Friendship is surely one of the most profound and significant aspects of our life. Yet, I have always found it to be a rather mysterious thing, as well. To be a son and a brother, a husband and a father, and to be a pastor of a congregation, are stations in my life that are defined, established and governed by a clear Word of God. These relationships are my vocations in a very particular and unambiguous way. I know who my parents and my siblings are; I know my wife and children; I know the congregation to which God has called me. By comparison, friendship is far more subjective and amorphous. There is both a greater freedom to it, and a greater precariousness. A friend can pack up his toys and go home.
It’s not that friendship is forgotten in the Word of God. There is that marvelous example of David and Jonathan, as remarkable in its own right as the Greek legend of Damon and Pythias. As I recall, the patriarch Abraham is somewhere described as the friend of God Himself, as were Adam and Eve prior to the fall into sin. Better still is the way that Jesus calls His disciples His friends. Yet, even among His disciples, there is one who is distinguished as particularly beloved of the Lord. Mary, Martha and Lazarus of Bethany are likewise friends of the Lord Jesus in a special way. Dr. Luther is right to include "good friends" among God’s gifts of daily bread, but what is it that sets apart some people as our friends? And what does friendship mean for us?
The kindergartner who comes home from the first day of school excited about her thirty-two new best friends is sweetly innocent and naive. By the end of the year, if not by the end of the first week, she’ll know better. You can’t be everyone’s best friend; nor can everyone else be your best friend. I’m not really sure what it means to speak of "best" friends, anyway, as each friendship tends to be unique and special in its own way. But it’s that whole finitude thing again. We don’t have the capacity to befriend everyone we know, far less the rest of the world! It wouldn’t work for all sorts of reasons. If you run your car off the side of a road, into a ditch in the middle of nowhere, there’s a pretty small circle of friends you’re gonna call for help, and vice versa. It’s a good thing, too! None of us is capable of helping everyone else out of such pickles. We’d only end up getting in each other’s way if we tried.
Man is created to live in relationship to others like himself. It is not good for him to be alone. A wife is the Lord’s preeminent provision of a helpmate to live and work alongside of the man, but marriage is also the origin and the model of all other human relationships. Marriage necessitates both the similarity and the difference between the man and the woman. Friendship finds its place mainly on the side of similarity. Marriage involves both a distinction and the closest possible union of two persons. In friendship, both the distinction and the union are less pronounced, certainly far less intense, and less definitive of the relationship. The man and the woman are created to be compatible and complementary to each other. With friends it is more a matter of comradery and cooperation. Husbands and wives often gaze into each other’s eyes, face-to-face, whereas friends are mostly side-by-side, engaged in some common activity, endeavor or pursuit. Your friends are those with whom you share the same interests, the same hobbies, the same values and goals. Your spouse is the one with whom you share yourself.
Friendship broadens the circle of those we love and serve in this world. For we ought not to be so consumed with love for spouse and children that we become selfish and turned inward on our families, to the neglect of our neighbors. By the same token, friendship also narrows the pool of those whom we are given to help and assist. We are to love even our enemies, especially through the forgiveness of sins and the charity of Christian mercy toward those who hate us. But even to suggest that we ought to love everyone in exactly the same way, would be to rule out doing much of anything for anyone. Our friends present us with an opportunity to do what we can, in love, within our limited capacities. What is more, in loving our friends we learn better how to love others, as well, and we exercise our capacity for love.
The freedom and precariousness of friendship, it seems to me, also contribute to this exercise of love. It is sadly far too easy to take our families for granted, because we know they’re stuck with us. But friendship depends upon a mutual effort, communication, give and take, which prevents us from being too wrapped up in ourselves and forces us to be more considerate of others. At the same time, it is a love that is given freely, not under compulsion or necessity. In that respect, it tends to run in the way of the Gospel, rather than under the burden of the Law. Hopefully, these characteristics of friendship are regularly translated into the loving service of our families, as well. In any case, good Christian friends will always be pointing us to the Word of God, to the Law and the Gospel, to repentance and faith.