I spent a day recently with one of my closest and dearest friends. He was for many years a member of this church. Now he lives in another part of the country. But our friendship has not diminished. We meet maybe half a dozen times a year – at conferences, at committee meetings, or from time to time in one another’s home. And we talk. We talk about things that are happening in the church here. We talk about issues in the church he leads. We talk about our families. We talk about theological questions we’re wrestling with. We talk about problem situations that we need to sort out. And we may talk about more personal things – our own doubts and fears and backslidings and inconsistencies. I can talk to him about things I would talk to very few other people about. He is a friend whom I trust.
The importance of friendship
The Bible talks a lot about friendship. The Bible emphasises the importance of seeking friends we can trust and being loyal to them. It talks about what we can gain from wise friendships and what we owe to our friends. It tells us what sort of people we should choose as our friends, and what sort of people we should avoid. It gives us examples of friendships true and false.
The Lord Jesus himself 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. And among the three there was one – John – whom he loved most of all. He knew he could say things to John that he would say to no-one else (John 13:23-26).
Christians 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. There may be some for whom the Lord gives us a special affection, whome we trust in a special way, with whom we can share things which it would not be wise to share with all. It was like that for the Lord Jesus.
Of course, for those of who are married – and especially if our marriage partner is a believer – he or she should be our closest and dearest friend. We may have a special closeness too to other members of our natural family – brothers, cousins. 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 brothers – and found a depth of loyalty in him 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 27:9-10).
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 17:9). 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, problem people 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 started by talking about one particular friend. He’s been a friend for more than twenty years. Our friendship has survived many things. Marriage changes things. But when he got married, he continued to be a faithful friend. And when I got married, the friendship still continued. Distance erodes friendships. But when my friend moved to the other end of the country, his friendship did not evaporate. Such enduring friendship is a great gift from God.
Of course he isn’t the only one. I thank God for friends who have been faithful since we were at university together thirty-odd years ago. I thank God for my friends in the church here today – we’ve been through so much together – and others scattered in many places. God has been very kind in giving me friendships which have endured.
(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 men 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 fall out 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 his ways 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 17:9). We need friends to whom we can turn for counsel – 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’s 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. Somone 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, he 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 seventeenth 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.
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 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 this church be a church where every friendship is a preparation for the world where friendships are sinless and go on for ever.