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October 09, 2012

a friend indeed

This summer I took a trek to various parts of North America to see friends and family. I crisscrossed the continent, chatting on picnic blankets, rolling homemade sushi, spooning clam chowder out of my sourdough bread in the fog and polishing off my first lobster tail at Anthony's Fish Grotto. I rode buses, planes, trains and boats. I walked until my legs hurt, held sweet babies and read dramatic autobiographies. It was a great way to spend two months. Because I was with good friends.
Rolling sushi with friends in Michigan

The majority of the friends I visited are transplants; when I originally met them, they lived somewhere other than where they live now. We said goodbyes at one time or another, and moving trucks or  overstuffed vans took them somewhere new. As they have settled into new spaces, they have filled their homes with a mix of memorabilia and new acquisitions. Their lives have been stretched to include new situations and new relationships.

As we talked life—on boardwalks, in their homes, at their churches, at Chinese restaurants—I noticed that there has been one thing that many of them have had a hard time finding, and that is good friends. Wouldn't it be nice if one could walk into a furniture store, and along with the new sofa, purchase some close friends to sit on it? "I'll take two close female friends, to go!" Or if IKEA carried a build-a-friend kit? But good friends can be hard to acquire!

A friend is not bought. There is something about free will that makes relationships deep and satisfying, or nothing at all. When a person chooses you, and then chooses you again and again, they are making you an offer of friendship. Because a true friend cannot be forced or paid, we truly rest on the grace of God to give us godly friends.

Free will also allows us to make the choice to be a good friend. What kinds of friends should we seek to be? This is an informal list with a few suggestions of choices we can make in our current and future friendships.

A visit with friends to the Hidden Lake Gardens in Michigan

Choose Jesus as your Best Friend.
Healthy human relationships flourish only in hearts that keep everyone in their proper categories—God is the only One we should worship, and it is finally His opinion of us that matters. Human friends are just that: human (read: fallible, flawed). It's easy to be petty and selfish about friendships, such as when a good friend finds a new close friend, when a friend moves into a different stage of life and you don't, or any multitude of other difficulties arise. Find your identity in Christ, not in others' reactions to you or interactions with you. In focusing on your relationship with your Best Friend, you'll become the best human friend possible. (I preach this to myself). 

Be a friend that encourages people to choose your Best Friend. This should be a natural outpouring of a healthy relationship with Christ. Whether your friends know Jesus or not, a true friendship will point them to Him as the best and most enduring relationship. Sometimes even in what looks like a good relationship, because we discuss spiritual things or pursue godly activities, we can be encouraging our friends to depend on us instead of Christ. A friendship that encourages a greater love for Jesus is the best kind of friendship.

Choose your friends with wisdom. This is basic to godly living: friends hold a place of great influence, so choose them carefully (Prov. 12:26). Proverbs warns against being friends with an angry person (22:24). When a person has a huge, prevailing sin, it is important that that person not be a main source of advice or counsel. A common mistake is that we think we can surround ourselves with unbelieving friends and still flourish spiritually. Friends influence us more than we realize. While it is important to build relationships with those who believe in other gods, and to love them, they should not allow them to be our counsellors—because we become like the people with whom we spend time.

Check your motives for choosing certain friends. It is so easy to desire friendships with people who are well-liked, influential, attractive, at a similar stage of life, or popular. It can be tempting to refuse developing friendships with people who don't meet our qualifications. But as a wise man once pointed out to me, often the people who don't have a lot of friends are the ones who will be the most loyal friends. The popular kids can always move on to another friendship. Maybe that's why Proverbs speaks extensively about how the wealthy make friends, but the poor struggle to—because human nature is essentially selfish and thinks, "What's in this friendship for me?" (14:20, 19:4,6,7). Ask God to open your eyes to the friendships that He wants you to have—not just the friendships that are the most comfortable.
Choose your words with wisdom. The way we use words has a lot to do with the kinds of friends we attract, keep and lose. Gossip kills friendships (Prov. 16:28, 17:9). Gracious words, on the other hand, win friends (Prov. 22:11). Part of true friendship is confronting or challenging friends about sin, but "faithful are the wounds of a friend" (Prov. 27:6). Give heartfelt advice (Prov 27:9). Use your words to sharpen and challenge your friend in the things of God (Prov. 27:17).

Choose to use technology with wisdom. Further detracting from good relationships is the internet's "Facebook friend" culture, where people think that by being online "friends", they truly know another person. Coworkers we hardly know on a personal level want to add us as their "friends." Though mobile devices, we expect instant and personal access to our friends. We sit across the table from warm, breathing bodies and stare at Twitter updates on our phones, rather than having a real conversation with the person right in front of us. Maybe because in the digital world its easier to hide our faults and accentuate our strengths. As one of my friends so astutely stated, Facebook gives us all the perks of friendship without any of the sacrifice or struggle. It also gives us the illusion that we can closely maintain many friendships, when really a person cannot really have deep, regular interactions with so many people. Though our sinful natures have always struggled to have godly friendships, our culture of instant gratification and information overload sometimes weakens interpersonal relationships to a new degree. We need God's wisdom to know how to wisely use the technology He has given us to cultivate godly relationships, not detract from them.

A Mexican sunset - enjoyed with friends

Do you ever wonder at the goodness of God in creating relationships? Do you thank Him for your friends? There is a certain chemistry in the most enjoyable of friendships that is not reproducible on command. There is nearly nothing sweeter than the company of good friends. As I travelled I was amazed anew at the kindness of God as shown to me through my friends. They are friends indeed. May I be as well.

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