According to Proverbs we need wise friends to help us find the wisdom of God. There is no spiritual maturity without each other. Our companions shape our character more than we imagine.
Proverbs 13:20 Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm. 27:17 Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.
Cultures cultivate and people imitate; we draw on the words and actions of people around us.
“[This is like] one who enters a perfumer’s shop – even if the owner sells him nothing, nor does he buy anything from the owner, after he leaves his person and his clothing are scented, nor does the scent leave him all day long.
…[Or] one who enters a tanner’s shop – even if the owner sells him nothing, nor does he buy anything from the owner, after he leaves his person and his clothing are evil-smelling. Nor does the stench leave him all day long.” (Visotzky, Midrash, 68. As quoted in Ellen Davis, Proverbs…, 86.)
Part of the reason for this is that friendship is always grounded in some common interest.
“Those who have nothing can share nothing; those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travelers.” (C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, 98).
“[And]…weaknesses induce companionship just as easily, in fact more easily, than do virtues. (William Bennett, The Book of Virtues, 269)
We should never think: “I’m not really like these people, they just happen to be my friends.” We need encounters with outside social circles to realize that not everyone behaves like us and our friends.
There’s always potential to develop one way or another depending on our associations. But if you want to be pleasing in the eyes of everyone, you will end up seeking to please fools (cf. Luke 6:26). You don’t have to be the best friend of a fool in order to get into trouble, all that’s required is that you become a fool’s companion. The sages see deadly danger here:
17:12 Let a man meet a she-bear robbed of her cubs rather than a fool in his folly. (cf. Proverbs 4:14-19)
I used to struggle with abandoning my bad associations because I wanted to be a faithful friend. But to depart from a path which is already headed for destruction does not hurt your former companions – it invites them to consider a better way. In order to truly help some friends we must first get some distance.
“Remember, then, that whoever does not mean good is always in danger of harm. …[And] There are a great many more good things than bad things to do.” (George MacDonald, The Princess and Curdie, chapter 3)
But where do we find wise friends in a world full of fools? We like to think ourselves wise even when we are not. 20:6 Many a man proclaims his own steadfast love, but a faithful man who can find? If you’re thinking, “I’m glad I got all this figured out already”, then you are wise in your own estimation. As Christians we need not pretend to be more righteous or more wise than we really are. We can confess our folly openly and then seek the counsel of God. This is why the fear of the LORD is said to be the beginning of wisdom.
12:15 The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.
It is one of the first requirements of Christian discipleship is that we acknowledge our own folly. In order to benefit from God’s wisdom we must first recognize that we need it.
1 John 1:9-10 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (cf. Prov. 28:13)
The original sin of Eden looks more like folly than malice (Genesis 3:4-7). Most sin is like that. We must become truly wise in the same way we become truly righteous – through friendship with Jesus Christ – our repentance and his forgiveness.
18:24 A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.
True friendship is more than companionship and more than being allied in a cause. It is the deep joy of sharing one’s soul with another in a kind of reciprocity that expands our entire appreciation of life itself. It is not just about doing favors for one another, but about finding in one another a greater joy in life and in God than we could ever attain alone.
18:1 Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment.
“We are who we are not because we are separate from the others who are next to us, but because we are both separate and connected, both distinct and related…” (Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 66, emphasis his.)
Some of you have been frustrated in finding wise friends and have concluded it’s better to walk alone – but the Bible calls us together. Philippians 2:4-5 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus… In Christ the quest to find wise friends should give way to the process of becoming a wise friend for others.
Part of the unique glory of friendship is that it is a relationship which may be openly shared with others. C. S. Lewis has observed that it is the least jealous and least biological of human loves. By contrast with familial affections and with Eros, friendship is more purely spiritual – in such a way that the beauty of friendship expands by welcoming others into fellowship.
“Friendship is not a reward for our discrimination and good taste in finding one another out. It is the instrument by which God reveals to each the beauties of all the others.” (Lewis, Four Loves, 126)
Here Lewis speaks especially of friendship forged through mutual association with Jesus Christ. It is God who empowers us to truly love one another sacrificially, without envy and without manipulation.
John 15:13-17 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. 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. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another.
It may well be that friendship is the closest human analogue to divine and trinitarian fellowship. Lewis wonders if other analogies are more common in scripture – father/son, husband/wife, master/ servant – simply because few people have experienced true friendship in such a way as to relate.
But the theme does arise at key junctures in redemptive history:
Exodus 33:11a Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.
Isaiah 41:8 But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend;
Matthew 11:19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!‘ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”
One of the joys of friendship is mutual sincerity in conversation. Friends enjoy talking to one another.
27:9-10 Oil and perfume make the heart glad, and the sweetness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel.
If you want to grow in fellowship with God, try talking with him more! Read his word and speak your heart in prayerful response. The good news of the gospel is that God has freely chosen to befriend fools like us! Jesus died and rose again because God wants to enjoy relationship with you, and he wants you to discover the joys of fellowship with himself. Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise…
(Full sermon audio available here: /theuniversitychurch.org/)
Consider the words of the hymn “No Not One” as a worshipful response to God’s friendship. Here is a joyful rendition: