“Friendship: A Gospel Principle,” Ensign, May 1999, 64
Good morning, brothers and sisters. Although, candidly, one is never completely comfortable with an assignment like this, I do sincerely appreciate the opportunity to speak to all of you on this beautiful Easter morning.
My wise father once told me that if I listened carefully to what people talk about from the pulpit in church, I would know which principles of the gospel were of concern to them and those with which they might be struggling at any given time. Through the years, my father’s observation has caused me to be very careful in the choice of subjects about which I speak! Nevertheless, I have an admission to make today. Since President Gordon B. Hinckley shared with us the three fundamental needs every new member of the Church has for a friend, a responsibility, and nourishing by the good word of God, I have been personally concerned about my performance as a friend.
The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that “friendship is one of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism.’”1 That thought ought to inspire and motivate all of us because I feel that friendship is a fundamental need of our world. I think in all of us there is a profound longing for friendship, a deep yearning for the satisfaction and security that close and lasting relationships can give. Perhaps one reason the scriptures make little specific mention of the principle of friendship is because it should be manifest quite naturally as we live the gospel. In fact, if the consummate Christian attribute of charity has a first cousin, it is friendship. To paraphrase the Apostle Paul slightly, friendship “suffereth long, and is kind; [friendship] envieth not; … seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; … [friendship] never faileth.”2
Like so much of what is worthwhile in life, our needs for friendship are often best met in the home. If our children feel friendship within the family, with each other, and with parents, they will not be desperate for acceptance outside the family. I think one of life’s most satisfying accomplishments for my wife and me is to have lived long enough to see our children become good friends. It’s definitely a miracle that those in our family who in younger years occasionally threatened one another with serious bodily harm now seek out and genuinely enjoy each other’s friendship. Similarly, I think no finer compliment can be paid to parents than to have children say that their parents are among their best friends.
Friendship is also a vital and wonderful part of courtship and marriage. A relationship between a man and a woman that begins with friendship and then ripens into romance and eventually marriage will usually become an enduring, eternal friendship. Nothing is more inspiring in today’s world of easily dissolved marriages than to observe a husband and wife quietly appreciating and enjoying each other’s friendship year in and year out as they experience together the blessings and trials of mortality. A recently published report on 25 years of landmark marital research finds that “the linchpin of a lasting marriage … is a simple concept with a profound impact: friendship.”3 In a poignant letter written by the Prophet Joseph Smith to his wife, Emma, during the separations and tribulations of Missouri, he comforted her by saying, “Oh my affectionate Emma, I want you to remember that I am a true and faithful friend, to you and the children, forever.”4
The inspired organization of the Church also fosters friendships. From our youngest to our oldest years we are in settings where friendship and sociality can flourish. In interviews, meetings, classes, quorums, councils, activities, and a variety of other opportunities for association, we can make friends and find understanding. The salutation prescribed for greeting the elders attending the School of the Prophets in Kirtland expresses the spirit of friendship that might well serve as a creed for each of us: “I receive you to fellowship, in a determination that is fixed, immovable, and unchangeable, to be your friend … through the grace of God in the bonds of love.”5
All of our interactions in the Church are made more enjoyable and productive when they are accompanied by genuine feelings of friendship. A teacher of the gospel, for instance, who doesn’t befriend his or her students will seldom teach with lasting influence and effect. I still treasure a one-sentence entry in my high school yearbook in which a seminary teacher I loved and from whom I learned much told me he was grateful to be my friend.
A bishop, no matter how skilled in administrative matters, must be a friend to children, youth, and adults if he is to help them reach their spiritual potential. I was touched once when a young woman I knew went to her bishop to confess a serious transgression. She had been worried about how the bishop might react to her deviation from the gospel path and had only gone to him after considerable urging. When I asked her afterward what his response had been, she told me with great emotion that her bishop had wept with her and that in working with him to gain the Lord’s forgiveness, she now considered her bishop to be one of her best friends.
There is a particular challenge we face as Latter-day Saints in establishing and maintaining friendships. Because our commitment to marriage, family, and the Church is so strong, we often feel challenged by constraints of time and energy in reaching out in friendship to others beyond that core group. I experienced this dilemma personally in recent days as I tried to steal a few moments at home to prepare this talk. Twice, friends from my past, whom I love dearly but see only occasionally, dropped in to visit. During what ought to have been choice times of reunion and reminiscence, I ironically found myself growing inwardly impatient for the visits to end so that I could get back to writing my talk about friendship!
I have since felt ashamed. How selfish we can be. How unwilling to be inconvenienced, to give, to bless and be blessed. What kind of parents or neighbors or servants of the Lord Jesus Christ can we be without being a friend? In this information age, is not friendship still the best technology for sharing the truths and way of life we cherish? Is not our reluctance voluntarily to reach out to others in friendship a significant obstacle to helping God accomplish His eternal purposes?
Years ago when I was serving as a bishop, a recently converted family moved into our rural Utah community. These good people had joined the Church in the eastern United States and had been warmly fellowshipped and put to work in a small branch there. When they came to our larger, more-established ward, they somehow slipped through the cracks. Some of the family members, particularly the father, became disenchanted with the Church and its members.
One Sunday morning when I noticed the father was missing from priesthood meeting, I left the meetinghouse and drove to his home. He invited me in, and we had a very honest conversation about the struggle he was having with his new faith and neighbors. After exploring various possibilities for responding to his concerns, none of which seemed to appeal to him very much, I asked him with a tone of frustration in my voice just what we could do to help him. I’ve never forgotten his reply:
“Well, bishop,” he said (and I will need to paraphrase here slightly), “for heaven’s sake, whatever you do, please don’t assign me a friend.”
I learned a great lesson that day. No one wants to become a “project”; we all want spontaneously to be loved. And, if we are to have friends, we want them to be genuine and sincere, not “assigned.”
Brothers and sisters, my message today is very simple: if we truly want to be tools in the hands of our Heavenly Father in bringing to pass His eternal purposes, we need only to be a friend. Consider the power of each one of us, 10 million strong, of our own free will and choice reaching out to those not yet of our faith in unconditional friendship. We would no longer be accused of offering warm bread and a cold shoulder. Imagine the consequences for good if each active family in the Church offered consistent concern and genuine friendship to a less-active family or a new-member family. The power is in each one of us to be a friend. Old and young, rich and poor, educated and humble, in every language and country, we all have the capacity to be a friend.
Our Savior, shortly before His Crucifixion, said to His disciples: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends.”6 Having been so richly blessed by Christ’s friendship, I pray that we will now be to others what He is to us: a true friend. At no time will we be more Christlike than when we are a friend. I testify of the inestimable value of friends in my own life and express my gratitude to all of them this morning. I know that when we offer ourselves in friendship, we make a most significant contribution to God’s work and to the happiness and progress of His children. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.