Reclaiming the Importance of Friendship
The depth and the quality of our friendships determine the depth and the quality of our lives. And yet, we are facing an epidemic of loneliness. The number of people who say that they do not have a single close friend has quadrupled over the last 30 years, and nearly one in four people say they have absolutely no one to talk to.
In his chapter on friendship from his 1960 work, The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis said, “Ancient people considered friendship to be the highest and the best, the happiest and the most fully human of all the loves. And yet we modern people tend to ignore it, which means that friendship is the one love that you are least likely to experience.”
The Friendship Between Jonathan and David
Perhaps there is no better place to turn in order to understand the importance of true friendship than 1 Samuel 18 which describes the bond between Jonathan and David. Jonathan is Saul’s son and the next in line to the throne, but God has anointed David, an unlikely shepherd, to be the future king of Israel. Despite Saul’s incurable jealousy and the conflict his rampant suspicion causes, Jonathan and David share a deep friendship. Their bond reveals the key ingredients to any meaningful friendship: a common spirit, a common commitment, and a common vision.
A Common Spirit
The first thing we are told about Jonathan is that “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.” Jonathan recognizes a kindred spirit in David, which reflects an important aspect of friendship. Friends see the same truth which cultivates a deep unity of spirit. Friends, therefore, are not afraid to share their innermost thoughts or feelings because they know that the other person will understand, even if they do not see things exactly the same way. Friends are willing to be completely open because they do not fear that the other person will hold anything they say against them.
A Common Commitment
Secondly, friends share a common commitment. We may not always like it, but friendship often entails obligations. That is explicitly the case with Jonathan and David. 1 Samuel 18:3 tells us that Jonathan “made a covenant with David.” A covenant is a relationship based on promises which entails both privileges and responsibilities. Some people assume that a covenant is the same thing as a contract, but while they are very similar, there are some important differences between the two. In a contract, two or more parties enter into an agreement with one another, out of their own self-interest, in order to pursue a mutually agreed upon objective. In a covenant, two or more people make binding promises of love and loyalty to one another in order to accomplish something together that they could never do on their own. A contract is inherently transactional, but a covenant is inherently relational. Considering the hostility that Saul demonstrated towards David, it is understandable why the covenant between Jonathan and David was necessary. Their friendship was caught in the clash of competing dynasties: the dynasty of Saul and the promised future dynasty of David. Even though Jonathan is Saul's son, he gives his allegiance to David, and the two pledge their loyalty to one another and to each other’s families forever.
A Common Vision
If friends are people who see the same truth and travel the same road toward the same destination, then it means that true friends also share a common vision. Jonathan and David shared God's vision that David, rather than Jonathan, would become the king. That is why in 1 Samuel 18:4, Jonathan takes his royal robe, armor, and weapons and gives them all to David. This was not just a spontaneous act of generosity on Jonathan's part to meet the need of a newfound friend. By giving David his royal apparel, he relinquishes his claim to be the king and joins David in a shared vision of God’s promised future.
In contrast to lovers, C.S. Lewis presented the essence of friendship like this: “We picture lovers face to face but friends side by side; their eyes look ahead.” He went on to say that if all you want are friends, then you’ll never make any because friendship has to be about something. “Those who have nothing can share nothing; those who are going nowhere can have no fellow travelers.” But a true friend is someone who shares a common spirit, a common commitment, and a common vision. And for the Christian, in particular, there can be no greater mission than helping one another travel the same path towards the new heavens and the new earth that God has promised.
Unity But Not Uniformity
Friends share much in common, but unity does not mean uniformity. If you are exactly like your friends in every conceivable way, then how could your friends ever challenge you or help you see things differently? What we need in our friendships is unity in diversity. Proverbs 27:17 says that just as iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another. As modern people, we tend to think that the essence of friendship is nonjudgmental acceptance—we should simply accept our friends as they are and affirm all of their desires. But what if there is something wrong with your friend’s desires? We need friends in our lives who do not merely accept us “just as we are” but who care so much for us that they refuse to allow us to remain “just as we are.” We need friends who are willing to lovingly speak truth into our lives in order to help us become the truest version of ourselves.
The True Friend
The sad reality, however, is that no matter how strong our friendships are, even the best of friends will let us down. That is why Proverbs 18:24 tells us: “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is one friend who sticks closer than a brother.” The covenantal friendship between David and Jonathan is meant to prepare us for the ultimate friendship that we can enjoy with God in and through Jesus Christ.
Many people—ancient and modern—are familiar with the idea that two people could enter into a covenant with one another and the Lord would serve as a witness to those promises. But no one—ancient or modern—would have expected the God of the universe to actually enter into a covenant with human beings. And yet, that is what the God of the Bible has done. God comes to us and makes his promises of love and loyalty to us. Even though we often prove to be faithless, God remains faithful.
Jesus left his Father's throne above, giving up his royal rights, status, and position as God's one and only Son, to do for us what we could never do for ourselves. On the night before his death, Jesus gathers together with his disciples one last time. Even though he knows that moments after this Judas will betray him with a kiss, Peter will deny ever knowing him, and the rest of the disciples will abandon him and desert him in his greatest hour of need, Jesus says to them in John 15:15, and to all of us by extension: “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.” Jesus opens his own heart to us. He shares his innermost thoughts and feelings, holding nothing back. We were on the outside, and he brings us into the inside. He tells us that there is no greater love than that one person should give up his life for his friend. Jonathan was willing to risk his life for David, but Jesus actually lost his life for you on the cross.
Aristotle once said that it would be impossible for a god to be friends with human beings because they are too dissimilar—it would be like a man becoming friends with his tools. But that is not the message of Christianity. The message of the gospel is that the God of the universe has gone to extraordinary lengths in order to transform you and me, strangers to his promises, into friends. Even though we have failed, Jesus bears those failures. And even though we are faithless, he remains faithful. When we receive Jesus as our friend, we are then able to go out into our world in strength, proactively seeking to be a friend to others in a time when we all so desperately need one.
Adapted from David and The Good Life: Friendship, a sermon delivered by Jason Harris on October 2, 2022. Listen to the sermon or read the full transcript.
"Christ and Contemporary Culture" is a journal written by Jason Harris which reflects on the intersection between Jesus Christ and our contemporary culture. If you are skeptical or resistant to Christianity, the hope is that you might pause to reflect on your pre-existing ideas about the way things are and perhaps think again. For those who have embraced Christianity, these posts will serve to encourage you in your ability to communicate the gospel in a way that takes our current cultural context seriously.
Produced by Mary-Catherine McKee