What is a Friend?


Someone asked me this recently, and I couldn’t give a definitive answer. I have friends, some are close and others distant. I have lived in four countries, so I have had to say goodbye to a lot of friends and introduce myself to many new ones. Some drift away, and others remain. But what are they really?

Augustine of Hippos says,

“In this world two things are essential: life and friendship.
Both should be highly prized and we must not undervalue them.
Life and friendship are nature’s gifts.
God created us that we might exist and live: this is life.
But if we are not to remain solitary, there must be friendship”
[Sermon Denis 16,1]

If friendship really is valuable, I think we ought to explore what it is, and what it means to have and be a friend. In this post I hope to explore a variety of sources we can draw from in defining “friend”; some helpful, others less so. I will argue that western post-modern secularism places very little value on a friend, and this de-valuation impacts its assumed definition. The Ancient Greeks give a slightly more helpful insight, and suggest that friendship is essential in the pursuit of truth and happiness. Unsurprisingly however, I think the best notion of a friend can be revealed by characters in the Bible. But first, let’s begin with the problematic assumptions that our culture feeds us.

What Post-Modern Western Culture Says: 

If we intend to dissect our culture’s definition of a “friend”, then I suggest that we take a look at our language. Language reveals both our hidden assumptions and our underlying world-views: “for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:45) We use the term “friend” in a variety of contexts, and these contexts often provide a problematic definition.

Facebook tells me that a friend is a virtual identity whom I can interact with minimally, requiring only one click, either “Add Friend” or “Accept Friend Request.” It demands little effort, no cost, and hardly any time. The persona is often a superficial construct, so I never know what is really going on in that individual’s life. Moreover, commitment is scarce. I can subtly delete or unfollow any friend I choose and not have to deal with the consequences because they probably won’t find out. The economics of a friend is also interesting: Facebook users are expected to have far more “friends” than they can possibly develop meaningful relationships with. Basic demand-supply principles tell us that high quantity usually drives down the market value. In other words, a “friend,” according to Facebook is something of little (or no) value, precisely because we are expected to have hundreds of them.

Reality television often depicts friendships as alliances: self-serving contracts that can be quickly disposed of. The bonds are fragile, and the alliances can be broken when one party does not fulfill their contractual obligation. They completely grounded in selfishness and quid pro quo favours.

As a millennial, I grew up watching Disney films. Here, the end-goal of any protagonist is to find “true love”, which is assumed to be romantic. The definition of “friend” is a passive side-kick to the protagonist, whose role is usually to assist when needed and disappear when not-needed. Often, they are an anthropomorphic animal, further diminishing their value in contrast with the protagonist’s human lover. I don’t know anyone who wanted to grow up to be Flounder from the Little Mermaid, or that racoon in Pocahontas. We are fed a lie that our ultimate fulfilment can only be found in romance, and that friends have less importance.

This is further revealed in the context of dating, where the term “friend” is almost always a demotion. “I just  want to be friends” is a devastating blow to someone who thought they were a prospective partner, and the “friend-zone” is considered a prison cell that deprives its victim of attaining the ever looming desire for romantic-love.

In short, western millennials are told that friends are not only cheap, disposable and artificial, but are far less fulfilling than romantic lovers. Our culture says that romantic love is the end-goal and purpose of our lives. Meanwhile, a friend is “just” a companion who serves as a means towards our end-goal, but the relationship is not valuable in itself.  I’m not saying that romantic love is bad; on the contrary, when it’s good it can be very very good. But when we assume that it’s the only fulfilling love out there, we turn the opposite sex into an idol and an object, and then get disappointed when they don’t meet our unrealistic expectations. But more on that in another post someday. My point here is that we have been conditioned by our culture to overvalue romantic-love and undervalue friendship-love, and often we assume they are mutually exclusive.

It’s no wonder people around me freaked out when I developed a deep and meaningful friendship with my roommate during my waitressing days in London. At best, people referred to it as a “girl crush”, but at other times my more liberal acquaintances would lecture me on the importance of “coming out”. Most of this talk was done semi-jokingly, but as the years went by the jokes never really stopped. Some people (usually guys) became oddly obsessed with us being “secret lesbians,” which in turn led to some awkward conversations with each of our conservative Christian mothers.

The problem (or joke) for everyone was that I really genuinely – but also completely heterosexually – love her. I think it caused a stir because people didn’t know how to handle what they saw: genuine love minus eroticism. It seems that our culture cannot compute this.

Greek Philosophy:

Other cultures do not necessarily hold this view. We only have one word for love with a variety of uses, but because we overvalue romance and undervalue friendship, we get confused when we use the word “love” towards a friend. By contrast, the Ancient Greeks had a variety of terms for love. Two important ones for this context are eros, which is romantic-love or passion, and philia (noun) / philein (verb), which is friendship-love.

In Aristotle’s Ethics books VIII-IX, he outlines his views on friendship. For him, a good and genuine friend is one who loves (philein) the other person for the sake of that other person. A defective friendship is when one or both individuals regard one another as advantageous to themselves. Good friendship is both rooted in and leads to further reciprocated good will. In Greek, this “good will” is eunoia, and is linked to eudaimonia, a term that denotes ultimate happiness and wellness. In other words, Aristotle regarded a real friendship to consist of two selfless individuals pouring into one another, and that is what would lead to a fulfilling kind of happiness.

Plato was not dissimilar. His main genre of writing was dialogue, precisely because he felt that philosophy (Greek: philosophia – “the love of wisdom”) can only be pursued socially. For Plato, it is within the context of friendship-love that truth and wisdom can be found.

A Biblical Approach:

But what does a Biblical friendship look like?

There are many examples we could draw from, but I would like to look at David and Jonathan’s relationship. Their story is one where a crown prince loves the man who competes for his throne, and gives to him sacrificially. Honestly, I think it’s mental.

As soon as he had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul… Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was on him and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt.”– 1 Samuel 18:1-4

And Saul spoke to Jonathan his son and to all his servants, that they should kill David. But Jonathan, Saul’s son, delighted much in David. And Jonathan told David, ‘Saul my father seeks to kill you. Therefore be on your guard in the morning. Stay in a secret place and hide yourself. And I will go out and stand beside my father in the field where you are, and I will speak to my father about you. And if I learn anything I will tell you.’ “ – 1 Samuel 19:1-3. 

After Jonathan warns David of his father’s plot to kill him:

David rose from beside the stone heap and fell on his face to the ground and bowed three times. And they kissed one another and wept with one another, David weeping the most. Then Jonathan said to David, ‘Go in peace, because we have sworn both of us in the name of the Lord, saying, “The Lord shall be between me and you, and between my offspring and your offspring, forever.” ‘ And he rose and departed, and Jonathan went into the city.” – 1 Samuel 20:41-42

David’s Lament when he hears that Jonathan is dead:

“Jonathan lies slain on your high places.
     I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
very pleasant have you been to me;
    your love to me was extraordinary,
    surpassing the love of women.”  – 2 Samuel 1:26

Now, some critics have suggested that David and Jonathon were homosexual lovers. There is no evidence outside the Biblical text, so they draw from the passages above. The reason why I think their arguments don’t hold is because they are based on the flawed assumption that eros (romantic) love is the only kind of love that is capable of the emotions depicted here, to which I disagree. Even today there are many cultures where it is socially acceptable for men (and women) to have philia (friendship-love) of this kind. For example, after a few months living in New Delhi I grew accustomed to seeing male friends holding hands – often interlocking fingers – while simultaneously checking out a girl’s butt as she walked past them. These guys weren’t sleeping together – it was just normal for friends to outwardly display affection like that. So, intense friendships like this are not only counter-cultural for us, but they are actually Biblical (perhaps without the butt-checking though).

Here are some things I noticed about the kind of friendship David and Jonathan had:

  1. The Lord was in the middle of it: “The Lord shall be between me and you”
  2. It was emotional and raw: these grown men of war were not afraid to literally weep all over each other.
  3. They knew it had high value: it involved giving that was sacrificial.
  4. It took time: the initial spark was in an instant, but it grew over a period of years and often when they were geographically distant from one another.
  5. It was never disposable.
  6. It was more fulfilling than their experiences of romantic love.

Not all friendships will “surpass the love of women” like for David, or surpass the love of men if you’re a woman, but I suggest that we take these experiences seriously, and at the very least, know that this kind of philia love is indeed possible.

We have been fed a lie that a friend is a lesser-option or a mere side-kick to our own stories. A friend is not someone/something that we can possess or dispose of. 

A friend is someone we give to.

Someone we knit our souls to.

Someone we forgo our rights for.


I close with the words of Jesus:

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”  – John 15:13. 



Recommended Reading: 

C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves

Augustine’s Confessions – especially note the role friendship played in his conversion.

Published by sarahcoppin

I write about theology, philosophy and everyday life. You can check out my blog at sarahcoppin.com

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