Being a good friend isn’t easy. At least, not if you’re trying to develop meaningful friendships.
Anyone can go shopping with you, party with you or go to concerts with you, but a good friend is one who can sit with you in difficult times. Listen to you, try to understand you. These are the types of friends who have stuck around in my life from childhood to middle school, high school and today. They are the friends who did what Galatians 6:2 instructs us to do: “Carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”
If the “law of Christ” is God’s love for us fulfilled on the Cross, then carrying one another’s burdens is how we show love and is, therefore, a command we cannot take lightly. A good friend will love you by carrying your burdens with you.
So how do you become a good friend according to this Galatians 6:2 definition?
I’ve learned a few helpful tips by doing the opposite of what this passage says—by being a bad friend.
You might even be a bad friend and not know it.
Share Their Own Experiences When You are Trying to Share Yours.
I did this with a friend the other day when we were hiking. My friend was sharing a really hard thing with me, and I kept chiming in with examples from my own life. Something deep down inside of me was saying, “Stop doing that. You’re not helping.” But I couldn’t. I just kept sharing my own stories, diminishing and quieting hers.
When a friend is sharing something with you and you interrupt with a “yeah, that happened to me too and here’s what I did” type of statement, it can appear empathetic, but really, it’s interruptive. It’s almost like saying, “Your struggle is not unique. It happens to all of us.” We think we are making our friend feel better and less alone, when really, we are diminishing her experience.
Talk Instead of Listen.
The best thing a friend can do for me when I’m going through something difficult is listen, and then listen some more and then listen some more. When someone listens to me, like really listens and isn’t just waiting for her turn to talk, I feel cared for. I feel like my words are landing in a safe place that will be held, protected and understood.
Mark Goulston, the author of Just Listen, says the best way to listen to someone is to ask them questions back. “When people are upset,” he says, “it matters less what you tell them than what you enable them to tell you.”
Try to Fix Your Problem.
I like to do this one too, but I am trying to make myself be comfortable with listening and hearing rather than rattling off a list of things my friend can do to improve her situation.
I used to think I was a really good friend for doing this. Now I realize I’m being a better friend when I say things like, “That’s hard.” And then keep my mouth shut.
It’s uncomfortable, but when someone does this for me, I can feel them feel my pain, and that is better for my pain in that moment than fixing it. Pain can’t really be “fixed” anyways.
Can’t Relate or Find Common Ground.
My friend who volunteered with a prison ministry for several years said he worried about empathizing with the men there because his life was so different from theirs. After spending time with them though, he realized they were much more similar than he thought because we are all human, we are all broken and we all need help.
No matter what our friends are going through, we can relate to them because we share the characteristics of a broken people in a broken world.
‘Silverline’ Your Pain.
This might be my biggest pet peeve in life: when I am sharing something difficult with a friend, and she begins her response with the phrase “at least.”
Brené Brown calls this “silverlining” it. She says using the phrase “at least” is the worst thing you can say to someone when he or she shares something difficult with you.
If I am grieving something or someone in my life, and I share that with a friend who then tries to point out all of the positive things I still have, my grieving is put on pause. It transports me out of that place. It’s jarring, in a way, and forces me to agree and put on a smile I’m not ready to put on yet.
Pain and grieving is uncomfortable to witness, and it is so tempting to try and make our friends feel better, but the best thing we can do for them—the most selfless thing we can do for them during a hard time—is simply to be present. This allows for grace and mercy to speak louder than our attempts at fixing and silverlining.
Let’s take a queue from our great high priest. Hebrews tells us this: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tested in every way as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us at the proper time” (4:15-16). Friendships founded on grace and mercy are the friendships that last.
I learn the most about how to be good at friendship when I do it poorly, which is often. That is part of it. We aren’t going to be perfect at loving others, only Jesus was and is, but don’t let that deter you from trying to understand and listen to those around you. Your relationships will grow stronger and deeper if you mindfully practice loving understanding with your friends each day.