Friends….Who Needs Them?

In a recent essay, I explored the command to “love your neighbor,” and made specific application to dealing with people with intellectual disabilities.  We could talk about the need to help those who are less fortunate in any of a multitude of ways.  We could talk about the need to work to supply the needs of our families. All of these are biblical concepts and worthy of full consideration.  However, the relationship among friends is also important in scripture.

Relationships are strange things, but central to the human experience.  There is no way around it: we are social beings.  At the purely animal level, as mammals, we are born without full function and capability to support ourselves.  We depend on a family group to help us survive for the first several years of life, and then we usually move into another social group.

C.S. Lewis said, “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival.”  I have great respect for much of Lewis’s commentary on life and faith.  But I’m not sure I completely agree on this point.  The way of the loner was dismissed as being unfulfilling from the very beginning of the human race.  In the Genesis account of the origin of humankind, God said that it was not good for man to be alone.  For the man’s benefit, a divine charade, one of God’s first “teachable moments,” was initiated to show the man his lonely estate.  Of all the species on the fresh earth, none was counted worthy as man’s equal, as an appropriate companion.  So, according to Genesis, the woman was made to be his equal, and a helper suitable to him.  Perhaps Lewis would disagree, but I firmly believe that a pair-bonded relationship like marriage should be between people who are first friends.  That sort of relationship may indeed have survival value, as well as lending value to survival itself.

Many people have expounded on the significance of the story of the creation of woman.  That she was described as being taken from man’s side placed her as equal, not subservient or controlling.  Of all the interesting aspects of the male-female dichotomy, I am more interested in their complementary natures.  They are biologically distinct, which is obvious to even a casual observer.  The more significant aspect to their complementary nature is in how they think.  Men and women are attuned to different things.  Men tend to focus on big issues, women focus on details.  Men often focus more on physical and mechanical aspects, while women are more in tune with emotions and relationships.  Of course, these are generalities, but they point to the fundamental reason why each sex needs the other, not just for reproduction, but for improved functioning on a daily basis.  Anyone with a working marriage probably knows this intuitively, or from experience.

So, man’s first friend was his life companion, and the two became the nucleus of a family unit.  Every person today is born into some sort of family unit, and our first experience as humans, our first allegiance is to close relatives.  But as we grow, the emphasis shifts more toward friends, with the likely event of an eventual pair bond forming at some point, and the nucleation of another family unit.  This is one of the great cycles of life.

Much more could be said about the relationship of men and women, the trials and triumphs associated with marriage, the ultimate formal expression of that relationship.  But as one who came late to that particular game, I am less qualified to make assessments of marriage than many others. However, having been a human for all of my life, I feel pretty good about making observations on that particular topic.  And so I shall.

There is value in having a focus beyond the self.  This is very apparent in many of the teachings in the wisdom literature.  In Ecclesiastes 4.7,8, Koheleth makes an observation relating to the vanity of working for riches with no one to receive them when we are gone.

7 Again, I saw vanity under the sun: 8 one person who has no other, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, “For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?” This also is vanity and an unhappy business.

Apparently, working to amass a fortune for no good reason leads to deprivation of pleasure.  But doesn’t wealth bring pleasure?  Not necessarily.  According to a recent study released by the Spectrem Group, about 20 percent of affluent and wealthy investors agree that “money can buy happiness.” But about half disagreed.  The remaining 30-odd percent neither agreed nor disagreed.  Young investors were more likely to agree with the statement, while the older one tended to disagree.  Perhaps they had seen a life filled with disappointments, as the hope of happiness was hung on wealth as a support, but that happiness never really materialized.

A 2009 study by a group of researchers at the University of Rochester followed 147 recent graduates for two years, and followed their happiness levels as they pursued specific goals.  Achieving intrinsic goals like meaningful relationships, health, and personal growth provided a greater sense of well-being and happiness than achieving extrinsic goals.  Pursuing extrinsic goals like wealth and fame lead to feelings of being trapped and having no control over one’s life.  The treadmill existence is farther from happiness than most would really like to experience.

According to some recent studies, being above the poverty line is important.  Above that, money makes only a small contribution to happiness.  At a point somewhere around the average income for a population, money makes virtually no difference in determining levels of personal happiness or contentment.  Researchers from the University of Southern California confirmed this observation in a study that followed the happiness levels of urban populations in China from 1990 to 2010, a period of unprecedented economic growth for that nation.  They found “no evidence of a marked increase in life satisfaction.”

Immediately after Koheleth visited the sad plight of the lonely rich man, he launched into a discussion of the benefits of good relationships.

9 Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 10 For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! 11 Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? 12 And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

In verse 9, those who labor together get more accomplished, and thus can share in a greater reward.  In verse 10, the benefit of physical assistance supplies a concrete example that can be broadened to the benefits of having a shoulder to lean on when we need assistance emotionally.  In verse 11, we can depend on a friend for our very survival, or maybe to keep warm in a world that may seem cold to us in more ways than temperature.  And in verse 12, we can depend on a friend for defense against whatever the world may throw at us.  There is strength in unity, and the image of the twisted rope or the bundled twigs is a very compelling comparison.

The wisdom literature has other references to the benefits of true friends, and cautions against false ones, such as those who are drawn to riches, but run away when times may be hard.  A true friend is more like what the wise man describes in Proverbs 17.17: “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.”  In Proverbs 18.24, The wise man says, “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”  Here, many make the application of the friend being Christ, or God.  I think a literal explanation is more likely.  A person who has many friends may not have real friends with the commitment to go the distance when you need them most.  If you have such a friend, you know it, and you will likely only have that friend if you are of that brand, yourself.

Real friends will tell us when we need correction or we are making fools of ourselves, according to the wise man, who observed, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” (Proverbs 27.6)  Enemies may ply you with flattery until they locate a weakness, then they attack.  So the choice is offered: suffer for a moment from the correction of a friend, or suffer much more from one whose actions are disingenuous.

Jesus knew the value of friends.  Many people may see Jesus as the man with followers, but they may not equate those closest followers as friends.  In John 11, his friendship with Lazarus’s sisters, Mary and Martha was strained when he arrived too late to save Lazarus from his untimely death.  Jesus is obviously moved by their grief, but reassured them that he would live again.  He made good on his promise.  He was a true friend.

Later, in John 15.12ff, he explains the lengths to which he would go to demonstrate his love for his disciples, his friends:

12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.”

Friendship is truly one of the great experiences of life.  While everyone needs a little solitude on occasion, we need interaction with people we know, trust and love.  Again, the wise man aptly observed in Proverbs 27.17, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.”  We need challenge, we need solace, we need to know we aren’t alone in this big wide world.

Just being in the vicinity of people likely won’t suffice, either–it might even make you feel more alone.  But the company of good friends is of inestimable value.  Even if we aren’t rich in material goods, friends bring us riches of the heart.  So on one hand, investing in friendship is a sure thing.  But like any investment, it involves risk, and the cost of having a friend is being one.  It means practicing a sincere brotherly love (Romans 12.9,10), as expressed in things like outdoing one another in showing honor, and by not only “rejoicing with those who rejoice,” but also “weeping with those who weep.” (Romans 12.15)  In a time when Wall Street is on a roller coaster ride, this is one market that’s not likely to crash.  And the return on the right investment is unlimited.


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