelangelo Effect:

“The ideal self describes an individual’s dreams and aspirations, or the constellation of skills, traits, and resources that an individual ideally wishes to acquire… Whether images of the ideal self constitute vague yearnings or clearly articulated mental representations, dreams and aspirations serve a crucial function, providing direction to personal growth strivings and thereby helping people reduce the discrepancy between the actual self and the ideal self.

Although people sometimes achieve ideal-relevant goals solely through their own actions, the acquisition of new skills, traits, and resources is also shaped by interpersonal experience. People adapt to one another during the course of interaction, changing their behaviour so as to coordinate with one another and respond to each person’s needs and expectations.”[1]

Christians too have an ‘ideal self’ - to be a person who resembles Jesus:

‘…speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.' (Ephesians 4:15-16)

A person who is ‘growing up in every way into him’ is doing so as they’re both being encouraged by, and encouraging their fellow believers, through ‘speaking the truth in love’. We shouldn’t look at our brothers and sisters in Christ merely as the people they are, but in terms of what the Father’s goal is for them, to eventually resemble His own Son. This is the heart of true Christian friendship!

Biblical wisdom on true friendship:

Friendship is an important theme through the Bible, including the Old Testament. The book of Proverbs contains a number of profound observations about friendship:

A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity. (Proverbs 17:17)

A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother. (Proverbs 18:24)

Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy. (Proverbs 27:5-6)

Oil and perfume make the heart glad, and the sweetness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel. (Proverbs 27:9)

In 1 Samuel 18-20 we see a beautiful story of true friendship between yet-to-become-king David, and Jonathan, the son of King Saul. This was a friendship that was based not only on personal affinity, but also on the big picture of God’s kingdom and purposes. It meant that Jonathan was even willing to go behind Saul’s back to protect David from his father’s anger; and David remained loyal to Jonathan’s family even long after Jonathan had died. They allowed God’s purpose, yet to be fulfilled in Jesus, to both shape and drive their friendship with each other - and as a result they found their friendship to be deeper and more significant.

The Gospel Friendship Bench

You may have had a friendship bench at your primary school. It’s a place where a lonely student could go and sit, in order to find a friend. I always felt bad for any kid who might sit there for the entirety of lunch and have no-one come and be their friend.

In the Gospel, our approach to friendship is different. Instead of asking others, ‘Will you be my friend?’ we instead say, ‘I will be your friend; I will give of myself to you. I will see in you what the Father has planned for you: to be like Jesus. And I will speak to you the truth in love so that you may come to that goal.’

Think of some specific things you can be doing to help your friends grow to maturity in the image of Jesus.

[1] Caryl E. Rusbult, Eli J. Finkel, Madoka Kumashiro, ‘The Michelangelo Phenomenon’ in Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol 6, No. 18 2009

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