BIBLICAL GUIDELINES FOR CULTIVATING FRIENDSHIP

“A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother” (Prov 18:24).

The issue of genuine friendship is hardly mentioned by the average Singaporean. Singapore is such a fast-paced, money-minded society that few have time for genuine, long-lasting friendship save for the purpose of courtship. It looks as if most Singaporeans are too busy to make genuine friends. However, superficial, functional friendships abound. Such friendships are maintained frequently for economic reasons. Those who are rich or are in positions of influence frequently appear to have many friends, while the poor and insignificant appear to have few friends. This problem is clearly manifested during Christmas and Chinese New Year when the rich and powerful usually get many hampers and presents when they do not really need them; while the poor usually get nothing. This ugly situation appears to be a problem only in our time and society. But this is not the case; it is a basic problem of depraved humanity. Solomon, writing some three thousand years ago, had already noted this problem. He said: “The poor is hated even of his own neighbour: but the rich hath many friends” (Prov 14:20); and “Wealth maketh many friends; but the poor is separated from his neighbour” (Prov 19:4). These verses are so succinct that any attempts to explain them would only cloud their meaning and thrust.

The average man is a selfish one and has a tendency to make friends with the rich, because he can gain from them. But the problem is “riches are not forever” (Prov 27:24), they do “certainly make themselves wings [and] fly away” (Prov 23:5). And when they do so, so would the fair-weather friendship that is founded on wealth. It was for this reason that Job’s friends abhorred him when calamity befell him (Job19:19). In the end only four of his friends were left, and they were not exactly very helpful to him.

Making friends with selfish motives is obviously sinful and unchristian and ought not to be found among Christians. But how should a child of God make and maintain friends? How do we cultivate genuine lasting friendship? Let me suggest six guidelines from the Scriptures:

Understand the Reality of the Different Levels of Friendship

Experience teaches us that friendships may be roughly divided into four levels. Firstly, there is the acquaintance level. This is the friendship of those who know each other by sight or perhaps by name, and little else more. Secondly, there is the brotherly friendship level. This is the friendship between those who know a little bit more about each other, do occasionally spend time with each other, and are ready to render help when called upon. Christian friends at this level will pray for each other when they are aware of some problems. The third level of friendship may be known as confiding friendship. This is the friendship of those who are able to confide with one another, and would pray with and for one another regularly. Debatably, Job’s three friends,—with all their misguided good intentions,—may be classed in this category for the fact that they stayed with him even when all his other friends forsook him. We say ‘debatably’ because their loyalty to their theological speculations concerning the calamity that had befallen Job appeared to have clouded out any genuine sympathy they ought to have for him. The final level may be known as devoted friendship. At this level, the friends are inseparable (distance notwithstanding), and are willing to suffer for the sake of each other. The friendship between husband and wife should be in this level. But it can also be found outside marriage, such as in the case of David and Jonathan.

A few comments may be made based on this observation. Firstly, while it is impossible and unwise to be a brotherly friend with everyone we meet, a Christian must be willing to be acquainted with as many people as possible, including unbelievers. Who knows what opportunities Providence may bring for us to witness for the Lord Jesus Christ —the “friend of publicans and sinners!” (Lk 7:34). But in our friendship with unbelievers in the world, we must always bear in mind that “friendship of the world is enmity with God” (Jas 4:4), i.e., we must never approve of the evil deeds of those in the world. We must also constantly remember the Apostle Paul’s warning: “Be not deceived: evil communications [companionship and association] corrupt good manners [morals and character]” (1 Cor 15:33). Spending much time with worldly friends in their turf will always bear undesirable fruits. There is much wisdom in Thomas Watson’s advice:

Do not incorporate into the society of the wicked, or be too much familiar with them. The wicked are God haters, and “shouldest thou join with them that hate the Lord?” (2 Chronicles 19:2). A Christian is bound, by virtue of his oath of allegiance to God in baptism, not to have intimate converse with such as are God’s sworn enemies. The bad will sooner corrupt the good, than the good will convert the bad.

Secondly, every Christian,—especially within a local church,—should strive to cultivate a brotherly, if not confiding friendship with every member in the church. If we are mere acquaintance only with members of the church, it would be quite impossible for us to bear one another’s burden and so fulfil the law of Christ (Gal 6:2); or to do good “especially unto them who are the household of faith” (Gal 6:10); or to love one another that all men may know we are the disciples of Christ (Jn 13:35). I would say friendship can hardly be considered as genuine unless it is at least brotherly.

Thirdly, if for some reason, you are unable to cultivate a close friendship with every member in the church, you must know that hatred cannot exist within the church. “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” (1 Jn 4:20).

Fourthly, while you may attempt to be a confiding or devoted friend with everyone in the church, it is quite impossible, and so you must not unrealistically expect everyone in the church to relate to you in this manner, or you may be sorely disappointed.

Initiate and Maintain Friendships

“A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly” (Prov 18:24a). This simple instruction, as rendered in the Authorised Version, reminds us of two facts about making and maintaining friendship. First, it reminds us that friendship involves more than one party. You cannot expect to have friends if you yourself, by your actions and words, refuse to be friendly or to sustain friendships developed. For example, no one likes an easily angered person. We are even counselled by the Word of God not to make friend with such a person: “Make no friendship with an angry man; and with a furious man thou shalt not go” (Prov 22:24). Therefore, if you want to be a genuine friend to someone, we must learn to manage your anger. Secondly, it suggests to us that everyone has a duty to initiate and make friends. This is part of showing ourselves to be friendly. We must remember that whenever the Scripture dictates a duty for us, that the duty is to be performed as unto God, and not just unto men. The same goes for making friends. Though some of us may be by nature very reticent and find it hard to initiate friendships, we must nevertheless try to do so or to put ourselves in circumstances where we can be approached by others.

How do we do so? In the first place, I would suggest that, we should attend as many of the church related meetings as possible. If you find yourself lost on the Lord’s Day morning services because there are too many people around, will you not come for the evening services and prayer meetings? Most who attend these meetings find that they have much greater opportunities to make friends. Needless to say, we ought not to come for these appointed means of grace for the primary purpose of fellowship. We ought rather to come to worship, pray and learn. But I want to remind you that you are in a position to help yourself if you are finding it hard to make friends in the church. In the second place, I would suggest that whenever we have opportunities for fellowship, that we should make use of them by walking up to others to talk to them. Husbands and wives, couples, and those who are already in cliques must be careful not to give the impressions that they are closed to having anyone joining them in their conversations. In fact, they ought to make an effort to include anyone standing nearby into the conversation. Moreover, whenever possible, those who already have established friends ought not to spend all their time talking to the established friends, but ought to seek out anyone who is standing or sitting alone to befriend him or her.   

How I hope to see that when I look around during lunch fellowship, that no one is left alone. This will be a mark that the congregation is maturing.

Be Faithful, Selfless and Sincere

One of the most important virtues that we must cultivate in order to be a genuine friend is to be faithful, selfless and sincere in our friendships. Practically, this mean that you must remain a friend even when the friendship has lost the temporal values it may use to have. Jonathan was a faithful friend to David because he continued being his friend even though he knew that David would one day take over the throne instead of him. The first and most important rule of developing genuine friendship is to not to see the friendship as being for your own gain, but for the good of your friend. So Proverbs suggests to us that a man who has selfish desires in friendship will isolate himself: “Through [selfish] desire a man, having separated himself, seeketh and intermeddleth with all wisdom” (Prov 18:1). Being a sincere and faithful friend also mean being a friend at all times, and so treating your friend like a brother or sister: “A friend loveth at all times, and a brother is born for adversity” (Prov 17:17); and “there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother” (Prov 18:24b). We should always aim to cultivate this kind of friendship in the church.

The Lord Jesus is our example par excellence. Though He be our Lord, He calls us His friends (Jn 15:15), and He laid down His life for us: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13). You who belong to Christ must learn from His example, to be faithful and sincere to your brethren in Christ. Though we may not be able to confide with everyone in church, we must aim to love each one as Christ loves us: “Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 Jn 3:16).

Learn to Share Blessings & Burdens and to Empathise or Sympathise

“Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep” (Rom 12:15). This oft quoted verse not only enjoins a very important Christian duty within the communion of saints, but also gives us a great principle of developing friendship. Friendship is developed through mutual care and concern. But deep friendship is founded upon the sharing of emotional ups and downs. The old saying, “A blessing shared is doubled and burden shared is half,” simply reflects what experience shows us as to the benefits of obeying this scriptural instruction. When we share the joy of someone who is rejoicing, we increase his joy in the assurance that he is not selfishly happy while others are hurt or saddened by what happened or was accomplished (cf. Ecc 4:9). When we share the burden of someone, we comfort the one who is grieving, in the knowledge that there are others who care and sympathise and would pray with him or her (cf. Ecc 4:10).

You may not always be able to empathise with grieving friends as you may have never experienced the same problem yourself, but you can learn to sympathise with them by your words and actions. “To him that is afflicted pity should be shown from his friend; [even though] he forsaketh the fear of the Almighty” (Job 6:14). Learn to say some seasonable words of encouragement: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver” (Prov 25:11). Learn to do something or give something which may build up. Sending a nice card to someone who is depressed may not take much effort but it can mean a lot to the person and would go a long way to building your friendship. On the other hand, it may be a cruel thing, to joke about the circumstance that your friend is going through, even if he may appear very strong outwardly. Do not take your friend for granted. Be very careful with how you treat your friend. Realise that although your intention may be right, your actions at inappropriate times will not be appreciated. Again, Proverbs is to the point: “He that blesseth his friend with a loud voice, rising early in the morning, it shall be counted a curse to him” (Prov 27:14); and “Withdraw thy foot from thy neighbour’s house; lest he be weary of thee, and so hate thee” (Prov 25:17).

Remember also that sharing of burdens and joy between friends must be mutual. It is usually the case that no one would share with us his or her burdens until we first share our burdens with him or her.

Be Prepared to Rebuke if Necessary

Being a friend, of course, does not mean that you must avoid all confrontations. In fact, what distinguished a genuine, faithful friend from a false friend, is whether the friend is willing to correct your faults: “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful” (Prov 27:6).

We must always be honest when speaking to one another. If our brother transgresses, then we ought to correct. We must not flatter, or we would not only be doing our friend a great disservice, but we would sin against God (Ezk 3:18–19). Of course, being honest with one another does not mean that we should be rude and brash with one another. Unless dealing with someone who is much hardened by sin, learn to speak by way of counsel rather than rebuke: “Ointment and perfume rejoice the heart: so doth the sweetness of a man’s friend by hearty counsel” (Prov 27:9).

Be Always Ready to Forgive

“Iron sharpeneth iron” (Prov 27:17) is a very apt metaphor to describe the development of friendship between two parties. Not only do friends sharpen one another; but the sharpening process also produces sparks occasionally because we are imperfect, sinful creatures. But for the same reason, conflicts that arise in friendship may separate even the chief of friends if not managed properly. We have earlier discussed the issue of anger management. But let me highlight one point that is crucial for the maintenance of friendship, namely, the need to be ready to forgive. Solomon is simply highlighting a fact of life when he says under inspiration: “He that covereth a transgression seeketh love; but he that repeateth a matter separateth very friends” (Prov 17:9).

This is a very beautiful proverb. You ought to love your friends, and if you love your friends, then you must be willing to overlook and forgive any transgressions they make against you. The thing that you must never, never do if you treasure the friendship is to repeat your friends’ fault to others. If you do, you can be quite sure that it would be the end of your friendship whether or not your friend finds out.

Conclusion

What we have discussed in this article is probably not new to most of us. But we need constantly to be reminded as we often grow so comfortable with ourselves and our current circle of friends that we neglect others whom God has brought into our lives; or we take for granted the friends that we already have. Let us therefore learn to make and maintain our friends.

But let us also remember that if for some reasons we are forsaken by our friends, that God does not forsake us and we can always turn to Him who is a friend indeed, and a friend unchanging. Learn this of Job: “My friends scorn me: but mine eye poureth out tears unto God” (Job 16:20). Amen.    

JJ Lim