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5 key truths about friendship from C.S. Lewis

In the modern world, friendship is a lost art, particularly among men. I sometimes wonder what would have become of Lewis, Tolkien, and Chesterton if they’d met in a chat room or around a video game console instead of at their local pub. Would the same kind of friendship have formed?

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been reading and rereading C. S. Lewis’s reflections on friendship in the fourth chapter of his book The Four Loves. Lewis observed in his own time what I’ve seen as well. Friendship is rare. As Lewis wrote, “Few value it because few experience it.”

But just because friendship is rare doesn’t mean we can’t experience it at all. Lewis’s chapter reminded me of an important lesson my mother once taught me when I was a child: “You won't find a friend by wanting a friend,” she’d say, “To have a friend, you’ve got to be a friend.”

So, here are five key truths about friendship gleaned from Lewis's chapter that will help us develop our own relationships: 

1. Friends walk side by side.

Their eyes look ahead. Lewis writes, “That is why those pathetic people who simply ‘want friends’ can never make any . . . The very condition of having Friends is that we should want something else besides Friends.” According to Lewis, no friendship can arise unless there is something for the friendship to be about, a common interest such as baseball, or a common commitment such as studying linguistics or loving the poor. Friendship arises when two or more companions have something in common that others do not share.

Lewis writes, “The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, ‘What? You too? I thought I was the only one.’” Until that moment, an individual understands the matter to be his or her own unique interest or burden. But once commonality is uncovered, the friend is revealed as a fellow-traveler, one who walks in the same direction. 

For this reason, those who say you can’t have real friendships at work are wrong. That’s not to say that reporting structures, pay scales, and our human tendency to struggle with trusting authority don’t complicate things. But, in fact, it’s from the matrix of companionship and the common purpose we find working together that friendship can rise.

2. Friendship is freely given.

Friendship is given without any expectation of repayment. As Lewis says, “I have no duty to be anyone’s Friend and no man in the world has a duty to be mine. No claims, no shadow of necessity.” Of course, a true friend will be faithful when there is need for an advocate or an ally. But, in another sense, offering help and care is completely accidental to friendship. 

Friends are always faithful, but faithfulness does not make a friend. In this way, a true friendship is self-forgetting. As Lewis says, “Friendship is utterly free from Affection’s need to be needed . . . The mark of perfect Friendship is not that help will be given when the pinch comes (of course it will) but that, having been given, it makes no difference at all.”

 3. Friendship is not jealous.

“The more the merrier” is the old saying. With friendship, it’s true. Each friend in a group adds a little something, and that something brings out the best in the others. C.J. is the comedian. Trey may be a cynic at times, but I need him because he willingly and gently confronts; I can always count on him to speak the truth. Patrick is the spiritual man who always thinks to stop and pray. Clay is stalwart and faithful to plan the next get-together. Jeff’s gift to friendship is accountability. 

Lewis writes, “Two friends delight to be joined by a third, and three by a fourth, if only the newcomer is qualified to be a real friend.” The addition of a new friend only makes other friendships stronger. Lewis says, “Sometimes [a friend] wonders what he is doing there among his betters. He is lucky beyond desert to be in such company. Especially when the whole group is together, each bringing out all that is best, wisest, or funniest in all the others.”

There is no room for jealousy. On this point, Lewis warns the wife who may be tempted to think her husband’s male friends are a threat her own friendship, affection, and passion with her husband: “A woman of that sort has a hundred arts to break up her husband’s Friendships. She will quarrel with his Friends herself or, better still, with their wives. She will sneer, obstruct and lie. She does not realize that the husband whom she succeeds in isolating from his own kind will not be very well worth having; she has emasculated him.”

On the other hand, he also observes: “Nothing so enriches an erotic love as the discovery that the Beloved can deeply, truly and spontaneously enter into Friendship with the Friends you already had.” Certainly, Lewis’s advice can be abused on this point. There are some men who have codependent friendships and use them to excuse one another’s worst vices. A skilled and properly jealous wife will sniff this out and stand against it. But that’s not every male friendship. And a wise wife knows that the right kind of friends will help her husband to be a better man.

4. Friendship is necessarily exclusive. 

It’s exclusive by definition. Banding together with friends involves a bit of rebellion against the rest of society. Friends unite around what they have in common. As they band together, they are also uniting against the rest of the world. Lewis writes, “The little pockets of early Christians survived because they cared exclusively for the love of ‘the brethren’ and stopped their ears to the opinion of the Pagan society all round them.” In another place, he writes, “Even if the common ground of the Friendship is nothing more momentous than stamp-collecting, the circle rightly and inevitably ignores the views of the millions who think it a silly occupation and of the thousands who have merely dabbled in it.”

Unfortunately, it’s this very resiliency that makes friendship both wonderful and also dangerous. By “becoming deaf to the opinion of the outer world,” a company of “criminals, cranks, or perverts” can survive in much the same way as those who are lovers of good (or simply lovers of stamps). Maybe an even more subtle danger of friendship is the tendency of those who are already attached to become a sort of clique or regard themselves as the elite. Do not be misled; bad company corrupts good character (1 Cor. 15:33).

5. Friendship is not enough. 

This danger in friendship points us to the last important truth. Friendship is not enough. Lewis writes about how the ancients viewed brotherly friendship, philia, as the most praiseworthy of all forms of love, the cornerstone of our development of virtue. They weren’t completely right, of course. The best of human philia never quite reaches the level of divine agape. In this life, your friends—even the best ones—will at some point let you down. Lewis sees this, and he writes: “Friendship, then, like the other natural loves, is unable to save himself . . . it must . . . invoke the divine protection if it hopes to remain sweet.” As Christians, we know that there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother (Prov. 18:24). Our best friends here poin us to the True Friend.

What I desire for my own children, as my mother once taught me, is not only that they would be a good friend and thus grow to have friends. More than this, I desire for them to know Jesus, the one who laid down his life for his friends (John 15:13). And, as they grow in their knowledge of Christ, my prayer for them, for myself, and for you is that God would make us better friends—the kind who walk side by side toward the Savior. May we give ourselves freely, throw aside jealousy, and lock arms together, knowing that even when we fail to be good friends, our friendship can be saved by Christ’s greater love.

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