The Christian discovers that, whilst he has fellowship with all his brethren in Christ, he has special friendships only with some of them. It is not always easy to say why such friendships between some Christians develop or why potential friendships with others come to nothing. But it is a fact of observation and experience which must ultimately have its explanation in the mystery of God’s providence. Fellowship in a general sense exists between all who are born of God. But that special delight which friends find in each other’s company is something which goes beyond this. Fellowship is there because of the grace which is enjoyed in common. But friendships occur almost mysteriously and yet not without explanation, as we shall see. No doubt in heaven, when grace becomes glory, this imperfect state of our relationships will improve so that all will be equally the friend of each. But it is not so now and no act of will can now make it so, it would seem.
The best of God’s servants have had special friends and their names are wreathed together and intertwined in the pages of Scripture. Moses and Joshua, David and Jonathan, Daniel and his brethren, Peter and John, Paul and TimothyÂ—they belonged together on earth and their names come easily to our memory in pairs or groups. Even the Lord Jesus Christ had his special relationships with his own disciples. Out of the twelve, three were specially intimate: Peter, James and John. Out of these three, one was unique. Only John was ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’, in the relationship of a friend par excellence. It appears clear therefore that we ought not, as Christians, to be surprised to find that we have closer relations with some of God’s people than with others. This must not lead us to be dismissive of brethren who are not in our intimate circle of friends. But it reassures us that there is no sin in the Christian’s having closer ties with some than with other brethren.
Christian friendships are no doubt ordained to draw forth from us the highest powers of our soul and so to lead to our greatest usefulness and sanctification. It is not hard to see how this comes about. Most friendships, if not all, consist of a bond of affection between one who is more talented, or else more spiritually
advanced, and another who is less so. Within this relationship there is a mutually felt, if also tacit, recognition of the need for grace and forbearance. The gifted brother must show his brotherliness by generous, but concealed, condescension, and the less-gifted brother must advance the friendship by mortifying his envy. Thus pride is weakened in the one and jealousy in the other. Both are strengthened in their graces and as a result ‘iron sharpeneth iron’.
It belongs to the genius of our friendships that we must accept our brethren for what they are and extend affection to them accordingly. The gifted brother who cannot bear to be anything other than idolised will have admirers but not friends. There is a significant difference. An admirer loves us for the sake of our talents; a friend loves us for our own sake. Friendship is far more beneficial to us than admiration because it makes sanctifying demands upon our character. Those gifted brethren who want only our admiration seek only additional fuel for their own self-love. But genuine friendship leads to the destruction of self-love because it forgets itself in a sincere desire to do good to the other person.
To accept our brethren for what they are, within the bond of Christian friendship, is to leave them room to think and act as they wish, provided they keep within scriptural bounds. This is far from easy because we are all inclined to hold our opinions in lesser matters rather too strongly and, given opportunity, we tend to squeeze others into our own mould even in matters indifferent. It is notoriously easier to quote Augustine’s dictum than to act according to it in our friendships: ‘In things essential, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity’.
Friendship is good and necessary for us just as, in most cases, marriage is necessary. It corrects our angularity and rubs off our corners. The recluse is the first to fall into eccentricities. The more we are with ourselves the more we become like ourselves. It is only when we come back into the circle of our godly friends once again that we realise how awkward, or else opinionated, we have become as Christians. We all go astray ‘like sheep’, but we go astray less if we keep within the flock and refuse the temptation to wander off into solitary pastures where we are all on our own. This fact alone should have been enough to warn the early Christian ascetics against the monastic cell. But history shows that it was not. The monk’s cell was the ideal situation for the development of quirks and crankish habits of spiritual character. Healthy Christian character, which is full-orbed, well-rounded and rich in good fruits can best be formed within the circle of sanctified friendships.
It is a common proverb that ‘a man is known by his friends’. This is not surprising because, as the Romans put it, ‘a friend is a second self. That is to say, our intimate friends are what they are to us
because they are essentially like us in all that is morally important. We choose our friends, not by accident, but because their souls mirror ours and their minds vibrate in harmony with ours. Friendship begins as soon as this mutual harmony of hearts is felt, and it ends when the harmony ends. We can be respectful to brethren with whom we feel we have little in common, but it is emotionally impossible for us to count them among our intimate friends.
Our best friends are those whose company most makes us afraid of sin. These friends are rare and to be valued like solid gold. It is clear that this was the effect which M’Cheyne had upon Andrew Bonar. Bonar could never be the same once he met M’Cheyne. All his life, and on anniversary occasions especially, he remembered that saintly friend whose presence made God more real and therefore sin more foul. Those who have seraphic friends will at last become angelic. It is one reason why we should aim more at godliness. An exemplary life may do as much good as a lifetime of sermons. There are some Christians who impress us by their talents. But there are also others whose awesome holiness makes us afraid. If we find one friend of this kind, we shall do well to cherish his .friendship for life.
It is marvellous how different the effect of different men is upon our spirit. Some men’s company shuts our mouth and seals our lips as if we were imprisoned. Other brethren unlock our tongue and draw forth the secrets of our heart so that we can tell them all our thoughts and trust them with all our secrets. Some men cow and intimidate us so that we put up a wall of defence around our real thoughts till they are gone. Others win their way to our affections at once, and melt our reserve, so that we can share our choicest meditations with them. Some men bring out the best in us, and some bring out the worst. It is hard to say how this all works. But it is a fact of life. In this writer’s opinion, we should take seriously our instinctive reactions to different men and not say more to anyone than we feel convinced would be wise and well-taken. When you meet a man who is not your friend, and who refuses to become your friend, you will not please him ‘whether you rage or laugh’ (Prov. 19: 9). Therefore it is best to keep the secrets of your heart where they areÂ—safely under lock and key.
A Christian ought to prize his friends and to preserve them. Much is owed to true friends. They impose duties and obligations on us which are not to be neglected, even when life is full of business. Church work can make us too dogmatic in minor things and the remedy for over-certainty is to listen at times to our friends’ judgment of us. The wounds of a friend are ‘faithful’ (Prov. 27:6) in that they hurt us for our good. Therefore we should not resent them.
The temptation we all have is to keep to the company of those who only admire us and never dare to stand up to us. Luther was a toweringly great man, but he would have been greater still if he had allowed Zwingli to correct his view of the Lord’s Supper. It was Luther’s weakness and the church’s loss that he would not be moved by either the logic or the tears of his friends. Similarly, the Wesleys should have listened more to Whitefield. Edward Irving was a most brilliant speaker but he ought to have paid more attention to the frowns of Chalmers and other orthodox brethren. Had he done so, or had he married differently, he would have given off more light and less smoke to the church. As it was, he felt too sure of his erratic opinions and so lost the chance of becoming a great leader of God’s people.
One of the most painful parts of Christian friendship is to be honest with brethren we love when we consider them to be wrong or misguided. We have not all the moral courage to stand up to our brethren when they go off at a tangent. In this respect, we must remember how Paul faithfully ‘withstood Peter to the face’ (Gal. 2:11). We generally prefer keeping a criminal silence to giving a well-timed rebuke. But, when we do so, we do not act as friends should. We are not to ‘suffer sin in our brother’ (Lev. 19:17). ‘Open rebuke is better than secret love’ (Prov. 27:5). The blessed Jesus felt no inconsistency in altering his tone of voice to Peter from ‘blessed art thou’ to ‘get thee behind me, Satan’ (Matt. 16:23). The two expressions appear to have come from Christ’s lips in one and the same conversation. This shows how quickly we must sometimes change our voice from praise to blame when dealing with friends in Christ whom we love.
The price of real friendship is honesty. Therefore a genuine friend must at times be ready to appear cruel. But we must be cruel to be kind. However much we have to wound those we love, we know that it is the part of hatred, not love, to see our brother wander from the path unchecked. However much we love our brother, we love Jesus Christ more. ‘I love Plato, but I love truth still more’, said Aristotle. This sentiment is fully consistent with the gospel and, indeed, is the very essence of gospel friendships. But such friendships are rare because we either lack the courage to correct our brethren in their crankish quirks or else we take it badly when they put their finger on our own cherished eccentricities.
A good friend can be a sublime comfort to us in hours of loneliness. And the Christian will meet many occasions of loneliness in his pilgrimage. So we shall be both better in character and lighter in heart if we allow a due place to the forming and fostering of contacts with like-minded brethren in the Lord. To start the day with a short ‘phone call or with a brief letter from an esteemed saint
can be the difference between a day of victory and triumph, or a day of depression and temptation.
Generally speaking, when we are depressed and dejected we should seek the remedy, not in prayer and fasting, but in fellowship and friendship. As Luther’s Letters wisely say, we ought not to go to prayer when we are depressed, but into the company of good people. Satan is always more menacing when we meet him on our own. Depression dislocates all the parts of the soul and paralyses our creative powers. Every preacher knows that he has spent long hours preparing a sermon to no effect on one dayÂ—only to complete it in no time at all the next morning, when joy has returned to his soul. Half an hour of fellowship, therefore, when the mind is dejected, will often release the springs of our creativity and cause the life-blood of Christian gladness to flow afresh in our veins. Whatever gives us a sense of well-being as Christians is good for us. High on the list of things which bring us a sense of well-being is friendship.
Perhaps we fail to notice, as we read the Bible, that the highest pattern of Christian friendship is in God Himself. The manner in which the three divine Persons relate to one another and refer to one another is the exalted outflowing always of perfect mutual love. Let us apologise for the poverty of human language when we say so, but there is in each Person of the Godhead a kind of self-effacing quality. The Father’s attitude to the Son is expressed in the simple words: ‘This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased’ (Matt. 3:17). The Son’s love of the Father is reflected in the statement: ‘My Father is greater than I’ (John 10:29). Similarly, the Spirit does not speak of Himself but bears witness to Christ (John 15:26). Yet the Son declares that blasphemy against the Son will be forgiven but not blasphemy against the Spirit (Matt. 12:31).
Admittedly, many comments and qualifications to what is here said would need to be added if these texts were to be fully explained. But the important and instructive fact remains that the divine Persons of the Holy Trinity never refer to one another except with perfect honour, respect and love. They each delight to give to the father Persons their high and honoured place. O! how transcendentally perfect are these holy Three, whom we know as Father, Son and Spirit! How worthy of our imitation they are in the matter of our Christian friendships, as in all else! Sin makes men hateful and hating’ (Titus 3:3). Let us see to it that we have grace to be good one to another for lifeÂ—or rather, for eternity.
* Reprinted from the English Banner of Truth of January 1991, by kind permission. This article, originally published as an editorial, now forms part of a collection of such editorials published under the title The Thought of God, by the Banner of Truth. This is a very valuable book which will both warm and search the hearts of any spiritually minded reader. It has much to say which is of special relevance to churches in these difficult times and it is warmly commended.