“1967. We were at war with Vietnam. And there I was, at the U.S. Army Ranger School at Fort Benning, Georgia. It was brutal,” says Stu Weber. I can still hear the raspy voice of the sergeant: “We are here to save your lives. We’re going to see to it that you overcome all your natural fears. We’re going to show you just how much incredible stress the human mind and body can endure. And when we’re finished with you, you will be the U.S. Army’s best!”
Then, before he dismissed the formation, he announced our first assignment. We’d steeled ourselves for something really tough – like running 10 miles in full battle gear or rappelling down a sheer cliff. Instead, he told us to – find a buddy. “Find yourself a Ranger buddy,” he growled. “You will stick together. You will never leave each other. You will encourage each other, and, as necessary, you will carry each other.” It was the army’s way of saying, “Difficult assignments require a friend. Together is better.” And then he asks this haunting question: Who’s your “Ranger buddy”?[i]
I say that’s haunting because as Americans, our circle of friends is shrinking. In 1985, the average American had 3 people in whom they could confide about things that were important to them. By 2006, that number had dropped to just 2. And even worse, the number of Americans who said they had NO close friends rose from 10% in 1985 to 24.6& in 2006. In your 30s and 40s, plenty of new people enter your life, through work, children’s play dates and, of course, Facebook. But actual close friends – the kind you make in college, the kind you call in a crisis – those are in shorter supply. As people approach midlife, the days of youthful exploration, when life felt like one big blind date, are fading. Schedules compress, priorities change and people often become pickier in what they want in their friends. No matter how many friends you make, a sense of fatalism can creep in: the period for making B.F.F.’s [best friends forever], the way you did in your teens or early 20s, is pretty much over. It’s time to resign yourself to situational friends: K.O.F.’s (kind of friends) – for now.
I have 1,204 “friends” on Facebook and 335 followers on Instagram. And there’s nothing wrong with that. We all recognize that social media friends aren’t necessarily friends. Many are acquaintances, people we grew up with, went to school with, maybe knew when we were living somewhere else, and it’s a great way to keep in touch with them. There are people I haven’t seen in 25 years that, if their kids walked into this church today, I could call them by name. That would probably freak them out a little, but I could do it.
But real friends? Close friends? Someone who I would go to the mat for; who would go to the mat for me? Someone I could call at 2 am if I needed to talk and they’d answer? People who wouldn’t hide when I knocked on the door? Probably not.
This summer, when I’m in the pulpit, we’ll be looking at the Old Testament wisdom book of Proverbs. Now remember, a proverb expresses an insight, an observation, or some advice that has been popularly accepted as a general truth, and it states that truth, often poetically, in as brief a form as possible. Now, we have to understand that proverbs are not typically viewed as being universally true. They’re true if they’re applied at the right time. “He who hesitates is lost” is an example of a proverb. And we can all think of circumstances where this proverb is true. But sometimes, the opposite is true – “haste makes waste.” The key is knowing when to apply the specific proverb. And it’s typically practical, not theoretical, stuff. In the book of Proverbs, we have a collection of these sayings pointing us toward wise living in a foolish world. The book of Proverbs is applied, practical theology. And today, we’re going to be applying God’s truth to our friendships, because Proverbs has a lot to say about friendship. Let’s look together at Proverbs 18.
This chapter is actually bracketed by short proverbs about friendship. Vv. 1-2 describe someone who doesn’t have friends, and V. 24 describes the value of having a close friend. In fact, this chapter begins with a description of someone who isn’t even capable of having close friends. Not because he isn’t likeable, or isn’t worthy of friendship. But because his focus is completely, totally, on himself. “Whoever isolates himself …” This is someone doing this to herself, to himself. This isn’t about someone being rejected, being ostracized. That kind of leaving someone out because they’re different is never okay. But that isn’t what we’re talking about here.
We’re talking about someone who isolates themselves and they do that because they’re “seeking their own desire.” They’re selfish and they’re self-centered. To be selfish is to not share what you have. To be self-centered is to be emotionally and mentally focused only on yourself. You can be very unselfish, very giving, and do it in a very self-centered way. People like this isolate themselves because they’re completely focused on themselves. They don’t care about anyone else. They might pretend to care, but somehow the conversation seems to always come back to them, to their issues, to their life, to how they feel. They use people to achieve their own goals and fulfill their own dreams. You and I are, to them, merely pawns to be used. Look at V. 2. They don’t want to listen. They just want to talk. Life is all about them. This kind of person isn’t capable of having friends or being a friend because everything is so one-sided.
On the other end of the spectrum is the friend who is closer than a brother. Look down at V. 24. Wait a minute Jeff. You just said that this is about a good, healthy, close friendship. It is. And it’s describing the natural gradations, levels, of friendship. Companions here are people we associate with, people we spend time with, but they aren’t really close friends. They’re acquaintances. It’s fine to have acquaintances. We CAN’T be close friends with everyone we know. That isn’t psychologically possible. It’s fine to have lots of acquaintances, provided you know that they’re acquaintances, and provided you do have some really close friends too. Some of these “companions” are people who spend time around you simply because of what you can do for them. They get something out of being with you, around you, or associated with you – perhaps socially, or financially, or emotionally. But if your situation changes; if you fall on hard times, if you need something from them AND can’t meet their needs anymore, they’ll be gone. That’s why a man of many companions, if that’s all you have, may come to ruin.
Contrast that with the friend who sticks closer than a brother. A friend whose ties to you are deeper even than blood. Acquaintances may leave when you can no longer do anything for them. A close friend never will. This is a friend for whom time and distance do not matter. You always find a way to stay in touch. This is the friend who, when they call you saying, “Oh my gosh, I’ve just murdered my husband,” you’re there in 15 minutes with a shovel and an alibi.
There are four primary characteristics of a good, close friendship. The first is constancy. This is the friend who sticks closer to you than even your family. They’re with you for the good times, but they’re also there for the bad times. A good friend doesn’t turn his or her back on someone because they’re having a bad day, or because they’re facing some adversity. Prov. 17:17 says, “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.” A good friend is constant. Rock solid.
But a good friend is also willing to be honest. Proverbs 27:6 says “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” A good friend is willing to tell you what you need to hear, not just what you WANT to hear. But even when they’re being honest, they’ll never turn their back on you, no matter how difficult, how painful, or how messy your life gets.
Good friends also provide wise counsel to one another. You can talk things out with them. The self-centered person in V. 1 “breaks out against sound judgment” because no one is there to offer advice and counsel. Two heads are better than one and three are better than two. Two sets of eyes and ears pick up things that just one set misses. This doesn’t mean you always see things the same way. Prov. 27:9 says, “the sweetness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel.” Earnest counsel comes from a genuine sense of love and care and concern and really wants what’s best for you, even if it’s hard to hear and harder to do. And Prov. 27:17 says, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” When friends argue and discuss and rumble over issues, sparks may fly, but they don’t turn their backs on one another and they sharpen one another, they make each other better, in the process.
Constancy. Honesty. Good counsel. And tact. Good friends know when AND WHEN NOT to say or do something. Prov. 25:17 says, “Let your foot be seldom in your neighbor’s house, lest he have his fill of you and hate you.” Tact. A good friend knows when it’s time to go. When they want, and need, and can be left alone. Three verses later, we read, “Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, and like vinegar on soda.” A good friend doesn’t just try to “cheer you up.” They let you be where you are. And then down in Prov. 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!” Good friends joke and laugh, but they also know how far is too far. They know when enough is enough.
- 1 depicts the self-centered person who uses people but isn’t a friend. V. 24 the constant, honest, wise, and tactful friend who sticks closer than family. And between these two brackets there are a bunch of individual proverbs that don’t seem to have much, if anything, to do with friendship. They don’t even mention the word friendship. And each proverb does stand on it’s own just fine and flows with some other themes in Proverbs like justice and honesty, pride and humility, but if you look closely, you’ll see that these proverbs – the ones in Vv. 3-23, actually work together to describe the enemy of close friendship: self-centered pride.
It is a self-centeredness that shows itself in in considerate words. Vv. 6-8. Vv. 17-18. Look especially at Vv. 20-23.
- 20: You WILL eat your words, so make sure they are satisfying, not empty.
- 21: Understand the power of words and use them wisely, not foolishly.
- 23: Be gracious with your words, especially if you are in a position of power and authority. If you have authority, you can get away with harsh words. But don’t do it.
The foolish are always talking, spouting your opinions but never listening, harsh and condescending. The foolish run away when the going gets tough. They are the opposite of constancy and commitment. Using people but not loving people.
In a letter to his nephew, Henri Nouwen, the Dutch priest who gave up his career of teaching at Harvard and Yale to live a L’Arche, a community in which volunteers live with mentally disabled adults, said this: “I have noticed one thing in particular: increasing prosperity has not made people more friendly toward one another. They’re better off, but the new-found wealth has not resulted in a new sense of community. I get the impression that people are more preoccupied with themselves and have less time for one another than when they didn’t possess so much. There’s more competitiveness, more envy, more unrest, and more anxiety. There’s less opportunity to relax, to get together informally, and enjoy the little things in life. Success has isolated a lot of people and made them lonely. It seems sometimes as though meetings between people generally happen on the way to something or someone else. There’s always something else more important, more pressing, of more consequence … And the higher up you get on the ladder of prosperity, the harder it becomes to be together, to sing together, to pray together, and to celebrate life together in a spirit of thanksgiving.”
A good friend, a close friend, a godly friend is a friend who reflects, mirrors, the love of Christ. He or she is constant. Honest. Wise. Tactful. Now, if you’re like me, when I was studying this, you’ve been evaluating your friends through this lens. Let me see, is John constant? Is he honest with me? Is he wise? Is he tactful? Like a checklist. And it’s a good checklist. But I want to challenge you not to evaluate your friends, but to evaluate YOURSELF as a friend. Do I, as a friend, mirror the love of Christ in my friendships with others?
Babe Ruth had hit 714 home runs during his baseball career and was playing one of his last major league games. The aging star was playing for the Boston Braves against the Cincinnati Reds. But he was no longer as agile as he had once been. He fumbled the ball and threw badly, and in one inning alone, his errors were responsible for five Cincinnati runs.
As the Babe walked off the field after the third out, booing and catcalls cascaded from the stands. Just then a young boy jumped over the railing onto the playing field. With tears streaking his cheeks, he threw his arms around the legs of his hero. Ruth didn’t hesitate. He picked up the boy, hugged him, and set him down on his feet with a playful pat on the head.
Suddenly the booing stopped. In fact, a hush fell over the entire park. In those brief moments, the crowd saw a different kind of hero: a man who in spite of a dismal day on the field could still care about a little boy. He was no longer being judged by his accomplishments–neither the past success nor the present failures–but by a completely different standard. Suddenly it was not his works that mattered, but a relationship.
Proverbs distinguishes between the way of wisdom, which is the way of Christ, and the way of foolishness. The way of foolishness is to use people in a self-centered attempt to move yourself to the top, regardless of the impact on them. To not pay attention to the way your words and actions impact others.
The way of wisdom is to seek to be a committed, honest, wise, and tactful friend. To seek to be a friend who mirrors the self-emptying, sacrificial love of Christ in friendship with others. To love our friends as Christ loves us. We can’t be close friends with everyone. But even in our acquaintances, we can pay careful attention to the impact of our words and refuse to use people. We may not and cannot share everything about our lives with them and we may, but we can hang in there with them when times get tough.
[i] Stu Weber, pastor of Good Shepherd Community Church in Boring, Oregon. Men of Integrity, Vol. 1, no. 1.