In search of authentic friendship

(Photo: Mateusz Stachowski)

True friendship is an amazing gift but for some people making and maintaining friendships isn't easy. I know that has been true at various points in my own life and I'm not alone.

I surveyed 1,000 people and discovered that:

- 64 per cent don't think they give enough time to their close friendships

- 33 per cent often feel lonely

- 63 per cent agree that they regularly feel stressed and/or tired

- 44 per cent only see their best friend once a month or less

So, what is going wrong? Why when advances in technology mean we can connect with anyone, anywhere, anytime – are some of us struggling to have the type of friendships that we really want? Could it be that we have become so busy connecting gadget-to-gadget that we have sacrificed the quality of our face-to-face encounters? Do we spread ourselves too thin? Does the speed at which we live our lives leave little or no time for just "hanging-out" with people? Or in our "instant society" have we forgotten what it takes to invest in something (or someone) for the long term?

Whatever the reason – the outcome is the same – a nagging realisation that our friendships aren't as good as they could be.

So, if we want to improve the depth and quality of our friendships – where do we start? I believe we can find the answers by studying the example of Jesus. Let me briefly focus on seven lessons we can learn from looking at his model of friendship:

  • There's a limit to how many friends we can nurture. Jesus had 12 disciples and a few other close friends. Interestingly, according to some psychologists, 12-15 is the approximate number of close relationships we can maintain at any one time. That's because being someone's best friend involves a considerable investment of time and energy. Caring for someone deeply requires a lot of us, which is why if we try to have authentic friendships with too many people we are likely to experience overload.
  • Sharing bread is a great way to bond. Jesus took time to eat and commune with his close friends and family. Spending time over a meal or a coffee allows us to share, to laugh, to cry and to build memories together. It is something we can't replicate with gadget-to-gadget relating. Being spontaneous is great but for those of us with busy lives – we will need to plan in time with our closest friends. If we don't we'll find the weeks, months or years will pass without us seeing our favourite people.
  • Listening is a great gift. How many of us are quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry? (James 1:19) When we really take the time to listen – we offer an incredible gift. Jesus commended Mary for listening to him whilst rebuking her sister Mary for busying herself with all the tasks that needed doing (Luke 10:40-42).

When we really listen to someone we put aside any distractions and we focus ourselves on what they are saying and feeling. We avoid the temptation to jump in with advice, interrupt or share our own story. Instead, we listen and ask questions in an attempt to truly understand what our friend is saying to us.

  • Love is an active verb. In Proverbs 17:17 we learn that, a friend loves at all times.  Friendship is about choosing to forgive and to love when we don't necessarily feel like it. It is about offering grace when people let us down or disappoint us.

Peter denied Jesus three times and yet he was the friend chosen to build his church after his death. When friendships go sour or people upset us, we can decide whether to give up on that person or we can use the difficulty as a catalyst for change. If we can work through an issue with someone and resolve our differences, the result is likely to be a stronger and better relationship.

  • Empathy helps us to connect. When Jesus saw the dead body of his friend Lazarus, he wept with Martha and Mary (John 11:32-37). He was "deeply moved" by their grief.

Authentic friendship is about sharing the journey with people: weeping when they weep, laughing when they laugh and celebrating when they have good news. It is about reciprocity: giving, yes but also learning to receive.

  • It helps to have support within reach. Jesus' disciples travelled and lived life with him. Skype and long-distance travel mean we can keep in contact with anyone living anywhere around the globe but I think it is important to have some friends who live nearby. It is only then that you can really build community with them.

I'd also recommend being broad-minded about the types of people you befriend. Jesus had a great mix of friends including women, tax collectors and fishermen.

In my neighbourhood I have friends ranging in age from 28-85, all at different stages. It is such a blessing and I learn so much from their various outlooks on life.

  • Honesty and trust are vital. In John 15:15 Jesus says to his disciples, "I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you."

Are we willing to be vulnerable with others and to let them know what is going on inside us? "Being naked" can feel risky. But at the heart of authentic friendship is trust. We need to be able to trust others and in return we need to be trusted to keep confidences and to be true to our word.

I believe that as a society and as the church we desperately need to rediscover how to build solid friendships. Change is possible. It starts with us.

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