Thursday, December 11, 2008

What Is a Godly Friend?

When the Bible uses the word "friend", generally the context indicates that the word is used in the normal sense. That is, friends are those with whom we share a congenial relationship. It's a relationship that can change: Friendships develop where there were no friendships before, friends part ways or become less than congenial, new friends are made.

But there is a sense where the Solomon draws a distinction between mere companions and true friends:

A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother. Proverbs 18:24

This follows not long after this proverb:

A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity. Proverbs 17:17

To be sure, the Proverbs are not to be understood as legal commands or doctrinal absolutes. They are general observations designed to highlight underlying truths. Solomon no doubt saw his share of deadly sibling rivalry. He wasn't saying that all brothers should or do strive against each other always. In fact, to be a successful peacetime king after all the familial turmoil in his father's family, he had to distance himself from his siblings.

Parenthetically, one wonders about Solomon's friends. First, he was king. The king knows of true friends? Second, he had how many wives and concubines? I've seen monogamous wives make history of their husbands' premarital friendships. What do you do for friendship with enough wives to populate a village? He must have been wise.

But the observation has to do with the attitude of one who seeks many companions versus one who values a very close friend or few.

A righteous man is cautious in friendship, but the way of the wicked leads them astray. Proverbs 12:26

If your goal is your own popularity, than your self-glorying will quickly lead you away from God. Only God is worthy of glory. But to have a close friend who can know you intimately enough to hold you accountable is more valuable as one who can help bring you closer to God.

Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses. Proverbs 27:6

Perfume and incense bring joy to the heart, and the pleasantness of one's friend springs from his earnest counsel. Proverbs 27:9

Interestingly, Solomon makes another observation:

Wealth brings many friends, but a poor man's friend deserts him. Proverbs 19:4

Solomon expands on this sad state in Ecclesiastes 4:

7 Again I saw something meaningless under the sun:

8 There was a man all alone;
he had neither son nor brother.
There was no end to his toil,
yet his eyes were not content with his wealth.
"For whom am I toiling," he asked,
"and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?"
This too is meaningless—
a miserable business!

9 Two are better than one,
because they have a good return for their work:

10 If one falls down,
his friend can help him up.
But pity the man who falls
and has no one to help him up!

11 Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
But how can one keep warm alone?

12 Though one may be overpowered,
two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

There is much value in friends. Jesus Himself indicated that our temporary wealth should be used to garner relationships:

And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings. Luke 16:9 (ESV)

I don't know how I've read over that verse as often as I have. Here, it is recognized that although friends come and go, there is some eternal value in having godly friends. And this value is far greater than any worldly wealth that comes and goes.

But John's account of Christ has us being willing to invest a far greater value for our friends:

Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. John 15:13

In my book on boundaries, there's a sense in which sacrificial giving is unhealthy. When friends make undue demands on us, then it is healthy to enforce boundaries. Where we see a friend in dire need (as in the Ecclesiastes passage above) and we can help, we ought to. Christ did. He left his friends to fend for themselves so he could go spend time alone with the Father. But when the time came, He indeed gave His life for his friends.

To sum up, godly friends
a) stick closer than a brother,
b) give wise counsel,
c) inflict beneficial "wounds" if necessary, and
d) are willing to give sacrificially for their friends.

So, the question that yet bothers me is what one does when one lacks a close friend. It is a bit of dissatisfying advice to be told that we are responsible for having godly friends when we cannot force anyone to be our friend. Where we cannot be responsible for someone else, but only responsible to them (think about that one for a while if you need to) we can only be responsible for being a friend, not for having one.

If we are commanded to love our enemies, how much more should we extend friendship to those who do not have a friend? That's not a stretch. That doesn't mean that we have to be intimately close to everyone, but we do need to minister friendship in the name of Christ should any have great need that goes unnoticed lest they fall.

All quotes from the Bible are NIV except where indicated.

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