What are friends?

The pandemic has damaged our friendships. There was a recent Atlantic Op Ed that opined that all but the closest friendships we might have are slipping away. But things were broken before that, back in 2018 the US Surgeon General announced a “loneliness epidemic”, especially facing middle-aged men. So, while the pandemic has made thing significantly worse, we weren’t starting from a place of strength.

Sixty years before that C. S. Lewis bemoaned the lack of friendship in his The Four Loves. This is not a new problem. We can trace a problem with a lack of friendships—especially for men—back a few hundred years, but it’s been getting gradually worse as community slowly degrades around us.

I read on Twitter a few months back:

The greatest miracle in the Bible was a man in his late 30s having 12 close friends.

Some bloke on Twitter I can’t find again

Which is worryingly relatable.

What is a friend anyway?

One of our problems when talking about this stems from our use of the term to apply to everything from our contacts on Facebook to our work colleagues, to people we hang out with, to others at church, to those brothers-in-arms that we would willingly die for. It’s a slippery term, and each of the three sources that bemoaned friendship that I mentioned at the top of this piece used the word to mean something slightly different.

Sociologists talk about different levels of relationships as strong, middle and weak ‘ties’. The weak ones are those on the periphery of your life, from that person you see commuting on the train every day, to someone who works in another department who you make small talk with while waiting for the lift, to that friend of a friend you see at parties.

We wouldn’t call all of those people friends—if I called the guy I sometimes see on the train who gets on and off at the same stops as me my friend that would be creepy, we’ve never spoken and I know nothing about him—but some of them are our friends.

They are also where our closer rings of friends come from. Our middle ring—the people we talk about as our friends who we choose to spend time with. And our inner ring (not exactly the same as the famous C. S. Lewis essay of the same name, but not not that either), the very closest friends who we talk to all the time and share all of our lives with.

It would be ideal if we had a different term for each of these. I normally use ‘friends’ to refer to the ‘strong ties’ or ‘inner ring,’ which bamboozles people who use the term more broadly. Saying that, I also call my readers friends, and do the same when addressing the church as a whole while speaking—that’s invitational as much as anything, but we use the word to mean a thousand different things.

Those closest of friends naturally start as someone at a less close level of intimacy. The sociologists agree that we desperately need webs of friendships at all these levels and everything in between.

Jesus and friends

I’ve written before on how Jesus wants to be our friend, but we can also learn about having friends by watching him. Jesus had friends at all these levels: the crowds, the 72 disciples, the twelve, the three, and then John his closest friend.

The pandemic has deeply damaged our wider friendships, and the data would suggest we aren’t quickly recovering them. I think most of us would say our lives bear that out too. We’ve been losing these deeper friendships for centuries. I don’t think I’d be wrong to say that most men I know don’t have any. There’s a reason that my most read post is on friendship between men.

I’ve read that you’re 30% more likely to die if you’re socially isolated. I always think those stats are oddly phrased, we’re all going to die, but we know what they’re getting at. We need wide webs of friendships for our physical health. We need deep friendships for our spiritual health.

St Augustine argued that all of our problems come from disordered loves. If so, then to reorder our lives is to reorder our loves, which includes our relationships.

It’s almost impossible to live the Christian life without deep, abiding friendships, as well as a web of wider friendships. How do we know that? Jesus had these kind of friendships. If he didn’t try to do it without them, why do we?

A lack of close friendships

My contention is that we don’t have these kinds of friendships because most of us don’t know what they look like. They do not occur ‘naturally.’ Lewis argued that friendship is the least natural of loves: deeper than familial relationships and more spiritual than a marriage, a friendship is at its best the way the angels feel about each other.

This alone, of all the loves, seemed to raise you to the level of gods or angels.

C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves

Deeper than family because it’s chosen; more spiritual than marriage because marriage is exclusive, and friendship is additive; and the love that will endure into the age to come when marriages and familial relations end with death.

When David said of Jonathan that his love was better than the love of women (2 Samuel 1) we have almost no cultural reference for it. We need friendships like this, like Jesus had with Peter, James and John, that crazy rogue’s gallery he chose to be the men who stood with him in joy and sorrow.

My close friends

I’ve got a handful of friends like this. Two probably, depending on how we’re counting. One lives a short walk up the road, the other in another city. I love them both dearly. I’ve been reflecting on what our relationships look like and there are four features:

Forged in suffering

For both of them we became close friends through suffering, particularly suffering we went through together. My other friendships that aren’t quite as close are still forged when one of us has suffered deeply and the other has walked through that with them.

My big lesson? It is almost impossible to truly rejoice with someone who rejoices until they have wept with you while you weep. That’s where friendships are birthed.


We tell the truth about ourselves, as unvarnished as we’re able. A poet once said that friendship is a ‘hopeful fear,’ where we hand someone else the weapons to truly hurt us, and trust that instead they will turn them to our defence.

Sometimes we’ll get it wrong and they’ll hurt us. Other times we won’t and those times are worth ten thousand mistakes and broken hearts. Friends are what makes life worth living. And you get to take them with you (Luke 16).

Mutual Interests

Vulnerability is important, but so is purposeless enjoyable conversation about mutual interests. This is ‘spiritual’ too. It’s this purposeless communication that the pandemic has stripped from us all.

When I think of my closest friends, we have things in common which have emerged into common ways of looking at the world. Most of my interactions with my friend who lives up the road are actual us messaging about a song or album we liked, or the latest Brandon Sanderson novel, or some silly video he’s sent me to make me laugh.

There’s a strange dynamic to this too, where we become interested in what they’re interested in—not unlike how that develops in a marriage. The same friend often tells me about neuroplasticity, not something that would typically interest me, but I’m interested because he is.

Which, when we take the three together, sounds a bit like me and Jesus. Forged in suffering, truly vulnerable with him—and he made himself vulnerable for me, and a common way of looking at the world which leads me to be interested in his interests.

That’s how it’s meant to be.