Building Strong Friendship by Lee Strobel
All the passages below are taken from Lee Strobel’s book, “God’s Outrageous Claims,” which was published in 1997 by Zondervan.
God has equipped us with both the capacity and desire to go deep with other human beings, to jointly experience life’s joys and sorrows, to encourage one another, to celebrate each other, to serve each other to “do life” together. It’s a treasure God wants you to have.
Yes, it will require some risk taking to claim it. But the biggest risk comes in not seeking community. As C. S. Lewis said,
Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one…. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries: avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken: instead, it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.1
In short, the upside is too great and the downside too scary not to pursue authentic relationships. But how do we begin? Casual friendships are easy, but deeper relationships can be much more challenging to initiate and cultivate. On top of that, a lot of people have let their friendship-building skills atrophy over time, if they ever possessed them at all.
So let’s start here and now. Let’s stop waiting for friendships to just happen. The time has come to shelve our loneliness and, as outlandish as it sounds, get extremely intentional about building some relationships. With the Bible providing our guidance, let’s get back to basics.
What are the ingredients in a friendship that’s rich and real, caring and enduring, intimate and mutually fulfilling? I’ve found that there are at least five that are essential in developing ongoing, secure, and satisfying friendships: affinity, acceptance, authenticity, assistance, and affirmation.
INGREDIENT 1: AFFINITY—CELEBRATING WHAT WE HOLD IN COMMON
Chemists use the term affinity to describe the attraction that causes atoms to bond with each other. In friendships, affinity at its most basic level is an attraction between two people. You like the other person. The Old Testament describes the first time a low-status shepherd named David met the king’s firstborn son, named Jonathan. From the start they just plain enjoyed each other. They hit it off.
It’s easy to test whether you have affinity with another person: imagine him or her walking into a room where you’re doing some work. What’s your immediate reaction? If they light up your mood, if a smile comes to your face, if you happily take a break from your project to engage them, then there’s definitely affinity between you.
But there’s more to affinity than just liking someone. Affinity also refers to the common ground that people share. For instance, “surface-level affinity” is when we share some interest or activity with the other individual.
Maybe we both like to play golf or tennis. Maybe we do some business together. Maybe our kids are the same age and we’re both on the same PTA committee. We enjoy getting together and working on a common activity or toward a joint goal, but our conversation generally revolves around the task at hand. Mostly we talk about safe subjects.
Our lives are full of these relationships. Studies show that the average person can have several hundred of these acquaintances, and there’s nothing wrong with them. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that they are more significant than they really are, because these fragile friendships inevitably fracture under stress.
“A man of many companions may come to ruin,” the Bible cautions, “but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”2 Here the writer is contrasting our numerous surface-level relationships with our fewer but closer friendships, and he’s warning us that quantity doesn’t equal quality.
Just ask Lee Iacocca. He said the biggest surprise of his career wasn’t when he was fired as president of Ford Motor Company; it was what happened afterward. “I was hurting pretty bad,” he said in his autobiography. “I could have used a phone call from someone who said, ‘Let’s have coffee.’ But most of my friends deserted me. It was the greatest shock of my life.”3
Those relationships were apparently based on the surface-level affinity of merely having a common workplace and sharing corporate goals, so when stress came—snap!—the friendships fragmented.
But “the friend who sticks closer than a brother” is one with whom we share “deep-level affinity.” In these cases, the common ground isn’t just an activity, it’s common values. We have a consensus concerning our core beliefs. We don’t just talk about a task we’re doing together, we share emotions and personal experiences. We connect on a much more profound level.
Hearts Beating in Unison
The Bible says that “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David.”4 In his book Quality Friendship, Gary Inrig points out, “The word knit is helpful because it reminds us that you knit together things that are of the same nature. Jonathan and David were men who had much in common.”5 Their souls were entwined because they shared a deeply held love for God. That was the basis of their friendship.
The point, said lnrig, is this: “The quality of a friendship is nearly always determined by the quality of that which unites us.”6 That means that if our common bond is an activity sport, or business venture, surface-level affinity will probably result. But if the common bond consists of deeply felt values, there’s at least the possibility of much closer bonding. We may only have a few of these friendships, but they are the ones that bring the richest rewards.
I’ve had all kinds of friendships in my life, but by far the most fulfilling have been those in which our commonality was Christ. It’s those in which we shared the substance of our souls, we had a joint allegiance to Jesus, we prayed together and gave each other godly counsel and encouragement, and our hearts beat in unison for kingdom objectives.
So take a moment to run through your mental Rolodex of relationships. In each instance ask yourself, “What’s our common ground? If you took away the activity we share; would our relationship wither? Or do we have the potential of going much deeper, because we share common values?”
And if you’re looking for a new relationship in hopes of sinking deep roots, try looking among those who have the same core beliefs. That’s why a vibrant, authentic, and loving church provides an excellent environment for finding a soul mate.
Not only will you start with a commonly held set of values but the very nature of Christianity encourages the honesty, encouragement, sincerity and caring that combine to yield meaningful friendships.
INGREDIENT 2: ACCEPTANCE—Relating on an “As Is” Basis
“Accept one another, then,” urged the apostle Paul, “just as Christ accepted you.”7 How did he do that? Unconditionally.
“We must decide to develop friendships in which we demand nothing in return. Love, in order to work, must be unconditional,” said Ted Engstrom in The Fine Art of Friendship. “Just as God accepts us on an ‘as is’ basis, so, too, must we enter into friendships based on taking the other person unconditionally into the relationship.”8
Gary Inrig, who has written extensively on friendship, tells the tale of some parents on the East Coast who got a telephone call from their son during the Korean War. They were thrilled, because they hadn’t heard from him for many months. He said he was in San Francisco on his way home.
“Mom, I just wanted to let you know that I’m bringing a buddy home with me,” he said. “He got hurt pretty bad, and he only has one eye, one arm, and one leg. I’d sure like him to live with us.”
“Sure, son,” his mother replied. “He sounds like a brave man. We can find room for him for a while.”
“Mom, you don’t understand. I want him to come live with us.”
“Well, OK,” she finally said. “We could try it for six months or so.”
“No, Mom, I want him to stay always. He needs us. He’s only got one eye, one arm, and one leg. He’s really in bad shape.”
By now his mother had lost her patience. “Son, you’re being unrealistic about this. You’re emotional because you’ve been in a war. That boy will be a drag on you and a constant problem for all of us. Be reasonable.”
The phone clicked dead. The next day, the parents got a telegram: their son had committed suicide. A week later the parents received the body. They looked down with unspeakable sorrow on the corpse of their son—who had one eye, one arm and one leg.9
Even with our disabilities, character flaws, shortcomings, insecurities, and immaturity, don’t all of us just want to be accepted for who we are? Don’t we need to know that somebody accepts us because they want to, not because they have to for some reason?
David W. Smith describes a plaque that defines friendship this way: “A friend is one who knows you as you are, understands where you’ve been, accepts who you’ve become, and still gently invites you to grow.”10
But our natural inclination isn’t to accept people. We tend to be like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, who were quick to judge, criticize, and ostracize others. Like them, we want other people to conform to us, so we set up little tests to see whether they measure up.
Yet Proverbs says, “A friend loves at all times.”11 That doesn’t mean we condone our friends’ moral lapses or approve of their character flaws. Instead, it means we follow Christ’s example of cherishing people themselves while extending them grace.
One night I was dining with an out-of-town friend I hadn’t seen for quite a while. During our conversation, he confessed to me that he had cheated on his wife. He felt devastated by it and we discussed the matter at length. At the end he made a very revealing comment “Lee, don’t tell anybody about this. Not even Leslie. I wouldn’t want her to think less of me.”
I found it fascinating that he wasn’t worried that I would think less of him. The reason was that we were friends, and within the context of our relationship he could feel safe and accepted, because in the past I had confessed my failures to him and he still accepted me.
“Even if a man is caught in any trespass,” says the Bible, “you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, each one looking to yourself, lest you too be tempted.”12
The truth is that we’re better able to accept others if we stay in touch with our own mistakes, deficiencies, and blunders. It’s easier to extend the hand of acceptance to a friend if we imagine our other hand simultaneously reaching out to receive acceptance and forgiveness from Christ for our own sins.
When you’re evaluating your relational life, ask yourself what attitude you bring into your friendships—critical and judgmental or accepting and gracious? Do you try to get other people to conform to all of your opinions, or do you celebrate the way they’re different from you?
“As we ask the Holy Spirit to replace our cautious, critical attitude, which tends to evaluate and reject people, with his love, which yearns to accept them, we will experience a new and liberating way of relating to people,” said Inrig.13
INGREDIENT 3: AUTHENTICITY—FEELING SAFE ENOUGH TO BE REAL
At some point, if a relationship is going to involve more than snorkeling on the surface, you’ve both got to dive deep into each other’s lives. Authentic relationships are characterized by self- disclosure, transparency, honesty, and vulnerability. There’s an increasing consistency between what we’re like on the inside and how we act in each other’s presence.
Jesus exhibited authenticity in his relationship with his disciples. For example, think of how vulnerable the all-powerful Son of God was being when he conceded to his closest friends in the Garden of Gethsemene, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.”14
Authenticity begins when one person in the relationship sends up a relational trial balloon by disclosing part of his real self and then cautiously watches to see how the other individual reacts. If there’s affirmation, encouragement, and personal disclosure from the other person, he’s apt to continue down the path toward a deeper friendship. If not, he will retreat to safer but superficial grounds.
Years ago I was part of a group of guys who got together for breakfast every Saturday morning. We liked to think that we had some deep relationships going, but if you were to listen to our conversations, you’d see we were mostly talking about “da Bears,” “da Bulls,” “da Cubs,” and “da Hawks.” (Hey, this is Chicago!)
One day one of the guys was quiet. We routinely asked him how things were going, expecting a smile and a simple, “Fine, how ‘bout you?” Instead, he blurted out, “Guys, my marriage is falling apart and I don’t know what to do!” I was so shocked that I almost dropped my toast. With one outburst he had shattered our group’s veneer.
Suddenly we found ourselves rallying around him, praying for him, and revealing things about ourselves that we had suppressed in the past. The experience drew us together like we had never been before, and it changed the dynamics of our group forever. One person’s risk taking had revolutionized our relationships.
Going deep requires disclosure. Transparency should be appropriate, equal, and gradual, and it should come after trust and confidentiality have been established, but at some point it has to come, or the relationship will remain shallow and ultimately unfulfilling.
Being Too Opaque
However it’s important to be aware that there are dangers with disclosure on both ends of the transparency continuum. On one extreme are those who are scared to death over being authentic with their friends. Often these people are great at slapping backs and engaging in clever banter, but they intentionally slide over opportunities to go the next step deeper.
Fear is usually the cause. They fear that people will find out they’re not as spiritual as they’ve pretended to be. There’s fear of embarrassment, of rejection, of disclosing something that might be used against them later, and of a phenomenon called the “reverse halo effect.”
The “halo effect” is when a person demonstrates competency in one area of life and people assume—often with no real basis—that he or she is equally competent in other areas. For instance, people might give extra weight to the political opinions of an actor just because he has achieved status in the movies. Somehow the ability to star in a show makes people assume he must know something about foreign policy
According to Gerard Egan, the “reverse halo effect” is when people learn about a flaw in a person and assume—again, perhaps with no real basis—that the person is similarly flawed in other areas of life. So people perceive that an attorney who admits some marital shortcomings might also lack competence in his law practice. Intuitive fear of this phenomenon can cause people to hold back from fully disclosing the problems they’re struggling with.15
Some people live their whole lives on this opaque end of the transparency continuum. Author Judson Swihart describes their life:
Some people are like medieval castles. Their high walls keep them safe from being hurt. They protect themselves emotionally by permitting no exchange of feelings with others. No one can enter. They are secure from attack. However, inspection of the occupant finds him or her lonely, rattling around the castle alone. The castle-dweller is a self-made prisoner. He or she needs to feel loved by someone, but the walls are so high that it is difficult to reach out or for anyone else to reach in.16
You can rescue yourself from this self-imposed isolation, but it means taking a risk by launching a relational trial balloon—and if you take that scary step, you may get burned. Some of your worst fears may be realized. That’s reality. Yet it’s necessary to move down the continuum toward greater transparency, if you ever want to reap the benefits of being in true community with others.
Being Too Transparent
On the other hand, some people are way over on the opposite extreme of the transparency continuum. They are relational voyeurs. They tell you too much, too early in your friendship. In fact, they can’t seem to stop telling you about their past, their secrets, their feelings, their wounds, and their inner conflicts.
Pretty soon, instead of a friendship you’ve got therapy going on, which can be frustrating to you if you don’t feel qualified to help, and frustrating to the other person because they’re not getting the professional input they need.
Inappropriate transparency can erode relationships, and it’s often a sign that the person needs an experienced and godly counselor in addition to a friend. Here are some indicators that you’re too far over on this end of the continuum:
• Your level of disclosure is consistently disproportionate to the other person’s.
• Your conversations chronically center on your long-ago hurts instead of the present and future.
• Your transparency is pushing the other person away instead of drawing him or her closer to you.
It’s in the middle of the transparency continuum that we find the healthiest and best-balanced relationships. So how can you begin to achieve authenticity equilibrium? I’ve found that straightforward honesty is the best policy.
If you have a surface-level relationship that you think it’s time to deepen, have a frank conversation in which you say, “I’ve really appreciated our friendship. We’ve gotten to know each other and developed trust over the months. But now I think it’s time that we go beneath the surface. I’m willing to promise confidentiality, to accept you for who you are, to stick by you, and to be honest about who I am. So what would you say about us really opening up our lives to each other—for the sake of us both?”
If there’s agreement, begin to risk vulnerability a step at a time. And when your friend reciprocates, listen intently, empathize, and offer encouragement. Evaluate as you go. Work together to gradually develop a safe place where each of you feels the freedom to be honest about your emotions, your struggles, your doubts, your fears, and your aspirations.
Again think through your Rolodex of relationships. Identify some of your most promising friendships. Is it possible that a surface-level acquaintance of yours may be secretly waiting for you to make the first move on the journey toward a more authentic relationship? If so, take a risk. Make a call. Get together.
Go ahead—make a break from your castle.
INGREDIENT 4: ASSISTANCE—PUTTING OUR FRIENDS FRIST
Friends help friends grow, mature, develop, and become all they can be. They draw the best out of each other. They serve each other. “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love,” said the apostle Paul. “Honor one another above yourselves.”17
Too many times people enter relationships with a solely selfish agenda. Someone once said that if Galileo were a baby boomer, he would have concluded that the sun revolves around himself—and unfortunately we all share that egocentric attitude to some degree. But when we enter into a friendship with the explicit goal of getting our own emotional and psychological needs met, we invariably end up disappointed.
Yet here’s the irony: when our goal at the outset is to meet the other person’s needs—to build up, serve, and support our friend—then we nearly always end up benefiting in the long run. Booker T. Washington said, “You cannot hold a man down without staying down with him” And the flip side of that is true, too: if you lift someone else up, you’ll find yourself lifted up as well.
“You are allowed to keep only that which you consciously give away,” commented Ted Engstrom. “Give away your friendship, and you will receive friendship in return. Give away your self, and your ‘better’ self will return to you many times over.”18
So a great approach to deepening a friendship is to have a candid conversation in which you ask, “What can I do to be a better friend to you? How can I serve you better? How can I help you fulfill the potential that God has implanted in you.”
Speaking the Truth in Love
One way we can assist our friends is through accountability. There’s a proverb that says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”19 Friends keep friends on the cutting edge of personal growth, by monitoring their progress and being willing to speak the truth to them in love, even when it means a confrontation.
This is how I handle it: During conversations with my closest friends, each of us shares the areas of life in which we’re most likely to be tempted and those when we most want to develop. Then from time to time we ask each other how we’re doing in those particular areas. We take time to listen and probe.
Scientists have studied factories and found that when workers are aware they’re being watched, the quality and quantity of their output goes up. If I’ve been honest with any friends about the areas I need to beware of and grow in, and if I know that the next time we meet they’re going to look me in the eye and ask me how I’m doing with them, I’m going to be motivated to avoid what I need to avoid, and to develop what I need to develop. I need that in my life, and so do my friends.
Chuck Swindoll defined accountability this way: “[It] includes being willing to explain one’s actions; being open, unguarded, and nondefensive about one’s motives; answering for one’s life; supplying the reasons why.”
All of this needs to be done in the context of a supportive and caring environment. Otherwise accountability can become a legalistic and controlling intrusion. And accountability, to be effective, should be invited, never imposed.
There are times when I’ve had a friend sternly confront me when I’ve been in danger of straying off course. I’ve been receptive to that kind of correction and even thankful for it. Why? Because I’ve been confident that he’s had my best interest at heart. I know he cares for my well-being and wants the best for me and my family. With that kind of attitude, a friend can tell me anything I need to hear.
But here’s a caveat: if you actually find yourself enjoying the process of confronting your friend, then stop and do a heart check. You might be speaking the truth to him, but are you really doing it in love?
INGREDIENT 5: AFFIRMATION—CHEERLEADING YOUR FRIEND
Another way to assist a friend is through affirmation. “People have a way of becoming what you encourage them to be,” said U. L. Moody, “not what you nag them to be.”
As a friend, you are strategically positioned in the other person’s life to enthusiastically cheer him or her on. In fact, one of the reasons my close friend Mark Mittelberg and I get along so well is that we’re each other’s biggest boosters. I have more confidence in him that he has in himself, and that’s how he feels about me. That makes for a terrific combination!
“Affirmation becomes a process of encouragement which moves your friend to use all of his resources to arrive at the highest level of productivity and creativity,” Jim Conway said.20
But, he added, sometimes there are subterranean factors that hinder us from affirming others. Maybe your life experiences haven’t equipped you to encourage others spontaneously, perhaps you have an unwillingness to forgive them for some past hurt, or it could be that you feel competitive with them and have a subconscious desire to cut them down.Ironically, the person who’s lousy at affirming others is often insecure himself, because he needs to be affirmed!21
But if you’re specific with your affirmation and offer it consistently, accentuating the positive and dealing constructively with the negative, you can infuse your friends with the confidence and courage to go the next step in their endeavors.
So when is the last time you told your closest friends how important they are to you? How long has it been since you’ve painted a compelling vision for them of what you believe God could accomplish through their unique talents, personalities, and temperaments? When’s the last time you were their most vocal and unabashed cheerleader?
When we fail to say the Words
The absence of affirmation can cut deep. I know that from personal experience. As a youngster, I ached to hear my dad tell me that I mattered to him. I hungered to hear him say, “Lee, I’m proud of you. You’re really special to me. Son, I really like who you are.”
In retrospect, I suspect he was trying to communicate those feelings to me in other ways, but I needed to hear it from him, and I didn’t. It created a wound in me that I eventually tried to heal through workaholism as I strived to earn the respect that I needed so much from him.
My dad died in 1979 while I was away at law school. I flew back for the wake, sitting by myself next to a wall. And that’s when an amazing thing happened.
One by one a steady stream of my dad’s friends, none of whom I knew stopped by to greet me. What astonished me was what they said: “Are you Wally’s son? Oh, he was so proud of you. He used to brag about you all the time. When you went off to Yale Law School, he was just thrilled. When you’d have a byline in the Tribune, he was always showing it to everybody. He couldn’t stop talking about you! You were such an important part of his life.”
I sat there stunned. I had no idea my dad felt that way. He hadn’t told me. I had to wait until he was dead to find out. And I wondered what it would have done to our relationship if he had told me himself while we still had time together.
The lesson is this: whatever you do, never assume that your friend—or your spouse and children, for that matter—know how you feel about them. Everyone needs to be told from time to time. So tell them. If you do nothing else as a result of this chapter tell them. Write them a letter, give them a call, invite them out for coffee. Please, don’t put it off until you end up regretting your procrastination.
Affinity, acceptance, authenticity, and assistance are all important ingredients in the recipe for rich relationships, but affirmation—well, I’ll tell you what: that’s the spice. You don’t want to do without that.
TWO CHOICES, TWO OUTCOMES
At 8:23 on the evening of March 24,1992, Bill was teaching a class in marketing at Harper College in Palatine, Illinois, when his upper aorta spontaneously ruptured.
Pain clenched him. Color drained from his face. A student called the paramedics, and Bill was rushed to the hospital, then immediately transferred to another facility for seven hours of emergency surgery. There was only one chance in fifty that he’d come out alive.
Before the surgery even started, his friends began arriving at the hospital. First one, then two, then five, and finally fifteen of them huddled together for hours of intense prayer. They comforted his wife and children. And that night, all fifteen of them camped in and around his room so they could be close to him and his family during their crisis.
Miraculously Bill survived. And he emerged with an even greater appreciation for friendships. Through the years, Bill has devoted himself to cultivating close and authentic relationships with other Christians. These friends have brought rich texture and enjoyment to his life, as he has to theirs. In his time of need he was glad he had made the investment.
What a contrast to a relative of his. He was a Christian, too, but he had never opened his life to others in a meaningful way. He never reached out to “do life” in community. He stayed on the opaque end of the transparency continuum, spending his time rattling around alone in his castle, safe and secure, unbloodied by conflict but also untouched by the transforming grace of deep and abiding friendships.
After he died there was a brief service at his graveside. Bill and his wife attended, but what struck them was this: in the vast expanse of the cemetery, they were the only ones who had shown up for him. It was the legacy of a friendless life.
To put it bluntly, you have a choice. God has given you the desire and capacity to enter into community with others and thereby drive a stake through the loneliness that would otherwise darken your life. It’s scary, it’s risky, it’s time consuming, it’s messy, it’s frustrating. And it’s worth it.
Just ask Bill. (122-134)
1. C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York Harcourt, Brace, 1960), 169.
2. Proverbs 18:24 (NIV)
3. Lee Iacocca, Iacocca: An Autobiography (Bostoit G. J. Hall, 1985), 138.
4 .1 Samuel 18:1 NASB.
5. Gary Inrig, Quality Friendship (Chicago: Moody Press, 1981), 54.
6. Ibid., 26.
7. Romans 15:7 (NIV)
8. Ted Engstrom, The Fine Art of Friendship (Nashville: Nelson, 1985), 17.
9. Inrig, Quality Friendship, 52—53.
10. Smith, Men without Friends, 214.
11. Proverbs 17:17 (NIV)
12. Galatians 6:1 NASH.
13. Inrig, Quality Friendship, 53.
14. Matthew 26:38 (NIV)
15. Gerard Egan, Interpersonal Living (Monterey. Brooks/Cole, 1976), 45.
16. Judson Swihart, How Do You Say “I Love You”? (Downers Grove, UI.: InterVarsity Press, 1977), 46-47.
17. Romans 12:10 (NIV)
18. Engstrom, The Fine Art of Friendship, 131.
19. Proverbs 27:17 (NIV)
20. Jim Conway, Making Real Friends in a Phony World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989), 164.
21. Ibid., 171—74.