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THINKING IT THROUGH: Christian friendship: A gift from God

January 2022 | by Stephen Rees

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One of my dearest friends has departed from this world. You will read elsewhere in ET an appreciation of Alec Taylor. Alec was an older man than myself and we lived several hours’ drive apart. But over recent years, we chatted over the phone almost every week. I know that he prayed for me every day. I shall miss him sorely. He leaves a very large gap.

I think of other friends to whom I’m close in other ways. I would like to think that many members of the congregation here think of me not only as their pastor, but as a friend. I certainly lean on some of them very heavily. I know I can trust them to be there for me when I need them. Without their friendship, my work would be much harder, if not impossible.

I recently spent five days away from home with a circle of eleven other pastors. Every autumn for many years I’ve had the opportunity to do this. The official purpose of our gathering is to spend time together in intensive study, encouraging one another as preachers. But just as importantly, we meet as friends.

We feel free to share all sorts of things that we wouldn’t talk about in any and every gathering. We talk about things that are happening in our churches. We talk about our families. We talk about things that are happening on the wider scene. We talk about problem situations that we need to sort out.

And we feel free to talk about more personal things – our own doubts and fears and backslidings and inconsistencies. Often I’ll find myself, late into the night, listening to one of my friends talking about his personal dilemmas, or sharing my own. And our talking turns into prayer. We pray together about all the things we’re talking about together.

I should emphasise that we don’t just talk. We laugh. We tease one another. We go off for walks together. You’ll find two or three men doing a crossword together. Or a larger group kicking around a football together.

Am I equally close to all the men in that circle? No, of course not. I’ve known some of the men in the circle for many years. Others I know far less well. And inevitably, I relate more easily to some than to others. I have more in common with some than others in terms of background, personality, and interests. But I think of them all as friends.

And of course I have many good friends who aren’t either in the church here or in that particular group. Alec was one of them. But there are many others.

In my experience, no two friendships are the same. I look to one friend for one thing. I look to another for something different. I open up to one about some issues. I talk to another about other concerns. But every friendship is precious. Every one is a gift from God.

The importance of friendship

The Lord Jesus had friends. He said to his disciples, ‘You are my friends… No longer do I call you servants…but I have called you friends’ (John 15:14-15). Among all the disciples there were three to whom he was especially close (Mark 5:37; 9:2; 14:33).

And among the three there was one whom he loved most of all. John was simply known as ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’ and Jesus could say things to John that he would say to no one else (John 13:23-26). Were the other disciples jealous? It seems not. They accepted that if Jesus was going to tell anyone the name of the betrayer, it would be John to whom he would whisper the secret.

There were others, outside the circle of the twelve, who were also special friends to the Lord Jesus. Lazarus and his two sisters Martha and Mary were clearly among the closest (John 11:5). The friendship Jesus had with them was different from the friendship he had with the twelve. He looked to them for different things. He wasn’t able to spend as much time with them as he did with the apostles. It was a different type of friendship but just as vital for the Lord Jesus.

Followers of the Lord Jesus have a duty to love all their fellow human beings. We are to care about them all and seek their good. In that sense we are to love even our enemies (Matthew 5:44). Beyond that, we are commanded to love all our fellow-believers in a special way, starting with those who belong to the same church. ‘Let love be genuine… Love one another with brotherly affection’ (Romans 12:9-10). We look on all our fellow church members as our brothers, we give thanks for them all, we value them all, we share our lives with them all. But we cannot be equally close to them all.

It is one of the Lord’s kindest gifts to us when he gives us some folk to be our special friends. He gives to us and them a mutual affection. We trust them in a special way. We share with them things which it would not be wise to share with all. That’s the way it was for the Lord Jesus himself.

Of course, for those of us who are married – and especially if our marriage partner is a believer – he or she should have a place that no one else can share, a unique friendship. We may have a special closeness too to other members of our natural family: brothers, cousins, grandparents. It seems likely that John the beloved disciple was Jesus’s cousin; Jesus’s mother Mary appears to have been sister to John’s mother Salome (Matthew 27:56; Mark 15:40; John 19:25).

But the Bible testifies to the value of having friends beyond the circle of the family. David was closer to Jonathan than to any of his own brothers – and David found a depth of comradeship in Jonathan that he never found in his wives. ‘I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; very pleasant have you been to me; your love to me was extraordinary, surpassing the love of women’ (2 Samuel 1:26).

The writer of Proverbs commented, ‘Do not forsake your friend and your father’s friend and do not go to your brother’s house in the day of your calamity. Better is a neighbour who is near than a brother who is far away…’ (Proverbs 27:10).

What are the qualities we look for in a friend? Let me pick four which the book of Proverbs tells us are especially important:

1. We look for friends who will be faithful.

The Bible warns us against choosing unstable people as our friends – people who are prone to short-lived enthusiasms, unreliable people. Such people are likely to prove fickle friends, with us in fair weather, nowhere to be found when times get hard. ‘All a poor man’s brothers hate him; how much more do his friends go far from him!’ (Proverbs 19:7).

Before I trust someone, I need to know something about his track-record. Is he reliable, steady, consistent in other areas of his life? Is he faithful to his responsibilities in the church, in his family, at work? If he’s not the sort of man who can be trusted elsewhere, he’s unlikely to be a trustworthy friend.

If someone seems keen for my friendship, I need to ask myself why. Is it because he pities me? Some people will always latch on to folk whom they think of as lame ducks. They are busybodies, keen to befriend ‘needy’ people or people with problems, so that they can patronise them and manage them.

On the other side, some people only want as friends folk whom they think of as success stories, people who have an aura of popularity or money or power. We should be wary of both types. The Bible counsels us to seek friends who will be our friends equally in times of trouble and in times when all is going well. ‘A friend loves at all times and a brother is born for adversity’ (Proverbs 17:17).

One friend who remains faithful come what may is worth a thousand come-today-gone-tomorrow friends. ‘A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother’ (Proverbs 18:24).

I thank God for friends who have been faithful since we were at university together more than forty years ago. I thank God for my friends in the church here today. Some have been caring for me, praying for me, encouraging me since the work here began in the early eighties. I thank God for friends who once lived here in the Manchester area, now live in places far-off, but have never stopped writing, phoning, visiting, encouraging, and simply being friends. Distance erodes most friendships, but not theirs.

2. We look for good tempered friends.

‘Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor to a wrathful man, lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare’ (Proverbs 22:24-25). Some folk are given to anger. They are always liable to lose their temper. They take offence where none is intended. They take every disagreement personally. They finish up quarrelling and falling out with everyone who crosses their path.

Solomon warns that if we make friends of these people, we’ll ‘learn their ways’. Does he mean that we’ll pick up their bad habits? Possibly. But I think it’s more likely that he’s telling us that we’ll learn the ways of such folk from sad experience. The bad tempered man’s ways won’t change and at some point he’ll fall out with you as he has with others.

It’s easy to persuade ourselves that it will be different this time round. Bulldog Bill may have bitten lots of his handlers before – but we can tame him! The wise writer of Proverbs warns us not to believe it. Choose a bad-tempered man as a friend, and you will almost certainly regret it.

3. We look for friends who will give us wise advice.

‘Oil and perfume make the heart glad, and the sweetness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel’ (Proverbs 27:9). We need friends to whom we can turn for advice. But it must be the right sort of advice – it must be earnest counsel. Some people are only too ready to give advice. They have an opinion on everything and they’re ready to share it at the drop of a hat. Their advice is casual, cheap, often worthless.

But another person gives earnest advice. He realises that to give advice to someone else is a great responsibility. He won’t do it lightly. He’ll think deeply before he speaks. He’ll pray for God to give him wisdom. He’ll search the Scriptures to make sure that his advice is grounded in biblical principles. And then he’ll speak lovingly, tenderly, carefully – and he’ll be willing to take responsibility for the advice he has given.

That’s the sort of person I need as a friend. And that’s the sort of person I need to be if I’m to be a true friend to others. I need to be the sort of person they can turn to when they need wisdom, knowing that what I say will be grounded in God’s Word and spoken with earnest wisdom.

4. We look for friends who will be willing to challenge us.

‘Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy’ (Proverbs 27:6). I need friends who are willing to be straight with me even if they know I’ll feel hurt by it. The wounds they inflict are ‘faithful’ wounds, inflicted by true friendship.

Someone may lavish ‘kisses’ on you – tell you you’re wonderful, agree with all you say, support all your actions. The writer of Proverbs calls that person an enemy. Even if (s)he does it with the best will in the world, such a false friend is actually harming you.

A true friend will rebuke me, tell me when I’m wrong, point out my faults – and then help me sort out the problems that he’s seen. Such friends are rare – and very precious.

Richard Baxter’s checklist

So we have four key things to look for in a friend. But of course they’re not the only things. If we were to search the whole Bible, we might draw up a much longer list. Let me quote to you the 17th century Puritan Richard Baxter. Here is his list of the qualities that make a true friend:

He must be ‘not addicted to a hiding, fraudulent, or reserved carriage… of a suitable temper and disposition…humble, not contentious, thoroughly godly (else he will not be useful to the ends of friendship); not a heretic; not ignorant of the great truths of religion, but rather one that excelleth you in solid understanding, and true judgement, and a discerning head; that can teach you somewhat that you know not; not schismatical, else he will be no longer true than the interest of his party will allow him… prudent in business; one who can keep secrets; not addicted to levity and change, else you can expect no stability in his friendship; must not much differ from you in quality in the world…not very covetous; he must not be impatient, so that he can bear with your infirmities, and bear much from others for your sake; he must have a good esteem of your person; he must be public-spirited and acquainted with your calling, that he may be fit to censure your work, and amend it, and direct you in it, and confer about it; and finally there must be a suitableness in age and sex.’

Strip out Baxter’s archaic language, and there’s much good biblical common sense to take to heart! Baxter really believed that every believer needs one or two close friends who are willing to act as his – or her – spiritual encouragers and guardians. And, of course, that wasn’t just his peculiar view. Many of the Christians of his generation took the need for true friendship very seriously.

Bunyan’s Pilgrim fell ‘and could not rise again until Faithful came up to help him. Then I saw in my dream, they went very lovingly on together, and had sweet discourse of all things that had happened to them in their pilgrimage…’And when Faithful was martyred at Vanity Fair, the Lord raised up Hopeful to take his place as Christian’s fellow-pilgrim and friend. Like Baxter, Bunyan believed that we need special friends to help us on our way to the Celestial City.

Pray and Work

But what am I supposed to do? I’d love to have close Christian friends. But you can’t just make it happen…

No, you can’t. Some Christians are put by God in situations where it’s very difficult to find friends suitable in age, sex, temperament, circumstances, and, above all, godliness. But you can pray. Pray that God will help you to find those friends. And seek his help to be the sort of person whom he can trust with friendships.

Would it be fair if the Lord were to give you as a friend to one of his children, only for that believer to discover that you were unfaithful, bad-tempered, rash in your advice, or a flatterer? If you want friends, you must be the sort of person who will enrich those who become your friends.

Christian young people should take special care in choosing friends, and in praying that God will give them the right friends. The friends you make as a teenager or in your twenties, God willing, will still be your friends fifty years later. They will be there for you all through your life, supporting you, encouraging you, growing with you in grace.

If you are single, then you may well be praying for the special friend who will become your marriage partner. But pray that God will also give you other friends of your own sex who will push you forward in your walk with God.

And when God gives you friends, be prepared to work at your friendships. As we get older, friends are often lost, not through quarrels, but simply through busyness and carelessness. These days, it is rare for folk to stay in one place for more than a few years.

As friends move away, you will lose touch with them unless you write, phone, visit, share news, pray for one another, meet up from time to time. Real friendships of the sort we’ve been commending are so rare that they’re worth working to maintain.

So if you’ve not seen that old friend from university since you got married, write today. It may be too late to rebuild the closeness you had then. But equally you may find that the bonds are still there and still precious.

May God grant to us the best friends, and may the church to which you belong be a church where every friendship is a preparation for the world where friendships are sinless and go on for ever.

Bible quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, published by HarperCollins Publishers © 2001

This article first appeared in the monthly bulletin of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport.

Stephen Rees is pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport