The Bible shows what we should look for in a friend—which is also what we should be as a godly friend. Here are six characteristics.
I leafed through the mail—a stack of credit card offers, community newspapers, coupon mailers and grocery store flyers. At first glance, I didn’t see anything too exciting. But then I noticed a small beige envelope poking out of one of the newspapers. It was a card from a dear friend.
I quickly opened the card and read it as I walked back to my house. My friend knew about some disappointments I had faced recently, and she had written a note to offer encouragement. As I read her words—I’m thinking of you and want you to know I’m here for you whenever you need me and I’m praying for you—I was reminded of this verse: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).
My friend’s note was just the boost I needed, and it made me reflect on what a blessing she has been to me. As long as I’ve known her, she’s been someone I could lean on for support.
It also got me thinking about the whole concept of friendship.
We live in a world where friendship is often defined as our friends and followers on social networking sites. We interact with others by posting vacation photos and updates about our kids’ accomplishments, and sharing recipes and animal videos. But while these things can help us stay connected on some level, they’re hardly the building blocks of a close relationship.
Feelings of loneliness can be an issue for people of all ages, even when they have lots of online connections and even people around them. (See more in our article “The Loneliness Epidemic.”)
In many ways, our modern lifestyles actually work against friendship. Just about everyone is overbusy, overstretched and overscheduled. Between work, classes, household chores and family commitments, there isn’t a lot of time left to develop or nurture friendships. Small talk with coworkers or text messages to say “hi” may be all we manage to fit in.
To be sure, even brief interactions can brighten our day. Yet God created us to need more than just superficial social ties. We need true, biblical friendships.
True friends stay by our sides not only to have fun, but also to support and motivate us as we run the race God has set before us.This is the kind of companionship Solomon described in Ecclesiastes 4:9, 11-12. He wrote, “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor. … Again, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. … Though one may be overpowered by another, two can withstand him.”
True friends stay by our sides not only to have fun, but also to support and motivate us as we run the race God has set before us. There can be a shared commitment to God’s way of life and a desire to please and glorify Him by how we live our lives. That is the essence of biblical companionship.
I’m an extreme extrovert, so I enjoy any kind of contact with people—from conversations with store clerks who hardly know me, to my deepest secrets confided to lifelong friends, and everything in between. Even so, I find there is something really special about people like the woman mentioned in the introduction. I count them as true, godly friends.
What makes these friendships so precious? I think it comes down to the following six characteristics.
1. Unconditional love
We’ve probably all encountered people who stick around only when it’s convenient or when they’re getting what they want out of the relationship. Nevertheless, Proverbs 17:17 says, “A friend loves at all times.” True friends choose to focus on what they can give to each other, rather than on what they might get.
I have a friend who immediately comes to mind in this regard. There have been times when we’ve been together and I was preoccupied, tired or a bit edgy, or said something that rubbed her the wrong way. Yet the next time I saw her, she still had a huge smile and a hug for me, and perhaps an invitation to dinner as well. There’s a security in this kind of friendship—to know someone’s not going to give up on us—even when we might not always be pleasant to be around.
The ultimate example of unconditional love is Jesus Christ, who “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). He voluntarily laid down His life for the benefit of unworthy mankind. If we are to have biblical friendships, we must do the same. We must love others self-sacrificially, whether or not it’s deserved and without expecting anything in return.
2. Support during trials
Very often, our natural inclination is to stay clear of people who are facing difficult circumstances. Why? “We’re afraid sometimes to enter into others’ pain because we know it’s possible we might say the wrong thing or we might not have the right answers. But mostly, I think, we’re afraid of the burden,” writes Christine Hoover in Messy Beautiful Friendship (2017). She calls adversity the “litmus test of friendship” because it asks us to “willingly enter someone else’s pain.”
The second part of Proverbs 17:17 states that “a brother is born for adversity.” True friends are willing to endure discomfort so they can be there for each other when needed.
This might mean being a good listener to someone who needs to talk, praying or fasting about another’s situation, sending notes of encouragement, providing practical help like supplying meals, or simply sitting quietly with a hurting friend who may not want to talk but still doesn’t want to be alone. When we show this kind of support, we can’t help but feel more bonded together.
3. Genuine happiness for each other’s successes
Romans 12:15 says to “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” Sharing another’s pain isn’t something people typically want to do, but the first half of this verse can be just as unnatural. Many times in our dog-eat-dog world, people find themselves competing with friends, sinking to envy if a companion one-ups them.
In stark contrast, godly friends rejoice in each other’s achievements, successes and blessings. Each person wants the other to do well, even if it means being outshined by him or her. Godly friends find true happiness in each other’s happiness, always cheering the other on to do his or her very best.
4. Edifying conversations
I am grateful to have friends I can get together with, and afterward feel uplifted, refreshed and motivated to tackle new challenges. That is the way godly friends affect us.
Godly friends engage in meaningful conversations to clarify and deepen their understanding of God’s Word (Proverbs 27:17; Malachi 3:16).
It’s not that everything said has to be deep or profound. But with a true, biblical friendship, it never seems awkward to talk about God’s plan and what He is doing in our lives. Personally, I consider it a huge blessing to have friends I can talk with about Bible topics I’ve been studying, experiences that have taught me spiritual lessons, or dilemmas I’m facing. I appreciate being able to get their perspectives.
5. Gentle correction
True friends will go a step further and offer sincere, loving correction when it’s called for. “This gentle honesty is something that sets true friendships apart from superficial ones,” notes Mary Halpin, a clinical psychologist in Deerfield, Illinois. “A more casual friend probably won’t risk saying something that might upset you. But a real friend will be willing to bring these issues up, not to judge or belittle you, but out of genuine concern.”
Proverbs 27:5-6 tells us, “Open rebuke is better than love carefully concealed. Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.” Godly friends will tell you if you are making a serious mistake in your life—even if it stings a bit. We all have blind spots, and sometimes we need another set of spiritual eyes to help us stay on the right path.
Should we point out every little fault or idiosyncrasy of our friends? No, of course not. Usually our close friends are willing to overlook our flaws, and that’s something we can be thankful for. However, when what we’re doing is negatively impacting our spiritual lives or the people we love, that’s a different matter. True friends will confront us and urge us to change direction.
6. Time together
In order to support others, we have to be aware of what’s going on in their lives. We can’t possibly know what other people’s struggles, concerns, challenges, hopes and dreams are if we don’t make the time to engage in real conversations with them.
“There may be people you know who you really like, but if you don’t spend quality, one-on-one time with them, you’re never going to move from a ‘casual connection’ to something more meaningful,” Dr. Halpin says.
Granted, life may be crazy busy. Still, most of us can probably find more time for friends just by being more intentional about it. For instance, I routinely schedule phone chats with long-distance friends (which often happen while I’m folding clothes or making dinner) and “coffee dates” with local friends. Even if all we can manage is one in-depth conversation every couple months, I’ve found that can still go a long way in maintaining close connections.
It’s not that casual or purely social friendships don’t matter; they do. The point is that if you don’t also have biblically based friendships, you are missing out. God wants us to experience friendships that inspire and encourage us to persevere and grow. And it’s a two-way street; friendships also give us the opportunity to support and enrich the lives of our friends.
I have a plaque in my office that says, “Friends are God’s way of taking care of us.” I totally believe that’s true. We are going to face challenges and trials, make mistakes, fall short and feel discouraged at times. It is our close friendships with others in the faith, along with our foundational relationship with God, that help get us through life’s ups and downs.