Friends For Life
Friends For Life
Learning how to build strong friendships
It’s one of our society’s oddities that although we are taught maths, science and the arts, although we are educated about sex, citizenship and personal hygiene, none of us have ever received a formal lesson in friendship. Our friendships shape our lives for good, or bad, more than anything else, but usually we stumble into them accidentally and much of our behaviour towards friends is instinctive rather than intentional.
Learning how to build strong friendships is key to life and to a life following God. For this reason the Bible has much to offer in the way of lessons in friendship. One of the most striking comes in the book of Ruth. The lesson here is not how to attract great friends for ourselves but how to be a great friend to others. This might sound like hard work but ironically if we want to grow strong friendships the only way to do so is to focus on giving rather than receiving. This is usually the case in the kingdom of heaven: “For whoever… loses his life for me will find it.” (Matt 16:25).
Picture the scene: around 3000 years ago Ruth and Naomi (her mother-in-law) are standing on a road in a country called Moab. Naomi is trying to persuade Ruth to leave her. Naomi is from Israel and having come to Moab with her husband and two sons she is returning home with no one. Her husband and sons (one of whom married Ruth) are dead and as Naomi explains to Ruth, Ruth’s chances of finding a new husband in Israel are next to nothing. She should call it a day and let Naomi leave; this is what Orpah the other daughter-in-law decides to do. Ruth is faced with a choice, does she stay with her own people, her home and her relatives, or does she stick with her mother-in-law (whose new nickname is ‘bitter’!).1
Despite being forcefully encouraged to leave Ruth utters these amazing words to Naomi: “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”2
We will only ever have a few deep friendships in our lives. The idea of 478 Facebook ‘friends’ can be damaging if we begin to believe it is possible to have very good friendships with hundreds of people. It isn’t. Even Jesus only had a small group of people he was close to. However, for those few friends we are looking to commit to on a deep level, Ruth sets an example of what this looks like.
I will go with you
C.S. Lewis notes that lovers tend to stand face to face, gazing into each others eyes, but that friends stand shoulder to shoulder gazing at something. The point he is making is that good friendships are always about something even if this is only something trivial like a love of sport or Flappy Bird. The result is that good friendships are usually discovered rather than made. Friendships often come about at that moment when one person says to another, “What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”
When Ruth says to Naomi, “I will go with you.” She is committing to a common purpose with Naomi; they are going somewhere. What are your friendships about? Often the best friendships are when a supernatural interest in Jesus Christ overlaps with a natural interest like football or cooking.3 To be a great friend to another is not simply to commit to them as a person in isolation, it is to share in their ambitions, interests and goals. Therefore this doesn’t happen with just anyone – it tends to be with a select few. I might have many friends but there are only a few who I am committed to ‘going somewhere’ with for life meaning we want to build the kingdom of God together for years to come.
I will stay with you
This is a tough one. When we are hurt, almost all of us push others away. Often we are too proud to ask for help or too afraid to be vulnerable. It’s not unusual for those who are ill to express a wish to die; they don’t want to be a ‘burden’ to those who are having to do everything for them. In this story Naomi is pushing Ruth away – all the more amazing then that Ruth insists on staying. That is our job as friends. We are the ones who stay even when we are pushed away. Think of someone you love who may be in pain. They may well close off, get distant, and try and handle it themselves. They may even get a bit sharp or cross with you. Often this is motivated by fear, insecurity or pride (just as it is when we do it). As friends we are to push past those barriers and insist that whatever the challenge (depression that has returned, a broken relationship, a terminal illness) we will stay with them. God insists on committing to us (the word used in the Bible is covenant) and in this he models what we are to do for each other.
I will die with you
Ruth builds up to this crescendo - my corpse and your corpse are going to be friends in the grave! In our culture the primary expression of love is sex; in the Bible the primary expression of love is sacrifice. Sacrifice is a part of friendship. Know that your few great friendships will cost you dearly – time, money, emotional energy, patience, forgiveness and love. There will be moments when we have to forgive even when it hurts and where we will have to speak the truth it would be easier to have left unsaid. Naturally we shy away from this cost and veer towards self-protection. It is easier and safer to be friends when it doesn’t cost much more than the click of a button on Facebook. Ruth, and ultimately Jesus, however, make clear that, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”4
In marriage a couple promise to be together ‘until death do us part,’ but it is not only in marriage that this promise should be made. There will, I would suggest, be one or two people God will bring into our lives to whom he wants us to make this commitment. It is a commitment that will usually be expressed in little daily sacrifices. Ironically, the only way we get ‘friends for life’ is through our own death.
Andy is Associate Director of Soul Survivor, Assistant Pastor at Soul Survivor Watford, and heads up Soul61, our leadership training course.
You can download his talks from our summer events for £1 each from our shop.
1- Ruth 1:20
2- Ruth 1:16-17
3 - Tim Keller makes this point in ‘The Meaning of Marriage’ location 1576 kindle version.
4 - John 15:3