She captured my heart from the very beginning. I first noticed her in Señor Enriquez’s Spanish class as she stood in front of the class giving a recitation. Her gleaming black hair, olive skin, and Mediterranean nose distinguished her from most of my classmates, who were of Scandinavian or German descent. But what attracted me most was her laugh. Her nose crinkled and her eyes danced. I thought, I want to be her friend. She looks like a lot of fun.
My instinct proved to be true. Ellen and I became the best of friends, and we laughed together like only junior high school girls can. We both played in the band—Ellen, bass clarinet, and I, alto clarinet. Often I looked up from my music only to see that Ellen had draped locks of her hair across the neck of her bass clarinet to form a long handlebar moustache. She wiggled her eyebrows up and down in her best “Frito Bandito” imitation.
We watched Star Trek every night, calling each other up afterward to recite our favorite lines. We wrote science fiction romance stories about being marooned on a faraway planet with Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. McCoy.
During that first year of our friendship, my parents separated. My family was in turmoil, and as the oldest child, I shouldered the responsibility of being friend, comforter, and confidante to both of my parents. It was a heavy load for a thirteen-year-old. Upon reflection, I now believe that my friendship with Ellen provided an escape from the pressures at home. I immersed myself in a different world with Ellen. Our laughter, fun, and romantic illusions furnished a much-needed release for my turbulent emotions. On the occasions when I talked about my family situation, Ellen listened with compassion and respect. Ellen’s friendship was my lifeline.
Like a first love, that first true friendship enveloped me completely. Since that time, I have not been in a friendship with such intensity, with emotions ranging from hilarity to occasional rage to passionate devotion. I adored Ellen.
Many of us spend much of our adult life seeking a friend like this. We read or watch Anne of Green Gables and resonate to the friendship of Anne and Diana. As we recall the “bosom friend” of our childhood, we long to experience again the joys of true friendship.
When I spoke about friendship at a retreat recently, Julie approached me with a warm smile. An attractive woman in her late thirties, she exuded vibrancy, enthusiasm, and fun. A few minutes into the conversation, her smile dimmed.
“As you can see, Ann, I’m not a shy or boring person,” she began. “But I am desperate for a Christian friend. My husband isn’t a Christian, so I can’t share many of my deepest thoughts with him. I have been in my church for five years, and I have tried absolutely everything to make friends, but not one person has responded. Everyone seems to have a best friend already. No one has room in her life for me, especially since I’m not part of a ‘couple’ because my husband doesn’t go to church.”
I could see the pain in her eyes as she implored, “What am I supposed to do, Ann? I’ve prayed for five years for a Christian friend. I really need one, and I’ve done everything I know how to do.”
Wherever I go, countless women echo Julie’s struggle. We long for something more than the superficial relationships we find at work, in the neighborhood, at church—the “Hi, how are you?” relationships. We long for someone to care about the nitty-gritty details of our lives. We ache for someone to call us up when we’re not at church just to say, “I missed you!” We need true friends.
What exactly is a true friend? One woman gave me this description:
“A true friend is someone who knows what I need without my even asking. Someone who will give me a hug, listen to me, give me a back rub or a compliment. Someone who will watch my kids so I can grocery shop alone, or come over with a bag of bagels and stay for a cup of tea. A friend never sees the mess in my house. Instead, she lends a hand in folding my clothes. She listens without judging but is honest with me when I need straightening out. She never puts down my husband or children but encourages me in loving them. A friend never asks, ‘Are you okay?’ Instead, she says, ‘You seem upset, happy, depressed, etc., today. What can I do for you?’
“I don’t have one friend who satisfies all these criteria, but a few come close. My close friends are like oxygen in my life when I feel as if I’m drowning. They are worth more than gold, and I consider them a beautiful gift from God.”
Who among us doesn’t want a friend like this? We all long for a relationship with someone who understands us completely and is able to meet most, if not all, our relational needs.
Penny, a young woman from Wisconsin, painted an exquisite portrait of true friendship as she shared with me her story:
“My dearest friend Kay has been in and out of my life over the past twenty years since we were in college, but when I truly need her, she was and is always there.
“When my daughter was killed just five years ago, Kay was the first one at my door even though she lived two hours away. She cared for my needs during a time when I was not capable of everyday living because of my grief. She encouraged me to rest, took over my housework, and became the caregiver for my other child during the days between my daughter’s accident and the funeral.
“When we returned home from the funeral, Kay and her husband arrived with two pine trees—one for my living daughter and one that would serve as a remembrance for the child I had lost. She and her husband had written a poem for my little daughter about remembering a sister she did not know. It was and still is a cherished gift.
“Just three months after my daughter’s death, I suffered a demise pregnancy during my sixteenth week. When it came time for the doctor to induce labor, once again, my friend Kay came to be with me and my husband. She stayed twelve long hours while we waited for the labor to end. We walked the halls, relived college days, and we laughed. Imagine that. During such a painful time. She stayed until I came out of surgery—some twenty hours after she had arrived.
“That was five years ago. We’ve seen each other only once since then, but we stay in touch, and I know she will be there again . . . when I need her.”
Each of us has slightly different expectations of what is meant by true friendship. Some use the term friend loosely to mean anything from acquaintance to lifelong soul mate. Others are reluctant to call someone a friend because they hold extremely high standards for a friendship. Each friendship is unique because of the two individuals involved.
Yet, as I have reflected on the friendships in my own life, and as I have listened to the stories of hundreds of women across the United States, certain themes recur in varied forms, like the basic themes in a symphony.
We long to share ourselves with someone who is eager to hear about our past, our dreams, and the stuff of our daily life. With a true friend, we can be completely honest. We don’t need to pretend to be “on top of things,” or “together.” We can confess our petty jealousies, our struggles, our failures, our sins, knowing that a true friend will not think any less of us. We can also share our successes and victories, knowing she will not become jealous or resentful. She simply accepts us.
When Martha moved in with our family five years ago, we hardly knew each other. We certainly considered her a friend, or we would not have invited her. Yet, despite an arduous two-way interview concerning the proposed living arrangements, all of us were in for some surprises.
The business of living together stripped away the masks of polite friendship and exposed us to one another. We saw each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We saw sin and failure as well as righteousness and success. Through all the ups and downs, we remained committed to one another. We were able to reveal ourselves because we knew that the other accepted us and loved us, no matter what.
Martha lived with us for three years, and I consider those three years my graduate course in friendship. Today Martha is one of my closest friends.
Last fall when I was going through a particularly dark and painful time with one of my children, I met Martha for breakfast and shared with her the details. I knew that I didn’t need to hold anything back from her. Her love for me and my family and her intimate knowledge of us qualified her as a trustworthy friend. I felt completely safe to disclose these things to her, because I knew she would not respond in a way that would make it difficult for me, nor would she divulge my story to anyone else.
Martha did not cajole or advise me. She listened with great empathy, feeling my pain along with me. After listening for the better part of an hour, she asked me if I wanted any input. When I answered in the affirmative, she shared these wise words:
“Your family needs you to be centered on Christ right now, Ann. Find your strength in him and communicate that strength to the ones who are struggling.” Her words carried the ring of truth. They encouraged and refreshed me. Martha was able to help me because we have the kind of friendship in which we can be completely open and honest.
A true friend is someone we look to for support. She is always on our team, cheering us on to victory. When we have a problem, she does not try to solve it for us. Instead, she listens and expresses her solidarity. When our perspective has become distorted by self-pity, she encourages us, not with pat answers but by gently pointing us toward the truth.
There is never a hint of criticism from a true friend. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t sometimes say hard things. She is the one who asks the tough questions. But we know that her intentions for us are only good. Anyone can say what we want to hear. A true friend tells us what we need to hear. Yet, every word is prompted by love.
Later that day,
The next morning as I flew to Grand Rapids, I ripped open
A true friend shows her love in practical ways. She is someone we can count on to help us out in a pinch. We don’t worry about calling on her when a need arises because she always seems to enjoy showering us with deeds of kindness.
A young mother of four told me how her friend Bonnie demonstrated her love in a practical way:
“One morning I woke up with a high fever, chills, aches—the works. I couldn’t get out of bed. My husband had important meetings at work. He got the oldest child off to school, and then called Bonnie to see if she could drive our four-year-old to preschool. I didn’t know how I would take care of our baby and our two-year-old, and I confess that when my husband left for work, I felt pretty sorry for myself. I lay in bed crying, wishing my mother were here to take care of me like she did when I was a child.
“Bonnie arrived early to pick up Ethan for preschool. She came in and dressed the little ones. She set up a table next to my bed with a pitcher of ice water, a bottle of soda, crackers, orange slices, and some aspirin. She informed me that she was taking my children for the day, and my job was to rest and concentrate on getting better. She asked if she could take my van, since my kids and her kids couldn’t all fit in her car.
“That night when Bonnie brought my children home, she also returned a van that sparkled inside and out. Bonnie and the kids had taken the van to the car wash and had vacuumed the inside as well as washing and waxing the exterior. The kids thought it was a great adventure! What a practical act of friendship!”
As wonderful as all this sounds, perhaps friendship is the icing on the cake of life. These days many women are literally running from sunup to sundown to meet their obligations—paying the bills, taking care of their families, or finishing their education. Friendship seems a luxury they cannot afford. Or is it?
The two friends spent many hours with Cheryl over the following six to eight weeks. They worked together, ate lunch together, and continued to walk together as much as Cheryl’s hectic schedule allowed. She maintained her walking, despite unrelenting demands in the other arenas of her life. Cheryl realized that the exercise and the supportive friendships were vital to sustaining her energy level, her motivation, and her positive outlook on life.
“I couldn’t have done it without the help of my friends,”
Cheryl said to
For Cheryl, friends are not a luxury. Friendship made the difference between drowning and keeping her head above water.
The wise King Solomon wrote,
Two are better than one,
because they have a good return for their work:
If one falls down,
his friend can help him up.
But pity the man who falls
and has no one to help him up!
Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
But how can one keep warm alone?
Consider the fact that we are created in the image of God, who is a relational being. We bear the stamp of his image in that we, too, are relational. Like God our creator, we desire relationships with others. That is a part of our design.
When God said of Adam, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18), I believe that this was more than simply a motivation for creating a wife. In a more general sense, God was saying, “I did not create man to be solitary. He needs companionship even as I desire companionship.”
Far from being selfish or a sign of weakness, our need for friends is a part of our God-given nature. Friendships are a means by which God fulfills his good purposes in our lives.
True friends encircle us with the support that we need. Without this circle of friendship, we easily fall prey to discouragement, depression, fear, and self-centeredness. When we are functioning as God designed us, our lives knit together in interlocking circles of trust.
When my daughter was in sixth grade, her class went on a retreat. Trained camp counselors led the students in group activities that were designed to teach the children how to work cooperatively. One such exercise was called the trust circle.
The ten children in the group formed a tight circle around the counselor. Keeping her body rigid and her arms folded across her chest, the counselor let herself fall toward the circle. The counselor’s feet were still in the center of a circle, like the hands of a clock anchored at the center of the dial. The children prevented her from hitting the ground and supported her weight by passing her around the circle. One child could not have supported the counselor. There were always two or three pairs of hands holding her up and moving her along to the next people in the circle.
Our closest circle of friends operates like that trust circle. We all go through times when, crippled by pain or tragedy, we become dead weight in our relationships. We fall.
Who is there to prevent us from hitting the ground? If we have a large number of acquaintances but no true friends, the circle that they form is too far away. They are not close enough to break our fall.
On the other hand, if we have only a few very close friends, they will not be able to provide a tight circle for us. There will be gaps. And two or three people will soon grow weary.
Lorraine, a lovely woman in her thirties, Kleenex in hand, approached me after one of my talks, and I saw pain in her tear-filled eyes.
“I love my husband, Gregg. I really do,” she began. “We weren’t Christians when we married, so when I came to Christ ten years ago, I began to pray that Gregg would too. I’ve tried to be a gentle, loving wife to him so that he could see Jesus in me . . . and I think he really does, but he has never made that commitment. We have three precious children, and each of them is a gift from God.
“But the problem is that Gregg is an alcoholic. This has been a deepening struggle for me as I have watched him become more and more dependent on the bottle. His alcoholism has affected his relationship with our children and with me. I can’t trust him to drive the kids to their activities. I can’t even leave them alone with him anymore. Recently the situation has grown much worse. My pastor has been meeting with the children and me, preparing us for what he calls an ‘intervention.’
“The reason I tell you all this is because I wouldn’t be standing here if it weren’t for my circle of friends. I couldn’t have made it this far without their support. They have listened to me, cried with me, held my hand, cared for my children. There have been many times when I didn’t think I could live through another day, and suddenly the phone would ring. It would be one of my friends calling to see how I was doing. She would share an encouraging Bible verse or pray with me on the phone. It seems as if God prompts them to call or drop by just when I need to know that he still cares.
“Sometimes I worry that I will wear out these friendships with my neediness. But my friends assure me that they can handle it, and they want to be there for me. What would I have done without them? I don’t know what the future holds for our family, but I do have the sense that God is leading me. And his love for me is evident in his provision of this circle of Christian friends.”
As she spoke, I envisioned Lorraine standing in the center of a circle of friends. Like the person in the middle of the trust circle, she was dead weight. But as she leaned into the outstretched arms of her friends, there were enough hands to support her. The hands of her friends kept her from falling—their hands supporting her, their hands assisting her, their hands folded in prayer for her.
How does a person find—and keep—true friends like these? That is the subject of the rest of this book.
Yet, in the pursuit of true friendship, I run up against a paradox. When I am full of my neediness, grasping desperately for friendship, I can never find it. My hands always come up empty. The emptier I feel, the harder I grasp, and the more friendship eludes me. Friendship comes, not when I am grasping and needy, but rather when I am full and giving.
There is a place deep within me, the core of my being, that needs to be filled. No human friend can fill this core emptiness. That is a space only Jesus Christ can fill.
Jesus experienced the depth of emotional need, and therefore, he knows our needs and is able to intercede for us as our sympathetic high priest (Heb. 4:15).
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus poignantly revealed his need for true friends and his need for a core relationship with his heavenly Father. Jesus knew what lay ahead for him, namely death on a cross, and he needed time to prepare his heart in prayer. Jesus withdrew with his innermost circle of friends, Peter, James, and John. He implored them to stay awake and pray. His impassioned plea revealed his full humanity and his soul’s need for companionship, especially at his darkest hour.
Yet, in Jesus’ moment of deepest need, he withdrew a bit farther to be alone with his heavenly Father. In the intimacy of this core relationship, Jesus poured out his heart. The depth of his sorrow, dread, and fear could be known by God alone.
In this intimate glimpse of Jesus found in Matthew 26:36–46, Mark 14:32–42, and Luke 22:39–46, we see that Jesus needed his friends. He wanted them to be near him, supporting him in prayer during his time of soul-wracked anguish.
But his friendships were no substitute for his core relationship with his Father. There was a place in his life so intimate, so deep, so central, where only God could come. In that quiet place, Jesus found the strength, the peace, and the courage to perform the single greatest act of friendship in all of human history. “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
If you have never opened your heart to the friendship of Jesus Christ, I invite you to do so right now. He waits for you in that quiet place. On the cross, he paid the price for your sin, and he longs to have fellowship with you. All you have to do is open your life to him.
When I look to Jesus to meet my deepest needs, and I center my life, my goals, my motivations, my dreams, my desires on him, I find greater satisfaction in all my other relationships. This happens because a life centered on Jesus is a life transformed. As I seek him, he changes me little by little, day by day, into someone whose character more and more reflects him. Even my mistakes and failures he uses in this process of transformation.
Jesus, the one True Friend, calls us into friendship with him and into friendship with one another. And he helps us, step by step, to become true friends too. As we find our needs met in him, we have something to give. Slowly our casual friendships characterized by superficiality and self-centeredness are transformed into true friendships that reflect his character.
Questions for Personal Reflection
1. Read Matthew 26:36–46, Mark 14:32–42, and Luke 22:39–46. What strikes you about Jesus’ relationships with his friends? His heavenly Father?
2. Read John 15:13. How did Jesus exemplify this kind of friendship? What implications does this have for our relationship with him? With others?
3. In the weeks ahead, what do you hope to learn about true friendship? Write out your thoughts in the form of a prayer.