We’ve heard this phrase over and over: “A friend loves at all times.”
We’ve learned that it means we’re supposed to be nice to others, share, take turns, let somebody else go first, and so on. The words have become so familiar, they float in the background of our minds—like elevator music.
Because God inspired them, let's slow down, take the words apart, and inspect each one. Then we can string them back together into fresh, meaningful ideas.
Where Does This Phrase Come from in the Bible?
This phrase is found in Proverbs 17:17: “A friend loves at all times.” The Book of Proverbs is found in the Old Testament of the Bible and is a book of moral and ethical instructions. Its verses teach how to live wise, godly lives in attitudes, conduct, and personal character.
Chapter seventeen is part of a section attributed to King Solomon, who asked the Lord for wisdom and became known as the wisest man of his day (1 Kings 4:29-31). According to The Bible Knowledge Commentary for the Old Testament, Solomon presumably wrote his proverbs to instruct his son and his students. But other parents and teachers have imparted these wise words for thousands of years.
The truths found in the book of Proverbs are timeless—and so they apply to us today. So, let’s break this verse apart and consider each word to learn how to fulfill this scripture.
My word study book gives these synonyms for friend: brother, companion, fellow, spouse, lover, and neighbor. That last word brings a similar Bible verse to mind. Jesus said in Matthew 22:39 that we should love our neighbor as ourselves. He even said this is one of the two most important commandments—the other being to love God more than anything. Jesus was referencing Leviticus 19:18 where God told the Israelites the very same thing.
We can infer that being a friend who loves others is important to God. But what does it mean to be a friend, or “neighbor?” Who is your neighbor? Besides the synonyms for “friend,” neighbor includes anyone close, or even a fellow countryman.
We can see then, that we are instructed to be a friend to anyone who fits the definition of friend or neighbor to us. We’re admonished to act like a close relative or associate—to think of ourselves as a friend. I find this to be a novel concept in our society. It seems most in western culture view themselves as adversarial change-agents. Control is the name of the game, not just in politics, but in every area of life. It’s not something that’s often talked about, but it is the way many behave. However, Jesus was a radical, friendly change-agent. And this verse tells us how friends act. Friends love.
"A Friend Loves..."
The word “love” in the Bible is really interesting. The ancient languages were much more expressive than English when it came to nuance of meaning. Instead of needing to infer from context, they actually had different words for different situations. We might speak of loving God, loving a spouse, or loving french fries. Of course we don’t mean the same thing in each instance, but we employ the same word. Biblical writers never did that.
They penned specific words so the meaning could not be lost. In the case of Proverbs 17:17, “loves” is translated from “aheb,” which means “to have affection for.” When Jesus told His listeners to love their neighbors, the word He chose was “agapao,” which included the idea of “a deliberate assent of the will as a matter of principle, duty, and propriety.” It is closely related to “phileo,” meaning “affection, personal attachment, a matter of sentiment, or feeling.” This concept also includes the idea from “thelo,” which means to choose, or to “delight in.”
What does all this mean for us? We are to be a person who views those in our life circle as people we willingly choose to delight in. This is easy when we are naturally attracted to a person—when they seem to have a lot in common with us.
But what about the co-worker who criticizes you, either openly or behind your back? Or the guy next door who draws a line your lawnmower is not supposed to cross? At first, maybe you only act friendly because you decide to, understanding it is your command. But ultimately, you should be open to letting your emotions come along.
There is a principle whereby when we act in certain ways, we begin to accept as truth the ideas behind our actions. Then our feelings get on board. You’ve heard it said, “Fake it ‘till you make it.” While I’m not suggesting to say things that aren’t true, we can behave in nice ways toward those whom it is difficult to like. While that phrase certainly doesn’t sound spiritual, it really is. When we do what we’re supposed to do, we become accustomed to it, and then we embrace it. There is much to be said for sheer obedience.
"A Friend Loves at All Times"
This part of the verse seems self-explanatory. But let’s flesh it out a bit to make sure we don’t miss anything. Daytime, nighttime, mornings before coffee, evenings right after work, afternoons driving children to activities, and any other timeframe you can think of are included. And if we’re supposed to love every minute of every day, that must mean we’re supposed to love everywhere we go—no matter what happens or who is there.
Because our “neighbor” is to be treated as a friend—as ourselves. And we’ve already established that our neighbors are our close associates, relatives, even fellow countrymen.
What if they don’t agree with you? What if they don’t even like you? Everyone has certain folks who get under their skin and are difficult to tolerate, not to mention treat with love. These people are co-workers, parents of the other little league team, relatives, and sometimes, unfortunately, other church members. As for fellow countrymen, this discussion is especially pertinent in a presidential election year—in any country.
God expects His people to cooperate with Him in loving other people. It’s part of His plan. In this way, we can be His hands, and feet, and mouth. We don’t have to agree with them on everything. We are just expected to behave in a loving manner toward them.
What if you’re not a morning person? Or you’ve had a bad day at work. Or... fill in the blank. It doesn’t matter. There is no excuse for any Christian to be a human version of Garfield, the cartoon grumpy cat. Instead, imitate Mr. Rogers and say, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”
How You Can Be a Friend That Loves at All Times
1. Adjust your attitude.
We’ve alluded to this point already. Being a friend really is a mindset.
We begin with the thought that every person we meet needs to be treated as we want to be treated—all the time. Your mother was right when she paraphrased Luke 6:31, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Whether it’s your mom, or Mr. Rogers, or Jesus you decide to quote in your head, on this one point they all say the same thing.
Repeating the words like a mantra can help. I’m acquainted with a man, Randy Draper, who has made the phrase “Happy to do it!” his life’s motto. He even wrote a book with the same title. It helps him maintain a cheerful, helpful attitude even when his knee-jerk reaction in a situation might not be so positive.
2. Make a list.
Since it’s easy to be a friend to our friends, make a list of those people in your circle of influence who are difficult to like. Next to each name, write one friendly or helpful action you can take for them.
I work from home now, but when I worked in our local school system, there were some co-workers I struggled to be around. I knew they were talking negatively about me during breaks. I was given a job they felt passed over for, and their imagined reasons for this ranged from insidious to ridiculous.
One woman in particular just seemed to go out of her way to be rude to me. I determined I would smile every time I saw her and say, “Hi.” I refused to talk about her to others, and if she was in line for the copier, I’d offer to let her go before me. These small tokens added up. We never developed a great relationship, but I think she stopped hating me.
And I can be sure that the actions I was responsible for—mine—were what Jesus would approve. I wish I could say that I manage to be a friend to all the “sandpaper” people in my life (the ones who rub me the wrong way), but I’m a work in progress.
3. Consider the "time" in your friends' lives.
Times of Crisis: There are crisis points in everyone’s life. If you know of someone who is fighting a serious illness, has lost a loved one, or has been injured or had surgery that incapacitates them in some way for a while, determine this is the time to be a friend. Take a meal, offer to care for their pets, or just go by for a visit. You never know what an impact simple, small acts of kindness will have on them.
When I fought breast cancer, side effects from treatment prevented me from leaving my house more often than attending church on Sunday mornings. The visits of a few women who decided to reach out to me were more of a comfort than I can describe.
One of my friends, Carolyn, who is a recent widow, fell and broke her shoulder. She could not stay at home by herself, and her family mostly live out of town. So for a few days, she slept in a chair in my living room and I kept her therapeutic ice machine filled and running. Over the course of about three weeks, she stayed with friends, until she was able to go home. Her eyes still tear up, months later, when she recalls her gratitude.
Times of Daily Fatigue: Sometimes I wonder how certain people can cope with so many demands on their time and drama in their life or their extended family’s life. I know they’re overwhelmed. This is the time to bring a coffee, invite her for an afternoon of shopping—mainly to get away for a chat, gift a pair of movie tickets, or offer to babysit the kids one Saturday. The greatest gift I received once from a friend was flowers planted in my front porch pot when I just couldn’t manage it.
Times of Joy: The birth of a baby, a marriage, graduation, retirement, or job promotion all come with opportunities to be a friend to the unsuspecting.
Last year, the house next door sold to a woman whose lifestyle she expected us to condemn. She has lived under the load of rejection for so long, it feels normal to her.
When my husband mowed her lawn one hot summer day, she seemed shocked. When I delivered a loaf of bread at Thanksgiving, she was visibly moved. Our actions spoke “friendly” to her, and we have developed a casual relationship that she didn’t expect.
A card in the mail is so rare today, that its impact can be tremendous. When a person at work or in your neighborhood has something congratulations-worthy happen to them, if you hear about it, send a card.
Now that your mind is in the “friendly” groove, I’m sure you can think of other times and ways to be a friend who treats others as your friend—all the time.
This imperative sounds deceptively easy. In reality, it’s not an easy assignment, but one that brings rewards. We feel better about ourselves, we gain an appreciation for those who we may have previously ignored, and we become open to new relationships. The best benefit, though, is knowing we’re pleasing the Lord by acting like He would if He were here. Because He is—He lives in and through those of us who are called by His name: Christian.
Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/Joseph Pearson
Kathryn Graves, author of Woven: Discovering Your Beautiful Tapestry of Confidence, Rest, and Focus, and Fashioned by God, holds a BA in Psychology, is a pastor’s wife and Bible teacher, and spent 15 years in the fashion industry. Kathryn is Mimi to five grandsons, and loves to play with color—including interior design, clothing, and painting with pastels. In addition to her website, find her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.