Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Joy of True Friendships

Over the last two blogs, we have highlighted some of the difficult things that can happen in life concerning friendships. First, it is a reality of life that some friends will walk away from their professed faith for a number of reasons. Secondly, we touched on the fact that Satan seeks to attack and separate true friends, and that we should be overly sensitive to the impact sin can have and protective of our friendships in the body of Christ.

But rather than running the risk of sounding too negative, we will end this three part series on a much more positive note – the value of godly friendship.

There are very few things in life that are more valuable than true godly friendship. The Ancient Proverbs says that “a friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.” (Prov. 17:17). It is true that the most meaningful friends are the ones that last through the hardships and triumphs of life, friendships that are based on mutual respect, forgiveness, companionship, trust, and love. A friend is one who can see you for who you really are, ugly warts, sin, and all – and still love you and stick with you no matter what.

These are rare jewels. Rare finds. But the truest friendships are nothing short of miraculous blessings from God. They are relationships that span distances and time. For example, I have some friends in far away places that I haven’t seen in years, but in picking up the phone, we can have a profoundly direct and weighty conversation and can achieve a level of depth almost instantly whereby there is immediate connection, empathy, and mutual understanding. You can be yourself and share your true feelings without being judged or misunderstood. And the encouragement, affirmation, accountability, and affection shared has a way of nourishing the soul instantly.

Your true friends are the ones that are quick to forgive and are not simply in the relationship for what they can get out of it. They aren’t simply sponges, but are those who are committed to giving generously with the primary motive of love. In this way, it is definitely true that the richest and purest friendships on earth are those that are shared between Christians. For the foundation of such friendships is the love of God, the One who has truly defined love for us.

There is an openness and honesty within a great friendship. I recently had a friend tell me that when he talks to me he doesn’t feel like he has to be “on his game” but can actually let his guard down and just be himself, relaxed and transparent. That was such a compliment to me. And the feeling is mutual. I can laugh and make mistakes in front of this friend and he will love me just the same – a true brother. I praise God for him.

It is true that each one of us will at some point be required to give an account of himself to God (Rom. 14:12). And one of the ways that God prepares us for that is by giving us friends here and now to which we can give an account. Like iron sharpening iron, an accountability partner or friend is a must for anyone who wants to live a godly life that pleases God. In this way, the wisdom of Ecclesiastes is put into practice. For Solomon wrote,

ECC 4:10 If one falls down,his friend can help him up.But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up! 11 Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? 12 Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

Indeed, Christians must have accountability relationships and friendships. But in order to have such a friend, you must first begin by having a willingness to be such a friend. You have to be willing to open your life and heart to someone else. You must learn the value of and practice unconditional love, selfless giving, and humility yourself. If you do this, you will find that you will acquire a great many friends, ones that will last a lifetime. And you will be best prepared to be the kind of friend that people want.

Speaking metaphorically, Aristotle said that a friend is like “a single soul dwelling in two bodies.” I like that picture, for it shows how yoked together two friends really are. “Soul mates” as we would say.

Commit yourself to being the kind of friend that somebody would want to have. Loyal, true, open, honest, with a true servant's heart -- full of love. As you walk with the Spirit, you will overflow with God’s love and this will enrich your relationships. In fact, you will see the quality of your friendships increase, and the numbers thereof as well. Therefore, the depth of your relationship with God will directly impact the quality of the friendship that someone may find in you.

God truly blesses Christian friendships. May you find this to be true in your life as you walk with the Lord this Christmas season. Hold on to your friends. Love them unconditionally, and in doing so you, yourself will be blessed.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

When Satan Attacks Friendships - Friends that Fall Away from Each Other

In keeping with the similar theme of my last blog, it is another human reality (and a tragic one at that) to have friendships that become strained and even come to an end during the course of one's life. Even good Christian friendships slip in this regard, such that all Christians should be on their guard against it. I recently heard a sermon by one of my favorite preachers, Dr. James MacDonald, and in his message he said he has been absolutely stunned by how even Christians “burn bridges” with one another. (See his message series entitled “Balcony People Build Bridges” available on his podcast).

In true Christian circles, the theme should be “once a friend, always a friend.” But personal agendas, fear, pride, critical spirits, inappropriate judging, jealousy, selfishness, hypocrisy, misunderstandings, poor communication, control battles, private sins, and unmet expectations are often the majority of reasons for much of the relationship tensions, withdrawals, and severances that happen today among Christian friends. (I'm sure there are other things that I didn't mention that could be added.)

Now I never thought I would borrow the overused song lyric from the 80’s coined by Michael W. Smith, but it is true that friends should be friends forever “if the Lord’s the Lord of them.” Instead of “bridge burners,” Christians should be filled with such grace that they should be continual “bridge builders.” MacDonald talked about the fact that many times he’s had friends who have distanced themselves and broken off the friendship even though he never did, stating “there’s some people that I wish would be friends with me but they won’t anymore, though I’m still willing.”

Now people change. Let’s be real here. And when that happens, relationships are bound to change. No one is saying that the level of reciprocating affection in a relationship will always remain constant or increasing. I don’t think that’s a realistic expectation. People move away. Interests change. Shared experiences don’t always happen every day. Differences in opinion and preferences occur. But at the baseline level, there should always be an ongoing cordiality, spiritual and relational connection, and a genuine friendly interest in someone else’s life within the circle of all Christians. If we are truly committed to forgiveness like we say we are, then friendships should always stay in tact to some degree. We are family -- brothers and sisters for eternity, equally saved by grace.

It is when “roots of bitterness” take hold, based on any number of reasons, that relationships can crash like the stock market. The writer of Hebrews said, “see to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” (Hebrews 12:15) Any of the sins I mentioned above in paragraph two could lead to bitterness that causes relational trouble and defilement. But it’s interesting to note that the Scriptures here give indication that relationships that fail not only affect the immediate parties, but they can affect the whole community of faith. One friendship that tanks can bring many others down with it.

Therefore we must be overly protective and supportive of each other and careful with our friendships in the body of Christ, lest we give the devil a foothold. These are people with whom we will spend eternity, and so we better seek to maintain them here on earth. Thus the emphasis on reconciliation among believers by Jesus (Matt. 5:23-24; Matt. 18:15-17) and even among the Apostles (e.g. Eph. 4:25-32; Col. 3:12-14; 1 Pet. 4:8-9) was meant to preserve what God has chosen to build, namely, his church. Surely there are people in the church that we will like more and relate better to than others – BUT we must be on guard against “cliques,” preferential prejudices, judgmental sarcasm, and stereotyping within the body of Christ. God has meant for all of us to embrace each other as brothers and sisters, being patient and forgiving and friendly to one another. At the heart of such success in relationships is the virtue of humility, the kind of humility modeled by Jesus who stooped down as a servant to wash the feet of his disciples. In fact, I would argue that humility as at the root of thriving relationships among Christians.

Perhaps this is why Jesus is now willing to call each of us his friends (John 15:14-15), because he was willing to abandon status and privilege and embrace a humble life, and in doing so made many eternal “friendships” that are based on the principles of reconciliation and forgiveness, a reconciliation and forgiveness that he himself provided for in his death on the cross.

So guard your friendships. They are precious. Be a person of grace. Seek forgiveness and reconciliation if needed. Protect the reputation and unity of the body of Christ. Don’t think more highly of yourself than you ought. Embrace an attitude of humility. Seek mutual understanding. Give someone the benefit of the doubt. Be the mature one who is never willing to withdraw unless it is clear you have to for biblical reasons (1 Cor. 5:11). And above all, put on love, which always binds believers together for all eternity. These friendships we have in Christian circles have been forged by God, and what God has joined together, let no one or no thing separate.

Monday, December 7, 2009

When Friends Fall Away or Walk Away From the Faith

Many seasoned Christians will tell you that if you live long enough, you are bound to have friends that fall away from the faith. Friends who, for no apparent reason, walk away from what they have professed to believe for years, or who fall into a certain line of teaching that is clearly unbiblical. Others fall prey to temptation and shipwreck their faith and witness. It is a sad sight to see, a grievous reality, but not uncommon.

What are we to make of this? How are we to respond?

First, we would do well to be reminded that this is not something new. The Apostle Paul often mourned the loss of friends and partners in ministry, as there were some who embraced false teaching, some who fell prey to the love of money, some who simply were caught up in worldliness, the list could go on. Among them are names like Demas (2 Tim. 4:9) and Phygelus and Hermogenes (2 Tim. 1:15). Especially painful for Paul was the desertion of many who were unwilling to support him when times got tough. Yet even then Paul was willing to forgive – his love for them held fast saying, “may it not be held against them.” (2 Tim. 4:16)

The Apostle John, one of the inner three disciples of Christ who perhaps lived the longest and saw the longest portion of the church’s early history, reported that some people who refused to remain in the faith actually proved that they had never truly been converted and incorporated into the church. He wrote:

“They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.” ~1 John 2:19

Others who have not been trained, lack discernment gifts, or grounding in sound theology can also be easily swayed by experiences or cultural trends that they are unable to sort out through a biblical lens or put in proper perspective. When this happens the impact of such dramatic experiences may cause them to question their underlying assumptions of what they’ve traditionally been taught or it may cause them to find a way to reinterpret the Scriptures to support their experience. In either case they may leave the church.

Surely everything that we’ve taught should be tested – but if it’s truth it should pass the test. The true danger lies in having “an experience” with God and rather than using the Word of God as a filter to interpret it, the person finds a way to discover a proof text and twist the Scripture out of its proper context in order to legitimize what they “already believe and are convinced of.”

It has been my experience that cultural, societal, and political trends have had a huge impact on the church’s reading of Scripture and the implementation of church practice. Surely this is true of every age to some degree, but I think it has been much worse on the evangelical church in America today.

But to our main point, this is why some friends have wandered off into bad teaching or poor church practice or have left the church altogether due to experiences that they have been ill-equipped to handle, sort out, or interpret.

Further, though the church should always be prayerfully seeking reform, it is true that there are some discontented Christians who are so fed up with the church for one reason or another that their cynical spirits and bitter attitudes have driven them into areas of belief and church practice that are clearly out of bounds in a biblical sense. Unfortunately, they may lack the grace and maturity to patiently reason with one another, and as a result they would rather distance themselves and go their own way. A sad but common reality, and relationships can be severed.

And then finally, some have not rejected the faith so much as they have rejected the church because of a horrible experience or a lack of grace that they may have encountered from immature believers who did not know how to handle someone else’s sin, failures, or differences in perspective. Some of these people take years to recover from something like this – and it is not always their fault. But it still results in a rejection of the “community of faith.”

So the three reasons we’ve covered are this (and they are not meant to be exhaustive): Some fall away relationships or the church because they never really believed in the first place. Some fall away because they are ill prepared or equipped to handle winds of bad teaching or experiences that they do not know how to interpret biblically. And then finally, some have walked away simply because they’re angry and impatient or have legitimately been hurt. They don’t have the energy to persevere or desire to forgive.

So what is our response? Love. Sympathy. Grace. Humility. Patience. While at the same time, we should be committed to prayer for them, always willing to engage and embrace, and prepared to defend the faith. Perhaps in some cases we should even be apologetic if the friend was genuinely hurt for unjustifiable reasons. Live long enough, and this will undoubtedly happen to you. But we must remember, that the kind of Christ-like love we are called to is the kind of radical love that imitates our Savior, the One who loved us even while we were yet sinners (Rom. 5:8). If our loving God was willing to leave the comforts and privileges of heaven to come here and sacrificially give his life towards those who were hostile to him, how much more should we seek to love those who have turned, walked away from, or rejected us, the church, or the faith for one reason or another?

Don’t give up on them. No matter what. Keep preaching, speaking, and living the Gospel. Pray, and love unconditionally. Be prepared to give an answer for the hope you have, and season everything with grace. You may “win your brother or sister over.”