Friendship is greatly overlooked in the church. We talk a lot about our relationship with God, our relationship with our spouse and children, we talk about how we need to reach out to the poor and evangelize to the lost. We even talk about unity in the church without ever mentioning the concept of friendship.
In our culture, very little emphasis is placed on adult friendships. Once we pass through the adolescent years, and especially once we get married, the concept of friendship fades for many people. We begin to build our own lives, and self-centered ambitions take the majority of our focus. We buy into false notions that our spouse is to fulfill every relational need we have. We have friendships of convenience, people who are nothing more than warm bodies to surround ourselves with so we don't look or feel so alone. The idea of friendship morphs into the concept of networking, which is getting close to people because of what they can do for you rather than because of who they are. Our transient culture makes our connections to those outside our family seem excruciatingly temporary, and often we shield ourselves from the possible pain of losing a friend by never getting close to them at all.
Jesus had a different perspective of friendship. In John 15:12-13, Jesus states, "My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends." Jesus loved us by sacrificing His life for us on the Cross, so we too must sacrifice our lives for our friends. That is a much heftier prospect than what most of us experience in our friendships. So what does this look like and why does Jesus call us to this?
First, we need to be vulnerable in our friendships. It is impossible to model Jesus' example of friendship without opening ourselves up to one another and truly loving each other as we actually are. How many of us act in relationships as Adam did in the garden of Eden after he first fell and realized he was naked? Genesis 3:9-10 shows this, "But the LORD God called to the man, 'Where are you?' He answered, 'I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.'" Often times when we begin to get close to someone and start to feel "naked" around them because we are letting them see what is under our "mask", our initial reaction is to pull back and hide ourselves again out of fear. The truth is that we can only be loved by other people to the degree that we let them see our true selves, whether it is pretty, ugly, crazy or, most likely a rich, complicated blend all three. That is why God is able to love us with perfect love. He is the only one who knows us in the infinite detail that only a Creator can know of His creation.
The second element in a Christ-like friendship is to put others above yourself. Romans 12:10 states, "Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves." These commands are personified well in the story of Jesus washing His disciples feet. John 13:1 tells us, "Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end." Because He was so devoted to them in love, He then made Himself like a servant, and began to was the feet of those He loved. This signified what was to happen later on when He again would put others before Him and make Himself as a condemned man and die on the Cross for those He loved. We too are to be devoted to one another in love and honor them above ourselves. There is no room in friendship for pride, jealousy, envy or any other emotion that attempts to put us above the other person. No friendship is more beautiful than one of mutual servant-hood to one another. Serve them and allow them to serve you. Feed your humility and honor the other person by loving and serving them with abandon.
Third, friendship must be marked by honesty. Proverbs 24:26 says, "An honest answer is like a kiss on the lips." Besides honesty being the foundation of trust, which should be essential in any Christ-like friendship, you show how much you honor the other person by being honest with them. Honesty keeps a friendship healthy by helping to keep the relationship pure. The hardest part of honesty, though, comes when we are asked to hold our friends accountable. Especially in Christian friendships, we are called to hold one another accountable for our shortcomings. Proverbs 27:6 says, "Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses." We have to not only correct our friends in love when they need it, but also accept that correction when it is given in love. And this is a much easier task if the friendship has a foundation of trust to start with.
Next, friends must be able to forgive one another. Jesus said in His Sermon on the Mount, "For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins." (Matthew 6:14-15) Forgiveness is easiest when we take an honest look at our own failings. If we can see ourselves as the deeply flawed human beings that we are and acknowledge that we too are in dire need of forgiveness, it is far easier to forgive the other person. It is easier, too, if we have a clear idea of what forgiveness mean. Forgiveness doesn't mean we forget about the transgression or that we automatically trust the person as if nothing ever happened, it simply means we cancel the debt that was incurred by the offense, in other words, we no longer hold it against them. "Whoever would foster love covers over an offense, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends.' (Proverbs 17:9) Focus on love, cancel the debt and don't repeat the offense over and over in your own mind or to others. You are just as screwed up as they are. I can say that with complete confidence. Some are just better at showing it than others.
Lastly, all friendships need to be Christ-centered. This is easier between devout followers of Jesus, but even in your friendships with non-believers, the relationship, at least on your end, must be Christ-centered. God's way really is the right way in all circumstances. Though we may not always understand His wisdom, He does have a plan for it and wants us to live that way. For the sake of all our relationships, we need to draw close to Jesus by having a committed prayer life and studying God's word and committing it to our hearts. We need to read not just books about Christian life, but the actual Bible itself so that God may speak to us through His words. We need to ensure that our relationships, and all things in our life, honor Christ, loving others as Christ has loved us. No greater love is there, than laying your life down for your friends.