Saint Augustine once asked “What is a friend?” The theologian answered, “A single soul dwelling in two bodies.” I have found his definition to be perfect the more I have pondered upon friendship lately. I don’t think he means that people are friends because they share the same interests. That cannot be true. Frederick Buechner said “Friends are people you make part of your life just because you feel like it… Basically your friends are not your friends for any particular reason. They are your friends for no particular reason. The job you do, the family you have, the way you vote, the major achievements and blunders of your life, your religious convictions or lack of them, are all somehow set off to one side when the two of you get together. If you are old friends, you know all those things about each other and a lot more besides, but they are beside the point. Even if you talk about them, they are beside the point. Stripped, humanly speaking, to the bare essentials, you are yourselves the point. The usual distinctions of older-younger, richer-poorer, smarter-dumber, male-female even, cease to matter. You meet with a clean slate every time, and you meet on equal terms. Anything may come of it or nothing may. That doesn’t matter either. Only the meeting matters.” My closest friends are not my closest friends because we share a list of things we all enjoy. They are my friends because we are like-minded. We get each other. We are comfortable in our skins in the midst of one another. We have the same soul but are embodied in various distinct shells.
What makes for a good friend? What about my closest friends makes their presence so inviting to me? I think of my relationship with my best friend. We are completely different. We do not tend to like the same things. We do not even believe the same things on a host of issues. We also do not share the same mannerisms, the same way of thinking about things, or the same ministry aspirations and goals. Yet, our friendship is very strong. It is meaningful. It is refreshing. One reason why the friendship is so strong despite us being different is that we do not try to smother one another or even try to change each other’s personalities. We are accountable to each other for sure. Sin issues are discussed and dealt with accordingly. But, he does not try to make a clone of himself and I definitely do not try to make one of myself (one is just too much for many). He is fine with me being me and I am fine with him being him. God made him a particular way (Psa. 139:13-18) and that brings me great joy. I never try to be him and he does not try to be me.
Another reason why our friendship works is there is a mutual sense of benevolence. Men compete with one another. There is a sinful part of us that cringes when another we have competed against succeeds in an area we have failed. Despite this Adamic desire of competition for glory divorced apart from humility, my relationship with my best friend possesses a deep sense of joylessness when something causes pain in his lives. I want him to succeed and do well. His life and my life flow into each other as wave flows into wave, and unless there is peace and joy and freedom for him, there can be no real peace or joy or freedom for me. Where did this shared experience of benevolence come from? How did it come about? There is a natural explanation- we shared painful and joyful experiences that have caused each other to rely on one another. We have shared the Christian life together and have found a sense of happiness and ease with one another’s existence. People bond together and live in communities so they can survive. But, that is not the final or only explanation. That likely isn’t even the most important explanation. There is also a supernatural explanation- we are drawn to one another because Christ exists within us. The Christ in his own heart strengthens the Christ in mine. Through my friend’s words and sometimes silent attendance, Christ comes to my aid, love unlocks my prison, grace embraces my weaknesses, and I am undone, in the most potentially fruitful sense. I have a sense of benevolence towards him and vice versa because we know that Christ meets with us through each other. I care for him because I know the Christ in my own heart cares for him. He cares for me because the Christ in his heart cares for me. And, Christ so wishes our joy that he will stop at nothing to make sure it exists and exists abundantly.
I’m tempted to list off a host of traits or qualities that my friends have or do not have and leave it there. I’m friends with so and so because they exude “X” more so than they display “Y.” But, I do not think this is the most important thing or the final determination. Virtue and character are necessary for God-honoring friendships. Yet, my friendships are usually not wholly contingent upon these types of things. Why? Because I understand the limitations of my own frailty. My list of vices many times exceeds my list of virtues. Who am I to say “I’m going to be friends with this person because they have the quality X” when I do not consistently radiate such a trait in my own life. The most important thing I suppose is a warm, affectionate Christ-likeness that says to me when I fail “Yes, you have sinned but Christ has done away with such disobedience. Run back to him. Seek him. Find him. Trust him.” I’m close friends with people not because of a list of virtues that have a positive effect in my life but a general thirst for the Lord. My will is damaged. I need and crave another bearer of light to remove the darkness of cynicism and point me to where my soul can be satisfied. My affectionate desire for the Lord in my own life has not been a mere matter of the will. I do not find myself with the ability to just raise my affections and seat them upon the Lord at any given whim. The Lord has to meet me. He has to show up. He deserves the richest and best of my love but my capacity is lacking in richness. All this is not to say that I do not “do” anything in regards to loving God. Love is certainly a matter of action. But, the desire for that action is not a matter of my own will many times. You can’t want what you don’t want while you don’t want it. But you can ask to want. And if God wills, the want will happen. Many times, when I am honest, Teresa of Avila’s prayer is true in my walk. She said, “Oh, God, I don’t love you. I don’t even want to love you, but I want to want to love you.” Good friends help others love God. Good friends help me to want to want God by virtue of their own desire, their own yearning to live and practice the presence of God. That seems to be more important than a mere list of character qualities.
C.S. Lewis once said, “I have no duty to be anyone’s Friend and no man in the world has a duty to be mine. No claims, no shadow of necessity. Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself (for God did not need to create). It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” I tend to agree with him in one sense- I can physically survive without having certain friends. Yet, I cannot prosper without such friends. I need friends to know certain aspects of who I am, to see things that are too far on the peripherals. I need friends to encourage me upon the journey of faith where God is mightily present and occasionally absent. I need friends to finish the mission of God, God’s redemptive goal of praise and worship of all nations. I need friends to extend grace when the face in the mirror has nothing but cold looks and hard judgments upon it. I may not need friends to survive but I need friends to thrive.