Wisdom on friendship

Audio Player

When our daughters Beth and Ellie started senior school, I remember asking Ellie how day one had gone. And she said the hardest thing was queuing for lunch when no-one had the confidence to talk. And she said to me ‘How do you talk to people?’ and I said ‘That’s a great question, and you’ll still be asking it when you’re my age.’ Because how do you talk to people? How do you start making friends? And from all those you try to be a friend to, how do you make a few close friends? Well, those ‘how do you?’ questions are the territory of the Old Testament book of Proverbs, which we’re starting a series in tonight. So would you turn in the Bibles to page 527. That will get you to Proverbs 1. And look at how it begins (Proverbs 1.1-2):

The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel: [whom we met last week as a baby, at the end of our 2 Samuel series] To know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight

And wisdom just means – skill in living. Proverbs is for us (Proverbs 1.3):

to receive instruction in wise dealing

So it’s very practical. It’s about how you deal with making friends, handling money, relating to parents, working life – and lots more. And look at the number one target audience in Proverbs 1.4. It’s to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth. Now today, if you say someone’s a bit simple, it’s an insult, isn’t it? It means, ‘lacking up top’. But simple here meant – inexperienced in life and therefore in danger of being misled. Now one thing to know is that many Proverbs are written as two-liners. And sometimes line two contrasts with line one. But sometimes it puts line one another way. So Proverbs 1.4, Proverbs is:

to give prudence to the simple, [in other words,] knowledge and discretion to the youth

And as you read on, you find the number one target audience is young adults on the brink of independent life. So, CYFA and students, you’re in the bullseye. But Proverbs 1.5:

Let the wise hear and increase in learning

So even if we’re further on, and by God’s grace we’ve acquired some Biblical wisdom, none of us has arrived; all of us need more wisdom. And then look at Proverbs 1.7 – which is the foundational statement of the whole book. Do you want to be wise? Do you want to know how to live skilfully and well in the real world? Well, here’s the bottom line:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; [whereas] fools despise wisdom and instruction.

And the fear of the Lord simply means – a deep, trustful respect for the Lord, where we say to him ‘You’re God and I’m not. You’re the Creator, I’m the creature. You’re the wise King, I’m the foolish subject. So please teach me how to live.’ So why don’t we pause and pray that now? Let’s pray:

Father,You are God, we are not, you are the Creator, we are only creatures.You are the wise King and we are subjects who’ve often been foolish and have the capacity to be foolish again. So please teach us through Proverbs how to live under your rule in what is both your world and a fallen world. In Jesus’ name, Amen

So tonight we’re looking at Wisdom on friendship. So let me give you a minute or two to turn to someone, and chat briefly about how you would define a friend. A friend is someone who…And since you haven’t had a stretch for a bit, feel free to stand up as well…

OK. Let’s come back together. So we’re in the Old Testament – the part of the Bible written before Jesus and pointing forward to Jesus. And most of it was originally written in Hebrew, and you might be thinking, ‘Ian will now give us the Hebrew word that’s translated friend, and that will define what a friend is. But it’s not that simple, because friendship isn’t a simple area of life. So turn on for example to Proverbs 18.24:

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

So you can have many companions – the people life throws you together with. and they’re not ‘not-friends’. You call them school friends and work mates and so on. But they’re not all close friends – there’s a whole range of closeness of friends. (And can I say in passing that the word for the closest of friends is also used in Proverbs for the relationship between husband and wife. Because whatever else it’s meant to be, God means marriage to be friendship. So all of this applies to marriage, too). Then look on to Proverbs 19.4, for another example of how friendship isn’t simple:

Wealth brings many new friends, but a poor man is deserted by his friend.

And you need to put “friends” there in inverted commas – just like you do with Facebook “friends” because we’re not talking real friends, are we? So there’s a whole range of closeness of friends. And there’s a whole range of sincerity of friends – including the superficial and the downright self-interested. So it’s not a simple area of life, but here’s some wisdom for it:

1. Choose wisely who you let influence you

Turn back to Proverbs 12.26:

One who is righteous is a guide to his neighbour, but the way of the wicked leads them astray.

Line one has a little number 2 at the end – which means, ‘Look at the note at the bottom of the page.’ And note 2 says:

Or ‘the righteous chooses his friends carefully’

And I think that’s the better translation. So:

The righteous chooses his friends carefully, but the way of the wicked leads them astray.

So it’s a contrast Proverb. Line one: choose your friends carefully – friends who’ll influence you in a godly direction. Because (line two): the wrong kind of friends will take you off track with God. Now of course that doesn’t mean only have Christian friends. But it does mean choose wisely who you let influence you – and the closer the friend, the more they will. So that’s wisdom for new contexts; moving up schools, moving to uni, changing jobs, joining a new team – you name it. And among all those new companions, the Lord would say: Be a friend to everyone. But be wise and patient about making those closer friends. Because, as C.S.Lewis said:

Friendship can be a school of virtue, but also a school of vice. It is ambivalent. It can make good men better, and bad men worse.[The Four Loves]

And as Aristotle said:

Our desire for friendship may come quickly; but friendship itself does not.

2. Think why you want to be someone’s friend – and maybe not someone else’s

Look on to Proverbs 14.20:

2. Think why you want to be someone’s friend – and maybe not someone else’s.

The poor is disliked even by his neighbour, but the rich has many “friends”

Of course he does because they might get something out of it – if not a gift, at least enjoying the trappings of the rich person’s lifestyle, and basking in the glory of being seen to be in with them. Which raises the question: why do we want to be someone’s friend- and maybe not someone else’s? Are we just out to get what they can offer? For some of us rubbing shoulders with the very well off (maybe at independent schools or uni or work) the trappings of a rich family’s lifestyle may well be in the offing: The swimming pool. The invitation to join them at their holiday villa in Italy. The big 18th or 21st at the country house hotel. And it’s easy to be an ulterior-motivated friend. Or maybe someone offers us entry into the popular crowd, or credibility in the office, or simply the glory of being seen to be in with them. All sorts of things can distort our motivation for being friends, and our judgement of the people in question. So, Proverbs 14.20 again:

The poor is disliked even by his neighbour

Why? For the simple reason of being poor. Nothing to do with character, but to do with a superficial, outward circumstance. And for similarly superficial and sinful reasons we may not want to be friends with people from a different background to us, or people we find hard to relate to, or people who are demanding because of the problems and issues they face, or whatever. And the Lord challenges us to think – even here after the service: why do we want to be someone’s friend – and maybe not someone else’s?

3. Be very careful with what you know as a friend

Look on to Proverbs 16.28:

A dishonest man spreads strife, and a whisperer separates close friends.

So we’re in a circle of close friends, and one of them is told something confidential by one of the others. (And if you’re a Christian, and work at being distinctively trustworthy, you’ll find people do come and talk to you in confidence). So one of this circle knows either something that one of the others has done wrong; or something they’ve shared in confidence. And suddenly it’s gossiped all round the friendship circle – which is badly damaged, maybe beyond repair. And if that happens on social media, it’s even worse. Now there are circumstances, where we’re told about wrongdoing and people being hurt, when we need to say ‘I can’t keep this totally confidential to myself – I need to talk to someone who can help us with this’. And maybe that someone is a safeguarding officer here or at school or wherever. And even then, we owe confidentiality in a limited circle of those who need to know. Whereas this Proverb is about a completely unjustified breaking of confidence. And even if it’s not something a friend has confided to us privately, when we’re thinking of sharing what we know as a friend, we must ask: Is it true? Is it necessary to share it? And would it be kind to share it? Look on to a similar proverb in Proverbs 17.9:

Whoever covers an offence seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends.

So this time the matter is an offence (something a friend has done wrong) either against you, or against someone else, but you know about it. And wisdom says: your aim should be to ‘cover’ it – which means cover it with forgiveness, and cover it in the sense of don’t let it surface in what you say. Whereas it’s so easy, so sinfully natural, to ‘repeat the matter’. And in all friendships, but especially the closest friendship of marriage, to keep an offence up your sleeve, as potential ammunition for the future, is a disaster. Now when you’re reading Proverbs, don’t assume that each verse is a stand-alone. Sometimes there are collections by theme – so our reading earlier was one of the collections about friendship. But sometimes just two proverbs link with each other. So if you home in on one verse on a theme, just read a verse or two either side to see if they add to the theme. And here, Proverbs 17.10 does. So look at Proverbs 17.9 again:

Whoever covers an offence seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends.

So does that mean that if a friend has offended against me, I should say nothing? Just forgive and forget? Well, Proverbs 17.10:

A rebuke goes deeper into a man of understanding than a hundred blows into a fool.

So there is a place for picking the friend up on what they’ve done – appropriately and gently, with the aim of mending relationships. But that’s the very opposite of the carelessness that damages them even more.

4. Be a consistent, ‘all-weather’ friend

Look on to Proverbs 17.17:

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

We’ve already been asked the question why we want to be someone’s friend – whether we’re out to get or to give. And if we’re out to get, we’ll be ‘fair-weather’ friends, so that when the storm of adversity hits our friend, we won’t want to give what friendship then demands. Because supporting them in unemployment or in illness or in a plunge into depression or in bereavement or in a relationship break-up…is going to be hard work, and maybe suddenly much more one-way than the friendship has been, and than we’d like it to be. But, Proverbs 17.17:

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

I said the proverbs are often two-liners, and we need to think how the lines relate, to see what they’re getting at. So line two here says:

a brother [your actual blood brother] is born for adversity.

So in God’s design of things, your family is meant to be there for you at all times – because you’re all born into it, without the choice that friendship has. I know that, sadly, your family may be far from answering to that design, but that’s the idea. So going back to line one: a real friend is just as there for you, as if he or she was family. And within the circle of friends who share our faith in Jesus, we don’t just love as if we were family. We love as family, as the family of God. That’s how bound to you I am, and vice versa. So then, look on to Proverbs 18.24, which we visited at the start:

A man of many companions may come to ruin, But there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.

So it’s the same thought: be the consistent, ‘all-weather’ friend who sticks even closer than a brother. And that proverb adds the thought that we don’t need many friends - in fact having many “friends” (in inverted commas) – especially online ones – may be meaningless. We don’t need many friends; we do need a few close friends. And for those to emerge, we need to work patiently at being consistent, ‘all-weather’ friends ourselves. Now just look on to Proverbs 27.10. This time, the adversity or calamity has happened to you, and you’re told:

Do not forsake your friend and your father's friend [in other words don’t hold back from asking them for help], and do not go to your brother's house in the day of your calamity. [again, because you have friends even closer than him]

And just notice how line one says your friend and your father's friend. Which assumes that your father’s friend (someone of his generation) has also, as you’ve grown up, become your friend, and is someone you can turn to. Which reminds us not just to seek friends of our own age – we need intergenerational friendship. And one great blessing of our church family is the way it provides that – for example through younger men and women meeting up one-to-one with older ones; or through older married couples doing marriage prep with engaged couples; or just informally, those intergenerational friendships that come through serving together.

5. Be a friend who helps others follow Jesus – and seek friends who’ll do that for you

The Bible assumes we’re all sinners. But if we’re trusting in Jesus, we’re forgiven sinners, whom Jesus is working on by his Spirit. And one way he works on us is through friendships in the church family. So look back to Proverbs 27.5:

Better is open rebuke than hidden love.

So hidden love is when I say I’m your friend in Christ – but I won’t, when I ought to, rebuke you: in other words, pick you up (appropriately and gently) on something you’ve done wrong (most likely, to me). But the Lord would say that’s defective love because real love wants the best for the other person. And the best for Christians is to grow more like Christ. So Christians appropriately and gently picking up on it when fellow-Christians are not like Christ is part of what the Lord uses to work on us. Proverbs 27.6 puts it another way:

Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.

So rebuking a friend is pictured as wounding them. But it’s like the wound of a surgeon’s scalpel. It’s meant for good, it’s an act of faithfulness. And so Oscar Wilde once said:

A true friend stabs you in the front

It’s false friends who talk about your sins behind your back. So Christian friendship is to help us be more like Christ. And, last proverb tonight, Christian friendship is to help us make Christ-centred decisions. Look at Proverbs 27.9:

Oil and perfume make the heart glad, and the sweetness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel.

So if I went to a friend who’s not a Christian, and asked them about a decision on my mind, they might well say ‘Look, it’s your life, it’s your decision’. But a Christian friend won’t say that. Proverbs 27.9 says he or she will give me earnest counsel (which means good, thoughtful counsel), really working to put themselves in my shoes to help me make a Christ-centred decision. And like the proverb says, that’s sweet; that makes your heart glad, when you’re facing big decisions about relationships, or jobs or moves or whatever – and a Christian friend does that for you. Now as I said earlier, that doesn’t mean only have Christian friends. The Lord wants us to have both – Christian and not Christian. But it shouldn’t surprise us if we find our deepest friendships are with Christians – after all, we share Jesus in common, and Jesus’ purpose for our lives in common. And it shouldn’t surprise us when, at least sometimes, good friendships with those who aren’t Christians hit the bumps of big differences in what we believe and how we therefore live. Finally:

A postscript: how does this point to Jesus?

I’ve said a thing or two about that, along the way. But one thing to say is that this is Jesus’ wisdom for how we’re to live for him as our risen Lord in this created but fallen world. Another thing to say is that this description of the friend is fulfilled supremely in Jesus. So in the Gospels we read that he was called (Luke 7.34):

a friend of…sinners

And he is the supreme fulfilment of the friend who’s out to give and not to get – who came to give his life on the cross to pay for our forgiveness. He is the supreme fulfilment of the friend who covers over our offences and loves us despite them and doesn’t give up on us because of them. And he is the supreme fulfilment of the friend who is prepared to wound us with the truth about ourselves in order to change us – who loves us as we are, but loves us too much to leave us as we are. And the final thing to say is that Jesus is the Friend we need above all friends. Of course we need human friendship, but if we look to human friendship for everything (for the love and value and identity we need) then we’re asking for much more than it can do and we’ll end up disappointed and our freindships and marriages will end up damaged under a weight they were never meant to bear. So it’s natural that it matters to us…whether we’re liked or not, whether we’re invited to this or that or not, whether we’re part of this friendship circle or that Snapchat group. But the only thing that will give us stability as human friendships change and let us down is knowing that Jesus is our best friend, now and forever.

Back to top