7 Ways to Be a Friend According to the Bible
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On a sunny Saturday afternoon in Perth in the early 80s, when the shops had shut and the streets were still, when you could hear the crowds shouting from distant footy fields, when Dad was at his desk studying and Mum was sewing or ironing, when there was takeaway pizza to look forward to for dinner and then The Great Escape or some such war movie on TV, then I would get on my bike and ride the flat streets of Floreat Park to a friend’s home.
In primary school I would most often ride to Shane’s. We would go to a park and climb a tree, eat mulberries, and talk trash. Or we might go down to the local rugby union field, climb over the fence, and watch for free those “man mountains” shuffling and sweating and crashing into one another over the pigskin. In high school I would ride to my best friend Ric’s. I would invariably find him practicing the drums in “The Pit,” his mostly soundproof room under the house. Instead of knocking on the door, I would sit outside for a time for the joy of hearing him play. Later we’d make instant coffee and sit on his patio and lament our lack of girlfriends or argue interminably over whether The Beatles or Toto was the better band. (We were both right in our own way, but I was more right!)
I had good friends. We turned up at each other’s houses unannounced, we talked without end, we laughed together through good times and sighed together through the pains.
Almost all communication now is made on hard, cold, lifeless screens.
Young people today look lonely to me. I don’t think they do unannounced visits anymore. I don’t think I see a lot of face-to-face laughter and tears, but I do see a lot of looking down at those sad little devices. Almost all communication now is made on those hard, cold, lifeless screens. I’m told that young people rarely even phone each other, that to be phoned is a bit “adult-annoying.” Turning up at someone’s house on your bike would be as culturally appropriate as wearing a bowler hat or eating squirrel.
Worse than that, I hear about the cruelty—so much online anger, lashing out, sarcasm, and abuse. When I was younger, you could generally avoid people who wished you harm. Now they seek you out to savage you on your Instagram or Twitter page.
We need to learn to be friends again.
I see too many sad and lonely young people, on the streets and in our churches. I fear that we don’t know how to be friends anymore. It seems a lost art, like that of holding a door open for a female or introducing oneself with a firm handshake and frank eye contact. It is like a hidden dialect that only a few ancients still know how to speak—and that will disappear with them.
People lack friends, and they suffer for it. They are doing life alone, and that is hard. We need to learn to be friends again, and Paul teaches us how to do this near the end of his first letter to the church in Thessalonica:
Live in peace with each other. And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else. (1 Thess. 5:13b-15; all Scripture passages from NIV unless otherwise noted)
Here are seven ways to be a friend according to the Bible:
1. Be the peacemaker.
“Live in peace with each other.”
The New Testament word eirēnē, from which comes the old-fashioned girl’s name Irene (Peace), and the adjective irenic (peaceful), presupposes a tendency to strife. You only describe two people as being “at peace” who had previously been at war (BDAG, p. 287).
To be a good friend is to recognize that we have a post-fall Cain-and-Abel tendency to hurt one another, perhaps as a cheap way of getting an advantage, or assuaging feelings of resentment, or of just feeling better about oneself at the cost of another’s misery. His crying victim gives the bully a nice little rush of dopamine.
The friend recognizes this inclination and strives for peace. They refuse to coddle resentment. In arguments—and arguments must come between friends—they won’t aim to “own” the other, as we now say.
Is this you? Do you work to be the peacemaker?
2. Be the brave counselor.
“Warn those who are idle and disruptive.”
Idleness is the root of much strife. On camping trips with friends, our injuries always resulted from boredom. That’s when we started throwing rocks at each other, and worse.
But “idle” is too narrow a translation of ataktos, which my Greek lexicon describes as “being out of step and going one’s own way…being without socially recognized restraint” (BDAG, p. 148). It refers to lack of discipline, to an army in disordered retreat, for example. Not sloth per se but making mistakes from poor judgment and blind passion.
In the face of idleness, the friend will not remain silent. The friend will warn. “Warning” includes admonishing and instructing, “to counsel about avoidance or cessation of an improper course of conduct” (BDAG, p. 679).
When we warn we risk hurting or angering our friend. We risk being misunderstood. We risk the friendship itself. Who enjoys hard and painful conversations? Warning a friend who is on the wrong path takes courage and energy.
But think of the converse. Your friend is making poor decisions. You say nothing about it. You keep the conversation light and cheerful. You are not being a friend to that person. You are acting like an enemy. Recovering friendship means recovering the art of tough love, the gentle rebuke, the courageous confrontation.
3. Be the encourager.
“Encourage the disheartened.”
Disheartened (also translated “timid”) translates the evocative compound adjective oligopsychos. Oligos means “few” (an oligarchy is the rule of the few), and psychē means spirit or soul. Oligopsychos describes someone who is timid, faint-hearted, dispirited, or discouraged (see BDAG, p. 703).
Our ability to help the discouraged is extraordinary. Someone is far behind in their studies or has even dropped out of school. Their love for another lies unrequited. Their life’s efforts seem to fail. They feel worthless, their future looks bleak. It is painful to look ahead. It is much easier to look down, or not to look at all. So they eat bad food, or hide in the world of Netflix and Stan, or pornography, or that third tumbler of whiskey.
You can encourage them, uplift them. The friend does this, with a few words, a lot of listening, and limitless time and affection.
We have all felt discouraged. Think back. What helped you? Wasn’t it the person who liked you? The person who valued that thing you do in the home, at church, at work, or at school? The person who gave you a gift? The person who loved and listened?
You are a friend when you do this for others.
4. Be the helper.
“Help the weak.”
The weak are those who suffer from “a debilitating illness…incapacity or limitation” (BDAG, p. 142). They are physically tired, too weak to look after themselves, let alone those around them. Too weak to protect themselves from those who are stronger, who harm. Weak in moral fiber, easy prey to sexual and other temptations. They might not know what is good for them, and even if they do, they are too frail to act on it. “Weak” in this context is helpfully vague and all encompassing.
Sometimes I imagine myself as a father in Yemen, with little education, few weapons, and no savings. My children are hungry and exposed to disease, starvation, and violence. What would I want in that situation? I would want someone strong and kind to walk up to me and hold out their hand and say, “I have come to help you.” To provide food, medicine, shelter, protection, education, and hope for the future. I would want that help a lot.
The word help (antechesthe) means “to have a strong attachment to someone or something,” to cling, to hold fast, to devote oneself, and hold a strong interest in the other (BDAG, p. 87).
To be a friend is to be loyal to those who are weak. It means to get alongside, your right arm behind their back, your left hand under their left arm, your knees taking their weight, and not letting go.
5. Be the patient one.
“Be patient with everyone.”
The compound word makrothymia combines makro, “much,” and thymos, meaning passionate love and intense longing, or passionate anger and rage. (Thus, the Greek mind recognized a psychological affinity between passionate desire and passionate anger. Certainly, we see how the former, when frustrated, so quickly becomes the latter.) Makrothymia means patience, endurance, “to remain tranquil while waiting,” longsuffering, putting up with a lot, “to bear up under provocation without complaint” (BDAG, p. 612). Makrothymia is God who “waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built” (1 Pet. 3:20). It was the “unlimited patience” of Jesus towards Saul, the murdering Pharisee (1 Tim. 1:16).
This attribute is as rare as platinum. Friends develop it. It leads to the next aspect of friendship.
6. Be forgiving.
“Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong.”
Paul urges us to “make sure,” “be careful,” “pay attention” to something. To what? That “nobody repays evil for evil” (1 Thess. 5:15 ESV).
When someone wrongs me, my instinct is to pay that person back in kind, with interest. We are the hornet’s nest, not to be poked and prodded. The spirit of vendetta lies deep. Paul knows that we are like this and pleads: “Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong.”
Ponder this fact, that “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). While we were in the very act of dishonoring and scorning God and suppressing knowledge of his existence, he loved us. He gave to us who hated him what was most precious to him, his one and only Son to die on our behalf.
To love an enemy is the bent of God’s heart, the soul of the gospel. When we have been loved like this, then we will long to love others the same way. No friendship will survive apart from abundant effusions of forgiveness.
7. Be relentlessly and universally kind.
“But always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.”
“Always try” translates diōkō, a word that means to pursue, to hunt down (BDAG, p. 254). It happens also to be the word for “persecute.” Paul urges us to “always pursue and hunt down” something. What is it? The “good.” Paul says, literally, “Always pursue the good for one another, and for all.”
Good translates agathos, which refers to something useful and beneficial because it meets a “high standard of worth and merit” (BDAG, p. 3). It describes the good tree that bears good fruit (Matt. 7:17), the good soil that produces a good crop (Luke 8:8), the good gifts that good parents like to give to their children (Luke 11:13).
The friend determines what is good, not for themselves, but for others. In pursuing what was good for us, Jesus had to endure scourging and nails through his hands and feet. Jesus had to drink the cup of God’s wrath for us. We must likewise pursue the good for “one another,” that is, our church family and for “everyone else.” Christian love will overflow from the church into the world.
Goodness is more than kindness, but it is not less than it. Are you a kind person? Are you considerate, warm, and caring toward others? This must be pursued, says Paul.
The best and most loving thing you can do for your friends is to pursue Christ.
The problem with focusing on three verses at the end of 1 Thessalonians is that it’s too easy to get the idea that “If I simply take these seven steps, then I will be a good friend.” When it comes to changing behavior, simply taking “steps,” like walking up the downward escalator, won’t accomplish anything but exhaustion, no matter how many of them we take.
Our behavior can only change this way in Christ, which is why Paul begins his letter to the church by referring to “your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 1:3). Instead of walking up the downward escalator of our sinful human nature, we must walk up the upward escalator of Christ. That’s when things will change.
The best and most loving thing you can do for your friends is to pursue Christ. “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt 6:33). This principle doesn’t just apply to food, drink, and clothes. It applies just as much to being a good friend. Pursue Jesus Christ first, and you will become the best of friends.
Go to the fountain of friendship.
May mere sentimentality perish. To be a good friend does not mean going back to “the old days.” It doesn’t mean, necessarily, making unannounced visits on our bikes and throwing away our smartphones. (Though for some it might!)
It means going to the fountain of friendship, drinking afresh from the source—learning from Christ Jesus. It means being loved by Jesus and then learning to love others in the same way. When we do this, we will be the peacemaker, the brave counselor, the encourager, the helper, the patient one. We will, like Jesus, be forgiving and relentlessly and universally kind.
Do you want to be a good friend? Let Jesus be your friend and copy him.
Campbell Markham is a Presbyterian pastor in Hobart, Tasmania. He blogs at Campbell Markham: Thoughts and Letters.