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How to Be a Friend

Proverbs 18:24

     I want to talk to you today about one of the greatest gifts that God has made available to us in the world – though it’s a gift that, once received, requires a lot of ongoing maintenance, careful nurturing, and even personal sacrifice. But, I’m going to try to convince you today that this gift is so beautiful and life-enriching that it’s worth anything you invest in its growth and development.

     The gift I’m referring to is the gift of friendship. The topic of friendship is not as controversial and sensitive as some of the topics we’ve recently dealt with, such as same-sex issues or the institution of marriage. But, it is nonetheless challenging in our day. One reason is that we use the word “friendship” in a way very different from the way the Bible does. The Bible uses the word in a very specific way and that biblical way different from being a Facebook friend or Instagram friend. Those aren’t always bad relationships. In fact, they often are good ways to stay in touch with people we really care about and pray for. It may be a little more like what young women mean when they speak of a “BFF”, i.e., a “best friend forever”. Such friendships are supposed to be characterized by intimacy, trust and a sense of permanence – in opposition to the so-called friendships people have on social media sites like Facebook. But, I think you’ll see that the gift of friendship God wants you to experience is even more than current day’s BFFs. In fact, when we read Proverbs, we see it teaching us things that, on first glance, we find hard to put together. For example, it says:

  • It is important to have friends – but you can only have a very few (18:24).
  • You need to spend time with your friends but you are not to be with them too often (25:17).
  • You must encourage your friends but you also confront and correct them (27:6). Yes, the Bible says that a good and loving friend sometimes will judge his/her friend – and will let him/her know it.

     So, I want you to listen and think very carefully as I talk to you about friendship in the book of Proverbs. Interestingly, over the past two weeks of vacation, Chris and I have been with a friend of over 40 years for 15 days in a row! We had a lot of time to deepen our friendship and to talk about friendship. I’m hoping I can pass onto you today just a bit of the beauty of friendship we discussed and experienced. I could talk to you today about many parts of the Bible’s teaching about friendship but I’ll focus on just three: 1) what friendship is, 2) what you have to do to be a good friend and 3) the friendship with God that Jesus offers.

#1: What is a friend? The righteous choose their friends carefully, but the way of the wicked leads them astray (12:26).

     As I boiled down all the teaching about friendship in Proverbs, I came up with this definition:

A biblical friendship is a lasting and intimate relationship like no other. It is knit together by choice, sustained by sacrificial commitment and characterized by mutual service.

     Let’s think for a few moments about friendship and how it’s knit together choice. In the way the Bible uses “friend”, a choice you make to be a friend to another person is the only adhesive that holds a friendship together. This matter of choice is what makes a friendship a different relationship from a marriage partner, a family member, or a business partner. All those are important and good relationships and many of the things the Bible says about a friend may be true of those relationships. However, they are all held together by links other than choice:

  • A marriage is forged by a promise, a vow made before God (Malachi 2:13-16) and by the sexual bond of becoming one flesh (Matt. 19:3-8);
  • Family is knit by blood ties;
  • Business colleagues by financial and career bonds.

     In the way the Bible uses the word, the only thing that binds a friend to a friend is the element of choice. This is what Jesus was getting at when he said in John 15, “I call you friends… and it’s not that you have chosen me but I have chosen you.” Or, as Jacques D'Ellul said, "God gives us relatives. Thank God, we can choose our friends." So it's that element of personal choice that is basic to the friendship relationship.

     With that in mind, I am convinced that one of the reasons why we see so few lasting and deep friendships in our world is that we are so busy and we have so many important – and often God-given -- responsibilities that we must fulfill. And, because friendship is a relationship that we don’t have to fulfill but only that we choose to fulfill, often the busy-ness of our lives squeezes friendship out.

     When we must set priorities for our decisions, where does friendship sit in the list?

  1. God must be first – If God is not put first then any friendship you have will not be guided by and empowered by the God who makes healthy relationships possible in an unhealthy world. So, when you follow Jesus, you must give the highest priority to worshipping God with your local church and to spending time with God in your personal devotional life.
  2. Marriage is second – Pastor Jeff spoke about this two weeks ago but I’ll reiterate that when we are married, our deepest commitment – after our relationship to God – must be our relationship to our spouse. When we marry, we take on a new next of kin. The priority you give to your marriage partner must exceed what you give to your parents, your children and to your friends.
  3. Family is third – The entire Book of Proverbs supports this. Proverbs is filled with teaching about God-given obligations within a family.

     Proverbs 18:24 tells us something many of us have experienced, i.e., that many times you are closer to your friends than to a family member. However, in terms of the decisions you make in your life, marriage and family relationships must take priority over your friends. CS Lewis wrote about that in his book, The Four Loves. He pointed out that having close human friendships is not absolutely essential to being a Christian. Lewis wrote, “"Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art... It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival." Or, I put it more simply: You can live as Christians without friends; it's just that you won't live very well.

     Nowhere in all of history and literature is there a clearer portrayal of the relationship of family to friendship than the friendship of David and Jonathan. God inspired three full chapters in the in 1 Samuel that all focus on this friendship. You could take out the entirety of 1 Samuel 18-20 and nothing would be lost in the story. But, God wants us to grasp something about friendship in that story – so I urge you to sit down and read those chapters all at one sitting. In 1 Sam. 18:1, a Hebrew description of friendship is given that no English word can translate fully. We read, “The soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David.” I tell you: That’s a friendship. There is love in the David/Jonathan friendship. Support in this friendship. There is a growing ability to communicate and trust one another. On the other side, Jonathan’s family relationship to his father was awful. His father, King Saul, was a crazy madman who wanted to kill his best friend.

     Here’s what I want you to see: At the end of the story, Jonathan had to make a choice between family and friend. Now, I want you to put yourself into Jonathan's shoes. Feel it with him. What would you have done if you had been Jonathan? Your father is crazy. He's threatened a personal friend who means the world to you. To prove he's serious, in anger he's thrown a knife at you . . . and he's done it in public. Now, you're angry. Right? You fume and stamp out of the house and go to your friend. What do you do?

    Look at what Jonathan did in I Sam. 20. He tried hard to bring his father and friend together. But, when all else fails, there is only one possible solution to a conflict like this: separation. But separation from whom? Family or friend? It was agonizing but, in the end, Jonathan made his choice. See v. 42. Jonathan said to David, "Go in peace, for we have sworn friendship with each other in the name of the LORD, saying, 'The LORD is witness between you and me, and between your descendants and my descendants forever.’” Then David left, and Jonathan went back to the town.

    Is that what you would have done? No, you would have gone with David. He was the good guy. Most of us would have said, "Dad was wrong‑‑he doesn't understand me!" But Jonathan parted from David and eventually that cost him his career and his life. In a few years Jonathan died in battle with his two brothers and his father. In his lament, David would say, "Saul and Jonathan, in life they were loved and gracious. And in death, they were not parted."

    Oh, there was a parting. But it was David and Jonathan who were parted. Do you feel this? In 20:41, "Jonathan went back to town." In doing so, Jonathan gives us an example of living according to God‑given principles and priorities. He shows us that the path of doing right is not always what we want to do or what benefits us the most. The right path is often one of self‑sacrifice ‑‑ especially in friendships. Friendships are things we must be willing to lose sometimes for the sake of things we are morally bound to keep, such as, God's law tells us 1) to honor parents always, and 2) we are united by God to our spouse for all time.

   The point is: In making big decisions of life, a higher priority must be given to family than even friendship. I’m quite sure you have had to make such decisions. A daughter brings home a boyfriend. "You're never going to see that guy again," says the angry parent. It's a conflict. What do you do?   A wife says, "We'll never go out with that couple again even if he is your friend. I can't stand his wife." It's a conflict. What do you do?

    Jonathan shows the way. First, we try by every means to reconcile the situation. Point out the friend’s good qualities. Use tact, patience, and planning.  Jonathan did all that. Until you have, don't despair.

     You might be much, much closer to a friend than to anyone in your family. But, when other God-given responsibilities and relationships – like marriage and family -- complete with a friend for your time and attention, you must give priority to the others.

   And that is partially why so few people in our busy world have lasting friends. Other relationships must be nurtured or sustained because they have biblical obligations tied to them. With all your duties to work, church, and family, friendship often seems to have no place to fit in. But, I tell you this: When you find ways both to fulfill your God-given obligations and also to develop a friendship, you will discover it is worth the sacrifice. So, let me move quickly now to this matter of being a friend.

#2: How to Be a Friend -- A person of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother (18:24). A friend loves at all times… (17:17).

     A sermon like this almost always leads to us thinking, “I’d like ‘such and such’ to be my friend” – so you go up and ask that person to start a friendship with you. Then, when you two sit down together, you don’t quite know how to start. Have you ever had that happen? I certainly have. I’ve learned that lasting friendships don’t usually start that way. Much more often, friendships start with a shared interest. CS Lewis writes about that in his Four Loves book too. He points out that we begin a relationship when we share a love of music, cars, Downton Abbey, sports or even of Bible study. As we enter into relationship, we find that – sometimes quite unexpectedly – our hearts are knit together. We think things like, “I didn’t know that anyone ever thought about the world that way.” Remember how the Bible describes it in 1 Samuel 18, “The soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David.” In my experience, a friendship is much more like discovering there is a friendship bond than in achieving it. It is more a gift than a purchase.

   But, I will tell you this – a friendship like the Bible describes is not easily sustained. In my experience, it takes intentional sacrifice. In the definition of biblical friendship I gave you, I said, it is sustained by sacrificial commitment.

     Life is so full, isn’t it? And it seems to go by so quickly. When you have done all you have to do – gone to school or work, gotten some exercise, fulfilled your family or marriage responsibilities, done the things we ask you to do at church, found room for rest and sleep, etc. etc. – how much time do you really have to invest in a friendship? It’s clear that the kind of friendship the Bible talks about is not superficial and demands times and energy. I’m sure you can see the wisdom of Proverbs 18:24, i.e., that if you try to have lots of friends, you will not have any that are deep enough to support you in times of trouble. In fact you’ll get worn out simply trying to satisfy them all.

     You are blessed if you have one “biblical friend”. You may have two, or three – but rarely more.  That’s why the friends we choose will always reflect on who we are and what we value. But, then – we must be good friends to our friends. In that light, notice Proverbs 17:17: “A friend loves at all times.” That takes sacrifice. But notice that the focus of that proverb is not on finding a faithful friend, but quite the opposite. It’s about making the uncommon commitment to being that kind of friend. “At all times!” I think, by and large, we underestimate the importance of being present in peoples’ lives. It’s really important that we have fun with our friends. But, it’s also important that we sit with them at a funeral or in their loss. My friend of 42 years, Jamie Rankin, has taught me that lesson. He often says, “The best presents we can give one another are the presents of presence.”

     Pastor Tim Keller puts it so well: “A good friend always lets you in – and never you lets go.Always lets in” – when a friend needs you, you will be there. Those times of need often come at the least convenient times. “Never lets go” – friends are human and will fail -- but a true friend forgives and offers a new beginning. Have you made that kind of commitment to anyone? Sacrificial commitment is essential if a friendship is going to last.

     And, back to my definition of friendship, a biblical friendship is characterized by mutual service. By that, I mean that friends have a profound affect upon one another. A friend can be a destructive friend: In 22:24-25 we read,Do not make friends with a hot-tempered person, do not associate with one easily angered, or you may learn their ways.” And, in 13:20: “The one who walks with the wise grows wise, but a companion of fools suffers harm.”

     What the Bible wants to happen in our friendships is that we help one another grow to become the kind of people God would have us to be. A friend is essential to personal and spiritual growth. As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another (27:17). Interacting with people is a non-negotiable when it comes to spiritual growth. Iron rubbing on iron makes both instruments sharp. That’s how you sharpen a dull knife, by rubbing it with force against a metal. Without question, friends help each other navigate through life! Godly friends make each other better.

   Paul talked about this. He wrote in Romans, “I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong -- that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith (Romans 1:11-12).” Paul knew he has something to give to the Romans to make them stronger. He also knew that he had something to receive, to gain strength in his soul.

     Here’s my question to you: What affect do you have on your friends? Do you leave your friends feeling strong? Do you inspire them in some tangible ways? As you study the relationship, and its impact upon both you and your friend, do you have a positive effect on one another? Christ-centered friends serve one another in such ways that both become more godly.

     So I challenge you to make this a matter of prayer. Do you have people in your life who make you love the Lord more, your spouse more, your children more, and your church more? According to Proverbs, that’s a solid friendship.

#3: The Friendship Jesus Offers

     I don’t have to tell you that we human beings are hard wired for friendship relationships. Whenever I talk about friendship, I find people longing for it: We long to be and to have better friends. But, on this side of heaven, though we surely can grow in our friendships, we will never be the perfect friends we long to be. But, this topic always drives Christians to the moving words Jesus gave just before he died.

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends – and you are my friends… I call you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.  You did not choose me, but I chose you (John 15:14-16a).

     Let me show you again my definition of friendship from the verses in Proverbs: A biblical friendship is a lasting and intimate relationship like no other. It is knit together by choice, sustained by sacrificial commitment and characterized by mutual service.

     Just think of it: That’s the kind of friendship Jesus offers you. Jesus has chosen to enter into a friendship with you – no matter what has been in your life. He is ready and able to forgive your past and give you a new future. Jesus made a sacrificial commitment to you – he died so that you might have life. And he serves and serves and blesses and blesses until our lives are all he created them to be. To apply Tim Keller’s words here: Jesus always enters in – and never lets you go.

   It’s to that kind of beautiful and unending friendship that Jesus invites you to himself.