One of the best saxophone players at Howard University approached me at a music store outside Washington D.C. I was studying saxophone at Howard and he recognized me from the practice rooms. He encouraged me about my playing and asked me why I don’t hang out with him and the other players. He was inviting me into the kind of friendship that produced great, great musicians at Howard.

I never talked to him again.

I put in the work in the practice room, I meticulously implemented instruction, but when it came to friendships with musicians that would make me better, I was too insecure, too afraid of rejection, so I refused.

I believe that real friendship should make us better. This is true in music, sports, and most importantly spirituality which affects every area of our life. Jesus taught this in John 15 and lived it in his life. We will either embrace these qualities of friendship or we will refuse them like I did in college.

Let’s look at four qualities of a friendship that will make you better. You can apply these to yourself and ask yourself how much do you do these things for your friends? Or, look at the types of people you most often surround yourself with – do you welcome their help and input? Are your friendships making you better and helping you become who you are meant to be?

1. A great friend will do anything to make you better

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
John 15:13 (NIV)

We can read this scripture and easily skip to thoughts of jumping in front of a bus to save a friend but miss the more thankless, everyday sacrifices that make others great.

No one more consistently sacrifices to make me better than my wife does. She has patiently and persistently pushed me to be better over the 12 years that we’ve been married.

One area that my wife has consistently challenged me in is my discipline. My wife worked exhaustively to become a three time All-American gymnast and top student at UC Davis despite an undiagnosed learning disability.

A few years ago, I decided to take a statistics class to boost my GPA before applying to a top 10 MBA school. I was discouraged to get an 86 on the first of three tests in the class. I didn’t take this class to get an 86, I took it to get an A plus!

My wife heard this and asked me: do you really want to get an A? Then she walked me through each step I needed to take to get the grade I wanted. Her procedure was so challenging to my feeble work ethic that I considered quitting the class.

Even though I ultimately decided not to apply to the MBA program, I followed her direction, got an A+ in the class, and more importantly I grew in my personal discipline. All of this thanks to my wife and best friend doing whatever was necessary to make me better.

Do you have friends who will do anything to make you better?

2. A great friend will give you great feedback

You are my friends if you do what I command.
John 15:14 (NIV)

Jesus insisted that we follow his direction if we want to be his friend. Giving and following direction is an important quality of friendship. Think about our coaches, teachers, and mentors. How close will we really be to them if we don’t follow their direction? Why? They invite us into relationship in order to develop us into the greater person that they envision. Jesus teaches that we should do the same for our friends. Rejecting this investment hurts the person and damages the friendship.

I remember the lesson after my first saxophone recital at Howard University. I had practiced hard, but I failed to grasp the sound of the modern classical piece I performed. I knew that my performance was mediocre at best, but I really wanted to hear encouraging words from my teacher that would make me feel better.

“Your performance was not good.”

OK, these were not the encouraging words that I was hoping to hear. What I heard instead was the truth about how I really sounded and a challenge to make my saxophone sound like a bell. A bell? Saxophones don’t sound like bells!

Off to the practice room I went for months, playing long notes and standing in the corner so that I could hear my sound. Many times, I was so frustrated that I wanted to break my saxophone. I wanted to quit, but I respected the opportunity that I had to study with such a great teacher so I continued.

Until one day I took a break from practicing at a friend’s house. The second I stepped out of the room, my friend said: “Wow, when you were playing it sounded exactly like a bell.” Man, that felt good.

Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.

Proverbs 20:6

I must admit that it is very difficult for me to consistently practice this quality of friendship, especially in my spiritual life. We have to work hard to believe that the hard truth we hear from our friends about our lives, marriages, and parenting can be trusted.

Do you trust your friends enough to respond to their feedback and grow?

3. A great friend will teach you everything they know

I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.
John 15:15 (NIV)

At the first startup that I worked for, I remember my boss calling me into his office and taking about 2 hours to teach me the foundations of how our industry worked. I didn’t need to know this to complete any of my assignments or even to fulfill my role. My boss was treating me as a friend the way Jesus is teaching in this scripture.

Do you have friends that teach you everything they know? As a friend, do you share every part of your life with any of your friends?

4. A great friend will point you to a greater purpose

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.

John 15:16 (NIV)

There is a famous and often quoted story about how Steve Jobs, a founder of Apple, originally convinced John Sculley, the CEO of Pepsi, to leave Pepsi in 1983 with the famous line: “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life or do you want to come with me and change the world?”

Steve Jobs was pointing Sculley to a greater purpose and Sculley did leave Pepsi for Apple.

Jesus did the same for his friends, but the greater purpose that he called his friends to was to change people’s lives on the inside.

As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 17 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said,“and I will send you out to fish for people.” 18 At once they left their nets and followed him. 19 When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. 20 Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.

Mark 1:16-20 NIV

Simon, James, and John were clearly inspired by the purpose that their friend Jesus gave them. They left their family business for it.

I can relate. When friends here in California helped me understand that I could follow Jesus’ example and learn to lead others to a greater purpose, I decided to leave my full scholarship at Howard University to pursue this purpose with my friends here. Along the way, I ended up meeting my wife at UC Davis. There’s no greater feeling than finding your true purpose in life.

Do you have friends that call you to a greater purpose?

Examine your friendships. Have you built friendships that consistently tell you the truths that you need to grow and grasp your destiny? The Bible teaches that these kinds of friendships are possible and Jesus showed us how to do it.

“Show me your friends and I’ll show you your future” (Anonymous).

For further reading:

  • 1 Samuel 18-20 (Jonathan and David)
  • 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Philippians 2 (Paul and Timothy)
  • Crucial Conversations by Joseph Grenny, Kerry Patterson, and Ron McMillan
  • Crucial Confrontations by Patterson by Joseph Grenny, Kerry Patterson, and Ron McMillan
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