Who is your favorite Bible character? When I have asked that question of people in the past, invariably I get a variety of answers: David, Peter, Abraham, Paul, Joseph, Moses and even Joshua. There are even a few women in the mix – Ruth, Esther and Mary. But in all my years of asking that question no one has ever mentioned the fellow that has been prominent in my thinking as one of my all-time favorites. He is a little-known and barely-mentioned fellow in the New Testament. The fellow I am talking about is called Onesiphorus.
There are only four verses in the New Testament where he is even mentioned and in one of those he is mentioned with his whole household. In 2 Timothy 1:16, Paul comments that Onesiphorus “refreshed him” when (Paul) was imprisoned in Rome. He commends him for doing so and for not giving up on his imprisoned friend.
In recent years, there has been a plethora of studies about the importance of relationships in our lives. In fact, one of the most significant of these was called the Grant study, which metamorphosed into what was called the Glueck Study. This longitudinal study measured the lives of 268 Harvard University students who were tracked over a period of 72 years. The research tracked an array of factors, including standard measurable items like physical exercise, cholesterol levels, marital status, the use of alcohol, smoking, education levels and weight, but also more subjective psychological factors such as how a person employs defense mechanisms to deal with the challenges of life.
Over the period of 72 years, ending in 2014, several men directed the research. One of the longest-tenured directors was psychiatrist George Vaillant. In 2008, someone asked Dr. Vaillant what he had learned about human health and happiness from his years of poring over the data on these 268 men. You would expect a complex answer from a Harvard social scientist, but his secret to happiness was breathtakingly simple: “The only thing that really matters in life is your relationships with other people.”
From my own personal experience, I would like to second Dr. Vaillant’s observation. I have been blessed through the years with many close friends. Beginning and ending with my wife, these friends have come into my life at critical times and, like Onesiphorus, have refreshed me and by their friendship with me have energized me for living in a way that would not have been possible without them.
It is no secret that friendship – true friendship – is more than just a connection on Facebook. Two separate incidences will demonstrate this truth:
First, in a legal case here in the state of Florida a few years ago, an appeals court ruled that “Facebook friends aren’t necessarily your friends.” It seems that a case came before that court where a judge may have been required to recuse herself from a case because an attorney involved in the case was friends with the judge on Facebook. The court, however, ruled that recusal was not necessary because, “Facebook data mining and algorithms lead to people accepting friend requests from people they hardly know or who they are only acquainted with in professional circles.” That verdict was upheld by the Florida Supreme Court. In other words, it ruled, Facebook friends are not necessarily true friends.
That decision was confirmed in a practical way by this second incident. It seems that one fellow who was very active on Facebook decided he wanted to throw a party for his 700 Facebook “friends.” Not just a party online, but a real live event, where he was hoping finally to meet his friends. He set up an event on Facebook, made reservations at a local watering hole, and invited all of his friends to join him at that place on that specific evening. Of the 700 people he invited to join him, 15 said they would be attending and 60 said they might be attending. On the evening in question, he showered and shaved, dressed and walked down to the neighborhood bar where he had made the reservation at the appointed time. He waited and waited and waited for some of his “friends” to show up. Eventually, one lady actually came. But in his conversation with her, this fellow discovered that she was not even one of his friends on Facebook, but rather was the friend of a friend. After some small talk, they said goodbye and she left. His final comment on his party was curt: “Seven hundred ‘friends’ and I am drinking alone!”
Facebook is a great tool for keeping in touch. But it is not a place to maintain friendships. The Word of God reminds us that a true, godly friend “sticks closer than a brother” (Prov. 18:24) and “loves at all times” (Prov. 17:17). Instead of Facebook friends, you and I should cultivate Onesiphorus friendships. And, of course, as we enter into this next week, the high point of the Christian year, each of us should be singing, “What a friend we have in Jesus/ All our sins and griefs to bear…”
Chuck Tabor is a religion columnist for The Times-Gazette and a former Hillsboro area pastor who now resides in Florida. He can be reached at email@example.com.