The Friendship Factor

Book Review

by Douglas E. Baker October 31, 2018

This world is full of sorrow because it is full of sin. It is a dark place. It is a lonely place. It is a disappointing place. The brightest sunbeam in it is a friend. Friendship halves our troubles and doubles our joys.  —J.C. Ryle

As I watched people pass the casket to look upon the lifeless body of a young man who died of a drug overdose, I realized the community of drug addicts is often stronger in support and love than the community of the Christian church. Those suffering from drug addiction often support one another more intentionally than do the people of God.  To be sure, sin lies at the bottom of coping responses that do not seek to find solace and comfort in the gospel, but the world in all its sinful manifestations often creates a community where the common experience of sin and its effects seem to be stronger than the grace of God in Christ. Surely, something is wrong. 

A recent scientific survey revealed that nearly half of Americans feel alone (46 percent) or left out (47 percent). One in four Americans (27 percent) rarely or never feel as though there are people who really understand them. Two in five Americans sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful (43 percent) and that they are isolated from others (43 percent). The problem is so bad in the United Kingdom that Prime Minister Theresa May appointed a government post with the title, “Minister for Loneliness.”

Drew Hunter’s new book, Made for Friendship, is a book every Christian should read. Warning: It is hard to read, because as you do, you will soon realize just how few friends are truly in your life. This book is an enticement, of sorts. From the very outset it pulls no punches. The world in all its cruelty actually produces and promotes isolation and loneliness. Sin does that. It forces a person to deceive others as they commit acts that result in the exact opposite of what they really want—friendship.

This book lands at a time in the cultural landscape where individualism is the hallmark of personhood. To be strong is to be independent, a loner, a self-made man or woman. The problem? It isn’t true. Hunter’s book is the antidote to such lies. Hunter is a student of history, and he opens the book by presenting various theologians and their friends. The stalwarts of theological precision and preaching were, at bottom, great friends.

John Newton: “I think to a feeling mind there is no temporal pleasure equal to the pleasure of friendship.” John Calvin: “I think that there has never been, in ordinary life, a circle of friends so sincerely bound to each other as we have been in our ministry.” Jonathan Edwards: “Friendship is the highest happiness of all moral agents.” Augustine: “Two things are essential in this world—life and friendship. Both must be prized highly, and not undervalued.”

Friendship Fallacies

Friendship is one of the true necessities of life, Hunter maintains. Without it, life atrophies and can become “unraveled emotionally, psychologically, and even physically.” The ache for deep friendship is not something that is a result of the Fall. In some circles, it might seem fashionable to present friendship as a crutch that is given to fallen human beings by God in their struggle with sin as if the longing for friendship were, in some sense, a by-product of the Fall.

Hunter provides excellent exegetical work to sustain the point that Adam was lonely “before sin enters the world.” He correctly stipulates, “The first problem in human history, the first problem on the pages of Scripture, the first problem in any human life, was not sin—it was solitude.” Adam’s aloneness, therefore, was not “a result of his fallenness.” This is an “Edenic ache” that we all experience, and it is not solved by an exclusive relationship with God himself or by marriage. “Friendship is indispensable” because “God is a God of friendship.”

Lest you think the book is mere fodder for the romantics among us, Hunter dispels such notions. “Friendship is an affectionate bond forged between two people as they journey through life with openness and trust,” Hunter writes. Such “openness and trust,” however, isn’t for the faint of heart. Friendship is work.

Surely, we have all experienced supposed “friends” who were users or abusers in ways that made accountability a word to be avoided. “Friends” who all too quickly quote Proverbs 27:17 (Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another) as their “life verse” might best be avoided. Hunter does a masterful job of deconstructing bad hermeneutics and by doing so demolishes accountability groups and/or “friendships” (particularly among men these days) where one person constantly feels attacked and provoked to anger. “A sharp tongue speaks words like sword thrusts,” Hunter writes. He isn’t glib about the radical change in perspective that must come in order for a person to become a good friend:

Our hearts default to a posture of self-focus. I instinctively place myself at the center of my relationships. I tend to think about how often others have wronged me—how they have been inconsiderate, have expressed anger, or have gossiped about me. If we mainly think about the weeds that others need to uproot, and not our own, our relationships won’t flourish. Because this very impulse—this tendency to think about how they have failed us, rather than how we have failed them—is self-centered, and it will produce weeds. In order to cultivate true friendship, then, we must cultivate a posture of repentance.

The Faithful Friend

Thankfully, he doesn’t leave us to ourselves in order to find the true model of friendship. For this he points to the greatest friend—Jesus himself. Scene by scene, Hunter unfolds the beauty of Christ in all his fullness of friendship to those least deserving of it. The Lord Jesus Christ is patient when wronged, does not return evil for evil, willingly offers his life in the place of sinners, and commits to them an unwavering friendship through every trial of life. There is no friend like Jesus, and Hunter is at his best when pointing to the Christ of God.

The grief of friendship? Losing them. Not necessarily through betrayal or some other sin (though this happens quite often!), but through distance and finally, death. The mobility of our modern society can rip friendships apart in ways that cause severe grief. Just ask the wife who moved because of her husband’s job far away from her friends. Ask the man whose best friend was forced to re-locate away from his church. Ask the high school student who just waved goodbye to his best friend as the moving truck pulls out of the driveway.

Yet, death is ultimately the final enemy of friendship. It stalks all our relationships with the incessant whisper that the friend we love will soon be gone. Time is fleeting, and life is a vapor. Here again, Hunter provides the biblical theology of friendship that sustains weary ones with a word of encouragement. Friendships in the Lord Jesus Christ never end.

Many people think that eternal life will be boring. But think about your most joyful moments with friends. Now take that joy, multiply it by ten thousand, and project it into your eternal future. The whole of that happiness merely gestures in the direction of the joys to come. History ends with neither a bang nor a whimper, but with the laugher of friends.

The hope of any author is that their book might live beyond their own circle of friends. For Hunter, this book accomplishes that goal because, in the end, the friend of whom he speaks, lives beyond his written words and points to the eternal Word—the Lord Jesus Christ, the friend of sinners.