Who are your friends? Not like Facebook friends, but in-person, in-your-life friends. The people you work with, your immediate and extended family, your neighbors and associates all could qualify—but on different levels. Finding a loyal and longstanding friend is to find someone rare, and requires being that same kind of friend.
Perhaps you have heard people say something that I have heard from time to time: “I really don’t need friends; I have the Lord.” While that may be intended as a spiritual statement, it actually reflects a certain naivete and immaturity that is unbiblical to the core. I believe God intends relationships and friendships to be the context in which He does some of His most important work in our lives. Life is difficult from any perspective, and everyone needs friends to help them through the difficult times. Anyone who says they don’t need or want friends has a deeper problem. God made us to be in relationship with one another, and if something is blocking that it needs to be identified.
What has been your evolution to the concept of “friends”? Have you been involved with a set group of guys throughout your life? If so, has the focus of the friendship changed at all over the years?
Those who have close friends know they couldn’t live without them. And yet not every acquaintance is a close, intimate friend. There are actually four levels of relationships that every person experiences—each of which is a friend, but in a different degree of intimacy. First, there are contact friends. These are people you pass on a daily or other regular basis whom you know well enough to speak to but not well enough to call a close friend. Second, there are casual friends, people whom you know well enough to have personal conversations with about matters of common interest—family, politics, sports, hobbies, and the like. Third, there are close friends. These might be business partners, neighbors, people you talk regularly with in a Sunday School class or church group—people with whom you share common goals and values in life.
Finally, there are committed friends. These are the kind of friends the book of Proverbs talks about. Friends who love you enough to confront you when you are wrong and to stand by you through thick and thin. These are friends who act toward you like a marriage partner is supposed to—for better or for worse. If you have a friend like that, you are rich. If you have more than one you are wealthy beyond measure. In today’s world, many people do not take time to cultivate committed friendships; and they are the poorer for it.
But the need for committed friends doesn’t mean we should rush out and try to accumulate them on a wholesale basis. Proverbs 12:26 says,
The righteous should choose his friends carefully, for the way of the wicked leads them astray. – Proverbs 12:26
Out of the 4 listed categories of friends, how are you connected?
- Contact friends: (interact with, say “hi”, know their name)
- Casual friends: (can engage and spend time with, at a superficial level)
- Close friends: (share common goals and values)
- Committed friends: (truthful, honest, passionate about you and your life)
Many things in life are not left to our choosing, but friendships are. The choice of friends is more than a right, however—it is a responsibility.
The Philosopher Antisthenes used to wonder why men would examine carefully an earthen vessel which they were about to buy for just a few cents, to see if there were any cracks or flaws in it, and yet the same men would exercise absolutely no thought or care in the choice of their friends.
The word “friend” in Proverbs is also occasionally translated “companion” or “neighbor.” And by looking at all these words, especially as they occur in chapter 27, we can identify five different kinds of friends. Rather than being different levels of friendship, like the four levels above leading from casual to committed, these are five different kinds of friends—not all of which are worthy of embracing.
Though you grind a fool in mortar with a pestle along with crushed grain, yet his foolishness will not depart from him. – Proverbs 27:22
In other words, you can beat a fool to a pulp and he’ll still be foolish. You recall that Proverbs 1:7 says….
the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction. – Proverbs 1:7
The fool has never submitted to that foundational principle of life, and he is not a person you want to be influenced by.
A prudent man foresees evil and hides himself, but the simple pass on and are punished. – Proverbs 22:3
A fool is a person who crosses the streets of life without looking both ways. He forges ahead into moral and spiritual danger, stumbling through life from one crisis to another. Fools are not without intelligence, but they are without moral and spiritual sensibilities because they have never learned to fear the Lord. Fools are naïve and without discernment and therefore find themselves in trouble constantly because they will believe anything.
Do you have an experience of a time when you were either a foolish friend? Or you were involved with someone that ended up being a foolish friend? How did the “friendship” form and how did it dissolve? Or has it?
Do you think it was caused by or resulted in the crossing of circles? (an inner desire to have committed/close friends)
The reason it is important not to choose fools for friends is because you will become just like them:
He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will be destroyed. – Proverbs 13:20
This is important for people to know, especially during the years when peer pressure is so great. Christians are not supposed to live like isolationists, walling ourselves off from those who need Christ. If we choose to be around only Christians and mature spiritual people, how will the Gospel ever spread to those who need to hear it? It is fine to have casual friendships with those who are not wise, but not committed friendships. It is when we begin to open ourselves up to others on a committed level that we are likely to be influenced to become like them. To have a committed relationship with someone who doesn’t believe in God the way you do is to invite trouble (James 4:4).
Stories abound of people who let their guard down for a moment and found their lives changed forever as a result of associating with unsavory people. Sometimes Christians will forge friendships with unwise people thinking they can change them. But the changes always work both ways—you will both be changed. Many Christian young people marry a non-Christian thinking they can win them over after the marriage. Let me warn you now, it rarely happens. Everyone is on their best behavior during courtship, and after marriage the mountain of unbelief looms larger than it did before.
You shouldn’t make committed friendships with fools, but you should look for faithful friends.
There are some friends who are so faithful that they are willing to wound you in order to help you:
Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful – Proverbs 27:6
To better illustrate the faithfulness of a true friend, consider the last part of the verse—the characteristics of an “enemy.” Proverbs 26:23–26 illustrate what to be on the watch for, and it is essentially the flattering lips of a deceiver.
23 Pretty words may hide a wicked heart, just as a pretty glaze covers a common clay pot. 24-26 A man with hate in his heart may sound pleasant enough, but don’t believe him; for he is cursing you in his heart. Though he pretends to be so kind, his hatred will finally come to light for all to see. – Proverbs 26:23-26 TLB
Remember: Deception is deceptive! You can’t always tell what kind of friend a person is, or will be. A person who constantly complements you and “strokes” you with their words and deeds may not be a faithful friend, appearances and words notwithstanding. While everyone loves complements, the wise person will quickly ask, “Why is this person doing this—saying all these nice things?” Sometimes you discover that a person has a hidden agenda. Perhaps they want something from you. Or perhaps they are so insecure that fawning over people is the only way they know to find a friend.
So how do you find a faithful friend without being taken in by a flatterer or deceiver? Faithful friends edify, but they don’t flatter. They are humble and demonstrate love. And most of all, they don’t always tell you what you want to hear. Instead, they are willing to rebuke you if necessary out of love for you and interest in your well-being.
During the War Between the States, the Union commanding general Ulysses S. Grant struggled to overcome a drinking problem. His closest friend, a lawyer named John A. Rawlins, was the man who kept Grant faithful to his pledge to abstain. Today, you will find a magnificent statue of General Grant in front of the capitol in Washington, D.C., and at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, a much smaller statue of John Rawlins, after whom Rawlins Park in Washington is named. Had it not been for the faithful wounds of Grant’s friend, John Rawlins, who knows whether Grant would have been honored as he is today in American history.
A very good thing happening in churches these days is the formation of accountability groups. Everyone needs to be close enough to someone who will ask them the hard questions about their life. Are you faithful in church and Bible study? Are you spending time with your wife and children? Are you keeping your money in order? Are you careful about relationships in your workplace and especially when you travel alone or with business associates? A faithful friend will ask those questions and not rest until he gets the right answers.
Proverbs 27:9 says that “hearty counsel,” or the kind of advice which comes from a good friend, is as pleasant as “ointment and perfume.” Good, strong advice from a good, strong friend is a delight to receive. It shows that a person really cares about you and wants your best. “Hearty counsel” builds you up and strengthens you, and helps you face difficult things. We may be given a wise bit of advice but because the messenger is not pleasant we miss the benefit of the message. Many times good counsel is rejected because the delivery vehicle used to bring it is abrasive and condemning. Communicating is a skill which comes with the acquisition and pursuit of wisdom—a skill much to be valued in a good friend.
These words, attributed to George Eliot, define a fortifying friend: “Oh, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person, having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pouring them all right out, just as they are, chaff and grain together, certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then, with the breath of kindness, blow the rest away.” I have a friend like that who I go to at times when my mental plate gets full of issues and concerns. He lets me unload everything, helps me sort out the issues without condemning me for any of them, and helps me focus on the priorities. He is a fortifying friend who gives hearty counsel to my heart, soul, and mind in the times I need it.
The Bible contains a wonderful example of a fortifying friendship between two men, David and Jonathan. In spite of circumstances which would make their friendship an unlikely one (David had been anointed to replace Jonathan’s father, Saul, on the throne of Israel), they forged a bond that fortified each of them. David’s life was being threatened daily by Jonathan’s father, yet David and Jonathan remained loyal to one another in their commitment to God’s ultimate purposes in Israel. Their relationship stands as a testament to what true friendship can endure and accomplish (I Samuel 18:1–3; 20:17–23; 23:16).
The more contemporary way of expressing what I have in mind with this point would be “in-your-face” friends. It is what Proverbs 27:17 suggests,
As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend. – Proverbs 27:17
An “in-your-face” friend is one who will tackle the tough issues of life with you; someone who is not offended if you disagree with him, and someone who is not afraid to disagree with you. You both have higher goals than agreement. Your goals are maturity, righteousness, wisdom, and becoming all you can for Christ in this life. Face-to-face friends pursue great goals together:
Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another. – Romans 14:19
Another passage pictures something which I think is part of this kind of friendship. Malachi 3:16a says,
Then those who feared the Lord spoke to one another, and the Lord listened and heard them. – Malachi 3:16a
During a difficult period of time in Israel’s history, godly leaders came together to encourage one another and pursue solutions together. As a result of their actions, “a book of remembrance was written before Him for those who fear the Lord and who meditate on His name” (3:16b). Sometimes I like to think that the Lord is looking down from heaven when friends meet together to pursue godly aims and goals—and that He is approving our efforts and desires. Often when I travel and sit down with fellow pastors to discuss the ministry and encourage one another, I believe the Lord is observing and listening to our conversations—and loving it! And I believe He responds the same way when you and a face-to-face friend engage in the same process of building one another up in the Lord.
Do you have an experience when you realized you had close or committed friends? Do you feel you have been one?
A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity. – Proverbs 17:17
The best way to determine who your best friends, your forever friends, are is to go through a crisis. Adversity is like a filter—it separates those who are loyal from those who are not. And you cannot tell which are your true friends until adversity appears. In fact, your friends may not even know whether they are loyal friends or not until they are asked to identify with your suffering. It is easy to be a friend when things are good and pleasant. But the number of people who will stand beside you decreases as the temperature of your crisis goes up.
How does one get those kind of friends? By being one. Proverbs 18:24 says,
A man who has friends must himself be friendly. – Proverbs 18:24
How many times have you proven yourself to be a forever friend by sticking close to someone through their time of trouble and adversity? As a pastor of a large church, I hear people say, “I don’t know anyone at the church because people haven’t introduced themselves to me.” The principle we’re discussing applies in the same way: To make and have friends, you have to be a friend. You have to take the initiative and introduce yourself to others. You have to reach out and be the kind of person you expect others to be toward you. In the game of forming friendships, the next move is always yours. To use biblical language, you reap what you sow (Galatians 6:7). Especially, I believe, when it comes to adversity and crisis. Those who have shown themselves faithful usually find others being faithful to them.
The last part of Proverbs 18:24 says, “there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” This certainly points toward Jesus Christ in terms of His loyalty to us. Do you know Him as your friend? He has promised to be a friend forever to those who have reached out in faith to Him as their Savior.
Let us learn from where we have been, who we have met, and the biblical foundations of friendship. Some of the wisest advice I have heard is: if you want to have a good friend, strive to be one.
Jeremiah, D. (2002). Powerful principles from proverbs: Study guide. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Pr 2:16–19). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.