“That used to be nice.”
That was the first response when I recently asked a group of men what comes to mind when they think about friendship. Once they entered their upper twenties and thirties, many of them no longer had close friendships. We mostly laughed when joking about Jesus’s “miracle” of having twelve close friends in his thirties.
Many factors combine to make friendship difficult for men. Personally, time for friends seems unrealistic in light of work or family responsibilities. Culturally, we don’t have a shared understanding of what friendships among men should look like. We also find ourselves connecting more digitally than deeply. We’ve lost a vision for strong, warm, face-to-face and side-by-side male friendship.
But God made us for more. He made us in his own image, the image of a triune God who exists in communal love. Therefore, friendship is not a luxury; it’s a relational necessity. We glorify God by enjoying him and reflecting his relational love with one another. If you are a man who has struggled to go deeper with other men, here are five concrete steps to cultivate deeper friendships.
1. Establish rhythms for your relationships.
Without rhythms in our lives, the important priorities don’t get done. If we value communing with God through his word and prayer, we form a habit. If we want to exercise consistently, we create a pattern.
Here’s a proposal for cultivating friendship: Build it into your schedule. Establish a regular rhythm for coffee together. Devote a meal each week — say, Monday breakfasts or Wednesday dinners — to share with others. Plan to meet up to take walks together. Reserve an extended weekend each year to get away and enjoy God’s creation together.
2. Drop each conversation one notch deeper.
Conversations about sports and daily activities are worthwhile. But if that’s all we talk about, it’s like snorkeling on the surface while missing the deeper wonders of the ocean.
But how do we take our conversations deeper?
First, ask thoughtful questions. When you’re driving to meet your friend, think about what you want to learn about him. Think about the main aspects of his life right now — his relationship with the Lord, his family, his work — and ask him about how things are going. When he shares about a challenge, ask how his internal life (his heart, his disposition toward God) is doing in the midst of this. From there, stay curious and ask more questions.
Second, talk about what you’re each reading. Ask how God’s word has convicted or encouraged him recently. Ask what book he’s recently read that helped him know God or live more faithfully as a disciple. Consider reading through Scripture or a Scripture-saturated book together and meeting to talk about it.
3. Overcome our cultural aversion to expressing affection.
“Love one another with brotherly affection” (Romans 12:10). We don’t usually put those last two words next to one another — brotherly feels masculine; affection feels feminine. But there they are together, inviting us to cultivate genuine, non-weird, affectionate brotherhood.
We see this affectionate bond with Jonathan and David: “The soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Samuel 18:1). We see it with Paul and the Ephesian elders: “And there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him” (Acts 20:37).
Expressing affection feels uncomfortable to men today because our culture has slowly shifted its understanding of masculinity. Rather than combining strength and tenderness, we view manhood as muscular and aggressive. Our culture has also sexualized love, interpreting affection between men as something other than friendship. But we can build a better way.
4. Oxygenate your friendships with affirmation.
What happens without oxygen? We become sluggish and lethargic. This is what relationships feel like without affirmation. This may be why some of your relationships feel withered, thin, or tired. Affirmation is relational oxygen. One of the most powerful tools for cultivating true friendship is Romans 12:10: “Outdo one another in showing honor.”
Men find it hard to give and receive honor and affirmation. It feels uncomfortable at first to tell someone why you thank God for him or why you respect him. But only at first. I’ve seen many men work through their initial hesitations and start cultivating a culture of sincere encouragement around them. And I’ve seen the other men flourish because of it.
5. Invite friends into what you’re already doing.
Our schedules are full and we rush from one thing to the next. We don’t see how we can find time for friends. But what if you don’t need to open up your schedule? What if you can include friends into the activities you already do? Here are a few suggestions I’ve seen work:
- When you plan to watch a sports game or weekly show, find out who else would want to watch it and invite them to join you.
- If you exercise a few times each week, do it with a friend.
- Invite friends or family members to join you for dinner or dessert. If you have young kids, let your guests participate in the bedtime routine and then stay around afterward.
- If you have young kids, invite someone to join your family at the park.
- Put a few friends on speed dial and call them on your daily commute home.
- If you have a home project to complete, invite someone to help you and offer to help him with his.
Hope and Help for Forging Friendship
Jesus is our greatest model of male friendship. He initiated relationships and he invited men to be with him (Mark 3:14). He continually asked thought-provoking questions. He loved his disciples with brotherly affection (John 13:1). He calls us his friends (John 15:13–15). He also gives us the great privilege of reflecting and enjoying this kind of true friendship to other men.
Maybe as you consider taking these steps, you look ahead with both hope and hesitancy. Maybe you think back to when you experienced deeper community and think you won’t find that again. Or maybe you still feel pain from failed attempts at connecting with others. You wonder if forging friendship is harder, even impossible, for you.
Before you give up, remember two truths: First, Jesus isn’t just the model for true friendship; he is himself our truest friend. He initiates friendship with us, and we receive it on terms of grace. Now “no one need ever say I have no ‘friend’ to turn to, so long as Christ is in heaven” (J.C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts, 3:114). And second, he delights for us to ask for true community in his name. God alone is able to create, renew, and strengthen the deepest human relationships. So, pray. Ask God to make your efforts at friendship fruitful. Then trust him, stay patient, and keep taking steps toward others in the strength he provides.