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Aristotle and Jesus on Friendship

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“Americans are very friendly,” writes Stanley Hauerwas, “but we aren’t very good at being friends.” Why not? “Friendship, at least friendship that is a virtue, turns out to be very demanding” (Hauerwas, The Character of Virtue, p. 66, emphasis added).

Do Christians settle for mere friendliness instead of costly friendship?

Friendship is a profoundly theological topic. We need to think about it more clearly. This might come as a surprise, but one of the most excellent, common-sensical, and practical meditations on friendship came from Aristotle. Yes, I know: hearing his name can be intimidating. You might think Aristotle is only for stuffy ivory tower historians who have no connection to practical life. If so, you’d be surprised at how relevant his remarks about friendship are. You can read them in the Nichomachean Ethics, Book VIII.

For example, why don’t friendships last so that people come in and out of your life, never to be seen again? According to Aristotle, it’s because we often choose friends based on profit or pleasure.

Isn’t it true that you often become friends with people based on how useful they might be to you? Maybe you become friends with your landlord because he’ll be more likely to fix your apartment quickly, or with your neighbor so you can borrow his lawn mower, or with other moms so you can have reliable babysitting. Your real interest is in the benefit, not the person.

Or you might become friends with someone because of the pleasure they give you. Maybe you enjoy being around someone because he makes you laugh, gives you an excuse to go fishing, or because she livens up the party.

But do you see why that means those friends are doomed to fail? Aristotle explains that kind of friendship “dissolves as soon as its profit ceases; for the friends did not love each other, but what they got out of each other.”

That's pretty contemporary for an observation from 2300 years ago!

For friendships to last, Aristotle thought they must be based on something permanent. And it should involve more giving than receiving, the way that mothers love their children selflessly:

“But in its essence friendship seems to consist more in giving than in receiving affection: witness the pleasure that mothers take in loving their children. Some mothers put their infants out to nurse, and though knowing and loving them, do not ask to be loved by them in return, if it be impossible to have this as well, but are content if they see them prospering; they retain their own love for them even though the children, not knowing them, cannot render them any part of what is due to a mother.”

If that is right, do you see how demanding that kind of friendship can be? No wonder we prefer friendliness to friendship!

Friendship was important to Jesus. The Lord made it part of His teaching on discipleship:

“You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants anymore, because a servant doesn’t know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me, but I chose you. I appointed you to go and produce fruit and that your fruit should remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he will give you. This is what I command you: Love one another” (John 15:14-17).

Jesus made us His friends by grace. But we can live up to the demands of His friendship by obeying Him through loving one another. In other words, to be His friends, we have to be each other’s friends (Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark, p. 55). This friendship fulfills what Aristotle taught about permanence and selflessness.

Christian friendship has a permanent basis in our common union with Christ and in the common pursuit of producing fruit for the Lord. And it involves selflessly loving other members of the Body for who they are as persons and not for how useful they may be to us.

Christians are good at being friendly. Let’s also be good at being friends.

Send your questions or comments to Shawn.


One comment on “Aristotle and Jesus on Friendship”

  1. You are my friends if you do what I command you: love one another.

    This might be shocking, to love one another simply means to continue to believe in Jesus ie abide. Nothing more nothing less

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