The Ingredients of a Great Friendship

“Dunbar’s number” is a number you may want to know. It’s a number Dr. Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Oxford, came up with originally studying the brains and social circles of primates. When it comes to his number he isn’t monkeying around.

“Dunbar’s number” is 150. It’s the number of a person’s social circle. Dunbar says your brain can only hold a close connection with no more than 150. Out of the 150 your closest 15 are the most crucial when it comes to your mental and physical health. You turn to them for sympathy or to confide in. And the smallest number is 5—your close support group made up of your best friends and often family.

The problem is that more Americans are saying they have no close friends. That number has tripled in recent decades. The most common response to the question “How many confidants do you have?” is “zero.”

“Social isolation is the public health risk of our time,” says Susan Pinker in her TED Talk. She says that one-third of the population say they have two or fewer people to lean on. Her study of the Italian island of Sardinia revealed that is has more than six times as many centenarians as the mainland of Italy and ten times as many as North America. Pinker says that social interaction—having a good friend or two—is a factor in living longer.

It was for David. King Saul was his friend that turned into an enemy: a frenemy. Maybe you’ve had a friend who became an enemy. Sometimes a friend abandons us, snubs us, or stabs us in the back. There may be times we deserve those reactions. We don’t like it then, but we can rationalize why that would happen to us.

But sometimes we are doing good when we are given strong opposition. David was. All he had done was good. He played music for the king, killed giants for the king, and wiped out Philistines for the king. In the midst of this craziness David found a great friend in the unlikeliest of places: Saul’s own son Jonathan.

Their friendship brackets the six attempts by Saul on David’s life. The front end of the bracket: “Jonathan was bound to David in close friendship, and loved him as much as he loved himself. … (1 Sam. 18:1). The closing end of the bracket: “Jonathan then said to David, ‘Go in the assurance the two of us pledged in the name of the Lord when we said: The Lord will be a witness between you and me and between my offspring and your offspring forever’” (1 Sam. 20:42).

Friends can bracket the evil in our lives. Friends can help us live through the difficult people in our lives. Jonathan did so with David. Read the story of their friendship and you find three components of a great friend:

  • covenant,
  • clothing, and
  • cover.

Jonathan made a covenant with David. They spoke words of affirmation to each other. They each knew the relationship was valued. David knew where his friend Jonathan stood.

Then Jonathan clothed David with what he needed. He gave him his robe, armor, belt, and sword. Some people in your Dunbar number will be your friend because they think you can help them. A great friend is concerned about how they can help you.

And then Jonathan gave David the cover of protection. He protected him from Saul by giving him warnings. And he protected David from himself. David could have given up on his anointing and returned to shepherding. He could have let his anger get the best of him and retaliated. But he didn’t. True friends help us become all God intends for us to become.

You may be wishing you had a friend like Jonathan2. You do, you know. Jesus said, “I have called you friends” (John 15:15). His covenant with you is to always be with you (Matthew 28:20). He has clothed you in salvation and righteousness (Isaiah 61:10). And he has covered you with his protection (John 10:28).

You have a friend like Jonathan. So why not focus on being a friend like Jonathan? There’s one somewhere in your Dunbar number. A friend can help you live longer on this earth.

It’s your other one—Jesus—that will help you live through eternity.

Question: Who are the “five” within your Dunbar number? 

 

What You See Sticks

In 1999, Scott Ginsberg attended a convention, the kind where they have everyone attending wear a name tag. The kind of name tags that as soon as you are heading out the door you rip off and toss in the trash.

Except Scott didn’t. He thought it might be fun to keep it on and see what happened. The responses the rest of the night led him to a crazy decision. He decided he would never take off his name tag.

It was a social experiment before you could find them all over YouTube. Cute girls started saying hello to him. People would come up to him, say “Hi Scott,” and give him hugs. One of his favorite stories is the time he was in line to get inside an Irish Pub. The big, brawny bouncer looked at his driver’s license, then his nametag, and said straight-faced: “Sorry, no Scotts allowed.”

Even if he took off the sticky-backed nametag, he’d still have on a nametag. He got it tattooed to his chest which landed him on a number of “worst tattoos” lists. It has also landed him in Ripley’s Believe it or Not as a world record holder.

Where others saw trash, Scott saw a trend. He’s turned his social experiment into a six-figure annual salary. What you see sticks.

The shepherd boy David understood that. He showed up at a battlefront one day to bring his brothers some bread and cheese. But no battle was taking place. Instead, the Israelite army has been listening to the taunts of the six-foot nine-inch giant Goliath for forty days. “I defy the ranks of Israel today. Send me a man so we can fight each other!” For forty days the Israelite army did nothing. The Israelite army saw a giant. What they saw stuck and so they were stuck.

But David saw something else. He speaks up and says: “What will be done for the man who kills that Philistine and removes this disgrace from Israel? Just who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?”

Pay attention to David’s words. He doesn’t see a giant. He sees an “uncircumcised Philistine.” He doesn’t see the Israelite army. He sees “the armies of the living God.”

It’s important what we see. We have our own giants today.

  • Something from our past resurfaces every year on the anniversary of the event and the giant of depression appears.
  • The giant of unexpected unemployment taunts you with words you don’t think you can defeat: “You’ll never dig yourself out of this hole, your bills are stacking up so high.”
  • Your marriage is shaky and the giant of divorce is challenging you.

You’ve seen your own giants, haven’t you? And when you did and when you do, do you see God?

David did. Nine times in the story he speaks of God. He mentions Goliath only two. Do you think that perhaps your giants would be slayed if your thoughts of God outnumbered your thoughts of your giants by a nine to two ratio?

If so, do what David did. He knelt. He had to in order to pick up the five stones from the wadi. He had developed a practice of kneeling in the quiet of his shepherding duties. There he became saturated with the stories of God.

  • How he delivered his people from the giant named Pharaoh.
  • How he gave them provision when they faced the giants of thirst and hunger in the Wilderness.
  • How ten spies saw real giants and retreated for fear.
  • How Joshua and Caleb saw God instead.

When you kneel, you see God. And what you see sticks. What you see will shape your life. And it may shape the lives of others too. Once David defeated his giants, the others followed and routed their enemy.

You can do the same. You have a spouse, a friend, your family, your children who need someone in their lives to help them face their own giants. They need someone who sees what maybe they don’t. Someone who sees God.

Kneel. Then run.

Then watch your giants run.

Question: What giant are you battling today?

View Your Work as Your Anointing

It’s Sunday. Monday is looming. And you, if you are like most workers in America, are glooming. A recent Gallup survey revealed that 51% of workers are not engaged at work, meaning they have no real connection to their jobs. Another 16% are “actively disengaged.” They resent their jobs. They gripe about their jobs to fellow employees and are the ones responsible for bringing down office morale.

Want to be a part of the 30% that are engaged with their work? Maybe you need to understand your work as your anointing. Let me explain. We say a singer has such an “anointing.” Or maybe a preacher has the “anointing” of God. I’ve never known exactly what that means other than that someone might prefer one singer or preacher over another.

In the Bible, however, being anointed means that God has given a person a job to do. (See Eugene Peterson, Leap Over a Wall for a more detailed discussion of this idea.)  There’s a job to do, he assigns it, and more importantly the person he assigns it to—no matter how they look on the outside—can actually do it.

Take David for example. When we first see David in Scripture he is out “tending the sheep.” When Samuel the prophet shows up in Bethlehem at Jesse’s house to find the next king of Israel he asks Jesse to bring his sons in before him. He does. Every one of them. Except David. David’s father forgets him. His brothers forget him.

But God did not. “Then the Lord said, ‘Anoint him [David], for he is the one.’ So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully on David from that day forward.”

The job God gave David to do at his anointing was to be king of Israel. Saul had been given that job to do, but he did not do it well. He began paying attention to the work of being a king but he did not pay attention to God. Any work that gets disconnected from God can lose its anointing. Saul lost his. It did not happen right away. But it did happen. When we are more interested in our work than we are in God, God will remove himself from our work.

David on the other hand paid attention to God. His first assignment after he was anointed was to serve a bad king. Eventually Saul wanted to kill David as David’s approval rate soared while his plummeted. Remember that when you want to complain about your boss. And yet he served well. He was faithful in what he was given to do. Later he will be given more.

All work is a place where God can do his work in us. Before he was anointed David was a shepherd. It wasn’t “filler” work until his real work began. It shaped him. Silence. Solitude. Integrity of protecting the sheep when no one was watching. All that prepared him to be a king. He watched. He served. He protected. He led. He cared for the sheep. He helped the hurting. He kept order.

Watch. Serve. Protect. Lead. Care for. Heal. Order. Those are things kings do. And that’s what we do when God anoints us with work to do. We represent God in our work. He works and we work. Listen to what the Psalmist said when he reflected on our unique place in God’s creation: “You made him little less than God and crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet.”

Your employment and mine has to do with the work of God. All work is a training ground for God’s work in us. In our work we learn what it means to be shaped by our anointing. God finds the one who is faithful in the quiet things and gives them more to do. Jesus gave us this principle in his story about faithful and unfaithful servants: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You were faithful over a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.”

So if you want to be a manager someday, act like one now. If you want to be a leader someday, start serving in the role you have now. Do you want people to trust you with responsibility tomorrow? Then be trustworthy today.

You’ve been anointed to a work by God that you can do. When you do that work well by paying attention to God, you are really anointed. And you may find yourself engaged more at work.

Question: Is your work the place you see God doing his work in you?