It seems that the entirety of human companionship unravels from this realization that we are not so alone in our beliefs and interests. Friendship takes many forms, and is as prone to error as any other kind of relationship. But it can also be enriching and enlivening—Aristotle knew it, Lewis knew it, and we all know it from our own experiences.
Even though we encounter friendships every day (or feel the loss when we don’t) it’s worthwhile to reexamine our ideas of what healthy relationships look like. With so many people around us, how do we know who our friends are, and what they mean to us? Who are our “college friends,” our “work friends”—and which of them will be with us throughout the seasons of life?
To help us reflect on these questions, why not make use of the scholarship and real-life examples available to us? We could start with Aristotle, who gives us a working definition of what practical friendship looks like. From there, we’ll be able to understand what makes Christian friendship unique.
What Is Friendship?
Aristotle writes, “Friends help young men avoid error; to older people they give care...and to those in their prime they give the opportunity to perform noble actions” (Ethics, Bk VIII).
The friends we make help us in different ways at different times. Aristotle proposes three categories to help us understand our relationships: friends of use, friends of pleasure, and friends of “the good.” That third group sounds the most interesting—it’s easy to want to skip the other two and get right to the fun part.
But the fact is, most of our friendships will be ones of use or pleasure, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We can’t be close confidantes to everyone we meet, after all—imagine how long it would take just to walk across the quad if every passerby wanted to have a ten-minute conversation. We can learn from our less-involved relationships, too, especially once we recognize them for what they are.
When we feel lonely, though, we don’t wish we had more friends of use. We have a deep, natural longing for friends of the good, who will stand by us and make us better people. Aristotle describes these friendships as our schools of virtue. It’s in the context of these relationships that we experience the most growth, because these people, who know us better than anyone else, can push us forward better than anyone else.
Now, that doesn’t mean you and your friend of the good have to stand around challenging each other to temperance contests. But it does mean that your friend will see you at your least humble, your least patient, your least friendly, just by virtue of spending so much time with you. If you aren’t totally repelled by one another’s vices, you’ll help each other become better—both by setting an example, and by holding each other accountable.
So this is what we mean by friendship. It seems like a pretty good deal, when the right people are involved. But Christianity changes everything.
What is Christian Friendship?
As Christians, what makes our friendships unique? First, look to the Bible and to prominent Christians for guidance. Jesus told his followers, “Love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15: 12-15). Jesus himself forged deep friendships with his closest followers. The shortest verse in the Bible—“Jesus wept” (John 11:35)—emphasizes Jesus’ humanity when he weeps over his friend Lazarus’ death. Jesus saw the necessity in loving his friends, even unto death on a cross, unconditionally and without bounds. He sets the example for Christian friendship that we should live by.
Another friendship, between the prophets Elijah and Elisha, suggests that friendship is enduring and permanent: “Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Stay here, please. The LORD has sent me on to Bethel.’ Elisha replied, ‘As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you’” (2 Kings 2:2).This example shows that real friendship is lasting and eternal. It is like our relationship with God; He is with us where we go no matter what, just as Elijah and Elisha were present to one another.
Saint Augustine goes as far as to say that “in this world two things are essential: life and friendship” (Sermon Denis 16,1). He writes “The friendship which draws human beings together in a tender bond is sweet to us because out of many minds it forges a unity” (Confessions, Bk II). Christian friendship draws two friends into unity and a deeper bond with one another. Augustine continues that we desire good for our neighbor, but that a good friend must also despise the evil that one partakes in (On True Religion). Friendship is love, and love requires hating what is evil, or sin. With this mindset, Christian friendship allows us to do God’s will and to love one another, and allows us to be open to correction when we inevitably mess up. Saint John Paul II says, “Friendship...consists in a full commitment of the will to another person with a view to that person's good.” Christian friendship wills the good of the Father and leads us into relation with Him.
Christian friendship has existed since the dawn of creation, beginning with Adam and Eve. Christian friendship is a gift from God, and challenges us to love—to love the good, and to hate evil. With this, we enter into relationship with God through our friends. In summary, Christian friendship is based on agape.
Forming Friendships in College
College affords us the opportunity to forge those “friendships of the good.” But we often find it difficult to be genuine, or even to be ourselves. Most admit that we struggle to find anyone not hiding behind a mask of some sort—all of us try to protect ourselves this way.
But once you find someone who is concerned with the same truth, who is dedicated to the same goal, hold on to them! We (the authors of this article) try to ground our friendship in God and Christ. We attempt to stand side-by-side and look towards Christ as our guide, and to allow Him to draw us near to Him. Who knows what our friendship, or anyone’s, holds for the future—but we should look forward with hope, trusting that God will provide companions for the journey.
It can be difficult to believe that good friends will come along, especially when no one seems to care about the things that interest us most deeply. These times are lonely and trying, and we feel an ache at God’s words in Genesis— “It is not good for man to be alone.” The most we can do is to remain open and accepting to friendship, and to be prepared when it comes along. While we wait for meaningful companionship, we pursue the activities we’re interested in and seek the truths we long for. In doing so, we prepare ourselves to continue these practices with our friend when God gives them to us.
Christ said to his followers, “Seek and you shall find. Knock and the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7). If we seek out the true and the beautiful, we will find exactly that, because friendship wills the true and the beautiful. The authors of this article believe true friendship is certainly worth a try.