Friends - Proverbs 1:8-19
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
It was the brainchild of one woman who wanted something to do during the latter stages of her pregnancy. Julie Pankhurst wanted to find out what her old school friends were doing and how they were getting on in life. Were they working, did they have families, had they emigrated, were they even alive? So she convinced her husband Steve to set up a website on the Internet to help friends locate each other. It began in the year 2000 and by the end of the year had a few thousand registered members. By this year, the figure was 10 million registered members, and Friends Reunited has become big business. They've now branched out to include a family tree section, produced CD's from your favourite era, and even developed something for pets. On the 1st April 2002, they launched Paws Reunited, and thousands of people registered their pets as members, until it was realised that it was an April Fool. But it is staggering how much of an impact this site has had. Every day there are stories of long lost friends being reunited with each other, families being brought back together and old work colleagues finding out about each other years later, not always it has to be said with happy results. But it does make fascinating reading. For instance I discovered that one of my old school friends had worked for the police, been sacked for dubious reasons, been a seller of leather goods, and now works producing computer software for casinos. It's amazing what education does for you! Now whatever you think of a website like this, it does to go to prove one thing. That friendships are very important, and good friends are hard to come by.
Now this morning we're continuing to look at the book of Proverbs and specifically today we're thinking about what Proverbs teaches us about friendship. Because contrary to what many people think the Bible is not a handbook of abstract theology. Rather it's God's book written to us to help us live in God's world in God's way. And the Proverbs are a vital part of God's Word. For in this book we find the wisdom we need to deal with every day matters, including everything between handling money, to raising children, to behaviour at work and the way we speak. And that's precisely how the writer introduces the book of Proverbs in chapter 1, so let's take a moment to remind ourselves of the writer's aim in this book. Chapter 1 verse 1: "The Proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel, for attaining wisdom and discipline, for understanding words of insight; for acquiring a disciplined and prudent life, doing what is right and just and fair." So these Proverbs are written to give us wisdom for life, both to change our thinking and to change our living. And we saw last week that we have a choice to face. Either to go the way of folly, which is not living according to God's will, or the way of wisdom, living according to God's will. And at the heart of the book of Proverbs is the key principle which the writer outlines for us in verse 7: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline." So each of us needs to get the primary relationship right first. We need to fear God. We need to acknowledge him as King and Saviour and live his way, and then we are living the wise way, which is God's way.
And as in every area of life, the fear of the Lord affects the way we conduct our friendships. Because there is a foolish way to live and a wise way to live. You can be a foolish friend or a wise friend. And for the Christian who has found all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge in Jesus Christ, then there is only one way to live. The wise way. So what does it mean then to conduct our friendships wisely? Well let's see first a key principle before we turn to look at the marks of the wise friend. And the key principle that the Proverbs outlines for us is this: Choose your friends wisely. So chapter 1 verses 8-10: "Listen, my son, to your father's instruction and do not forsake your mother's teaching. 9 They will be a garland to grace your head and a chain to adorn your neck. 10 My son, if sinners entice you, do not give in to them. 11 If they say, "Come along with us; let's lie in wait for someone's blood, let's waylay some harmless soul." Here is a young man attracted by the lure of friends. But these are not the friends he wants. For a start they are going to be up to no good, robbing people and taking their belongings. And the results of such activities come in verse 18: "These men lie in wait for their own blood; they waylay only themselves!" Now parents of children know all too well the dangers of children getting in with the wrong crowd. And here it is in the Bible. But it applies at every stage of life. We need to be discerning in the friendships we make. So 12 v 26: "A righteous man is cautious in friendship, but the way of the wicked leads them astray". Or again in 13 v 20: "He who walks with the wise grows wise, but a companion of fools suffers harm." The plain fact is that the people we are is determined by the company we keep. And if all our time is spent with those who are constantly wanting to go down the way of folly, that is those who do not acknowledge God as King and fail to live his way, then the chances are we'll end up going down that way too. Which is why the Christian is in a difficult position. Because whilst we long for our work colleagues and college friends to hear the gospel, and whilst it's important to have friendships in that way, yet we need to be very careful we are not led down the path of folly. And we will need good Christian friends to make sure we will not go down that path. So choose your friends wisely. That's the key principle that the Proverbs gives us. But what sort of friends should we make then? Well looking at the book as a whole, I want us to see four marks of the wise friend. These are the kinds of friends we need to be and we need to have. For the wise friend is
1) Faithful in Tough Times
2) Honest in Hard Times
3) Forgiving in Strained Times
4) Sensitive at all Times
1) Faithful in Tough Times
So first the wise friend is faithful in tough times. Now we tend to say that a friend in need is a friend indeed. In other words, when you're going through hard times, then you really find out who your friends are. And the wisdom of the Proverbs says that that is the sort of friend we must be and must have. So 17 v 17: "A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity". A true friend is one who loves at all times, not just in the good times. They are constant friends. And here the writer makes the comparison between good friends and family ties. Family are supposed to support you in difficult times, though of course its not always like that. And good friends are like blood brothers. They are as close to us as that. They are part of the family in the sense that they will stick with us through thick and thin. So 18 v 24: "A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother." It's one thing to have loads of companions, and acquaintances, quite another to have good friends who will always be there for you.
So when it comes to hard times, what kind of friend will you be? When a friend suffers a long term illness and needs a lot of help just to survive. When a friend goes through a rocky patch in their marriage or even sadly separates. When a friend suffers with problems at work or with their finances. When a friend endures that dark cloud of depression that seems so all encompassing, like a long tunnel with no light at the end. Will we be a true friend in that situation? And the problem is, for the good friend it's costly isn't it? It costs us in terms of emotional energy, in terms of financial strain, in terms of time commitments. And often when friends are going through difficult times, the friendship appears to be one sided. A friend in need is totally dependant upon us. Someone has said that "a friend is someone who asks how you are, and then sticks around long enough to hear the answer." And for the Christian seeking to put God's Word into practice, wanting to be a truly wise person, then we must be friends who are faithful in tough times.
Chuck Colson had friends like those. Chuck Colson, if you remember, was one of President Nixon's hatchet men during the Watergate crisis in the 1970's. And Colson was implicated and eventually sent to prison for his part in the affair. And naturally, being in prison makes you realise who your friends really are. It was a very difficult time for him- his wife did not understand, his son was charged for drugs offences and he was getting depressed. But wonderfully Colson had become a Christian. And he discovered that he had many new friends who were genuine committed to him even in prison. One senator, a man called Senator Quie, who was also a Christian, discovered an old law which said that someone could step into the shoes of the criminal and take their place in jail. So Senator Quie offered to take Colson's place in jail and serve the rest of the sentence. Senator Quie put his love into action. He was actually willing to go to jail for his Christian friend, although in fact Colson turned him down. But that is a friend who is faithful in tough times. A friend who is willing to put himself second to his friend's needs. Because a friend loves at all times, whether good times or bad.
And the Proverbs is scathing of those who are fair weather friends. So 19 v 4: "Wealth brings many friends but a poor man's friend deserts him." So it's warning to us of being good friends when everything is going well, but then ditching the friendship when we no longer get anything out of it, or it begins to cost us. And wealth is a certain way to have lots of hangers on, but few friends. So it was Howard Hughes, the multi millionaire who said when his assets had just topped $4 billion: "I'd give it all for a good friend." No, says the Proverbs. If you want to be a wise and godly friend, then you be will faithful in tough times. Are you up for the challenge?
2) Honest in Hard Times
But there's a second mark of the wise and godly friend. And that is that the wise friend is honest in hard times. Now the trouble is that often what we want from our friends is simply a rubber stamp for any decision we want to make or any question we might ask. Do you think this is a good idea? Yes, of course, we want to hear. Was I right to tell her that? Yes, of course, we want to hear. Does this dress make me look fat? No, of course not, my dear! But actually the Proverbs warn us against friends who are just yes men and who never oppose anything we say. We're actually walking into the flatterer's net. So 29 v 5: "Whoever flatters his neighbour is spreading a net for his feet." Or 28 v 28: "A lying tongue hates those it hurts and a flattering mouth works ruin." Flattery according to the Proverbs is dangerous, for the simple reason that flattery does not tell the truth. And if all we receive from our friends is flattery, then they are no friends at all. So imagine an argument between you and another person, and you really lay in to the other and give her all sorts of home truths, some of which are less than kind. And later you ask your best friend if you did the right thing by giving the other girl a piece of your mind. So the friend says: "Yes, of course. She really had it coming to her, you know. It was about time someone put her in her place." But is that really what needs to be said. Because all you have received is a confirmation of your wrong actions. And if that is all you ever receive, then you are simply being guided down a path of folly, as bad decision after bad decision is affirmed by your rather spineless friends, who are too scared to stand up to you. Someone has put it like this: "Gossip is saying something behind someone's back that you would never say to their face. Flattery is saying something to their face that you would never say behind their back."
But, says the writer, it takes a real friend to say what is needed. So 27 v 6: "Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses." So do you see what a good friend will do? Well ironically he'll wound me. He'll lovingly stick the knife in when I need to hear it. He'll lovingly bruise my ego for my own good, because he is concerned for me, and wants me to go the right way. So some things are hard to hear and hard to take aren't they? But unless we have godly friends who are willing not just to give us encouragement when we need it but also a firm rebuke, then we don't have friends at all. We have just yes men. And if we are the sort of people who are too weak to say a tough word to a friend now and again, then actually we are no friend at all. So 28 v 23: "He who rebukes a man will in the end gain more favour than he who has a flattering tongue."
And the problem is its very hard to do that isn't it? Because like being faithful in tough times, being honest in hard times can be costly. It may mean being shunned for a while or being out of favour with a friend. But a godly and wise person will recognise the value of a loving friend's rebuke. Now of course we need to be careful here. Because some people pride themselves in having what they might call a "ministry of rebuking". They love to take people down a peg or two and put people in their place. But that is not what is being spoken of here. Rather what the writer is teaching us is that to be a loving friend you must sometimes say hard things as well as loving things. And if you're a good friend you'll have the courage to do it. And if you are a godly person, you'll have the wisdom to appreciate it. So 12 v 15: "The way of the fool seems right to him, but a wise man listens to advice."
Now I myself have been on the receiving end of a number of loving rebukes. And one in particular has had an effect on me to this day, because it was given to me at a time when I was in danger of spinning out of control down a lifestyle which was one of folly, totally opposed to God. I was 17 and going the wrong way. Until a friend of mine sat me down and rebuked me gently but firmly and told me where I was going. And to this day I am grateful to that friend for doing that, because without it, then humanly speaking things could have been very different in my life. So again, let's ask ourselves if as friends we have the courage to be honest in hard times. Maybe you see a friend who is going down a foolish path. Their lifestyle is leading them away from God. Will you gently but lovingly show them what is wrong? Maybe you see a friend is slowly but surely slipping away from God- their attendance at church is becoming hit and miss, and they increasingly give God very little time in their life. Will you gently but firmly shown them what is wrong? It takes a real friend to do that doesn't it, someone who really loves, and has the other's interests at heart? And when the boot is on the other foot, will you have the humility to accept such a rebuke? Will you realise that such words spring from love? Or will you defensively lash out and receive such love with bad grace. Because the second mark of a godly and wise friend is one who is honest in hard times.
3) Forgiving in Strained Times
But the Proverbs give us a third mark of a wise friend and that is one who is forgiving in strained times. Now very often in the Proverbs, the writer sees one of the biggest problems as being words. Often loose talk or waggling tongues cause the greatest of harm. So 16 v 28, "A perverse man stirs up dissension and a gossip separates close friends." So what will the wise friend do? Well he'll use his tongue wisely, in a godly way. He'll not blab his friends' secrets all round the office or the church, unlike the unwise friend, the ungodly person. They'll gossip away to their heart's content. Of course, they won't say it's gossip. They'll tell us that it's strictly in confidence or it's for prayer. But actually let's make no bones about what that sort of action is. It's ungodly gossip. It's folly. It is not the way of fearing God. And if you want to cause a church or a CU greatest harm, if you want to ruin someone's reputation, or you want to ruin a minister's reputation, which has happened before, then nothing works better than a bit of gossip. Do you know what I heard the other day? You'll never guess what I saw. And so the story escalates, bearing little or no resemblance to the truth. And like a raging fire it gets out of hand. And the trouble with gossip is that it is so sweet and succulent. And secretly we love it. So 26 v 22: "The words of a gossip are like choice morsels. They go down to an man's inmost parts." We love to hear some choice morsel of dirt, some story that shows we were right all along about that person. But such ungodly use of the tongue is just that. Rank sin and hypocrisy. So 11 v 13: "A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy man keeps a secret." And that's the sort of friend we need. Someone who keeps our confidence and who is trustworthy.
But sometimes even good friends will hurt one another. And what is required then? Well it's forgiveness in strained times. For that is the mark of the truly wise friend. Forgiveness which is willing to bury the hatchet. And again the temptation is to do precisely the opposite. So we've been wronged and we've been asked for forgiveness. And we say: "Sure, forget it. As far as I'm concerned, it's in the past. It's gone, water under the bridge." Until that is the next time it happens. And the argument comes up and we say: "Yes but do you remember what you did last time?" And in reality it was neither forgiven nor forgotten. But listen to this Proverb in 17 v 9: "He who covers over an offence promotes love, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends." The true friend, you see, buries the hatchet. He is willing to genuinely forgive. To allow love to cover over a multitude of sins. Because otherwise friendship is broken though an unforgiving spirit and an unwillingness to put the offence behind them. Now of course, as we have seen with every point so far, such friendship may be very costly. For forgiveness is always costly. It may be that we have been deeply hurt. But wise friends work to put such hurt behind them. But you may ask, how can we forgive if we have been hurt so much?
If you've been up with the news, you'll know that a man was convicted this week for planning to poison hundreds of people in London and also of the murder of policeman Stephen Oake. The killer, a man called Kamel Bourgass, took the policeman's life in a struggle during his arrest. But what has been most extraordinary about this whole case is how the family of Stephen Oake have dealt with it. Because what you might not know is that this family are committed Christians. And in an interview with one radio station this week the father of Stephen said this: "We are not seeking revenge for Steve. For we forgave his killer a long time ago. We pray for his killer every day that he might find his peace with God." Now how on earth can you say that? How can you have the courage to say on national radio that you forgave the killer of your son and continue to pray for him daily? How can you forgive someone for taking your son, your husband, your father? Well there is only one way that this family can forgive in this way. And that is because of the work of the Spirit in their lives. For only when you know that you yourself have been forgiven the far greater crime of sin against God, only when you realise that your sins cost Jesus his life poured out on the cross, only then can you begin to forgive others. For when you have been forgiven much, then you too can forgive much. Truly this family know the reality of Jesus' words: "Forgive your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." And it's that Christ like attitude that the writer of the Proverbs is urging us to have in all our relationships. No-one ever says it's easy, but it is the wise and godly way to live. For the wise friend is forgiving in strained times.
4) Sensitive at all Times
But there's one final mark as we finish of the wise friend in the Proverbs, and that the wise friend is someone who is sensitive at all times. In other words the true friend will treat a good friendship with care. He'll try to be considerate at all times and put himself second to the other person's needs. He'll never try and push things too far. He'll be sensitive at all times. So for example
a) The wise friend never outstays his welcome- 25 v 17: "Seldom set foot in your neighbour's house- too much of you and he will hate you." So the mark of a wise friend is one who knows when it's time to leave, who is isn't always knocking on the door, badgering you and disturbing you.
b) The wise friend never misjudges the moment- 27 v 14: "If a man loudly blesses his neighbour early in the morning, it will be taken as a curse." So here's the person who is so overly cheerful in the morning that you feel like thumping them. Spurgeon was once asked if a man who played his trumpet early in the morning would go to heaven. Spurgeon said that he didn't see why not, but doubted whether the man's neighbours would get to heaven! And the wise friend is always sensitive and never misjudges the moment. So the criticism when it's obvious someone is down, the out of place humour when someone is feeling low, the request for another favour when you know they are already stressed. No the wise friend is sensitive.
c) The wise friend never overdoes the joke- So 26 vv 18-19: "Like a madman shooting firebrands or deadly arrows is the man who deceives his neighbour and says: 'I was only joking.'" So this is the person who takes the joke too far. It's the person who doesn't realise when it's time to stop. For an overstretched joke can be very hurtful. The wise friend never overdoes the joke, because he puts the feelings of his friend above his own.
So here then are four marks of the wise friend. How do you compare? Are you faithful in tough times, never shirking the responsibility to a friend, even when it costs you? Are you honest in hard times, able to say a gentle rebuke when it's needed because you love the other person? Are you forgiving in strained times, able to offer forgiveness and ask for it when the friendships has been strained? And are you sensitive at all times, always putting the needs of your friend first above your own needs?
And if truth be told, each of these marks brings us up short and reveals are weaknesses. Which is why we must not end in Proverbs but with Jesus. Because Jesus is the one who fulfils each of these criteria to perfection. In him are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. And he is the one who is the perfect friend, the one to whom we must look and whose example we must follow. So Jesus is faithful in tough times. He will never let us down even in the most trying circumstances. Jesus is honest in hard times. He will like a loving parent show us when we are going wrong and discipline us accordingly. Jesus is forgiving in strained times. He is the one who grants us total forgiveness through his blood shed on the cross, and he will never again raise the ugly topic of our sins again. And Jesus is sensitive at all times. He's never pushy, never asking of us more than we can bear. For a bruised reed he will not break and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out. It's Jesus who is our example and Jesus who is the fulfilment. Come to him and you will find not just a friend but your Lord and Saviour.
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