I grew up in a sleepy small town in the southern Indian state of Kerala. Our gang of friends was always together, wandering around the banks of the river, playing a game of hide and seek. When the water level receded during the summer, we would play football or cricket all day on the riverbanks. Some days we would sit and share stories of movies we had watched or imagined what life would be like in other parts of the world.
Every day I woke up with the assurance I would meet my small gang of friends right where I left them the last time. We shared a deep joy and longing to be with one another. Friendship is God’s natural anti-dote to loneliness.
One of the things I am coming to terms with as an adult is how easily the word friend can be replaced with the word acquaintance. Building deep and meaningful friendships can be a difficult task as an adult.
Even though we live in a world that promises increased human connectivity with things like social media and beautiful meeting spaces in the city like public parks, a mere glance at global statistics will show us an increasing epidemic of loneliness in the world.
Since the 1980s, the percentage of adults who say they are lonely has gone up from 20 percent to 35 percent in most global cities. About one-third of adults around the globe older than 65, now live alone and half of the population over 85 live alone.
Building deep and meaningful friendships can be a difficult task as an adult.
Even broader pop culture reflects this longing for deep and meaningful friendships. The famous Bollywood movie 3 Idiots—starring Amir Khan—was a raging success in India. It was a peculiar type of Hindi film because while there is the usual Bollywood love story, romance was not the focus of the film. It was friendship.
3 Idiots revolves around three students and how their friendship is tried and tested. The storyline is about how two of them try to reconnect with the third. One cannot help but wonder if the success of this film was down to the shared longing we all have for this kind of deep, earnest, pursuing friendship.
The Sting of Loneliness
The COVID pandemic touched us all and further exposed our deep need for meaningful friendships. Social isolation and distancing—the recommended strategies to manage the spread of this virus—only added to the sting of loneliness.
Besides the pandemic, life in a fallen world brings us all its own share of troubles and trials—traversing the terrain of broken relationships, walking through a season of financial difficulty, coping with loss, being blindsided by unforeseen tragedies.
Suffering and trials are often a revolving door in our shared human experience. We are either coming out of it or walking into it. No one is insulated from it or above it. In these cold seasons of suffering, godly friends walking with us can be like a warm blanket for our weary souls.
In the past two years, I have felt the sting of loneliness and anxiety as I was navigating the demands of life and ministry in the ever-shifting “new normal”. One of the ways I have experienced the grace of God meeting me in those trying times has been through text messages or phone calls from friends, simply reaching out to check on me. We all need healthy friendships much more than we would care to admit. But God has given us the gift of friendship as a natural anti-dote to the sting of loneliness.
When we enjoy the gift of a healthy friendship, we are working within God’s good design. The Bible sees friendship as vital to human flourishing. It is that important.
The Beginning of Friendship
The Bible has a lot to say about friendship. It shows us that friendship is not a man-made idea but flows from the very heart of God. We see this first in the Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Even in eternity past, before the creation of anything else, there was perfect friendship shared within the Trinity. As image-bearers of God, you and I are made for friendship with God and with others.
Then we see how the friendship of God became friendship with God in creation, as God created Adam who walked with God. Then God saw that it was not good for Adam to be alone but that he needed a friend, a companion, So he created Eve. When we enjoy the gift of a healthy friendship, we are working within God’s good design. The Bible sees friendship as vital to human flourishing. It is that important.
The Wisdom for Friendship
Making friends is not easy but the Bible provides much wisdom to seek and invest in friendships that are good for us.
A friend chooses you. The beauty of friendship is that a faithful friend chooses you (Prov. 18:24). Unlike your siblings who were given to you biologically, a faithful friend made a conscious decision to be with you. A faithful friend can be there for you in a way that feels closer than a sibling. Our brotherhood and sisterhood in Christ are deep and genuine.
A friend is there for you. The power of friendship is felt deepest in adversity (Prov. 17:17). A true friend sticks with you even when life is falling apart, when things are not resolved, and when everyone else in your life is running towards the exit. A true friend is always true to you.
Unlike your siblings who were given to you biologically, a faithful friend made a conscious decision to be with you. A faithful friend can be there for you in a way that feels closer than a sibling.
A friend helps you grow and thrive. True and faithful friendship rubs off on you (Prov. 13:20). Friends who love justice and mercy will help you grow in your own passion for justice and mercy. Friends that love Jesus will help you grow in your own affections for Jesus. Friends who love to engage and serve the city missionally will help you grow missionally.
One of the realities of living in a fallen world is that nothing moves from chaos to order on its own. Although healthy friendships are beautiful and enjoyable, it also requires work and intentionality.
The soil of healthy friendship must be tilled with care, and we must intentionally create spaces and rhythms in our lives where we nurture the friendships that we cherish. This can prove to be costly and challenging, but investing time and energy into this God-given gift returns great rewards for the soul.
The Hope for Real Friendship
Timothy Keller has described a friend as someone who “always lets you in and never lets you down.” If I were honest I do not think I ever had a friend who always let me in and never let me down. I must also admit I have never been that kind of a friend to others. But healthy friendships are not built by trying to find the perfect friend who meets all these qualifications. They begin with our growing desire to become the kind of friend we are seeking.
Jesus was treated like an enemy of God so we can become friends of God though we were once his enemies.
Just before he went to the cross, Jesus gathered his disciples and told them, “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” (John 15:12-15, emphasis added)
If you belong to Jesus, these words are so liberating and powerful. Think of it, Jesus was treated like an enemy of God so we can become friends of God though we were once his enemies. He does that by laying down his life for you and me—as a true and faithful friend.
He is the true friend who chose us. Jesus knew full well all the ways you and I would fail him, betray him and choose other treasures and trinkets over him. Yet he chose to love us. You did not choose him, but he chose you to be his friend.
He is the true friend who is there for us. Not only did he choose you, but he becomes to us the kind of faithful friend who is present with us even in the dark nights of the soul. Jesus offers us his loving presence affirming what is most true about us—we are deeply loved by the Father, forgiven through Christ, empowered by the Spirit and received as friends of God.
He is the true friend who helps us grow and thrive. Jesus’s friendship frees us to be the kind of friends to others that he is to us. He not only chooses us to be his friends but chooses friends for us in his body, the church.
The more we learn to enjoy friendship with Jesus, the more it shapes us to be true friends to others. He works in and through our friendships to help us grow in Christ and thrive in our service to God and the portrait of friendship in the Bible begins to become real in our lives. In all our loneliness, may we seek and offer true friendship as we rest in our true and faithful friend, the Lord Jesus himself.