"Friendship is the only thing in the world concerning the usefulness of which all mankind are agreed.” So wrote the Roman philosopher Cicero in the first century B.C. But while all people long for friendship, genuine friends are hard to come by.
Many factors contribute to the dearth of friendship. The increasing mobility of our culture has made lifelong friends a rare commodity. Even when we stay in one place for a long time, the rapid pace of life makes it difficult to carve out time for building and sustaining friendship. Social media may help us connect with old classmates and distant relatives, but it also poses an electronic barrier to the kinds of practices most necessary to deep friendship. If we have ever needed wisdom regarding friendship, it is now.
The book of Proverbs provides such wisdom and provides us with at least eight biblical principles for friendship.
First is the principle of selectivity. “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Prov. 18:24). This proverb reminds me that everyone cannot and should not be a close friend. Quality trumps quantity, when it comes to friendship. Select your friends wisely and then stick to them.
We should select friendships carefully because wrong friends bring harm. “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (Prov. 13:20). Character is caught as much as taught, and this is true of character both noble and base. “Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man, lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare” (Prov. 22:24-25; see also 12:26 and 16:29).
Relationships gain strength through proximity. Distance makes friendship more difficult. You need friends who live close to you. “Do not forsake your friend and your father’s friend, and do not go to your brother’s house in the day of your calamity. Better is a neighbor who is near than a brother who is far away” (Prov. 27:10). The word “neighbor” translates the same Hebrew word as “friend.” This reminds us that friendship involves not only shared time and interests, but also shared space. When friends don’t spend time together, they will inevitably grow distant. As Emerson said, “Go often to the house of thy friend, for weeds choke the unused path."
On the other hand, Proverbs also teaches the principle of boundaries. Know when to leave a friend alone. Different people have different capacities for friendship and various friendships have different limitations. Learn when to give your friends space. “Let your foot be seldom in your neighbor’s house, lest he have his fill of you and hate you” (Prov. 25:17). Benjamin Franklin was on to something when he said, “Guests, like fish, stink after three days.” Don’t wear out your welcome!
One of the most important principles is the principle of mutuality. Friendship is a two-way street. In any true friendship, both persons contribute. Each person benefits. To have a friend, you must be a friend. “Oil and perfume make the heart glad, and the sweetness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel” (Prov. 27:9). “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (Prov. 27:17). These two proverbs illustrate two kinds of mutuality: sweet and sharp.
Sweetness arises from mutuality in interests, the sharing of common ground. This is essential to any real friendship. In his brilliant book The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis described the difference between the love of lovers and that which binds friends:
“we picture lovers face to face but Friends side by side; their eyes look ahead... this is why 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... Friendship must be about something, even if it were only an enthusiasm for dominoes or white mice. Those who have nothing can share nothing; those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travellers.”
This is always true. All of my friendships are all based on something: like taste in books, music, or movies; love for the same sport (golf); similar life circumstances; the same vocation; a shared faith; and so on. None of my friendships include all of those things. But every deep friendship is built on some common ground. The more I have in common with someone, the more “sweetness” there is to the friendship.
On the other hand, there is a sharpening aspect to mutuality in friendship. “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” My best friends are the ones who not only share my interests, but challenge me in meaningful ways by informing my thinking, expanding my interests, balancing my weaknesses, and probing me to better character.
Along with mutuality, friendships require respect. Respect is the foundation of any good relationship. One of the main ways we show respect is in how we talk about our friends when they are not around. “Argue your case with your neighbor himself, and do not reveal another’s secret, lest he who hears you bring shame upon you, and your ill repute have no end” (Prov. 25:9-10). In other words, don’t expect to keep friends if you talk about them behind their back. Friends know when to speak and when to be silent. “Whoever belittles his neighbor lacks sense, but a man of understanding remains silent” (Prov 11:12; see also 11:9 and 16:28).
The sixth principle of friendship, closely related to respect, is candor. “Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy” (Prov. 27:5-6). As Oscar Wilde said, “A true friend stabs you in the front.” Find friends who will be honest with you, even if it means wounding you with love. Flattery is a flimsy foundation for friendship (see Prov. 28:23).
No friendship can last without forgiveness. “Whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends” (Prov. 17:9). This teaches us to be generous in extending the gift of forgiveness to our friends, by covering their offenses. “A friendly eye is slow to see small faults,” wrote Shakespeare. True friendship is too valuable to throw away over petty differences.
Finally, Proverbs teaches the principle of constancy. “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity” (Prov. 17:17). The heart of friendship is constancy in love. And the greatest test of love is sacrifice. “Greater love has no man than this that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). So said the Greatest Friend of all, the Lord Jesus himself, the friend of sinners, the one whose forgiveness never ends, whose love never fails.