Some 1,600 years ago, Augustine said, “In this world two things are essential: life and friendship. Both should be highly prized and we must not undervalue them.” He’s right, though based on behavior, it seems many men undervalue the latter.
Studies are confirming what many of us already know by observation and experience: As men grow older, they typically lose close connection with male friends. By the time they reach middle age, many men in Western cultures (including Christian men) have few or no close friends — friends who really know them. It’s a troubling trend. We have a growing population of lonely older men, and we’re discovering that loneliness is as damaging to our health as smoking.
“The Bible teaches us not only that we are made for friendship, but also that we are made by our friendships.”
But this trend is troubling not primarily because of its deleterious health effects. As Christians, we don’t view friendship as a mere health benefit like nutrition and exercise. Friends are more fundamental to our inner being — to who we are. The Bible teaches us not only that we are made for friendship (Genesis 2:18; Ecclesiastes 4:9–12), but also that we are made by our friendships (Proverbs 13:20; 27:17).
A man, likely more than he knows, owes who he has become to the friends who helped make him. And if he’s wise, he will not undervalue his fundamental need of friends as he ages, for he will need them every bit as much at the end of his sojourn as he needed them when it began.
Men Who Made Me
As I’ve reflected on how needed male friendships are to shape us, I can’t help but thank God for the men who made me. They remain a priceless fraternity extending back over five decades. God has used each of them to shape and sharpen me. Each has left his indelible mark. Each deserves honor. But to illustrate friendship’s fundamental role, I’d like to mention only a few men whose impact has been particularly immense.
Perhaps these examples will remind some of you of the many different kinds of friends God gives to build us up along the way. Perhaps they will also remind you how desperately we need friendships — and how important it is to fight for them.
The Boys Who Raised Me
I met my two best childhood friends, Brent and David, when we were preschoolers. We were brought together in an accident of geography: our parents all bought houses on Southridge Road. But as C.S. Lewis observed, such accidents are no accident:
Christ, who said to the disciples, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you,” can truly say to every group of Christian friends, “You have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another.” (The Four Loves, 114)
Our tripartite friendship was forged through spending incalculable hours together after school, on weekends, during sleepovers (where sleep was rare), on long, lazy summer days. We listened to music, and played on the backyard football field and on the driveway basketball court and in the arcade. We schemed new adventures, talked about girls, biked all over the western metro, shared thoughts about God — all with plenty of fighting interspersed.
Through it all, we helped each other navigate the often tricky, sometimes dangerous, sometimes painful waters of childhood and adolescence, and helped each other love and trust Jesus. We saw each other into adult manhood and stood up for one another as each of us married a wonderful godly woman. These boys helped raise me. The goodness and mercy I received through them and from them is incalculable.
Brother Born for Adversity
Jim, my older brother (by five years), came to faith in Christ during his freshman year at college. I was an earnest, Jesus-believing, malleable 13-year-old who looked up to his older brother, and Jim became my first real “father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (1 Corinthians 4:15), and showed me in word and deed what it meant to be a Christian man.
And he has done this over the past four decades. Over the years, we have partnered together in youth and college ministries, overseas missions, inner-city church plants, worship leading, and songwriting. And Jim has walked with me through the deepest, darkest seasons of my life. Next to my wife, he is my most trusted counselor and the pastor who knows me best.
Our friendship has been forged walking together along the hard way that leads to life (Matthew 7:14). He truly is “a brother . . . born for adversity” (Proverbs 17:17). Much of the best parts of who I am I owe to Jim.
Friend Who Loves at All Times
I’ve known Barry for about six years, and he is “a friend [who] loves at all times,” no matter how I’m doing or what I’ve done (Proverbs 17:17). The past couple of years have been a difficult season of life for me, and Barry has been a sanctuary of safety, a city of refuge. He’s “a man of understanding” who, like few others, is able to draw out the “deep water” of my heart (Proverbs 20:5). When I’ve come to him as a “bruised reed” and “smoldering wick” (Matthew 12:20), with a remarkable mixture of kindness, gentleness, and forthrightness, Barry has applied the salve of God’s grace and truth to tender places in my soul.
Being a relatively new friend, I can see the formative influence Barry’s having on me. I am learning to love others in the 1 Corinthians 13 ways I’ve received from him. What price can you put on such a gift?
Most of my life-shaping friendships, beginning in high school, have been forged as a group of us labored side by side to accomplish a common mission for the glory of Jesus. For men, mission is perhaps the greatest forger of friendships:
The common quest or vision which unites Friends does not absorb them in such a way that they remain ignorant or oblivious of one another. On the contrary it is the very medium in which their mutual love and knowledge exist. One knows nobody so well as one’s “fellow.” (The Four Loves, 90–91)
A company of men have been such brothers-in-arms to me. But there is one who is chief among them: John Piper. For nearly three decades, John and I have been yokefellows in the common quest called Desiring God. And as we’ve been absorbed in prayerfully pursuing together how to best spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ, our friendship has grown deep. Few know us as well as we know one another.
It’s impossible to capture in words how profound and pervasive John’s influence has been on me. I just know that his friendship, in our shared mission, has incomparably formed my heart and soul.
Friends for the End — and Beyond
Each of the men I’ve mentioned (and the host I haven’t) has significantly made me who I am. Each has left a unique imprint on me because of his unique temperament, giftings, life experiences, vocation, and perspective. I’m guessing you have been blessed with similar relationships at some point in your life. And if you and I have been so shaped and so helped by friends in the past, is there any reason to think we will need them less in the future?
Which brings us to the terrible trend of friendless, lonely older men. Why is this happening? I won’t venture simple answers. There are complex factors feeding this trend: internal and external factors, personal and social and spiritual factors.
“We will need our friends till the end, and for the end.”
So, how will we avoid that friendless future? This is something for us to think about now. It will require us to work — and work together, as friends and families and churches — to figure out how to resist the temptation to become isolated as we age. But the challenges facing such relationships shouldn’t surprise us. The hardest things to attain often are the most important things.
Remember, we won’t need friends less at the end of our sojourn than we did at its beginning. We will need them more to help us weather the final chapter of losses before the Great Gain (Philippians 1:21). We will need their strengths, their perspectives, and their heart-strengthening counsel, prayers, and presence. We will need our friends till the end, and for the end.