15733421_sThank you, all of you who sent in birthday wishes for my birthday. I am truly blessed. One birthday note was particularly special. It read:

A Friend loves at all times . . . That’s what you are to us . . .
Happy Birthday and welcome to the senior (sic) club . . .

I am not sure about the welcome to the senior’s club bit. Hey, I am only fifty-five! (Maybe I am in denial.) But I really liked the citation of Proverbs 17:17.

A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity. (TNIV)

One reading of this verse is that we do not choose our family members. If they are in trouble, we have to help them. They are family after all. But friends, well, we choose our friends. We decide whom we want to bond with. Friendship is a gift. And a true friend sticks with you in good times and bad (Proverbs 18:24b). A true friend loves at all times. Bruce K. Waltke comments:

(A friend recognises) . . . the inherent worth and dignity of the one with whom he desires to be with at all times in a reciprocal relationship, even in extreme anguish and suffering . . . The parallels (between friend and brother) both combines one’s reciprocal advantage in having a friend and a relative and contrasts the friend who chooses covenantal solidarity and the relative who is born into that solidarity (cf. Luke 10:29-37) . . .

The friend is represented as always present, in good times and bad; the relative only in adversity. A friend rejoices and weeps with you (Rom. 12:15); the relative functions more as a safety net. But even in adversity the friend’s spiritual ties are better and stronger than blood ties (18:24 and 27:10). (The Book of Proverbs Chapters 15-31, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005, 57)

It is clear that the bible has a high view of friendship. Contrast this with how we normally view friends. We often say “he is just a friend,” the implication being that the relationship is not a special one, hence the “just.” And if we have a low view of friendship, we will not invest the resources needed to make friends and to maintain our friendships.

In contrast, Jesus has a high view of friendship. In what must be one of the most startling revelations in the Scriptures, Jesus, truly God and truly human, calls His disciples, “friends” (John: 15: 9-17). Friendship, as God understands it, is no “lesser-level” relationship. Jesus lives out the ideals of verses like Proverbs 17: 17 and 18: 24. He chose us, He sticks with us through thick and thin, He tells us the truth, and He laid down His life for us. And He calls us to practice the same quality of friendship (John 15:12).

The need for friends is by now proven scientific fact. A recent article in The Straits Times (Singapore) is one recent reminder of the importance of friendship.

Like it or not you need friends for good health. There is evidence that this is true. Last year, Harvard researchers found that strong social ties can protect against memory loss as people age. A 10-year Australian study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, reported that friendship bonds, rather than family ties, are better predictors of lifespan longevity. Similar studies in Asia have also shown the link between strong social relationships and an increase in life expectancies. (Geraldine Ling, “The Human Connection,” Mind Your Body, The Straits Times, February 18, 2010, 12.)

The hard-nosed world of business also understands the power of friendship. Note books like Keith Ferrazzi’s, Never Eat Alone (New York, NY: Currency Doubleday, 2005). The subtitle of Ferrazzi’s book is instructive: Never Eat Alone and Other Secrets To Success, One Relationship At A Time. Maybe I am too much of a purist, but I find the thesis of such books disturbing. There is much good in Ferrazzi’s book, lots on how to build meaningful relationships. But I can’t help but feel that the ultimate horizon of the book is the personal success of the individual, with the book as a source of techniques on how to make friends so that they can help you succeed.

Surely true friendship focuses on the welfare of our friends and not on what we can get out of them. We choose to love our friends because we value them and not because we can get something from them, even if it is a “win-win” something as proposed by Ferrazzi. Of course friends help each other. That is what friends do. But helping each other is an expression of the friendship, not an end result to work toward. That smacks too much of a pragmatism that can potentially distract us from the inherent “worth and dignity” of our friends.

Am I a Proverbs 17:17 friend? I know I am not. Too many lapses in my love for my friends, and the limits of time and space mean I fail at any attempt to love my friends at all times. I look forward to the new heavens and the new earth where friendship will no longer be crippled by lapses of love and the limits of time and space. In the meantime, verses like Proverbs 17:17 challenge and guide me in how I am to be a true friend to my friends.

I, on the other hand, am grateful for the Proverbs 17:17 friends that the Lord has given me. They have stuck with me through a life that was much more tumultuous than I could ever have imagined. And a birthday is a good time to say, once again, thank you for being my friend.

It seems to me a crime that we should age
These fragile times should never slip us by
A time you never can or shall erase
As friends together watch their childhood fly

Making friends for the world to see
Let the people know you got what you need
With a friend at hand you will see the light
If your friends are there then everything’s all right

(“Friends,” Elton John & Bernie Taupin)