Friendship and Covenant

When you’re introducing a sermon or lesson or talk or whatever, lesson number one is: State the importance of what you are teaching up front. Answer the question, “Why?” Why is it important for me to know what you’re about to tell me? Why do I need this? As for friendship, I think this quote from C.S. Lewis sums it up best:

Friendship is the greatest of worldly goods. Certainly, to me it is the chief happiness of life. If I had to give a piece of advice to a young man about a place to live, I think I should say, “Sacrifice almost everything to live where you can be near your friends.”[1]

Of all the relationships and loves that humans can have with one another, friendship is the greatest, according to Lewis. I think this passage in Deuteronomy makes the same point:

If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son or your daughter or the wife you embrace or your friend who is as your own soul entices you secretly, saying, “Let us go and serve other gods,” …you shall not yield to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall you conceal him. But you shall kill him. Your hand shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people (Deuteronomy 13:6–9).

Moses lists your possible close relationships from least to most intimate, to stress the fact that no matter how knit your soul to another person, if they are leading you away from the Lord…have no pity. But what I want to point out is the progression. Do you see it? Brother… son or daughter… wife you embrace… your friend who is as your own soul. You merely embrace your wife here, but your friend is woven into the fabric of your soul! Moses also hints at the power of friendship for good or for ill. Those to whom we knit our souls are capable of drawing us into ruin as much as away from it. Thus, we see the importance of choosing wisely those to whom we entwine ourselves.

Friendship is a unique and powerful reality, and the book of Proverbs has a lot to tell us about it. Through the lens of Proverbs, we’ll look at the Uniqueness of Friendship, the Discovery of Friendship, the Cultivation of Friendship, and the Covenant Lord of Friendship.

The Uniqueness of Friendship

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

A friend can be better than a sibling. Your family will be there for you when things are at their worst, to be sure. There’s a loyalty there that stretches back to the days of youth. It’s what C.S. Lewis calls “affection” in The Four Loves. He says that, while friends and lovers feel as though they are “made for each other, “the especial glory of Affection is that it can unite those who most emphatically, even comically, are not; people who, if they had not found themselves put down by fate in the same household or community, would have had nothing to do with each other.”[2] Lewis describes affection as a type of love of which the beginning cannot be located. You have affection for something that seems to have always been there. It is the love of old and familiar things.

[Affection’s] objects have to be familiar. We can sometimes point to the very day and hour when we fell in love or began a new friendship. I doubt if we ever catch Affection beginning. To become aware of it is to become aware that it has already been going on for some time… [Affection] lives with humble, un-dress, private things; soft slippers, old clothes, old jokes, the thump of a sleepy dog’s tail on the kitchen floor, the sound of a sewing machine, a [child’s toy] left on the lawn.[3]

We have affection, at the least, for our siblings, but whether those siblings can be admitted to the level of friends or not, passing beyond mere affection, is a matter of discovery and choice, as with any other friend. Your family will usually be there for you, but they may not like you. So what are the things that set a friend apart from a sibling or family member — someone for whom you may have great affection, but cannot bring the unique benefits of friendship into your life (and into whose life you may not bring the same)?

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

First, a friend is someone who has chosen you or whom you have chosen. The word translated “sticks” in verse 24 is a Hebrew word that’s often translated in the Old Testament as “cleave.” In Jeremiah, it’s used to describe how a belt clings to the waist (Jer 13:11). Job uses it to describe how his skin clings to his bones (Job 19:20). It’s the word used in Gen 2:24, “Therefore, a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” There are two types of union within marriage: 1) the “clinging” of the soul, or what Lewis would call “friendship,” and 2) the union of the body, Lewis’ eros or “emotional/sexual love.” The first type of union is appropriate and even necessary for friendship.

[It’s worth noting here that Genesis 2:24 tells us something about marriage that, until very recently in human history, has not been thought to be necessary for marriage. Before a husband is a “head” of his wife, as most people throughout history have overemphasized, he is to be her friend. Friendship is a necessary part of marriage, whether it begins with it or not. In marriage, all four of the loves (affection, friendship, sexual love, and true Christian love) find a garden for their fullest flourishing. Therefore, all the things we will learn here about friendship apply also to marriage.]

You may have a friendship without a marriage, but to climb to this high summit of marriage, where the four faces of love overlap, you must seek to create this kind of friendship within your marriage. The word translated as “sticks,” when used metaphorically (as it is here in Proverbs) means commitment out of a passionate love. A friend is better, in many ways, than a sibling; and if the relationship between David and Jonathan is to be taken as a model for the covenant of friendship, then the love of friendship can be “extraordinary, surpassing the love of women” (2 Sam 1:26). Indeed, the beginning of the love between David and Jonathan uses language very similar to Proverbs 18:24:

As soon as he had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul… Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. (1 Samuel 18:1–3).

Though friendship is the least “biologically necessary of the loves” (as Lewis says, emphasis mine), the Bible in general, and particularly the book of Proverbs, would have us see the unique necessity and power of it.

The necessity of sexual love is obvious. Without it, you and I would not exist. The necessity of familial love— affection— is also easy to see. Unless your family felt affection and cultivated it for you, they likely would have left you the moment the going got tough, when you were disobedient or displeasing. But friendship’s necessity isn’t as clear nor as immediately available. Friendship brings something into your life that family, romance, and mere acquaintances cannot.

Our modern culture scoffs at the notion of friendship. As we have jettisoned God, we have loaded so much spiritual freight into romantic love that any friendship that goes any deeper than acquaintanceship is assumed to have homoerotic overtones. You can’t read a liberal commentary on the relationship between Jonathan and David, for example, without encountering the “insight” that their friendship, being as deeply committed as it was, must have included homosexuality. Part of the reason that our culture makes this push to too easily mingle friendship with sexual love is that friendship is the least “instinctive, organic, biological…and necessary [of the loves]. It has the least commerce with our nerves; there is nothing throaty about it; nothing that quickens the pulse or turns you red and pale.”[4]

Our culture disregards friendship in favor of romance; traditional culture is indifferent to friendship in favor of familial affection. Both neglect and ignore friendship, which is a shame and part of the reason we see so little growth and development as adults. Friendship is necessary for the full and healthy flourishing of human beings, and to neglect it or ignore it is to disregard the greatest means of sanctification that God makes available to every Christian. In the early stages of life, you are formed by your family. Later, if you get married, the mingled affectionate, friendly, romantic, and charitable loves of marriage become your primary furnace of transformation. But friendships can last throughout and alongside all other loves, and even within marriage, the friendship aspect of marital love is the most shaping. If we simply drift with the currents of our culture, in either direction we will flounder. The book of Proverbs says that, to be truly wise, we must know 1) what kind of friends to be, 2) what kind of friends to make, and 3) what kind of friends to avoid. You won’t make it in life without friendship and the unique power it brings into your life. So why is friendship so powerful and transformative?

Friendship is the at the center of the universe.

The language of Eden— of walking with God in the cool of the day (Gen 3:8)— is friendship language. James, when summing up the fruits of Abraham’s justification by faith, calls him “the friend of God” (Jas 2:23). When the Bible seeks to find words to stress Moses’ intimacy with Yahweh, it says that he “spoke with God face to face, as one friend speaks to another” (Exo 33:11). We were made in the image of God, to be capable of friendship with God. You could describe the Trinity in terms of the unending and infinite friendship of God within himself. When Jesus has revealed all that he was sent to reveal about God’s counsels to the disciples, he says that they can now, truly, be called his friends (John 15:12-15). The friendship between God and man is one metaphor for the goal of creation and revelation.

Friendship is necessarily limited.

Go back for a second to Proverbs 18:24, “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend that sticks closer than a brother”. The contrast is between many companions and a friend. You can have many companions, acquaintances, or associates. But friends are by nature few. And the proverb more than implies that the man who focuses his energies on making many friends will, in the end, have only acquaintances. You can either have a wide and shallow pool of companions or a deep reservoir of friendship, but not both. And because of the lack of depth in surface level companions, when the chips are down, you will look around and have no one beside you.

That is one way many companions can bring you to ruin. However, there is a second. The wider the pool of companionship, the less any of the benefits of true friendship can accrue. We’ll talk more about this later, but for now it’s sufficient to say that a companion cannot give you the caring honesty and constant counsel that are the true roots and fruit of friendship. One close friend is greater than a thousand companions.

I can’t stress the importance of this point enough, especially for our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter generation. We value shallow friendship and deceive ourselves by it into thinking that we have achieved true biblical friendship. The amount of time and attention required of true friendship necessitates that you cannot have many. Recent studies have proved this scientifically. The maximum amount of people that any one person can “know” is 150. This is the group that you might call acquaintances— it’s the amount of people with whom you can be on a first name basis. Within that group there is a smaller group of 50 that can be known to a greater degree, but who really fall into the category of companions. They are people that you see often, but who you wouldn’t necessarily call friends. Then within that group is a group, maxing out at around 15, that you can begin to really call friends. They are the people with whom you might have daily commerce. Then there is the group of 3 to 5 that comprise close friends. These are the people who stick closer than a brother. They know you well enough to guess your thoughts and your moods, to see through your B.S. They arise out of the wider groups of acquaintances, companions, and friends when we discover that our paths lie together. These friends aren’t just made, they are discovered (The New Yorker)

Discovering Friendships

Proverbs 27:9
Oil and perfume make the heart glad,
and the sweetness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel.

A close friend is like sweet honey. Today, you can make any food sweet by adding sugar, but when the Proverbs were written, sweetness had to be discovered. We’ll move on later to ways in which you can and should cultivate friendships, but the seed of a close friendship is a discovery. How do we discover friendship? Friendships are discovered when we see the same truth as another. We discover that we are passionate about the same things. C.S. Lewis put it this way:

Friendship arises out of mere companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening friendship would be something like, “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.”[5]

…though we can have erotic love and friendship for the same person yet in some ways nothing is less like a friendship than a love-affair. Lovers are always talking to one another about their love; friends hardly ever talk about their friendship. Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest.[6]

Lewis underscores the unique reality of friendship when he says,

That is why those pathetic people who simply “want friends” can never make any. The very condition of having friends is that we should want something else besides friends. Where the truthful answer to the question, “Do you see the same truth?” would be, “I see nothing and I don’t care about the truth; I only want friends”, no friendship can arise…Those who have nothing can share nothing; those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travelers.[7]

The starting condition of friendship is that we must want something besides friendship. So, if you find yourself longing for friendship, but unable to discover any fellow travelers, you must find the thing for which you were made. Find a thing that is worthy of your passion. And I don’t mean to say that this is something that is in opposition to God, but the thing for which God made you. Each of us was formed by God to display a specific aspect of the glory of Jesus Christ— the thing which God had in mind when he created you. Perhaps there is a particular type of music for which you feel you were made (art, philosophy, science, literature, missions, theology, or some specific aspect of truth that penetrates all your interests). Whatever it may, throw yourself into it with all the love that the grace of Christ can give you and see who comes alongside for the journey.

Well, that’s how friendships are discovered, but once discovered, this is where the wisdom of the proverbs really shines. We are told how to take those seeds of friendship and cultivate them. This is where the hard work of friendship is done, but it is the source of flourishing (and more than worth the effort).

Cultivating Friendships

True friendship must not only be discovered, it must be cultivated. Without the seed nothing can grow, but without the care of cultivation, nothing will grow— or will grow bent and twisted. The book of Proverbs gives us four things we must do to cultivate friendships. They are as well as keys to cultivating friendships.

The keys are: Constancy, Candor, Care*, and Counsel.[8]

Key #1: Constancy

The book of proverbs contrasts two types of friends: the fair-weather friend and the constant friend. The fair-weather friend has ulterior motives for his friendship:

Proverbs 14:20
The poor is disliked even by his neighbor,
but the rich has many friends.

You know most of the people that you know because you are useful to them. And before you get bent out of shape about it, you must realize that most of the people you are acquainted with, you know because they are useful to you. We establish most of our relationships out of utility. You may have befriended a coworker because they could help you on a project or help you get ahead. Maybe so and so is useful because they are fun to be around— they are useful for a good time. You know them because they are useful and that’s okay, but they are not yet friends in the sense which I am getting at. Passing beyond mere utility is a move away from selfishness and a step toward the kind of constant friendship that “loves at all times”:

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

What does “at all times” mean? Are friends who “love at all times” always together? No! God’s wisdom is expertly balanced and counsels us in the way of maintaining tensions with prudence:

Proverbs 25:17
Let your foot be seldom in your neighbor’s house,
lest he have his fill of you and hate you.

So, a constant friend loves at all kinds of times: good times, bad times, routine times, etc. The first characteristic a constant friend is availability. But a constant friend is especially available in hard times. Remember, “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24). A constant friend won’t let his friends go to ruin.

How can you tell the difference? A useful friend— a fair-weather friend— will say to you when you are in need, “Call me if you need anything.” But a constant friend will simply be there (sometimes against your wishes). A constant friend says, “I will do whatever it takes to keep you from falling into sin and ruin. You may fall, but I won’t let you hit the bottom. I’ll be there even when it costs me something.”

In The Fellowship of the Ring before the journey begins in earnest there is a moment in Frodo’s house in Buckland where he is trying to explain to his friends that he must flee the shire. Frodo discovers that his friends have known of his “secret” plan to flee for some time. Here’s the interchange:

Frodo opened his mouth and shut it again… “Good heavens!” said Frodo. “I thought I had been both careful and clever. I don’t know what Gandalf would say. Is all the Shire discussing my departure then?”

“Oh no!” said Merry. “Don’t worry about that! The secret won’t keep for long, of course; but at present it is, I think, only known to us conspirators. After all, you must remember that we know you well, and are often with you. We can usually guess what you are thinking…Ever since this spring we have kept our eyes open, and done a good deal of planning on our own account. You are not going to escape so easily!”

“But I must go,” said Frodo. “It cannot be helped, dear friends. It is wretched for us all, but it is no use your trying to keep me. Since you have guessed so much, please help me and do not hinder me!”

“You do not understand!” said Pippin. “You must go – and therefore we must, too. Merry and I are coming with you. Sam is an excellent fellow, and would jump down a dragon’s throat to save you, if he did not trip over his own feet; but you will need more than one companion in your dangerous adventure.”

“My dear and most beloved hobbits!” said Frodo deeply moved. “But I could not allow it. I decided that long ago, too. You speak of danger, but you do not understand. This is no treasure-hunt, no there-and-back journey. I am flying from deadly peril into deadly peril.”

“Of course, we understand,” said Merry firmly. “That is why we have decided to come. We know the Ring is no laughing-matter; but we are going to do our best to help you against the Enemy.”[9]

The constant friend knows the mind of his friend, and will do what is best for him even if he must go with him into danger. In fact, the covenant nature of friendship makes one friend feel compelled to march side by side with his friend into death’s gaping maw if that is where his friend must go. Constancy is commitment. That’s the second characteristic of the constant friend— commitment. Next week we’ll be talking about friendship exclusively in the context of covenant, but for now I’ll simply remind you of two things:

1) A covenant is a “bond in blood, sovereignly administered”.[10]

2) All relationships are covenantal in nature. You are bound to every other human being by the fact that you share the blood of Adam and God has sovereignly ordained and caused you to be part of the Adamic covenant relationship to Himself and one another. Even that covenant— the covenant between God and all human beings that extends between human and human— is founded on and analogous to a deeper covenant (think of the “deep magic from the dawn of time” and the “deeper magic from before the dawn of time” from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe).

God is in a covenant relationship with himself. Each member of the trinity is totally and unbreakably bound to the others in love. And because of the cross that relationship is sealed with blood. Since all relationships are modelled after the divine covenantal interrelationship of the trinity, all relationships function according to the same pattern.

At their heart relationships are commitments with 4 aspects: a Lord of the Covenant, narratives, stipulations, and sanctions—blessings and curses. We’ll build more on this idea about friendship next week, but I wanted to slip it in here because the idea is so intimately linked with the idea of constancy in friendship.

Constancy— availability and commitment— gives friendship sturdy bones. But bones, unadorned, are emblems of death and decay. They cannot stand on their own. It’s not enough merely to “be there”. We must “be there” for our friends adorned with the sinews and muscles and skin that are the emblems of life. And the muscle, that which moves friendship, is candor.

Key #2: Candor

Proverbs 27:5–6
Better is open rebuke
than hidden love.
Faithful are the wounds of a friend;
profuse are the kisses of an enemy.

In verse 6, there is a deliberately vivid and paradoxical metaphor. Friendly wounds versus wounding kisses. Friendly wounds are words that a friend needs to hear, but that will hurt to be heard (and ideally to be said, but I’ll say more about that when we discuss care). If you are afraid to say what must be said to a friend because saying it may “hurt the friendship” then you aren’t an honest friend. In verse 5 there’s another metaphor, “hidden love”. There is a kind of friend who thinks that they are loving by hiding the truth. They say, “I love them too much to confront them— to tell them the truth”.

The truth is that you love yourself too much. Covering the truth is the work of an enemy. An honest friend puts the other’s well-being above his own, even at the cost of the friendship itself.

A knife, wielded to maim or mend, takes skill. Trust the surgeon to heal, the butcher to kill.

Trust is the key to giving and receiving healing wounds. If you trust a friend, if they have proven themselves “faithful” then even if their words hurt you, you know you can trust them. In fact, how much more can you trust a friend who is willing to tell you the truth when it hurts?

Obviously, this goes both ways. Humility toward your friend’s healing traumas goes hand and hand with honesty about your friend’s failings. You can’t be expected to be given the kind of confidence to be able to perform surgery on a friend without receiving the same from them.

If no one ever tells you what’s wrong with you, if you surround yourself with shallow friends and “yes men” then you can’t grow. But flattery can have worse results.

Proverbs 29:5
A man who flatters his neighbor
spreads a net for his feet.

What does that mean? When you see your friend plunging into ruin, you have two options: 1) You can tell your friend what’s wrong with him so he gets an accurate view of both his strengths and weaknesses or 2) you can say, “Yes, I totally agree”. When you do choose the latter and your friend falls headlong into destruction because of it, you are as much the cause of their ruin as if you put their foot in a bear trap yourself. If you know your fellow soldier is walking into a mine field and you don’t cry out, you are guilty of murder.

We all make decisions based on the counsel of friends. We are constantly seeking to confirm or deny our impulses and decisions. If your friends are making their decisions based on the false impressions you give them of who they, they are going to make one disastrous decision after another. Do you want your friends to be out of touch with reality because of your refusal to tell them the truth? Do you want to be out of touch with reality because your friends are too timid to be honest with you?

When you must choose between protecting yourself and protecting your friend, the honest friend— the friend committed to candor— will choose protecting his friend.

Candor must be tempered with care.

Key #3: Care

Proverbs 26:18-19
Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death
is the man who deceives his neighbor
and says, “I am only joking!”

Why does a man deceive his neighbor and say, “I am only joking?” This proverb paints the picture of a man who is emotionally disconnected. He doesn’t know his neighbor’s inner being well enough to know what kinds of jokes hurt him. We all know that there is an element of truth in cutting humor. And a friend knows the aspects of his friend’s person about which he has a sense of humor and the parts of him that are tender. I’m not at all anti-humor and neither is the Bible, but no joke that hurts someone else— whether intended to do so or not— is the work of true friendship. The key to knowing whether a joke is appropriate or not is knowing the person with whom you are joking.

Proverbs 27:14
Whoever blesses his neighbor with a loud voice,
rising early in the morning,
will be counted as cursing.

If a man blesses his neighbor loudly in the morning, why will it be received like a curse? He doesn’t know if the person is a morning person or not. Caring means knowing how you are being perceived. If a person is hurt by your words, you don’t get to say, “Well, they’re just thin skinned”. How you are perceived is how you are. Jesus said, “…out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Matt 12:34). Your words betray things hidden, beyond your conscious knowledge in the depths of your heart.

So, the first part of being a caring and tactful friend is to be emotionally connected enough to know the inner state of your friend and kind enough to curb your words when you realize their potentially damaging effects. But there’s more to it than that.

Proverbs 25:20
Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart
is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day,
and like vinegar on soda.

What is singing a joyful song to a heavy heart? Further emotional disconnection. If I can sing a happy song when you are sad, I’m not your friend. A caring friend puts his happiness into his friend’s happiness, such that he cannot be happy when the other is sad.

Merry and Pippen and Sam couldn’t sit back in the Shire eating and drinking and singing while Frodo marched off in sorrow on a doomed quest. That’s why Merry says, “You must go— and therefore, we must too.” The peril of their friend was their peril.

This reality becomes starkly evident in the case of children. When you have children, whether you want to or not, you are emotionally connected. You will become emotionally vulnerable. You can’t sing songs when their heart is heavy. It just can’t happen. It’s automatic! The amazing and terrifying thing about friendship is that in friendship, you must give the gift of emotional connection and vulnerability, voluntarily.

How can you tell if you’ve entered this level of friendship with someone or they with you? (I say it this way because while you must make intentional decisions to put your happiness in your friends’ happiness, the process of becoming a caring friend starts to happen naturally as affection is added to friendshipaffection, if you recall is the love associated with familiarity.)  A caring friend can’t go about singing songs when their friend is heavy hearted. You can’t go about your job when they’re falling apart. It’s amazing for anyone to so bind their heart to another person that this becomes true. This is one reason you can’t have too many true friends. You can’t survive with too many friends with whom you share this kind of intimacy.

A friend creates that emotional connection as a gift and, as a result, is unbelievably emotionally sensitive to you, knows how you’re feeling, and therefore, is not using you but rather is committed to your emotional flourishing because he or she can’t flourish without your emotional flourishing as well.[11]

In friendship, there is mutually assured destruction and mutually assured delight.

Maintaining the two keys of candor and care is like walking a razor’s edge. Candor tells the painful truth, but care requires that you be so emotionally connected that the painful words cut you as much as they cut the other. It’s easy to just be “caring” and shut up. It’s easy to just have “candor” and tell someone off. But it’s hard to the point of impossibility to constantly do both and do them well. Most of us don’t have lasting and deep friendships because of this very difficulty. It takes a great opening of oneself to pain to be constant in our care and candor.

It’s hard to open your heart to another person. How can you be sure they won’t trample it? How can you trust them not to drive a spear through it?

When constancy, candor, and care have been established— Bones, muscle, and skin— then the soul of friendship is ready to dwell there. And counsel is the life and breath of friendship.

Key #4: Counsel

Proverbs 27:9
Oil and perfume make the heart glad,
and the sweetness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel.

The word earnest means from the heart. The word counsel means secrets. Earnest counsel means to reveal the secrets of the heart. Care mainly is focused on caring for secrets revealed to you and being gentle with your friendly wounds. But, counsel is concerned with the liberty to reveal yourself to another. It means to confide in somebody. It’s fascinating what a truly unique and rare thing this kind of counsel is.

There’s a kind of friend who can be an intermediary between you and God. The Biblical way to handle your emotions is unique. From the Psalms, we learn to neither vent our emotions, nor to tamp down our emotions. Instead, we are to pre-reflectively pour our emotions out to God in prayer. Sometimes this can be very difficult since God can seem the most distant at the times when we are in the most distress. But, the counseling friend is the friend to whom you can come with your emotions in much the same way you would come to God himself and he will direct you and guide you to God.

The counseling friend knows how to listen, how to refrain from judgement until all has been heard. The counseling friend knows how to sort “words for the wind” (Job 6:26) from the true state of the heart. Job’s “friends” thought they were counseling friends, but they knew neither Job’s heart nor the Truth of how God governs the world. They were too busy justifying themselves to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger” (Jas 1:19). The took the intermediary role that Job had gifted to them— to stand between him and God— and instead, they sat in the place of God. A counseling friend knows his limits and knows when to speak and when to say, “I don’t know…but, I’m here with you to help you figure this out.”

If you won’t begrudge me one more Lord of the Rings reference, there is a scene in which Frodo is consulting an Elf, Gildor, on how he should proceed since Gandalf hasn’t arrived back in the Shire as he had planned:

[Frodo said,] “I have been expecting Gandalf for many days. He was to have come to Hobbiton at the latest two nights ago; but he has never appeared. Now I am wondering what can have happened. Should I wait for him?”

Gildor was silent for a moment. “I do not like this news,” he said at last. “That Gandalf should be late, does not bode well. But it is said: Do not meddle in the affairs of Wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger. The choice is yours: to go or wait.”

“And it is also said,” answered Frodo: “Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.”

“Is it indeed?” laughed Gildor. “Elves seldom give unguarded advice, for advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise, and all courses may run ill. But what would you? You have not told me all concerning yourself; and how then shall I choose better than you? But if you demand advice, I will for friendship’s sake give it.”[12]

Advice is a dangerous gift. Through counsel we can help set the trajectory of a friend’s life for their prosperity or their poverty. This is something only a close friend can do, and we desperately need it. Without it you will never become the person you need to be. The counsel of friends is God’s means of forming Christ in you. This counsel has two aspects. Here, it is “sweet”, reassuring, and cheering. But, as we saw when we discussed candor it can often be abrasive and cutting.

You may have a friendship where there is intimacy— each person is sharing from the heart; you are letting one another “see to the bottom”— but, if the council is always sweet and reassuring it surely isn’t “faithful”; trustworthy. Because we are all sinners, there will be times when we should be disagreed with. If this isn’t happening then the real bond of friendship cannot form, because one or the other or both friends are still using one another.

The Covenant Lord of Friendship

We will start here next week, so I’ll be brief. I said earlier that all relationships are covenantal in nature and friendship is no different. And if you were listening when I quickly listed the pieces of covenants— covenant lord, narrative, stipulations, and sanctions— you may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned anything or anyone who functions as the Covenant Lord of our friendships. Of course, for the Christian that’s an easy question to answer. C.S. Lewis again:

We think we have chosen our peers… But, for a Christian, there are, strictly speaking, no chances. A secret Master of the Ceremonies has been at work. Christ, who said to the disciples, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you,” can truly say to every group of Christian friends, “You have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another” … At this feast, it is he who has spread the board and it is he who has chosen the guests. It is he …who sometimes does, and always should, preside. Let us not reckon without our Host.[13]

It’s not enough for me to say to you, “Now, go and do these things!” Seeing what little we have from Proverbs of what an ideal friend looks like will not itself free us to have the kinds of friends we need nor will it empower us to become the kinds of friends we need to be. Knowing what to do is never enough.

The ideal friend always gives you the truth even when it hurts them to do it. The ideal friend binds himself to you, showing the faithfulness that will keep you from ruin. The ideal friend weaves his soul to yours, emotionally connecting himself to you, putting his happiness inside your happiness; your sorrow in his sorrow. He isn’t ashamed to call you brother, partaking in all the sufferings you must suffer— drinking the cup you must drink. As I’m saying these things, if you’re like me, you are starting to feel both a longing and a crushing weight. I feel a nostalgia— a pain over something lost which I have no power to regain.

First, why is it so crushing? When you place this kind of loyal, honest, caring, wise friend on one side of the scale and yourself on the other, one thing is abundantly clear: you don’t measure up. Have the courage to admit that the main reason you don’t have the friends you need is that you aren’t the friend you should be. Sin has so broken us, turned us into selfish cowards— too scared to either be honest or to open our hearts to one another, too foolish to offer wise counsel, loyal only to ourselves or just primarily to ourselves— that it is impossible for us to be ideal friends.

Your life isn’t primarily about you, but sin has blinded you to that. And because we live as if our lives were primarily about us, we aren’t great friends. We don’t give the kind of friendship that we were made to and therefore we don’t get it in return. Why? Because it’s hard! In fact, it’s impossible!

How easy is it for you to really be there for another person unconditionally at great cost to yourself? How easy is it for you be totally honest with another person? You can’t even be honest with yourself! Can you give the gift of vulnerability and transparency? How will you receive it?

Where do we get the power to become the friends we need to be and the freedom from the selfishness that prevents from having the friends we need?

On the night before Jesus Christ died, he was desperate to break through his disciples’ stubborn ignorance about what he was about to do. They needed to understand the meaning of the cross. What metaphor does he choose? What reality does he point to? Friendship!

John 15:12–17
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another.

He said, “…all that I have heard from my Father, I have made known to you.” There’s candor and care. God is a friendship and we were made for friendship with him and one another. But we stabbed God in the back, we betrayed his friendship. That’s why it was necessary for Jesus to be betrayed by a close friend— betrayed with a kiss! — so that we could see what our betrayal, our rebellion really is.

Usually a friend betrayed will turn on you, but when we struck God on the cheek he offered the other for the kiss of friendship, he turned the other cheek to us. He offered reconciliation! He leaned in for the kiss a second time! That’s what Jesus meant by turning the other cheek. He didn’t turn it to us in defiance saying, “Go ahead, give me your best shot! Hit me again! I can take it!” He turned to offer his friendship again.

Jesus Christ is the friend who “loves at all times”. Jesus is the brother “born for adversity”. Jesus Christ is the ultimate friend who “sticks closer than a brother”, who marched into the jaws of death, not along with us, but in our place! He clings to us at infinite cost to himself so that we won’t “come to ruin”. How? How did he do it? His wounds are the wounds of love and instead of giving them, he took them. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend!” How much more faithful are they when they are not inflicted but received!?

On the cross, Jesus felt the cosmic longing for the eternal and infinite friendship that he had always known with the Father and the Father turned his back on him, so that he could offer the cheek for the kiss of friendship to us! Jesus felt the crushing weight of cosmic friendlessness…for you…for me…he calls us friends…

The cross is the ultimate honest rebuke— the ultimate “wound” to our pride and rebellion and betrayal. What do you look like in your sin? Who are you? Look at the Son of God, hung like meat, unrecognizable as human! That’s what we are. We’ve so distorted what the Father intended us to be that we can’t even be recognized as the radiant glorious beings he had in mind when he gazed at the Son in glory and devised our shape.

But, the cross is also, at the same time, the ultimate act of emotional connection— care. On the cross, Jesus Christ put his happiness in our happiness. He couldn’t bear eternity without you! He couldn’t stand to see you suffer alone, so he entered into your suffering. He gave all that he had for all that we need. And each answer the cross gives is perfectly suited for each need. Paul calls the cross “God’s wisdom” (1 Cor 1:18-24). The cross is the perfect answer— the perfect counsel— for every need.

In the garden of Gethsemane, as his friends were falling asleep on him, Jesus bled anxiety over them. He knew that they were about to betray him, disown him, and deny him. But when the Father offers the decision, “You will have to go to hell, or lose your friends”, he says, “I’ll go to hell”. Faithful…trustworthy…loyal are the wounds of a friend. Where are you going to find another friend like that?

If you take that deep into your being; if you receive his friendship; day by day; moment by moment, that will give you the capacity to become that kind of friend. When his perfect friendship satisfies the longing, and lifts the crushing weight, you will no longer need to protect your friendships from honest, loving wounds. You will no longer need to protect yourself from the vulnerability and dangers of being a caring friend. You will always be able to point your friends to a wiser counselor than yourself, and because you know that you’re not perfect you will welcome counsel whether it’s clashing or sweet. When you are bound to Jesus Christ in Covenant friendship, you will have all the resources you need to enter into the trials and troubles of your friends, because the worst that could happen to you has already happened to him.

When you see Christ dying to become your friend, you will be able to become the faithful, honest, caring, and wise friend you were made to be. And, paradoxically, to the degree that you are so satisfied with his friendship, no longer needing human friendship— in the sense that Lewis meant when he talked about those “pathetic people who simply ‘want friends’”— you will find yourself making the friends that your heart desires.

A Final Thought

You must have friends who are both like you and unlike you if you want to have friendships that will make you into the “beings all-pulsating through with light and beauty” that you could be and to see your friends so made. How do you get friends like that? We naturally gravitate toward people who share our passions, loves, desires, affinities, etc. And as I said before friendship is founded on that gravitational pull.

But, Jesus Christ is breaking into the lives of all kinds of people. In Christ, suddenly, people to whom you would never have given the time of day, have become the most fascinating people in the world. Lewis said of all people:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.[14]

And from that seed of immortality, the Christian has a yet far greater destiny:

[God] will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a ‘god’ or ‘goddess’, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness.[15]

Psalm 16:3
As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones,
in whom is all my delight.

Because we share this Lord, we share this future, we share the deepest affinity of our hearts with every other Christian. You have the potential for the deepest and most profound friendships among those whom God has chosen for himself. And the friendships you make among your brothers and sisters in Christ will last forever!

[1] Lewis, C.S. The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis Volume 2

[2] Lewis, C.S. The Four Loves, p. 47

[3] Ibid. pp. 43, 45

[4] Ibid. p.74

[5] Ibid. p. 83

[6] Ibid. p. 78

[7] Ibid. p. 85

[8] Kidner, Derek. Proverbs pp. 41-42

*I changed this from Kidner’s tact for the alliteration.

[9] Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring, pp. 103-104

[10] Robertson, O. Palmer. The Christ of the Covenants, p. 15

[11] Keller, Tim. “Friendship”. Proverbs: True Wisdom for Living.

[12] Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring, p. 84

[13] Lewis, C.S. The Four Loves, p. 114

[14] Lewis, C.S. The Weight of Glory, pp. 45-46

[15] Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity, p. 206

2 years ago

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