“There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”
Wisdom is when we outgrow our misconceptions about how life should work, and we learn how God actually built life to work, and work well. That takes us beyond rule-keeping. God’s wisdom enters our hearts and changes us within, so that, as we grow, we know intuitively what to do and what not to do, what will work and what won’t. Wisdom is skill for living when there is no hard and fast rule to go by. That is what the book of Proverbs is for – gospel wisdom for complicated lives.
A major area where wisdom helps us is friendship. So much is at stake in our friendships. And so much of friendship is a matter of feel. God has wisdom for us today about the nuances of real friendship. But it all begins with God himself.
God is our Friend through Christ. In fact, friendship began within God. It’s who God is – Father, Son and Spirit in eternal, powerful interactions of love. The heart of God is friendship reaching out.
We get an insight into our own hearts from the Assyrian king Adad-Nirari II (911-891 B.C.). He looked at himself and here’s what he said: “I am royal, I am lordly, I am mighty, I am honored, I am exalted, I am glorified, I am powerful, I am all-powerful, I am brilliant, I am lion-brave, I am manly, I am supreme, I am noble.” My guess is, he didn’t have many friends. Self-important people don’t. Now, God also made much of “I am” (Exodus 3:14). But what did the real “I am” do with all his mighty being? In that passage God says, “I will be with you” (Exodus 3:12). That’s a friend. A friend is there for you. Jesus said, “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” (John 15:15). Back in the Old Testament, it was an honor to be called “the servant of the Lord.” That didn’t belong to just anybody. The prophets, for example, were the Lord’s servants (Jeremiah 35:15). But it’s an even higher honor to be the Lord’s friend. The Bible says, “The LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11). Nobody else could get that close. But now, because of Christ, you and I have been drawn in. In that spirit, the apostle John sends greetings from one church to another this way: “Peace be to you. The friends greet you. Greet the friends, every one of them” (3 John 15). God is befriending us, including us, drawing more and more people in. Friendship began in heaven, not on earth, and is coming down to earth through the gospel today. The wisdom of Proverbs guides us into the strong friendships God is creating today. God is saying to you right now, “Let’s be friends. And let’s win more friends.”
What is a friend?
Many a man proclaims his own steadfast love,
but a faithful man who can find?
A friend loves at all times,
and a brother is born for adversity.
A faithful friend who loves at all times – that person is rare. “A faithful man who can find?” A brother is stuck with you. A brother is obligated to be some kind of safety net. That’s what family is for. But a friend chooses you. When someone loves you at all times, good and bad, and they don’t have to, they choose to – that person is a friend. A true friend is rock-solid. How many people like that do you know, compared with those who smile and make promises and create expectations but don’t follow through? Human nature without the power of God is shallow and self-congratulatory: “Many a man proclaims his own steadfast love.” But when you find a true friend, prize him! The gospel creates those rare people. The Bible says that the people of God “keep their promises even when it hurts” (Psalm 15:4, NLT) and “show themselves to be entirely trustworthy” (Titus 2:10, NLT). When God gives you a friend like that, tested and true, cherish that friend! Never let him go!
The friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel.
Doesn’t Jesus love us with that absoluteness? The Bible says, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1). And not because we deserve it. As soon as Peter denied Jesus that third time, the Lord turned and looked at him (Luke 22:61). Peter had proclaimed his own steadfast love: “I’ll never deny you.” All the disciples did (Matthew 26:35). And they all let him down. When Peter saw the Lord looking right into his face at that moment of utter betrayal, he finally saw himself. He knew that Jesus saw it all and still loved him, and that friendship smote his heart. The King James Version says that our risen Lord is even now “touched with the feeling of our infirmities” (Hebrews 4:15). He doesn’t despise us for our weakness. He is touched. That’s how a friend feels. It’s why we love John Newton’s hymn:
Could we bear from one another what He daily bears from us?
Yet this glorious Friend and Brother loves us, though we treat Him thus.
Though for good we render ill, he accounts us brethren still.
That is friendship. Total acceptance. Total forgiveness. A true friend knows who you really are and doesn’t walk away. But there is more.
Iron sharpens iron,
and one man sharpens another.
Faithful are the wounds of a friend;
profuse are the kisses of an enemy.
This is also part of a true friend – not only an all-accepting constancy but also a blunt honesty. Proverbs 24:26 says, “Whoever gives an honest answer kisses the lips.” Real friendship is like sharpening the blade of a sword, the proverb says, because God wants every one of us to be sharp for him. By ourselves we become dull and blunted and we lose our edge. Every one of us needs a friend who will not flatter us but refine us. These proverbs are not meant to unleash reckless mouthing off and self-appointed critics who think you really need their opinions. But these proverbs are about a true friend in your life who is making you better by respectful confrontation. The Bible says, “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24). A real friend will provoke you and challenge you. You won’t agree with everything your friend says, but you’ll want to listen. We all need that. Our own family background left every one of us a little weird. So we need an honest friend from outside the tightly-knit family to round us out. Every one of us needs to go to one other person and say, “Help me see myself. Help me get sharper for Christ.” And if no other person in this church is good enough to play that role for you, the problem is you. If you don’t know anyone well enough yet to trust them at that level, are you seeking that person out? In one sense, you don’t need a friend. Biologically, you don’t need a friend. Financially, you can thrive without a friend. And as busy as we are these days, unless we are seeking Christ, friendship will end up at the bottom of the To Do list. But you cannot become wise without a Christian friend speaking into your life. It can be painful. But the wounds of an honest friend are faithful to help you grow.
There is something more here in these two proverbs. I wonder if you see it. When iron sharpens iron, it creates friction. When a friend wounds you, it hurts. Do you see? There is a difference between hurting someone and harming someone. There is a difference between someone feeling loved and someone being loved. Jesus loved everyone well, and some people felt hurt. They were not harmed by him. They were loved by him. But they felt hurt, so they crucified him. If we don’t understand this, then every time we feel hurt we’ll look for someone to blame and punish. We’ll make our emotional state someone else’s fault. We’ll start spreading that version of events to other people in slander. But the truth is, a friend will inevitably hurt you with words that are respectful but true and blunt. If you’ll receive it, you will grow in wisdom. The Beatles were right: “I get by with a little help from my friends.”
How can friendship go wrong?
Whoever covers an offense seeks love,
but he who repeats a matter separates close friends.
We disappoint our friends. We don’t want to, but we do. So there will always be offenses. The wise person covers them with forgiveness, the way God does: “Blessed is the one . . . whose sin is covered” (Psalm 32:1). Why doesn’t God keep embarrassing us with our failures? Because he wants our friendship. He covers our sins through Christ. It’s what we do too, because we want our sinning friend more than we want payback. That is the mind of Christ.
Gossips don’t understand that. Gossips repeat a matter – not that they dredge it up over and over again. The word translated “repeats” means to mention the offense a second time, just one repeat. So the person who sinned against you – did they admit it and ask your forgiveness? Then drop it. Don’t mention it even one more time. You have regained a close friend! See the word “close”? A gossip can destroy a friendship that is close and has taken years to build through hard times. But now the gossip, the nag, the finger-pointer, intensifies the offense to the point of alienation. God wants us to think carefully about what we say. It doesn’t matter if what we feel like saying is factually true. What matters is the impact our words will have. We are constantly creating the conditions we’ll have to live with five minutes from now. So how do we create the better future we want? We keep remembering that all our sins have been forgiven and forgotten forever. Christ is creating those new conditions where we sinners can live again. Okay. Now we know how to treat each other.
Whoever belittles his neighbor lacks sense,
but a man of understanding remains silent.
The scenario here is one person in a power position, someone who is in the right, looking down on someone else, making them feel small. But a wise man knows, it’s not enough to be right. Even if we are right, God wants us to humble ourselves with restraint. Don’t answer every insult. Silence alone can preserve a friendship, a marriage.
Let your foot be seldom in your neighbor’s house,
lest he have his fill of you and hate you.
Friends need time together, and friends need time not together. You gotta know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em. In heaven there will be a gazillion people, every one of them will like you, and they will never get tired of you. But until we’re there, we are all weak enough that it is wise to ask ourselves when enough is enough. Benjamin Franklin said, “Guests, like fish, stink after three days.” My dad understood that. Whenever he came for a visit, it always seemed too short. When he left, we wanted more. It added eagerness to our friendship.
A brother offended is more unyielding than a strong city,
and quarreling is like the bars of a castle.
The beginning of strife is like letting out water,
so quit before the quarrel breaks out.
Drive out a scoffer, and strife will go out,
and quarreling and abuse will cease.
It is so hard to stop a fight once it starts. No one ends up happy and satisfied. Everyone feels injured and misunderstood. And then what do we do? We retreat into the castles of our minds: “Quarreling is like the bars of a castle.” We bolt the door so tightly, only God can get through. How do we avoid going there? When the Christians in Corinth were suing each other, Paul got right to the point: “Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?” (1 Corinthians 6:7). If we’re willing to lose the argument, we’ll win the friend.
Sadly, sometimes it doesn’t work. Some people are impossible. For some people, facts don’t matter, truth doesn’t matter, fairness doesn’t matter, finding a win-win doesn’t matter. They are unsatisfiable. What then? “Drive out a scoffer.” That makes a church safe for sinners who do want to grow and change. But who is a “scoffer”? The Bible says, “Scoffer is the name of the arrogant, haughty man who acts with arrogant pride” (Proverbs 21:24). He’s above everybody else. So, what can you do, where the scoffer is too superior to recognize common ground? Drive him out – and everybody will breathe a sigh of relief. This is what elders are responsible to do in a church. The Bible says to us elders, “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him” (Titus 3:10). There comes a definite point when the troublemaker is shown the door. If the elders chicken out, they then share in the sin and the destruction.
How can friendship be revived?
Do not say, “I will repay evil”;
wait for the LORD, and he will deliver you.
Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper,
but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.
If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat,
and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink,
for you will heap burning coals on his head,
and the LORD will reward you.
God has brought some of us to church today just for this. There is so much injury today, so much sin, so much brokenness. Here’s what God wants you to know. The best revenge is love. Whoever is mad at you – relieve the pangs of his hunger, and you’ll increase the pangs of his conscience. You might bring him to repentance. You might save his very soul. Isn’t that reward enough? Paul quotes this proverb in Romans 12:20. He makes the point clear: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). Your hateful enemy expects you to be hateful in return. It’s how the whole world works. But love will surprise that person the way Jesus keeps on surprising us. We treat him poorly, he keeps on treating us like royalty, and it melts our hearts. Maybe you’ve seen the 1951 sci-fi movie, The Thing From Another World. One of the members of an Arctic research team betrays all his comrades and nearly gets them killed. But when the report is filed by radio back to headquarters, the man speaking tells the story as if the offender had been the hero. All the other team members standing around and listening in are saying, “Way to go.”
When Christ calls in his report on your life, he doesn’t mention a single one of your betrayals. He absorbed them all into himself at the cross. What he says about you is his own heroism. He gives it to you, freely. He loves his enemies, to make us his friends. If your former friend, now your enemy, can be won back, the love of Christ is the only way.
Who is our truest Friend always?
A man of many companions may come to ruin,
but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.
“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” —John 15:13
You might have many pseudo-friends who will let you down when everything is on the line. But you can also have one super-Friend who sticks closer than a brother. When the apostle Paul was put on trial before Caesar, all his friends hightailed it. But it was okay. He wasn’t even angry, because, he said, “The Lord stood by me and strengthened me” (2 Timothy 4:17). This proverb is saying, real friends are not found in quantity but in quality. And no one offers us higher quality friendship than Jesus Christ.
When he laid down his life for his friends at the cross, he was forsaken, though he was loyal, so that we would never be forsaken. He was the brother offended, but he opened the castle of his heart. We put our feet frequently in his house, but he never wishes we would go away.
C. S. Lewis, in his essay on friendship, says that a new friendship starts out like this: “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.” Friends don’t have to be alike. They just discover how much they have in common. Guess what you have in common with Christ. Everything you care about the most. He cares about you. He cares about your sin. He cares your future. He thinks about you. He understands you. He loves you. You are not alone. He is here. You can receive him now. Let the eternal friendship begin for you today.