You guys, you will not believe what I am about to do. And I am sorry. Really. I’ve tried to figure out a way around this, but it can’t be helped.

I am starting this post with a definition from a dictionary. Webster’s 1828, to be exact.

I know.

“Friendship: n. An attachment to a person, proceeding from intimate acquaintance and a reciprocation of kind offices, or from a favorable opinion of the amiable and respectable qualities of his mind. Friendship differs from benevolence, which is good will to mankind in general, and from that love which springs from animal appetite. True friendship is a noble and virtuous attachment, springing from a pure source, a respect for worth or amiable qualities. False friendship may subsist between bad men, as between thieves and pirates. This is a temporary attachment springing from [self-]interest, and may change in a moment to enmity and rancor.” (Emphasis mine)

Now, despite feeling as if I am beginning a writing assignment in jr high, I will press on.

A blogger I keep up with referenced this definition of friendship and it struck me as particularly inaccurate. Take a look around you. Given your current group of friends, would you say that this is how you define friendship? I’ve had my share of bad friends in my day, but I call them bad friends when they are bad to me, not bad in general. In fact, I consider myself a better friend when I stick by people who are having what I will call a momentary lapse in judgement. As my uncle would say, you would have to be a bonehead many a time over for me to decide that maybe it would be better if you weren’t around so much.

I think I would go so far as to say that most people are like me. Most think (or at least act as if) character is fairly irrelevant when it comes to developing one’s friends. You want them to be good enough that they won’t go around hurting your feelings or your reputation, but would you say that you have selected your friends because they are the best, brightest, most noble, and virtuous people you know? I guess another way of saying it is, could any of your friends moonlight as a pirate? If so, maybe you are experiencing false friendship masquerading as the real thing.

Or perhaps dear Webster is wrong. It does seem a terribly stuffy definition, doesn’t it? And who are we to say who is noble and good, and bright and all that? Oh, and who did Jesus hang out with? I mean, those guys were a mess! Merely dirty, doubting fishermen. Yeah.

And yet, I can’t help but wonder who I would become if I invested myself in the very best people I knew. What might we be able to accomplish together for the kingdom of God? What sort of love might I be able to have for people I admire so deeply? On the other hand, I know I am to love (deeply) those much less admirable. So can I love them without calling them friends? I have no idea.

So, uh, friendship.

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Posted by Cate MacDonald


  1. I picked up Karol Wojtila’s Love and Responsibility this summer–good book. I cannot recall how he defined friendship, but if it was anything like his definition of romantic love it had a definite element of choice in it, which I think might be part of what’s missing from Webster, which seems to suggest that we’ve got to choose our friends from only the best. But a more Christian definition of friendship might suggest that choosing someone as a friend is the very definition, at least in certain situations, of loving them.


  2. I will have to go back and read it again, it has been years and years, but I remember being enthusiastic about C.S. Lewis’ treatment of friendship in The Four Loves.


  3. d.j. and kkairos,

    Thank you for the comment, as it helped me define my own question. What I am really curious about is the difference between loving someone well and calling them a friend. The definition I quoted seems to suggest that friendship consists mostly of mutual admiration of nobility of character, and in so far as it does, the choice one has is to assent to another’s goodness and admire them for it. In this way, friendship is about reciprocity in doing good and mutual values more than it is selfless love. Now you certainly can (and should) love people of whom you don’t think especially well. Right? Perhaps this is something other than friendship, or friendship is much more broad than the definition allows. I am open to either possibility.


    I’ve not read that book for a few years either, but it was very important to me when I first read it. I should go digging for it…


  4. The second phrase you emphasize in that very old definition of ‘friendship’ is right on.

    As you said, most of those whom are friends are not the most noble or virtuous people but those to whom we are attached by geography or whatever.

    That said, it is the attachement that is noble and virtuous not the individual to whom you are attached. A respect for another’s worth as a person transcends their shortcomings of virtue or nobility and our attachment to them as friendship.

    So I think your question about ‘investing yourself in the very best people you know’ doesn’t quite make sense because it is the attachment that matters.


  5. *Our attachment to them as friendship is virtuous in itself.*


  6. Prufrock,

    Do you think that attachment to a person, no matter how wicked, is virtuous in itself? This I find hard to believe. It seems that it would be a bad thing to be deeply attached to a very wicked person. Consider an example: My uncle is a very unstable person. He has physically attacked my 84 year old grandfather several times, forcing my grandparents into a restraining order. He has also threatened to shoot members of my family. A cousin of mine still considers him to be a friend, and was planning on bringing him to a family wedding until he was expressly forbidden. This seems a bad attachment, a false friendship. At some point my uncle has violated the bonds of friendship. This is, of course, an extreme example but it serves a broader point. It seems to me that one can respect another’s worth as a human being and have benevolence towards them, but to call this friendship is to weaken the word and confuse the concept. This is why I see some value in the Webster’s definition; some people make much better friends than others, and this seems important to the concept of friendship as a whole.


  7. Friendship is not necessarily reciprocal, although that may be part of it, and I was just suggesting that friendship with someone who isn’t necessarily a good person or treats you with reciprocal respect or amiability can be a true friendship for the party who values the worth of the other person. I think that attachment is virtuous despite the lack of reciprocity.

    The admonition “be ye not unequally yoked with unbelievers” speaks to your point about deep attachment with wicked people. But I would suggest that it is better to remain attached as friends to the person. It is ennobling to the party faithful to the spirit of friendship but people can only take so much, right?

    I’m sorry to hear about your uncle and I can relate. I think that the familial bond is different than friendship but still a form of it. And it’s understandable that you would break the attachment with someone who has broken that bond of reciprocity that friendship entails in your view.

    For the most part, I agree with you but I hope you can see my point as well.


  8. are our #friendships investing in the very best people we know (and who would #Jesus be friends with, anyway)? |

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter


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