How many friends do you have?
That might sound like a Facebook question. It’s possible to have quite a lot of them on there: I think they let you have up to 5000 before you have to change having from having friends to having ‘likes’.
But 5000 friends?
Research has shown that the maximum number of proper group relationships we can handle is around 150. You can think of that as the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a coffee if you happened to meet them in Starbucks/Costa/Ground (delete as appropriate).
To narrow the circle still further, another way to think about it is by asking how many friends you have whose death would cause you a devastating sense of loss? They reckon that on average, we have about twelve people like that.
So how many friends do you have? What might a good friendship look like?
As Don Carson says, the Bible doesn’t contain too many chapters on the theme of friendship. It’s not that the Bible has nothing to say on the subject (take a look at some of the verses in Proverbs, but its primary purpose is not to function either as a handbook on friendship or even as a collection of short stories whose aim is to explore different aspects of friendship.
However, probably the best known portrait of friendship in the Bible is in the telling of the story of David and Jonathan. There is a historical uniqueness to the story. Their friendship is played out at a key turning point in the Bible’s unfolding storyline. God has chosen David to replace Saul on the throne of Israel. As we know, David’s line of descendants will eventually lead to the King of Kings whose kingdom will never end. So Jonathan’s actions in helping David to reach the throne (at the cost of his own claim) are part of that significant hinge of biblical history, and in that sense, his friendship with David is quite different from any friendships we may have. However, we can make several worthwhile observations from the relationship that give us food for thought in our own relationships.
- True friendship involves a serious commitment. Back to the Facebook concept and the ever-decreasing circles we thought about at the top of this article. Jonathan established a covenant with David (1 Samuel 18), a covenant that was repeated in chapters 20 and 23, and which extended to the two men’s families. How many friends can you count on? How many can count on you?
- True friendship involves rejoicing in another’s success. The Jonathan/David relationship is set against the backdrop of Saul’s fear of David and his murderous jealousy. Why was Jonathan not threatened by David? Why was he so willing to set aside his own claims to the throne in favour of David? At one level, he was operating as part of God’s plan, but the fact that he delighted in David while Saul feared him reminds us that true friendship does not simply mean not being threatened by someone else’s success (envy and friendship don’t really go together); it means learning to celebrate that success.
- True friendship means watching out for someone else’s welfare. As Saul’s rage against David continued, Jonathan had to act. Not only did he warn David of danger, but he also acted as an advocate, urging his father to see reason. It was not too dissimilar to the way Barnabas spoke on behalf of Paul when the Jerusalem church was very nervous about opening their doors to their former persecutor in chief. Friends are advocates for one another.
- True friendship involves helping one another to find strength in the Lord. This is something that gives a faith-based friendship a distinctive quality. In 1 Samuel 23, when David is on the run (and who knows what thoughts and questions were occupying his mind), Jonathan finds him and ‘strengthens his hand in God.’ He does it by reminding David about God’s plan. There will be times when our friends will need us to do the same thing for them.
- True friendship weeps when it is lost. David’s famous lament for Jonathan (and Saul) comes in 2 Samuel 1. It was a devastating loss. Jonathan had played a unique and irreplaceable part in his life.
So, once again, how many friends do you have? And how many people would describe you as a friend?
A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.