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People Been Friendly, But They'll Never be Your Friend"

“There’s people been friendly, but they’ll never be your friend. Sometimes this has bent me to the ground.” – Rich Mullins “Elijah”

Each time I hear this lyric sung it drags up a wealth of memories and it stings a little. I am reminded of people that are no longer in my life that I thought were friends, and I am reminded of times where my actions with others were damnable.

I have recently been engaged in a continuing discussion with a mentor concerning friends, or people I thought to be friends, and the way they have faded out of my circles or only sit on the far fringes. I’ve also been pondering the recent actions and words of a few that I thought to be friends.

In working through this my mentor made a familiar suggestion. “You should read the ancients.” He suggested Cicero’s “Treatises on Friendship”

Who was Cicero?

Cicero lived at the time of Julius Caesar. He was an attorney and a judge as well as a brilliant Latin scholar and philosopher. Many of his writings survived including the Treaties mentioned from about 50 BC. Upon the assassination of Caesar, Cicero wrote a paper against Antony. In response, Antony took off Cicero’s head.

I have pulled the main items from Cicero’s treaties to define and construct what friendship should look like, how it should be bound and managed.

Cicero sets up a dialogue between Laelius, Fannius, and Scaevola upon the death of their good friend Scipio.

As Laelius begins his discussion he says of his deceased friend Scipio:

“Yet such is the pleasure I take in recalling our friendship, that I look upon my life as having been a happy one because I have spent it with Scipio. With him I was associated in public and private business; with him I lived in Rome and served abroad; and between us there was the most complete harmony in our tastes, our pursuits, and our sentiments, which is the true secret of friendship.”

We would all wish these the words of our friends upon our passing. To his young listeners Laelius states,

“All I can do is to urge on you to regard friendship as the greatest thing in the world; for there is nothing which so fits in with our nature, or is so exactly what we want in prosperity or adversity.”

“Now this truth seems clear to me, that nature has so formed us that a certain tie unites us all.”

This is true, in that our desire for friendship and connection is a reflection of the Godhead. A Triune God created us. He acts as one through three persons. Our lives seek this type of relationship - Relationships so close and intimate that we feel connected as one. Marriage is the closest we get to understand God as three, but good friendship is a representation of this unity. Cicero calls this “nature”, but just decades later this nature was defined in the person of Jesus Christ. Laelius again speaks of this “natural impulse”:

“I gather that friendship springs from a natural impulse rather than a wish for help: from an inclination of the heart, combined with a certain instinctive feeling of love, rather than from a calculation of the material advantage it was likely to confer. “

I have sensed at times that friendships with me were held in order to get something, and on a few occasions this clearly proved out to be true, even in Christian relationships. It is a painful discovery, but one that in hindsight I could have avoided. I’ll speak to Cicero’s instructions on avoidance shortly; he calls it a “tentative friendship”.

Friendship Rule #1

“Friendship can only exist between good men.”

Laelius goes on to define “good men” as, “Those whose actions and lives leave no question to their honor, purity, equity, liberality; who are free from greed, lust and violence; and who have the courage of their convictions.”

If two people in a relationship do not share these qualities then you will not be left with a true friendship, but a warped relationship that is unbalanced in one direction and headed for a future separation. He continues with some great descriptions of friendship that include:

“Is not prosperity robbed of half its value if you have no one to share your joy? Such friendship enhances prosperity and relieves adversity of its burden by halving and sharing it. In the face of a true friend a man sees as it were a second self.”

This is supported in scripture we are called to friendship with, “Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Galatians 6:2 also the words from Ecclesiastes 4:9-10, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!”

There are many actions that are not virtuous and can reveal something as not friendship. Beyond this, Laelius reminds us that doing wrong in the name of friendship violates this gift and turns it into something that cannot be defined as friendship.

“I conclude, then, that the plea of having acted in the interests of a friend is not a valid excuse for a wrong action. For, seeing that a belief in a man's virtue is the original cause of friendship, friendship can hardly remain if virtue be abandoned.”

And so he states another rule of friendship.

Friendship Rule #2

“We may then lay down this rule of friendship - neither ask nor consent to do what is wrong. For the plea "for friendship's sake" is a discreditable one, and not to be admitted for a moment.”

We must never allow our affections for others to forsake virtue. If one follows a friend into evil for the sake of friendship it is not true friendship, and Laelius calls for punishment of the follower to equal that of the actor.

“Nature gives us friendship as the handmaid of virtue, not as a partner in guilt.”

”A righteous man is cautious in friendship, but the way of the wicked leads them astray.” Proverbs 12:26

Law of Friendship #3

To this he adds the first Law of Friendship, “Let this, then, be laid down as the first law of friendship, that we should ask from friends, and do for friends, only what is good. But do not let us wait to be asked either: let there be ever an eager readiness, and an absence of hesitation. Let us have the courage to give advice with candour. In friendship, let the influence of friends who give good advice be paramount; and let this influence be used to enforce advice not only in plain-spoken terms, but sometimes, if the case demands it, with sharpness; and when so used, let it be obeyed.’

Here we have one of the most needed and hardest elements of friendship, “reproof”. I have both offered and received reproof with friends. My confession is that the reproof I offered while warranted, was not well done in two specific occasions in the last ten years.

If you have successful friendships then you will accept face-to-face, well thought out reproof. If it were offered with grace and love then you’d be stubborn to not be open. It should cause you to search yourself and your actions. Reproof is biblical. “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” 2 Timothy 3:16

“…frankness without which friendship is an empty name.”

“Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” Proverbs 27:5-6

If reproof comes to you via emails and Facebook, then it is not an act of friendship, but emotion and possibly an enemy. I confess that I once used email to rebuke. It was a poor decision and took a valid rebuke and turned it into my failure.

Reproof should not involve insult either. Just recently I had someone poorly attempt to rebuke me. First, I had not sat and had a face-to-face conversation for more than 5 minutes in two years, so this person was not in a position to offer a reproof. Second, their reproof included an arrogant act of insult.

“It often happens that friends need remonstrance and even reproof. When these are administered in a kindly spirit they ought to be taken in good part.”

Reproof is biblical, but rebuke with insult or lacking grace is violent. And such violent reproofs end in war because it violates the intimacy once shared.

“Our first object, then should be to prevent a breach; our second to secure, that if it does occur, our friendship should seem to have died natural rather than a violent death.”

All of us can count friendships that seemed to have “died natural”. This does not eliminate the feeling of loss, but it is a much better way to separate if a change in virtues.

Violent separations and not forgotten.

Rule of Friendship #4

“Put yourself on a level with your friend.”

This is what I call the front-seat rule. If you want to know who thinks more of themselves than others when in a group, watch who assumes the front passenger seat. As the group walks to the car this person does one of two things, grabs the front seat before every one else has arrived at the car, or slows down so they can get it. He or she never sits in back unless someone of greater authority is present. These people are untrustworthy.

A friend, “…never assumes any airs of superiority.”

“For the advantages of genius and virtue, and in short, of every kind of superiority, are never realized to their fullest extent until they are bestowed upon our nearest and dearest.”

A friend may not share your rank, ability, material, or gifts, but he must never be treated as if he lacks any.

“People who are always bringing up their services are a nuisance. The recipient ought to remember them, and the performer should never mention them.”

Rule of Friendship #5

“As a general rule, we must wait to make up our mind about friendships until men’s characters and years have arrived at their full strength and development.”

Friendships that fail often could have been avoided. Laelius tells us to step into “Tentative Friendship”. This is a time of interaction with caution to test the other’s virtue, loyalty and a common ground on which to be allies. We may unconsciously take these actions before we invite a person into our inner circles, but it is better to be consciously considering whether a person should be brought into your closest confidence. We could save ourselves much pain in the long run with more intentionality in choosing close friends.

“The true rule is to take such care in the selection of our friends as never to enter upon a friendship with a man whom we could under any circumstances come to hate. ”

“Now the qualities we ought to look for in making our selection are firmness, stability, constancy.”

Scripture provides the first clear indicator as to whom you should allow into your inner circles, “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?” 2 Corinthians 6:14

Those in the faith are at different levels of growth, so faith cannot be the solo criterion for selection. Neither can a person’s position in the church be a solo criterion as plenty of untrustworthy characters are professional ministers.

“I must again repeat, you must satisfy your judgment before engaging your affection: not love first and judge afterwards.”

This statement is so important. It saves us from entering into what we should not, and it keeps us from difficult separations. This advice could have spared me much anguish, and helped me avoid my own failures in friendship.

Elements in Friendship

“Loyalty. Nothing that lacks this can be stable.”

Old friendships are filled with loyalty; People that have stood with you through adversity and trail. Old friendships are greater than new. “The older the sweeter as in wines that kept well.”

“(Truthfulness). Friendship, in which, unless you both see and show an open breast, to use a common expression, you can neither trust nor be certain of anything.”


God calls us in the Faith, “Friend”. This is a most powerful statement of affection, grace and forgiveness.

We have the opportunity to express and show the relationship of the Trinity to the watching world through our marriage and our friendships. Cicero gives us rules and actions that should guide us.

“Make up your mind to this. Virtue (without which friendship is impossible) is first, but next to it, and it alone, the greatest of all things is friendship.”

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