It is surprising, but true, that if your friend’s friend (whom you have never met) puts on weight, then it is more likely that you will too. The benefits—and the disadvantages—of friendship are very significant. For better or worse, friendship transforms us. Health researchers Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler have, through their research into friendship and social networks, reminded us of the influence that friends have. Their work gained considerable publicity when it was shown that if your friend’s friend puts on weight, then you are more likely to do so as well, but they also demonstrated many other effects of friendship through their examination of the influence of the social networks of 12,067 people.1
Their research began with the observation that obese people tend to be friends with other obese people, while thin people tend to be friends with other thin people. Their work showed, however, that the connection is causal, so that if someone becomes more obese, then their friends are also more likely to become more obese. And beyond that, there are even more extensive chains of influence concerning many forms of behavior, so that there is an influence on, for example, a person’s sexual practices, and the incidence of back pain, based on the actions of their friend’s, friend’s, friend (who is unknown to them). Influence through chains of friendship is very significant. The fact is that friends are good—and, unfortunately, sometimes bad—for you. It is also a reminder of the responsibility involved in being a friend.
True Friendships Challenge
Jim Stynes came to my home town in Melbourne, Australia as a tall, athletic, Irish youth who, despite never having played Australian Rules football before, had been recruited to become a professional player. The scout’s judgment proved to be astute for he became part of football folklore as one of the finest exponents of the game, holding (amongst other achievements) a record for playing 244 consecutive senior league games. However, he was not only highly regarded for his playing ability but also for his way of life and the responsibility, respect, tolerance, and genuine care for others that he showed. A teammate-turned-football commentator wrote in a tribute to Stynes who was at that time battling a serious cancer, “the best way I can describe it now is that in so many ways Jim led his life in such a way that it challenged the way I live mine.”2 Hopefully this challenge led to changes in the way that Jim’s teammate actually lived. Real friends influence their friends for the best, and they also learn how to live themselves from the best that their friend offers them. True friendship is transformational.
What Moves Us Most
I regularly give the students in my ethics classes an exercise that asks them to write a brief account of the person who has most influenced them for good, specifically in terms of morality and holiness of life. This informal survey shows that for these students there are three main categories of influential people: parents, pastors, and friends. The inclusion of parents is no surprise given the role parents have in bringing up and modeling right behavior for children.
What is significant is that when one examines the role pastors and other Christian leaders are described as having in influencing the students, it is relatively rare to read about ministry gifts and abilities, such as good teaching and preaching, or biblical knowledge or professional attitude. Nor is there, initially at least, much reference to the presence of general moral qualities such as honesty, humility, peacefulness, truthfulness, and so forth. These are, indeed, often the qualities that are learned; but what almost everyone is more concerned to stress in explaining the influence these people have had are the personal and relational qualities that have been expressed. Again and again one hears that they were “more like a friend,” they were “interested in my life,” “we were genuine with one another,” “they spent hours sharing their lives,” and “she demonstrated this to me in her life.” It is these friendship qualities that impress people and opens them up to learn about the right way to live. Ministry without friendship is minimized in its effect.
“Genuine friendship with Jesus is possible for all. It is the privilege of every follower of Christ and the defining characteristic of being a believer.”
In the eighteenth century, the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning got to know the author, clergyman, and reformer Charles Kingsley. She greatly admired his Christian demeanor and asked him, “What is the secret of your life? Tell me, that I may make mine beautiful too.” Kingsley’s well-known reply began “I had a friend.”3 The real-life accounts of personal influence that I have accumulated indicate that this principle still applies. So many of them begin, “I have a friend” or “The person who has influenced my ethical life most is my dearest friend Mary” or “First of all is my friend Max who continually challenges me to live by the convictions I talk about.” Of course, for those who identify themselves as Christian believers, friendship with Christ is the definitive and most transformational friendship of all.
The Ultimate Friendship
Friendship with Christ, which is really the totality of salvation, is the central fact of the Christian life and it is a possibility for everyone. The New Testament speaks of Jesus having some special friendships, such as those Jesus had with the Twelve, with “the beloved disciple” and with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. But while these were historically unique and unrepeatable relationships, genuine friendship with Jesus is possible for all. It is the privilege of every follower of Christ and the defining characteristic of being a believer. No one today needs to regret not having lived when Jesus walked on earth in order to be able to be close to him and to know his friendship, to feel the warmth of his love, and to experience the richness of his grace, because such a close friendship is available to all believers even now. Indeed, the special friendships that Jesus had with Peter, John, Mary, Martha, and Thomas should not be seen as being unique, set apart or different, but rather as patterns or examples of the kind of friendship that all followers of Jesus can have. There is no limit to the closeness of the friendship that we can have with Jesus other than the limitations that we place upon it. Friendship with Jesus is the power of the gospel.
This friendship, like all true friendships, is transformative. It is inevitable that friends become like those they live closely with and who they appreciate, admire, and love. And so, as we live in friendship with Christ, we are transformed into his likeness. Friendship is the means by which believers are clothed with the new self and conformed to the image of Christ. Through friendship, we are made like our friend Jesus and through friendship we minister the life of Jesus to those around us.