Years ago, I told one of my colleagues my personal tongue-in-cheek definition of a “friend.” A friend, I told him, is a person whose house you can visit anytime and neither he nor his wife will care whether or not the house has been cleaned, and the same is true if he visits your house. In other words, friends can drop in unannounced and everyone is happy to see each other even if there are dirty dishes in the sink. It isn’t the definition found in any dictionary, but I like to use it sometimes. The point I was trying to communicate with this definition is that real, close friends are a rare gift in life.
Of course, C.S. Lewis has a much more brilliant definition. He said, "Friendship . . . is born at the moment when one man says to another "What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . ." (Lewis, The Four Loves).
Friends are the people you can talk to about absolutely anything and they can talk to you about absolutely anything. Friends are loyal, but will tell you difficult truths when necessary. A friend sticks closer than a brother (Prov. 18:24). This is the case because a deep level of trust has developed over time. Such friendships develop only in the real world where people work together and go fishing together and enjoy dinners together with each other’s families year after year. Such friendships are becoming more and more difficult to build in a world where people constantly move from job to job and from city to city. They are also becoming more difficult because more and more people are confusing the online world with the real world, virtual reality for reality.
One of the downsides of the Internet is that it has radically changed the definition of “friend.” Facebook, of course, is an obvious culprit given that it actually uses the word “friend” to describe anyone you allow to view your posts. That’s a pretty low bar to be counted as someone’s “friend.” Some Facebook “friends” are actual friends in the real world, but most users of Facebook have numerous “friends” they’ve never spoken to or met. Facebook “friends” don’t fit my definition of “friend.” Facebook “friends” fall somewhere between imaginary friends and pen-pals. Frankly, I’m not sure what category they are in. I think such an understanding of “friends” is one of the reasons why so many young people who have dozens or hundreds of online friends remain desperately lonely and depressed. Human beings need other real human beings in their lives – not simply pixels. If we've learned anything during this pandemic and lockdown, hopefully we've learned this.
Online "communities" and online "friends" will never be able to replace embodied communities and embodied friends because human beings are embodied creatures. It is the way human nature was created by God. We are more than pixels. When we remove the embodied element of community and friendship, we remove an important human element. If we acknowledge this and understand the limitations, we can find ways to use these technologies without ascribing too much to them. If we insist, on the other hand, that nothing is lost by removing the embodied element, we end up denying significant biblical truths and open the door to heresies such as Gnosticism and docetism.
It's interesting to me that some of the best books outside of Scripture that effectively describe what real embodied friendship looks like are fictional children's books. E.B. White's book Charlotte's Web, for example, gives us Wilbur and Charlotte. A.A. Milne's books have brilliant insights on friendship with Pooh and Piglet. Of course, the greatest friend in all of fiction is Samwise Gamgee. Gimli comes in a close second. These works, and many others, describe the kinds of characteristics we look for in real embodied friends - faithfulness, loyalty, honesty, self-sacrifice, and more. When and if you find such friends in the real world, give thanks to God for such a blessing.