When I was a kid I remember a time when my cousin asked me, “How many enemies do you have?” I know it’s a strange question but you have to know Tommy to understand it. He was a pretty high voltage kid and people tended to either really like him, or not. Tommy understood that and seemed okay with the idea that some people didn’t like him. I told him that I wasn’t aware of anyone who didn’t like me. The reality was that I was probably deluded by the fact that, unlike Tommy, I found it hard to accept that others wouldn’t like me, and I considered everyone I knew as a friend.

Nowadays the word “friend” tends to get tossed around fairly loosely, especially on social media where it can even refer to someone you’ve never met, and probably never will. When I was growing up my dad once said to me, “If you ever have more than one or two friends, consider yourself either very lucky or very deceived.” According to my dad’s observation there are a lot of deceived people on Facebook.

Jesus even used the word “friends” when referring to his disciples. Previously they had thought of him as their master and teacher, which in that very hierarchical honor-based culture meant that they were servant-students, but he was now elevating the relationship to one of friendship. In that society, that was a very significant thing. Having a clear understanding of friendship is very important so that, as my dad says, we are not deceived, but also so we know what is expected of us if we want to be a real friend of Jesus and others.

Below are some are some of the characteristics of real friendship that I’ve discovered through the year:

Committed to each other

Genuine friendship requires a deep commitment for the welfare and benefit of the other. This is a fundamental essential and from this flow many of the other traits.This commitment to the other does not mean that they always agree with you, going along with everything you say and do. Instead it means that when you are right, they support and encourage you, and when you’re wrong, they will confront and attempt to interrupt your behavior. They are quick to offer honest feedback without cynicism, condemnation, or contempt.

A friend loves at all times…” (Pro 17:17 NIV).

Acting with integrity

A friend is someone who will not lie to you. They follow through on promises and when they can’t, they acknowledge it and talk plainly to you about it. Having integrity towards one another also means that they don’t wear a mask and hide who they really are. Because they act with integrity they keep confidential matters confidential, don’t talk about each other behind their backs, and never gossip about one another. It is their integrity that makes a friend a “safe person.” Integrity also means that they do not act with ulterior motives, seeking to be a friend so they can get something from you.

Present for each other

Friendship is a reciprocal relationship; there is mutual benefit and cost for both. It is a two way street requiring both parties to drive towards each other. Have you ever had a “friendship” where you felt you were doing all the work, making all the effort to maintain the relationship, calling the other, etc.? Of course there are times when a friend will be overcome with the circumstances of life, requiring them to focus extra time on a family matter, a job problem, or some other important issue. But a real friend understands that there is a give and take to friendship and it never works if one is always giving or always taking. A true friend is also there when you need their support most, not running for the hills when times get bad.

Making sacrifices

To sacrifice means that it will cost you something. Friendship requires that you have to turn your attention away from yourself and focus on another person, helping and supporting them. It is sacrificial because it involves the giving of your time and energy. A number of years ago I was stuck at the Chicago airport because of a snowstorm. I needed to get home to Indianapolis, only a four-hour drive south, and although the roads were open there were no rental cars available. I thought through all the people I knew in Indy and called my friend who, without hesitation, sacrificed his entire day to drive north and help get me safely home. But the one thing that also hit me was how many people I wouldn’t call because I doubted if they would help me—that’s when I realized they probably weren’t real friends because a real friend will sacrifice for the other. “A true friend is there for you when he’d rather be somewhere else.”

Being a good influence

For me a true friend is a godly friend. They are someone who causes me to want to be a better person. Their life is an example that calls me up to a higher level. This also means that they are a safe person, not only someone I can confide and confess to, but also someone that I know being with will never get me into trouble. They never hold my mistakes against me, and I can trust in their loyalty—not loyalty to me, but loyalty to the higher standard first. They will never ask me to put your friendship ahead of your principles. When mistakes happen they won’t hold a grudge and will do what is relationally necessary to rebuild. They repent, forgive, and put the past in the past. Proverbs 27:17 says it best, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” That’s what I call a true friend.

As I look back at these characteristics I realize my dad was a lot wiser than I thought at the time he said. “If you ever have more than one or two friends, consider yourself either very lucky or very deceived.”

Take Away Lesson

It’s important to be careful in friendship, and it takes a lot of time and effort to be a true friend.

One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother. (Pro 18:24 NIV)