What are the hallmarks of a good friendship? What characteristics do you look for in a friend?

Often, the entryway into friendship is two people sharing a common interest. We enjoy being around others who like the same things we like, whether it’s a hobby, similar vocation, or even discovering we are both from the same small town. Another essential bond in a friendship is loyalty. We all want friends who will stick by us when the going gets tough. We want friends who will keep our secrets a secret. And certainly, we want friends who will encourage us, cheer us on, and affirm us.

But do we ever look for friends who exhort us?

A Good Friend Exhorts

In our world, friends who tell us what we want to hear are valued. People prefer friends who flatter them. They want friends who will respond to a problem about a difficult decision in their life with, “You should do what makes you happy.” Friendship in our culture often involves mutual encouragement to sin.

Have you ever had a friend who whispered to you, “You have spinach stuck in your teeth?” Likely, you felt some embarrassment when you realized how long you’d gone with green flakes sticking out for the world to see every time you smiled. Yet, you were also probably grateful to your friend for pointing it out to you.

A good Christian friend will point out spiritual things to us we can’t see, such as sin and idolatry. They will point out to us when we’ve wandered off the narrow path. They will show us areas in our life where we lack joy in God — relishing in the wonder of who he is and what he has done. A Christian friend won’t tell us what we want to hear, but what we need to hear. “Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy” (Proverbs 27:5–6).

As C.H. Spurgeon said about such friendships,

True friends put enough trust in you to tell you openly of your faults. Give me for a friend the man who will speak honestly of me before my face; who will not tell first one neighbor, and then another, but who will come straight to my house, and say, “Sir, I feel there is such-and-such a thing in you, which, as my brother, I must tell you of.” That man is a true friend; he has proved himself to be so; for we never get any praise for telling people of their faults; we rather hazard their dislike; a man will sometimes thank you for it, but he does not often like you any the better.

Exhorting Friendships

An exhorting friendship is not a relationship where we simply sit around and point fingers at one another. It’s not an opportunity to make people feel bad. We don’t exhort others because we relish pointing out one another’s faults. Rather, we exhort one another because it grieves us to see another believer stumble into sin. Because we are united to one another as siblings in Christ, it hurts the body of Christ when various parts turn away from God to do their own thing.

The efforts we make to exhort one another are always done out of love and gentleness. “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver. Like a gold ring or an ornament of gold is a wise reprover to a listening ear” (Proverbs 25:11–12). We go out of our way to speak to them in kindness, encouraging them, and seeking to spur them on forward in the faith. As the apostle, Paul wrote to the Galatians, “Brothers if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Galatians 6:1).

We see the quicksand they are stepping into, and we desperately want to pull them out before it sucks them in. So we preach the gospel to our friends. We remind them of the joy found in knowing God and being known by him, of the deep satisfaction found in enjoying the One who made us. We remind them of who they are in Christ and what he has done for them. We remind them they were bought at a price, they are new creations, and Christ will not forsake them. We point them to the cross, to redemption, forgiveness, and the way of repentance. And we offer to walk with them in the journey.

A Wise Listener

When a friend points out to us that our hair is sticking up at weird angles, or that we have a stain on our shirt, or that we have food in our teeth, we might be embarrassed, but ultimately we are thankful. When a friend lovingly exhorts us and points out sin in our lives, it isn’t easy to hear. At first, we might be offended by it. But those who are wise will listen, “Whoever corrects a scoffer gets himself abuse, and he who reproves a wicked man incurs injury. Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you. Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning” (Proverbs 9:7–9).

When a friend exhorts us, we need to take time and consider it. We need to pray about it and ask the Lord to help us see what our friend sees. We need to evaluate our heart for sin and for ways we seek to find joy and meaning outside of God. We need to learn from it and grow in Christlikeness. And we need to respond to our friend with gratitude for being honest with us.

Do you have an exhorting friend in your life? Pray that the Lord would provide you such a friend. Seek out friendships with those who radiate the joy and love of Christ in their lives. Spend time with those who live to enjoy God for the glory of God. Take the time to develop deep, trusting friendships with others and mutually seek the best in one another — including exhorting one another in the faith.

As believers, we all need friends who will exhort us. We need to listen to their exhortation and heed their cautions because more is at stake than embarrassment over how we look with food in our teeth. Our friends exhort us because they care about our hearts.