I took a deep breath, then asked a question no friend expects. Tom’s answer could affect the rest of my life. ‘I’m planning to ask Alison to marry me. You know both of us well. Am I doing the right thing?’

Tom looked startled. He’d never imagined being asked such a question. But he didn’t hesitate. ‘Of course you’re doing the right thing. You should have asked her ages ago.’

I laughed, feeling grateful and relieved in equal measure. I wasn’t inviting Tom to make my marriage decision for me, but as a deep and close friend his support meant a lot. 

Thankfully Alison said ‘yes’ and, as well as being my wife, she’s been the closest friend of my whole life. But Tom probably came next. Sadly, Tom died several years ago but he knew me through and through, and I’d have trusted him with my life. Others have also been important, and some still are. I’ve also had many acquaintances and truly enjoyed their company, but I’ve a feeling there’s room for only a few very special friends.

So, what defines the best of friendships? I’ll share my answers, but others will have their own priorities. They’ll also vary according to who the friendship is with – every friendship is unique.

Here are nine qualities of friendships I think important. They’re not listed in any special order.

Being genuinely interested    I have a secret which is almost a confession. From about the age of 18 I realised that girls are not attracted to boys who talk endlessly about themselves, especially when they brag about their accomplishments. I’d understood that girls were much more drawn to boys who were interested in knowing them. I’d ask simple, non-intrusive questions. Not just learning facts, but discovering what they thought or felt about all sorts of things. It worked.

If that was only a technique to find a girlfriend, it would be manipulative. But if being interested in someone is sincere, it’s appreciated.

That truth isn’t limited to romantic encounters. It’s foundational to all friendships. Every relationship of depth involves really knowing the other person: thoughts, feelings, hopes and fears.

Caring    Knowing someone isn’t enough. Real friendship also involves caring about anything that concerns the other person. It means supporting through tough times, helping with hard decisions, commiserating with disappointments, rejoicing in successes.

Caring marks the difference between deep friendships and more superficial friendships. Lesser friendships aren’t bad. It’s good to have acquaintances with whom you enjoy spending time. But lower-level friendships aren’t about lives intertwined, bearing each other’s burdens, supporting through the worst days and the best days. I shared doubts, fears, ambitions, hopes and dreams with Tom. Why? Because he cared. And I was helped and strengthened by having him to lean on. I believe I was able to do the same for Tom.

Respect    There are long-term relationships that lack respect. They can be bullying or domineering or dependent relationships which go on year after year. But they’re not friendships, and they’re not healthy.

In a real friendship each accepts the other for who they are. No-one’s trying to control. No-one’s taking advantage. Each believes the other person is worth knowing, worth trusting, worth supporting, worth respecting.

At a later point in my life, I built a strong and helpful relationship with Stuart. What began with polite but guarded conversation developed over many years into sharing struggles and disappointments. Stuart was consistently supportive. Eventually I knew I could tell him anything about myself and he’d still respect me. So I talked about areas of life where I was falling short. That wasn’t easy for me to share or him to hear. But he counselled me wisely, and made it clear I was still a person of worth. That really mattered to me.

Despite failings Stuart still respected me. A good friendship has that quality.

Sharing experiences    Tom and I first met on study courses that would give us admission to university where – we discovered – we both hoped to do the same degree before entering Christian ministry. We were from different denominations, but aiming for the same vocation. Our friendship grew, and we found we had similar spiritual questions. Both of us were particularly concerned about living closer to God. We read books, went to meetings, and we talked endlessly. And then we hit on the answer: if we got together and prayed all night, surely we’d be close to God by morning.

So we chose a suitable night, one when we’d have no early classes next morning. We began our praying about 11.00 pm, sitting in chairs with our heads bowed. After an hour we decided it was more spiritual to pray on our knees. After another hour my knees ached unbearably, and I had to sit on the floor. Tom’s knees were in no better shape, so we were both seated on the floor. We got to 2.00 am, but by then our prayers were short and infrequent. Less than half an hour later, I said I’d be more comfortable lying on the floor. I knew nothing more until a short time later Tom shook me by the shoulder and said, ‘I’ve pronounced the benediction. You can go to bed now.’

Next morning we alternated between laughing and pronouncing ourselves spiritual failures. But our ‘failed’ night of prayer wasn’t the end of still seeking ways to be better Christians. Our search went on.

That was part of sharing experiences for me and Tom. Other people will go to football matches, or to music festivals, or be cinema buffs, or read the same books, or climb hills, or work in the same firm, or whatever else they share. My point is only this, that friendships involve journeying together, not merely crossing paths occasionally while going our own ways.

No hidden goals    Relationships are not friendships if either or both have ulterior motives.

I boarded a plane in Kathmandu for my flight home to the UK. Beside me was a young lady, probably aged in her mid-20s. Mo liked to chat, and I thought, ‘This could be an opportunity to share my Christian faith’. Once the plane had taken off and meal served, we had several hours to talk. We got on to the subject of belief remarkably easily. Eventually I realised why. Mo had been in Nepal to study at a Buddhist temple and school. (Buddhism is the second largest religion in Nepal.) She was fired up about her Buddhist beliefs, and as our conversation wore on I realised Mo was trying to evangelise me. So, while I was trying to convert her to Christianity, she was trying to convert me to Buddhism. Both of us had ulterior motives for our conversation. It was a very odd experience.

Friendships can’t have hidden goals. One can’t be trying to ‘sell’ something to the other, whether a religious belief or a political position. And one can’t be trying to ‘get’ something from the other, like the boy who offers a girl friendship (or, what he calls ‘love’) in order to get sex.

Strong friendships don’t come with an agenda. They’re not like business relationships where someone’s trying to make a ‘profit’. Friendships exist because each values the other. No other motive. No other goal.

Openness    Every friendship can’t involve a complete opening of hearts and minds, as if every secret must be told. That would be an impossible burden. But the strongest of friendships work only where there’s a reasonable sharing of thoughts, feelings, experiences, desires, and ambitions. A friendship can’t exist when either is ‘closed’ to the other.

Henry had a hundred friends. He wasn’t difficult to like – gifted, knowledgeable, chatty, generous. With some of the hundred he’d watch football matches, walk in the hills, go to the cinema, accept invitations for meals in their homes. But, just when people felt they were really getting to know Henry, he’d back away. Without explanation he wouldn’t seek their company any more. Why not? No-one knew for sure, other than that Henry had withdrawn as soon as relationships deepened. It seemed he didn’t want his innermost thoughts and feelings known. Which was sad.

Openness is fundamental to any kind of deep friendship. It doesn’t work otherwise.

Honesty    Friends can risk telling truths that would be resisted if spoken by anyone else.

Another way of saying that is this: A superficial friend will tell you what you want to hear. A real friend will tell you what you need to hear.

At times we act foolishly. We might voice prejudice. Or buy a vintage car that’ll cost a fortune to maintain. Or keep bad company. Or run up debt on our credit card buying a new mobile phone every six months. Or skip classes at university. Or constantly turn up late for work. And so on. Someone has to warn us; to tell us we’re being an idiot. We won’t like it. But it needs to be said. Only a friend will take the risk of telling us what we must hear. A strong relationship will stand the strain of that.

Resilience    Children – including young teenagers – fall in and out of friendships. So parents hear words laced with anxiety: ‘She doesn’t like me any more’; ‘He doesn’t want to be my friend now’. Thankfully it’s usually all different just one day later. Back to being the best of buddies.

Real friendships – friendships worth having – are far stronger than one row, one disappointment, one time of letting the other down.

I’d put it this way: deep relationships are not transactional they’re relational. In other words, they’re not like a contract where, if someone breaks the terms of the agreement, the deal is torn up. Strong friendships are like having a brother or sister. We’ll squabble but you’re still my brother or you’re still my sister, so we’ll forgive and move forward. In the same way, commitment to each other is essential to strong friendships.

Perseverance    Six-year-old Hazel comes home after her first day at a new school. Mum asks: ‘Did you make any friends today?’ ‘Yes,’ Hazel says, ‘I sat beside Jackie, and she’s now my best friend.’

Well, I’m glad Hazel found a friend at her new school. But ‘best friends’ after one day? Absolutely possible in a child’s world. But the reality check for those of older years is that the deepest and best of friendships don’t happen in one day. Houses are built brick by brick, and friendships are built day by day, month by month, year by year.

And that takes perseverance. It involves all the attributes listed above put into practice constantly. In the early days there’s no guarantee that a friendship will last. Not all friendships do. But once the days and months turn into years, friends are relaxed with each other, feel secure together, and have confidence in their relationship. Students going off to university for the first time are told: ‘The friends you make in the next year or two may well last for the rest of your life’. That often happens, but it needs commitment and effort from both sides.

Finally,  I know some find it hard to find friends, so I’ll close with one piece of advice.

Be open to friendship, but don’t grasp at it, don’t force, don’t even make friendship your goal. Just be the great person you are, relax, and let friendship happen.

I don’t know you’ll find a great friend. But I also don’t know any reason you won’t.