I would guess we all agree that finding a true friend is one of life’s greatest blessings. A true friend. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, not from the standpoint of determining who my true friends might be, but instead, I have been thinking a lot about what makes a friend a “true friend.” And whether or not I might be grouped into that rare breed.
I studied the friendship between Jonathan and David in the Bible and came to the realization that people become “true friends” when the relationship is founded on two ideas, ideas we often get in reverse today.
Jonathan was the son of Saul (the first king of Israel). David, a shepherd boy who through a series of events came to reside in the king’s palace, would soon be chosen to unseat Saul and seize the royal throne. Jonathan would never inherit the throne and graciously took off his royal robe and gave it to David, in effect transferring his own status as heir. In our world today where power is of utmost importance, Jonathan’s selfless act reflects his submission not only to God’s will, but to a friend whose character and godliness he admired. Jonathan submitted, but his father did not. Saul was intimidated, fearful and filled with hate towards David and for the final years of his life sought ways to have him killed.
After one of Saul’s attempts at murder, David went to his friend and asked, “Why does your father want to kill me?” Jonathan, like most sons, could not believe his father would desire the death of an innocent man and did not believe David. He thought fear had overwhelmed him, but rather than arguing his case against David’s emotions, Jonathan simply asked David, “What do you want me to do?”
A true friend doesn’t always have to understand or agree with the way we feel. Jonathan didn’t believe David was right about his father and probably thought David was being a little dramatic, but he supported his friend’s feelings anyway. A true friend doesn’t always have to convince us that we are wrong in the way we feel, even when they are convinced we are. A true friend sometimes only asks, “What do you want me to do?”
Later on, Jonathan came to know that his father was trying to kill David and that David had resorted to hiding out in caves. He found his friend and “encouraged him in his faith in God.” When David came to Jonathan to express his fear, even though he thought David’s emotions had gotten the best of him, Jonathan simply listened. But when he found out David was in distress, that his life had gotten so troubled that he resorted to cave dwelling, Jonathan went to him to encourage him. He didn’t encourage him to get out of the cave; he simply encouraged him in his faith.
What I notice about friendships is how often we get this in reverse. We are too much in our friends’ lives when they don’t invite us there and we are too far removed when they need us the most. We rationalize that our friend is overwhelmed by unbridled emotions and we can see things much more clearly than they, so we offer our advice – advice that they will most likely ignore because they are, in fact, overwhelmed by unbridled emotions. Sometimes we are right about their issue, but even when we can see so much more clearly than they, the best thing a true friend can do when their friend is pouring out their heart, is to simply ask, “What do you want me to do?” Save your advice, they will ask for it when they are ready to hear it.
But sometimes our friends don’t reach out to us; sometimes they wall up in a cave, overwhelmed by the difficulties of life. And all too often we leave them there. We are worried about them, but don’t know what to say. I notice that’s how people handle grieving friends all too often.
When your friend is in pain, hurting and hiding, all they need is strength for the battle, not advice, not dismissal. A true friend won’t leave them alone in the cave nor feel the need to talk them out. Instead, a true friend will merely encourage them in the battle. That doesn’t require great words of wisdom; sometimes it only requires a hand or a prayer.
I think I’ve gotten this wrong way too often; I know I have recognized it when my friends have talked too much or left me alone when I needed them most. And I’m sure they have recognized those same faults in me. I hope I don’t forget this too quickly.
I am very grateful for the true friends with whom God has blessed me; I want to end this life knowing I was a true friend as well. I pray for strength to be quiet when I need to be quiet, to reach out when I am needed, and to encourage whenever I can.
When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. Henri Nouwen