On October 21st, I had the opportunity to speak to a group of young moms about godly friendship for an outreach ministry called Navigating Motherhood. Below is the content of this message. My prayer is that not only will it build friendships but that it will draw people to the One who gave us the gift of friends. Fair warning – this is much longer than a typical blog post. 🙂
In my marketing classes, we spend a considerable amount of time talking about definition of terms. It’s important for my students to understand concepts so that when they get out into the “real world” they know how to use and apply them appropriately. Two concepts that we talk a lot about are “brand identity” and “brand image.” These may sound very similar, and for most people the difference between them is probably not worthy of consideration, but what marketers have to understand is that brand identity is what you want people to think of you, while brand image is what people actually think of you. It’s a subtle difference but an important one, because that gap between what you want people to think of you, and what they actually do think of you, can make or break your company.
In order to help my students remember definitions, I often try to give them hints that can help them understand the terms as they relate to their everyday life. For these terms, that’s easy. I tell them, your “identity” is what they think about themselves – how they view themselves in their own minds. Their image though, is what they are often trying to protect – and this is what others think of them. It’s easy for them to see that a lot of the conflict in their lives happens when there is a difference between these two – when there is a disparity between what they think about themselves and what others think about them. It’s the gap between the two that they spend considerable time managing.
The place where this gap is often most obvious is in terms of our relationships, and this shouldn’t come as a surprise. God, in His infinite wisdom, created us as relational beings – not only with Himself, but also with others. Relationships therefore are a significant part of our lives. They matter – and even when they cause a lot of pain – or maybe especially when they cause a lot of pain, we realize how important they are.
One type of relationship that is considerably important is our relationship with our friends. Now, I’m going to have to define this, because we life in a day where people can have a “relationship” with thousands of people on Facebook, and identify them as their “friends.” However, sometimes they don’t even know who these “friends” are. These are not the friends I’m talking about. These people would more accurately be called “acquaintances” and sometimes they aren’t even that. What I’m talking about is someone who is a true friend. Someone, who fits the Biblical definition from Proverbs 17:17 –
“A friend loves at all times and a brother is born of adversity.”
This is the type of friend that we’re going to talk about today. But we’re not going to talk about how we can identity this friend – which probably would be helpful to many of us. Instead, we’re going to talk about how we can be this friend. Because just like there is a gap between how a company wants to be perceived and how people actually perceive a company, there is a gap that exists between the type of friend that we think we are, and the type of friend that we actually are. In all likelihood, most of us want to be good friends. So it’s important that we realize what that practically means.
The first thing that we learn from the biblical definition of friendship is that a friend loves at all times. So our first point for how to be a good friend is to:
1) Love Unwaveringly
Now just like the word “friend” the word love needs some defining because we use that word to describe everything from the feelings we have towards our kids, to the way we feel about our new outfit or a yummy sandwich. However, when God defines the type of love that He wants us to have for one another, it’s not the type of love that we usually see. His love is love that is concerned with the good of the other person. In most relationships there’s an unofficial scorecard being kept, and we aim to make sure things are balanced. “You do something good for me” and then “I do something good for you.” However, true love is love that obliterates the scorecard. Instead the question is not “how will this benefit me?” or even “how will this benefit our friendship?” But how will this benefit the other person? How will this be for their good?
One of my friends exhibits this in a very unconventional way. My friend Juli is a medical missionary in Western Kenya, which means that we don’t get to see each other very much. However, thanks to the wonder of cell phone technology, we do get to talk to each other, and we’ve gotten into the habit that when we do talk, we ask, “How’s your heart?” Because what really matters when you are thousands a miles apart isn’t what happened that day, or the inconveniences of life. It matters how your heart is. And Juli knows this. Juli knows that loving me in a way that benefits me is not being content with finding out about the trivial pursuits of life – but uncovering the condition of my heart. This is loving in a way that is intent on the other’s good.
And true love doesn’t only do this when it’s easy, when things are going good, and when we “feel’ like it. True love does this without fail, without cause, and without expectation of return. Being a true friend, means loving like this – unwaveringly.
Part of loving like this, means that we:
2) Plan To Be There.
The truth of the matter is that there are going to be times where things aren’t going to be going well in our friendships, but if we want to be the type of friend that most of us want to have, God says, you’re there…even when times are tough. But this doesn’t just happen. This happens because you already have a commitment to be there before the bad times comes.
In talking about friendship, God says, “a brother is born for adversity.” Now it used to be your biological family had an unstated commitment to be there for you. In a day and age where families were expected to care for one another, and support one another, “brother” was a good word to describe the expectation of a friend. After all, your brother was in it for the long haul regardless of the circumstance. That’s not as much the case today. Families no longer resemble this pattern of unstated, yet expected, loyalty. But that doesn’t mean that we should disregard what God is saying. Instead, it means that we need to exhibit this type of loyalty in our friendships. It means that we need to already commit to being there, before the trials come.
I have one sibling – an older sister. And perhaps because we’re nineteen months apart, people often ask if we’re close. I like to tell people that we are, as long as we have our space, because my sister and I are very different, and sometimes those differences result in some interesting discussions. But the thing about my sister is that she’s there for me –without question. I know that if I’m hurt, she’ll rush to my defense. I know that if I’m happy, she’ll celebrate with me. When push comes to shove, she’s there. Not because she has to be – but because she has already committed beforehand that she will be. And that’s the type of friends we should be. If we’re honest, that’s the type of friend we’d like to have.
Last year, I had a front-row seat to what it meant for friends to “be there.” As a few people in the audience know, 2010 was a rough year for my little family. In February, my father-in-law had a massive stroke, in April, my dad unexpectedly passed away, towards the end of the year, we suffered a miscarriage. And one thing that I learned from this painful time is that the friends that are there for you are the friends who are there for you. They are the people who come to your house when you get the news that your dad has died. They are the ones who cry for you as you grieve your loss. They are the ones who bear your burdens as their own. They lift you up in prayer, and they keep checking in with you long after the initial outpouring of concern. They walk the road with you – each painful step, suffering each blow.
They don’t say, “let me know if I can help” instead, they make a specific offer – using their gifts to help lighten your load. This is what one friend did when we lost my dad. She knew that we would need a program for the service, and that she had the skills to put in together. Instead of waiting for us to ask for help – she offered to do it for us. Making it one less thing we had to think about. And this is what friends who are really there for you do. They see your need and rush to meet it – being specific and intentional with their assistance.
And let me just say, sometimes you can’t physically be there. My friend Juli who I mentioned earlier couldn’t be here when I was going through my tough year. Kenya is a long ways away. But she still walked the road with me – planting hundreds of trees in honor of my dad – as a way to share my grief – even from thousands of miles away.
This is what family used to do – they were the ones who pitch in – without even needing to ask how. They were the ones who you could count on in adversity. And perhaps because the familial commitments aren’t assumed anymore, we often forget something important about friendships. Friendships like these aren’t sustained on their own. Instead, we need to make sure that we:
3) Guard Intentionally.
Just like many have experienced with their families, relationships are strained when we take them for granted. When we are careless with those that we care about, and who care about us, we cannot build the type of friendships that we’re talking about. Instead, we must protect our friendships. We must build a hedge around them.
This sounds like a good idea in concept, but what does it mean practically? How can we practically guard our friendship? God tells us that there are at least three ways that instead of destroying friendships, we can protect them.
The first, is to:
- Keep confidences.
At another point in Proverbs, God tells us that a gossiper separates close friends. And this is something that have all probably experienced as well. When we tell someone something, and then later we find out that it was shared with someone else, that puts a chink in the armor of our friendship. It’s hard to protect something, if we are constantly poking holes in it with our words.
And let’s just acknowledge that this is an easy thing to do. The reason gossip is called juicy is because there is a terrible sense of satisfaction in knowing something that we aren’t supposed to know (Prov. 18:8) and sharing it. But the satisfaction is temporary because it will sooner or later, and a lot of time sooner, results in the destruction of important relationships. But how do we avoid it? How to we keep confidences?
There’s a least one surefire way – and that’s to avoid talking. My mom used to always say, “If it’s not nice or necessary, don’t say it.” God tells us that if we want to prevent being the subject of gossip, we should avoid people who talk too much (Prov. 20:19.) Consequently, if we want to be the friend that can be trusted, than we need to make sure we’re the ones who use our words intentionally. That we’re not talking just for the sake of gabbing, but we are using our words to build relationships, and not destroy them.
The second way that we guard intentionally is to:
- Warn kindly
Just like keeping confidences, I think it’s fair for us to acknowledge that this can be a hard thing. However, let me just say that I think we also make it harder than it has to be because as women, we tend to over think it. Now, think with me a bit, how many of you have had a friend tell you that you had food in your teeth? (Wait for hands to raise.) How many of you wished that they hadn’t told you = that instead they let you walk around all day with that piece of lettuce hanging delicately from your incisors? (Wait for hands to raise.) Now how many of you have gone home, realized that you had something stuck in your teeth, calculated back to when how long ago it was that you ate, and then thought about all the people that you’ve talked to between your meal and your discovery, and wished that somebody, anybody, had told you about the food? (Wait for hands to raise.) Most of us want to be warned – we want to be told when we are doing something that’s am embarrassment or is destructive. If there’s someone who can prevent it, we’d like them to step up.
Yet, we come up with all sorts of excuses why we shouldn’t. We think it’s not our business, we think they may not want to hear our perspective, we think that they know better than us. And while all that may be true, that doesn’t give us a reason not to speak up. If I’m driving my car off a cliff, I don’t care if it’s not your business; I want you to tell me. If I am doing something that’s going to destroy things I care about – my relationship with God, with my husband, or with my kids, I hope that there are people who care enough about me, to tell me so. As one commentator said, “ A true friend always shows candor and critique that can be trusted; although they wound you, you can trust them (Prob. 27:6).
However it is important to recognize that advice without investment will often be ignored. That’s why the first two points are so important. If we are loving someone with their good, and not our interest as the primary concern, then they are going to be more likely to heed our well-intentioned warnings. They are going to know that we warn them, not because we think we’re better than them, but because we desire good for their life. If we’ve been there, if we’ve gone the distance, and walked the hard times with them, then when we tell them hard truths, they know that they can be trusted.
The last thing that we need to do in order to guard our friendships intentionally is to:
- Forgive generously
As with warning kindly, we often have trouble with this. We think that we have to be careful with forgiving too quickly – otherwise, someone might not learn their lesson, or they might hurt us again. The truth is that might happen. But if we have already made the investment of loving unwaveringly, and being there intentionally, then we must also make the investment of forgiving generously. As God says, “He who covers an offense promotes love.” (Prov. 17:9) And what a great thing to be able to say of our friendships – that they are promotions for love! That even when someone views them from the outside, what they communicate is love. The way that we do that is by being willing to forgive – not just every once in a while, but generously.
If we are honest with ourselves, this is the type of friendship we would like to have. We would like to have friends that aren’t keeping score, but that are eager to forgive us when we mess up. We want friends who put our past grievances where they belong – in the past. And this is the type of friend that we should be. Not necessarily because our friends “deserve” it, but because we want our friendships to be promotions of love.
And we tend to think that we are forgiving people. We tend to think that we have a justifiable reason for any offense that we haven’t forgiven. But we need to let go of that. We need to not think, “do I have to forgive” but “who do I get to forgive today.” How can I be a promoter of love by offering forgiveness to my friend?
While forgiving generously may be the areas where there is the greatest disparity between what we tend to think is true of ourselves, and is actually true of us, the truth is that there is probably some distance that exists in each of these three things. We all need to love unwaveringly more, we need to be there for our friends more often and we need to guard our friendships more intentionally. And just like a business’ marketing department is focused on diminishing the difference between what customers think about the company and what the company wants customers to think about them, so we should be diligent about working to diminish the difference between the type of friend we like to think we are, and the type of friend that our friends would consider us. If we do, our friendships will be forever changed.