The Marks of True Friendship
What essential ingredients do we mix together to make true friendship?
You won’t find personality types on the list. Our extroversion or introversion will influence the flavor of our friendships, but neither personality type is better or worse. We don’t need humor either, though I wouldn’t want any of my friendships without a good dose of it. Also missing is anything to do with similarities in age, ethnicity, or social status. Whatever our differences, none of these necessarily keeps this deep bond from forming.
Here are six essential ingredients of true friendship.
One of the most common Hebrew words for friendship is oheb. It means, “one who loves.” Close friends hold each other in the highest esteem. They love each other. We often experience the love of friendship as sheer enjoyment of one another. J. R. R. Tolkien underscores this in The Lord of the Rings: “Throughout their adventure the main benefit of their friendship is simply that they get to enjoy each other’s company, to laugh and sing together, and to comfort and encourage each other.”1
C. S. Lewis most likely had Tolkien in mind as he wrote about those “golden sessions” when he and his friends gathered around a fire, “when the whole world, and something beyond the world, opens itself to our minds as we talk . . . at the same time an Affection mellowed by the years enfolds us.”2 True friends find themselves enfolded in an affection.
A real friend will never give you up or let you down. He will never turn away or desert you. Constant friends make the hard times easier and the easy times better. “A friend loves at all times,” Proverbs says, “and a brother is born for adversity” (Prov. 17:17). And, to paraphrase Proverbs 18:24, a man of many Facebook friends may come to ruin, but a true friend sticks closer than family.
Sometimes we view friendship as the one relationship without any commitment. We enter or exit at will. That’s the beauty of it, right? Unlike marriage and family, we feel no obligation to stick it out. We freely give our loyalty as an ongoing choice. It’s true that we enter friendship voluntarily. But once we enter it, is it also true that we don’t have any responsibilities to our friends? No. Everyone expects loyalty from friends. The Bible even commands it: When disaster strikes, “Do not forsake your friend or your father’s friend” (Prov. 27:10). All true friendship is, in a sense, covenantal.
We know friendship requires honesty. But we also know how to be honest without being open. Real friends don’t just know the truth about each other; they know the whole truth. They sometimes see us more clearly than we even see ourselves.
As light shines through transparent objects, real friends can see into our souls. Over time, our friends learn our greatest joys and deepest sorrows. They learn our strongest beliefs, opinions, and fears. They know our most challenging temptations and our most shameful failures. We crack open the doors of our souls to our friends. And when we don’t, our friends gently knock because they care enough to see how we’re really doing inside. Every one of us needs at least one person who knows us as well as we know ourselves, perhaps even better than we know ourselves.
True friends walk in the light together.
True friends walk in the light together. The apostle John writes, “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). What does it mean to walk in the light? I used to think it only referred to obedience. But notice: the light is the place of cleansing. This means that darkness isn’t just the place where we disobey; it’s the place where we hide. And the light isn’t just where we obey, but where we come out of hiding, where we open up about how we’ve disobeyed.
Walking in the light, then, isn’t about being perfect; it’s about admitting we’re not. As we confess our sins to God and others, we find real forgiveness and true fellowship (1:6–7).
True friends speak with straightforward honesty. The English Puritan, Thomas Goodwin, wrote, “Simplicity and plain-heartedness . . . is the truest and rarest jewel in friendship.”3
We speak clearly, but also gently. Because we’re speaking with our friend.
Sometimes, and only when necessary, this means delivering hard words. We all need correction from time to time. The best people to give it are our closest friends. Proverbs 27:5–6 says,
Better is open rebuke
than hidden love.
Faithful are the wounds of a friend;
profuse are the kisses of an enemy.
A good friend loves enough to give these faithful wounds, and also loves enough to do it kindly.
Empathy is the ability to understand and adjust to someone’s emotional state. It is the capacity to enter his mind, to peer out at the world through his eyes. Empathetic friends weep with friends who weep and rejoice with friends who rejoice. We understand how they feel and why they feel it. And we also feel it with them.
Empathy shapes the whole tone of a relationship. Without it, we trade honoring friends for one-upping them. We trade affirmation for sarcasm. We trade talking with for talking at. We trade listening to sorrows for changing the subject.
Over time we learn our friends’ temperaments, their moods, and their buttons. We know what makes them tick and what ticks them off. This all informs how we relate to them. We pick up on our friend’s emotional state and we adapt to it. As we do this, consideration serves as a primary way that we bear our friend’s burdens. An empathetic presence lightens our friend’s load. Words drop down like Tetris blocks. Some of them pile up on our friend’s back. But one well-placed and empathetic word can slide in and clear half the load.
True friends keep confidences. We learn the importance of trust when it’s not there. One of the characters in the book of Proverbs is “the whisperer.” Proverbs 16:28 says, “A dishonest man spreads strife, and a whisperer separates close friends.” Proverbs 17:9 says, “Whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends.” The whisperer shares information, whether true or false, that should stay hidden. He wraps it up, labels it as a “concern” or a “prayer request,” and delivers it to whomever will hear.
Proverbs says, beware! because this severs even the closest relationships. Gossip erodes trust, and distrust erodes friendship. It is the opposite of safety. If you suspect that someone may talk about your issues behind your back, you won’t share them anymore. You won’t open up. Suspicion will tint your lenses when you look at your friend. It will shade how you see every aspect of the relationship. When distrust enters you relationship, you may remain friendly, but you can’t remain real friends.
These six ingredients of friendship are not guarantees. We may embody them all and yet still lack even one real friend. This is because friends need to reciprocate these marks. We may want someone to be our friend. We may show them affection, constancy, empathy, and so forth. But if this friend does not share the desire for friendship, it won’t happen. Friendship requires mutuality—mutual affection, mutual constancy, and so forth.
In addition to the six marks, C. S. Lewis observed that friendships are always “about something.”4 Some friends unite in their enthusiasm for basketball. Some share an interest in literature or poetry. Some share a commitment to running or biking or weight lifting.
Christians share common interests with friends as well, but they also unite around the most important thing about them. Friendships are always “about something,” and Christian friendship is, at its core, about Jesus Christ.
- Mark Smith, Tolkien’s Ordinary Virtues: Exploring the Spiritual Themes of Lord of the Rings (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 26.
- C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt & Brace, 1960), 72.
- Thomas Goodwin, The Works of Thomas Goodwin, vol. 7 (Lafayette, IN: Sovereign Grace Publishers, 2001), 220.
- Lewis, The Four Loves, 66.
This article is adapted from Made for Friendship: The Relationship That Halves Our Sorrows and Doubles Our Joys by Drew Hunter.
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