A True Friend

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Proverbs 17:17
Proverbs 18:24

A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity . . . There are friends who pretend to be friends, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.

Proverbs 17:17 and 18:24, RSV

I want to think with you today about what it is to have a true friend – and to be one. I say “true” because for this as for all good things, there are counterfeits. The proverb points out that there are those who only pretend to be friends. Some are downright deceivers who work their way into our affections to gain something from us, or worse, to do us ill. Some are flatterers, I suppose, who give us positive strokes in order to control or manipulate us. Some there are who seem warm and gracious to us when we are near at hand, but seem to forget about us entirely when we’re far away. And we can all think of people who show warmth toward us for a while, but then seem to lose interest and turn away.

In addition to these, we know many persons with whom we have pleasant associations, share common interests, and enjoy good times. In a wider sense of the word, we could call these “friends” (and we often do). But we recognize a difference between them and our dearest friends. What is it that makes that inner circle different? How would we identify and characterize a “true friend”?

CONSTANT CONCERN

For me, constancy of concern would be one authentic mark. As the proverb puts it, “A friend loves at all times.” Maybe that’s why it is often said that “old friends are the best friends.” It may be true that we form stronger friendships in our younger years because our feelings and commitments are more intense then. I don’t see that, however, as the main reason why old friends are the best. Friendship takes time to develop, and time is also a very significant tester of its quality. The people who go on showing interest in us, who maintain concern for our welfare, who keep in touch, who love us in all the seasons of life, they are our true friends.

Think of Jonathan, Israel’s prince, and his famous friendship with David, the son of Jesse. Jonathan loved David, his friend, from the first moment he met him. But it became evident as time went on that this was more than a superficial attraction. Jonathan loved David when the shepherd boy was a favorite in the king’s court, and also when he was an outcast. He cared for him when he was a hero and also when he was being hunted down like some wild beast. David was in his thoughts, on his mind, whether he was near or in some distant place. Jonathan made a covenant with David, his friend, that they would be loyal to each other as long as their lives should last. But the friendship was to have meaning even beyond that. If one should survive the other, he would show kindness also to the children of his friend, and so the bond would continue through the generations.

We all know how heartwarming it is to have friends whose concern for us is persistent. Sometimes we only realize who those are with the passing of time. I’ve reflected on that often through the experience of being a pastor. A minister in the midst of his flock forms various kinds of friendships. Sometimes the interest which people show in him or his family is related chiefly to his role. He is their pastor. He fulfills a certain function among them. They do him favors and arrange social gatherings with him because they appreciate what he does for the church. Because they regard highly his office, they treat him with special consideration. And that is a fine thing. None who have been blessed by such attentions would ever want to disparage them.

But there are some whose interest in a pastor seems to go deeper. They care about him and what concerns him as well as about his role. They have him in their hearts. They love him for who he is or who she is. Their role is important, surely, but to these people, it is chiefly the means through which they have come to know the person.

It’s difficult, perhaps impossible, for a pastor to distinguish between these types of relationships while he is serving a congregation. Sometimes the difference becomes clear after he leaves and takes up work somewhere else. Some of the former parishioners with whom he had frequent associations seem to forget all about him. It’s as though he had dropped out of their lives completely. The new pastor, when he arrives, takes over the role and fills it quite adequately. The usual affections and kindnesses are now transferred to him and everything goes on as before.

But others cannot get their former pastor out of their hearts so quickly and easily. In spite of distance and time, the ties remain strong. They stay in communication. The loving interest, the faithful prayers continue. And as the pastor reflects on this with the passing of the years, he realizes with joy, “These people are really my friends.”

CLOSE COMPANIONSHIP

The second mark of genuine friendship is close companionship. During the course of our lives, there are many persons with whom we are on what we would call “friendly terms.” We enjoy seeing them from time to time. Our interchanges are always cordial, and there’s a good deal of mutual respect and good will. But we are not close to them. We have never shared our lives at any deep level with one another. When we’re together, we talk about many things and the conversation is often animated. But we have never communicated to one another our hopes and dreams, our struggles and weaknesses. Somehow we don’t feel free to open up to one another, to bare our inmost souls. It doesn’t seem appropriate. The relationship is not at that level. We haven’t been ready to risk this with one another, perhaps fearing that we’d be misunderstood, if we did, or even rejected.

But there is also a friend, the proverb tells us, that sticks closer than a brother. That’s a striking phrase, isn’t it? Closer than a brother. There are strong ties, aren’t there, that bind us together in family? But the bond between brothers and sisters, for example, is a natural tie, one we did not choose. We simply happened to have the same parents, to be born into the same family circle. And so we have a wealth of common experience and a long shared history. Those natural ties of kinship may be accompanied by strong affection and regard or they may not be. Siblings are sometimes close, but not always.

And, if they do show concern for one another as the years go on, the reasons for that may be mixed. They may help one another from a sense of family obligation. They may do it for the sake of their parents, or perhaps simply to keep up appearances – because it’s the socially acceptable thing to do.

It sometimes happens, though, that friendships become closer than these family ties. Friends care deeply for one another even without the supports and expectations of blood relationship. They are closer to one another than either is to brothers and sisters.

Blessed are those marriages where that kind of friendship is included! Along with the bond of sexual relationship and marital commitment, the wife and husband are close friends. They share more with each other than either has with anyone else in the world. They feel deeply safe with one another, able to be themselves, to expose to one another their faith and their fears, the honorable and the ugly within them, the bravery and the brokenness.

I’ve been moved again and again by the thought that Jesus calls His disciples, His friends. Listen to what He says about that: “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.” Friends they were because He shared His heart with them, His vision, His burden, His most treasured aims. He showed Himself by this “a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”

COURAGEOUS CARING

Here is one more quality of a true friendship. It’s a caring that has courage in it. “A friend loves at all times and a brother is born for adversity.” It’s not only time that tests a friendship, or mutual openness. Perhaps trouble does it best of all. Heartbreak, devastating loss, disgrace and shame, these try the mettle of any relationship. You discover while in the crucible those who care enough to stay with you, those who keep on being concerned for you even when it costs them something.

Rudyard Kipling has a stirring paraphrase of the proverb we’re thinking about today. He writes, “`One man in a thousand,’ Solomon says, `will stick more close than a brother,’ but the Thousandth Man will stand by your side to the gallows-foot – and after!” In other words, when you face the worst situation in your life, when rejection and torture await you, when you look death squarely in the face, the Thousandth Man, the real friend, will stay by your side. He’ll be with you then and right on through.

I’m not sure why Kipling capitalized the Thousandth Man, as he did. But I know why I would have, had I penned those great words. Only one Man fits that description. More, one in a thousand might stand by us at the gallows’ foot, but there’s only one among countless millions who can also befriend us afterwards.

I chose especially to talk today about friendship because I’ve been thinking about the coming of Jesus into the world, about Christmas. In Jesus we behold the glory of God. In His face shines the light of the Eternal. We bow before Him in awe and worship when we recognize who He is.

In the advent of Jesus we encounter also the One who is Lord. We acknowledge His sovereignty, His rightful claim upon our lives. We yield ourselves up gladly to His service.

We look to Him, too, as our Redeemer. “You shall call his name Jesus,” the angel said, “for he shall save his people from their sins.” To Him we owe all our hopes for forgiveness, release and everlasting joy.

But in the wonderful, unimaginable manner of His coming, we discover also that this Jesus is our Brother, bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh. He is, marvelously, our friend. He comes to us on our level, sharing our humanity, entering into our life. He is Emmanuel, God with us. His, supremely, is the concern that is constant, the love that does not end. Listen to His word: “I will never fail you nor forsake you . . . Lo, I am with you all the days.” He is the friend closer than a brother who shares His own life with us, breathes His own Spirit into us, gives us a share in His plans and dreams and allows us to unburden ourselves utterly to Him, to pour out our hearts before Him. And as for the friend who cares courageously, who is like Jesus? No one was ever so “born for adversity” as He. He took the form of a servant, remember. Poverty He freely chose. He humbled Himself even to the bitter and shameful death of the cross. Jesus was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And He is the One who spoke these grand words and then gave Himself completely to fulfill them. Listen: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” This was a caring that cost Him everything. “What a Friend we have in Jesus!”

I invite you today to trust in Him, born for you, crucified for you, risen now and reigning for you. Worship Him as God, obey Him as your Lord, trust Him as Savior, and rejoice in Him today as the best Friend that any man or woman, fellow or girl, ever had. And then in communion with Him, may you and I learn what it is to be constant, close and courageous in our caring.

PRAYER: Lord, make us true, real friends!