Studies show that we have less true friends than past generations. We may have 1000 followers on Twitter, but last I heard the average American had two people to talk to about things that were important to them. Perhaps even more striking, the number of Americans with no close friends is about 25 percent. Joss Whedon, director of The Avengers, said, “Loneliness is about the scariest thing out there.” Albert Einstein wrote, “It is strange to be known so universally, and yet to be so lonely.”
Our society does little to help us in this area. Fifteen-year-olds spend months learning how to drive but rarely learn how to be a friend. College students spend years learning the skills of engineering or architecture, but the skill of friendship is left up to osmosis. So we have a lot of people who aren’t succeeding in this area and it affects every area of their lives.
The book of Proverbs offers advice on both choosing friends and being friends. When it comes to choosing friends Proverbs teaches us to choose our friends carefully. Proverbs 13:20 says, “He who walks with wise men will be wise, But the companion of fools will suffer harm.” If we develop intimate friendships with the wise, we’ll become wise. If we develop intimate friendships with fools, we’ll suffer harm. This is an encouragement to walk with people who will influence us the right way.
Several years ago an actor named Don Johnson starred on a TV show called Miami Vice. When his career took off he got caught up in the Hollywood lifestyle and spent a decade taking drugs, abusing alcohol, and “living it up.” Finally, he got his life straightened out and got sober. He was asked once if he had any regrets. He said, “Yes, I regret wasting lots of time with a bunch of jerks that I wish I hadn’t spent 10 minutes with now, let alone ten years.”
The way this influence happens is brought out vividly in Proverbs 27:17: “Iron sharpens iron, So one man sharpens another.” Two people brought together in close friendship are like iron sharpening iron. Our personalities rub together and are shaped by that contact. This can be a painful process; sparks can fly when iron sharpens iron; but the end result is that both parties are changed. So you should choose your friends carefully because they’ll have a huge impact on us. This is a person whose advice you’ll seek, who you’ll turn to in times of trouble, who you’ll share good times with and who you’ll learn from. Don’t approach the task of choosing friends lightly.
Proverbs also talks a lot about being friends. One skill that’s needed in friendship is loyalty. Proverbs 17:17 says, “A friend loves at all times, And a brother is born for adversity.” A true friend is one who loves us in every circumstance of life. There’s a hint here that the true colors of friendship are seen in the midst of adversity. When our lives are falling apart a true friend will stand with us. Or when our friend has failed, we’ll be there to pick them up.
But the most difficult skill of all in friendship is forgiveness. Someone has said that there are three things we must do for a friendship to last—forgive, forgive and forgive! Proverbs puts it this way: “He who covers a transgression seeks love, But he who repeats a matter separates intimate friends” (Proverbs 17:9). Covering a transgression doesn’t mean we ignore it; it means we see it and acknowledge it for what it is and by an act of our will we choose to forgive that person and not make it public. We don’t repeat it; we don’t stir it up so that every angle of the scandal is exposed and every last drop of shame is drawn from the offender. A good friend will try to contain the damage of our sin. Every close friendship gets to a point where a decision has to be made. Will we cover the offensive actions and annoying traits of that person, and will the relationship then move to a deeper level, or will those things cause us to move away from our friend? Every friendship will have to deal with the reality of sin, weakness, failure and conflict. Many people get to that point in the friendship and because they’re unwilling to endure through the sin they bail out and move on to the next relationship. But, unless we’re willing to love someone at their very worst, we can’t have the very best of friendship.
The skill of friendship is not easy! In fact, I’d say it’s impossible in our own strength. But all of this was meant to be a picture of the kind of love God has for us. Jesus said to his disciples, “No longer do I call you slaves, but I call you friends.” Jesus has given to each one of us the promise of friendship. Ultimately, he’s the friend who sticks closer than a brother. Jesus is the friend who covers our transgressions. As we come to grips with that reality we can be that kind of friend to others.