This morning, we pick back up in our series entitled “Our Journey with Jesus” as we look together at some spiritual disciplines that will help to shape us into the image of Jesus Christ. These are not the kind of disciplines that we normally think of when we think of spiritual disciplines. But, they are things that we can practice, and we should practice, in our day-to-day lives that will move us in the direction of being more like Jesus.
The first week, we looked at the discipline of “letting go” and we talked about the need to let go of anything in our lives that may be hindering our relationship with God. Because it is possible for our lives to be so full – full of stuff or full of activities — that we don’t have room for God. And so, before we can fill our lives with God, we need to create some empty space.
And then the second week, we added “welcoming” or showing hospitality, as we talked about the importance of taking the sort of kindness that you normally reserve for your friends or your family, and showing that same sort of kindness to those who are in need, and especially to strangers who are in need.
This morning, we want to take a look at the spiritual discipline of “friending”.
In John 15, Jesus said to his apostles, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” But then, he went on to say, “No longer do I call you servants…but I have called you friends.” (John 15:13,15)
Darryl Tippens said that a young minister once told his father about an exciting new mentoring program that was being introduced in his congregation. After listening to this young man’s enthusiastic description of this new program, Darryl’s father said, “We used to have a program like that in my church when I was growing up. We called them friends.”‘
There was a time when society valued friendship. Benjamin Franklin once said, “A true friend is the best possession.”
And there was a time when Christians valued friendship. It’s interesting that there was a great deal of emphasis put on friendship among the ancient Irish Christians. In fact, they had a word for it that is still used in Ireland today – anamchara. “Anam” is the Gaelic word for “soul”, and “Chara” is the Gaelic word for “friend”. So an anamchara is a “soul-friend”.
This is the kind of friend that Solomon was talking about when he said, “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” (Proverbs 18:24). A soul-friend, an anamchara.
Pelagius, who lived at the turn of the fourth century said, “Indeed we each need one special friend, who may be called a friend of the soul. We must open our souls completely to this friend, hiding nothing and revealing everything. And we must allow this friend to assess and judge what he sees.”
And so, throughout the centuries, friends have been regarded as extremely important, and a vital part of our spiritual growth. But, in recent years, we don’t seem to see the value in friends. C. S. Lewis once wrote (The Four Loves), “To the Ancients, Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it.”
Many would argue that friendship is rare, especially among American men today. A professor of sociology studied friendships at length, and came to the conclusion that American men are generally good at “side-by-side” relationships — they can bowl side-by-side, watch sporting events side-by-side, hunt or fish side-by-side; but what they cannot do is face one another and engage in a deep, heartfelt conversation.
But it’s not just men. According to several studies, the average American today has only two close friends. And 25 percent of Americans, one out of every four people, say that they don’t have even one close and trusted friend.
So why is this different today than it used to be? I think one of the reasons has to do with the increased mobility of our society. Because, as those of you in the military know, when you move every few years, it certainly is more difficult to develop those deep lasting relationships.
But I would suggest that one of the biggest reasons that friendships are declining today is because of the explosion of social media. And by social media, I mean Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat. Now, let me say up front that I am not against social media; I think there are some good uses for social media. It’s a way to stay connected with a lot of people.
But, you have to admit that social media is redefining the way we think about friends. And what experts are saying is that instead of spending time in face-to-face, intimate relationships, we’re becoming obsessed with our online image of what people think about us. And so, we’ll put a post on Facebook about what we’re doing today or what we’re upset about today. And then we have to check the comments every few minutes to see what everybody else thinks about what we think.
The problem is that because of all of this interaction, we feel like we’re connecting with people, but we’re not. More and more, people are allowing Facebook to replace the intimacy of relationships.
And so, what we’ve got today are people with more likes, more followers, more Facebook friends, and yet they are more alone than ever before. I ran across this cartoon of two people talking at a funeral home visitation. The woman says, “He had over 2000 Facebook friends. I was expecting a bigger turnout.”
But, of course, there’s a big difference between Facebook friends and real friends. We need that face-to-face, intimate personal relationship. Which may raise the question in your mind — Why? Why do we really need friends?
Solomon gave one answer to that question when he said, “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, one will lift up his companion. But woe to him who is alone when he falls, for he has no one to help him up.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10).
If I may be allowed to update Solomon’s statement a bit, I would probably add this: “Woe to him who is alone when he gets ready to move, for he has no one to help load up the truck.” And we chuckle, but friends are the ones who are there for you when you need them. And we all have moments in our lives when we need someone to be there for us.
But I would suggest an even more important reason why we need friends – because our friends help to shape us into the person we need to be. Someone has said, “You show me your friends, and I’ll show you your future.” You show me the people that you spend the most time with and I will show you where your life is headed.
In fact, thousands of years ago, Solomon said the same thing. In Proverbs 13:20. Solomon said, “Whoever walks with wise people will be wise, but whoever associates with fools will suffer.” (GW)
In other words, if you hang out with people who are more spiritual than you, wiser than you, have better marriages than you, are better with money than you, are better leaders than you, you’re going to become like them and you’re going to rise to their level.
But if, on the other hand, you hang out with a bunch of dummies, the party crowd, or those people who are always getting into trouble, they are going to drag you down to where they are. You show me your friends and I can show you your future.
As I look at my own life, if there’s any area of success, it is directly tied to God using the right people to help influence me in the right direction. Good friends are critical in developing our spiritual lives. Good friends are critical in helping us to shape our lives into the image of Jesus Christ.
So I want you to consider for a moment who your closest friends are.
And, as we do that, I think it’s important to recognize that there are different levels of relationship, different levels of friendship, and all of our friends don’t share the same level of intimacy. And there’s probably no one in scripture who modeled this better than Jesus Christ. Think about all the different levels of relationship that Jesus enjoyed with different people who surrounded him during His lifetime.
First of all, there is a sense in which Jesus was friends with everyone he met. In fact, he was known as a “friend of tax collectors and sinners”. He loved everyone and he was willing to spend time with everyone. But he wasn’t close to everyone. He didn’t share his deepest secrets with everyone.
There was a group of men, though, that he was closer to, composed of 72 disciples. In Luke 10, he sent these 72 men out, two by two to prepare cities for his arrival. He was closer to these men than he was the general public, but they still weren’t his closest friends.
Then, of course, there were the twelve apostles. These men followed Jesus around for three years. They traveled with him, they talked with him, they learned from him, and Jesus told them things that he didn’t tell anybody else. They were all close friends.
But even among those twelve, there were three men that Jesus was closer to than he was the other nine. There were times when he allowed Peter, James and John to be close to him when no one else was around. They were the ones who saw the transfiguration of Jesus. They were the ones who were there when Jairus’ daughter was raised from the dead. They were the ones who were closest to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.
But, even among those three, there seemed to be one that Jesus was closer to than all the rest. He’s the one John called “the disciple whom Jesus loved”, and most scholars believe that John was talking about himself. Which means that Jesus had a “best friend.”
Now, what that tells me is that it’s OK for you to be closer to some people than you are to others. Now, I’m not talking about a clique. I’m not talking about having a circle of friends that you talk to and do things with, and you keep everybody else on the outside. That’s one of the complaints that newcomers have of many churches that they visit. Everybody will talk with their friends after church, but nobody will talk to them. And they end up feeling like an outsider.
So, I’m not talking about having cliques, but there are some people who are closer friends than others are. I would hope that everyone in this room is a friend of yours, but not everyone here is going to be someone that you will open up to and share intimate aspects of your life. Not everyone in this room is going to be your “best friend”. Not everyone is going to be, as the Irish would put it, an anamchara, a soul-friend.
But we all need someone who is, because that’s the kind of friend that will help us to grow spiritually. I’m talking about people you can call at 2:00 in the morning if you need them, people you can be open and honest with, people that you talk to on a regular basis, the people who know you inside and out.
I’m talking about having a soul-friend, a friend like Jonathan was to David. I Samuel 18:1 says that “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.”
Jonathan was David’s very best friend in the whole world and there were a lot of great things that Jonathan did for David. But there’s one thing in particular that I want you to notice as we look at several characteristics of the kind of friend we need.
1. We Need a Friend Who Will Strength Us Spiritually
After David was anointed to be the next king of Israel, he became a war hero and all the women started to notice him. And they started singing songs about him — “Saul has killed thousands, but David has killed tens of thousands.”
And that made Saul furious. And he got really jealous. He said, “I don’t like David. It’s obvious he wants my throne. He’s getting all the attention. There’s only one solution — I’ve got to kill him.” And so, that’s what King Saul tried to do. We pick up in I Samuel chapter 23.
“David saw that Saul had come out to seek his life. David was in the wilderness of Ziph at Horesh. and Jonathan, Saul’s son, rose and went to David at Horesh, and strengthened his hand in God.” (I Samuel 23:15-16) The NIV translates that last phrase, “he helped him find strength in God.”
We all need a friend who helps us to find spiritual strength. Because I don’t care how mature you are, you will get tempted and you will get down and when everyone else walks out, you will need a friend who says, “I’m not going anywhere. And I’m not just going to pray for you but I’m going to pray with you. I’m going to strengthen you in the things of the Lord.”
And I am so very thankful for friends who have surrounded me through the years and helped me to find strength in the Lord. There have been many times over the past 40 years that I wanted to quit preaching. Times when I felt like I wasn’t accomplishing anything and I was getting criticism from all directions, and I just felt like it wasn’t worth it, and I wanted to quit.
But every time I reached that point, I had a friend nearby who re-assured me and strengthened me in the Lord and said, “You may not be able to see it, but you’re making a difference. You’re doing what God wants you to do. Hang in there.”
So, tell me – do you have a friend like that? Someone who wakes up in middle of the night with you on their heart, and calls you the next day and says, “I just wanted you to know that I had you on my heart, and so I prayed for you. And I want you to know that I want to help you be a stronger follower of Jesus Christ. Do you have someone in your life who will help you to grow spiritually?
And not only do you want a friend who will do that for you, but make sure that you are the kind of person who will do that for your friends. So that you’re not just a friend who is there to have fun together, but you help your friends to get better at the things that matter most and help them find spiritual strength in the things of God.
2. We Need a Friend Who Will Always Be There For Us
I love this quote that I found – “Friendship isn’t about whom you have known the longest…It’s about who came and never left your side.”
Remember what Solomon said? “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” (Proverbs 18:24).
We’re all familiar with the term “fair-weather friend” which is a friend who is only helpful or available when it’s convenient, or when it’s to their advantage to do so. There are few words any sadder than Jesus’ question to his disciples in John after almost everyone had turned and walked away. He said, “Do you want to go away as well?” (John 6:67)
Oprah Winfrey put it this way: “Lots of people want to ride with you in the limo, but what you want is someone who will take the bus with you when the limo breaks down.”
But, I’ll take it one step further. We not only need a friend who will always be there for us, but we need a friend who will always be present for us. We need to learn to be present with one another. We need to be face-to-face with people, because presence matters.
Think about it: When Jesus called his disciples, he didn’t say, “Here’s a book about me, go study it.” No, he said, “Come follow me. Let’s do life together. Let’s journey together. Let’s wake up in the morning, have breakfast together, let’s get to know each other as we travel from one community to another. The best way I can impart the love of my Father to you is to be with you, and have you be with me.”
We need to be present for our friends, and expect that they will be present for us. How many times have you gone into a restaurant and seen a bunch of people sitting together at a table, but nobody’s talking to anybody else. They’re all looking at their phones. Texting. Playing games. All of them.
Be present. Give your friends your attention. Face-to-face contact is important, and so we need to be together. Because there is power in presence. There is power in physical presence.
There have been times in my ministry that I have had to deal with families who suffered a great loss. One of the first funerals I ever did was for a baby. One of my next funerals was a teenager who died of cancer. And there have been so many times, especially when I was young, that I just didn’t know what to say in those situations. I would pray, “God, please help me to say the right thing.” And I would go to see the family and I didn’t know what to say. All I could do was just say a few words and offer some weak prayer. And I would walk away saying to myself, “Alan, you are a sorry excuse for a minister. Here they are in their greatest time of need and that’s the best you could do?”
But then later, I would hear from that family and they would say, “You have no idea what your visit meant. When you walked into the room, we felt like God was showing us how much he loved us and that he was going to be there for us. Everything you said was just perfect.” Really? Because I felt like I didn’t say anything. But in their mind, my presence said everything that needed to be said. There’s something about presence that is incredibly powerful.
I wonder how different your friendships would be if you made the people that you were with your priority? Put your phone down and spend time with the people you’re with; be present.
We need a friend who will always be there for us. But, just as important, we need a friend who will be present for us. And we need to be that same kind of friend to others.
3. We Need a Friend We Can Be Open and Honest With
I read recently about someone who uses three questions to help him to distinguish his acquaintances from his soul-friends. The first question he asks is, “Do I feel safe around you?” The second question he asks is, “Could I call you at 2:00 in the morning if I needed something?” But the third question he asks is, “Can I tell you who I am?”
Albert Camus put it this way. He said, “A friend is someone who knows all about you and still loves you.”
We all need someone to help carry our sorrows, help us deal with our doubts, and help us work through our questions. But that means that we need someone who is not going to judge us, or criticize us, or even try to fix us. We need someone who will patiently listen, who holds our secrets in trust, and who encourages us to do better.
We need someone to whom we can tell the truth about our lives, no matter how stained, flawed, or messed up we are. It’s what James intended when he said, “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed” (James 5:16). But I can only confess my sins to you if I trust you, if I know that you will use that knowledge to help me and not to hurt me.
Let me share something interesting with you. We impress people with our strengths but we connect with people through our weaknesses. Think about that. We impress people with our strengths but we connect with people through our weaknesses. It’s when we’re transparent, it’s when we’re vulnerable, it’s when we drop the macho image and we say, “Here’s what I’m going through.” “Here’s what makes me afraid.” “Here’s what I’m struggling in my marriage.” “Here’s the temptation that I can’t seem to overcome.” “Here’s what I can’t stop worrying about.”
And then our friends can say, “I understand. I used to have that problem, too. Here’s how God helped me to get through it.” And suddenly, we begin to connect. People connect through weaknesses.
But, the flip side is true as well. We not only need a friend that we can be honest with, but we need a friend who will be honest with us.
4. We Need a Friend Who Will Be Honest With Us
And when I think about this, I think about the kind of friend that Nathan was to David. You remember what happened to David. He was a man after God’s own heart. But he took his eyes off the Lord and he put his eyes on Bathsheba and he committed adultery, broke the heart of God and messed up his whole life. But, for a while, he didn’t see the seriousness of what he had done.
And so Nathan went to him and told him the truth. He said, “David, let me tell you a story. Once, there was a really wealthy guy that had sheep and cattle, more than you could count. And there was a really poor guy who had only one little lamb that was almost like a pet to him.
“And one day, a traveler came and was hungry. And so the wealthy guy didn’t use one of his own sheep but he took this poor guy’s only lamb and he slaughtered it to give to the traveler.” And David responded by saying, “That was a horrible thing for him to do. That guy needs to be punished.”
And Nathan looked at David, and said, “That’s you. You did it.” And he loved David enough to tell him the truth about what he had done. And suddenly, David saw what he hadn’t seen before and he was broken-hearted.
And so I would ask you, When is the last time you had a friend who loved you enough to tell you, “Don’t go there. Don’t do that. You’re making a big mistake. You’re going to hurt your marriage. You’re going to hurt your influence as a Christian. You’re going to hurt your relationship with God.” We all need someone who will tell us the truth. So I wonder, do you have someone like that in your life?
I’m not talking about someone who walks up and criticizes you and says, “You’re doing everything wrong.” No, a friend is someone that you have a relationship with, it’s someone you knows you and loves you and cares about you and has only your best interest at heart. Do you have a friend like that – someone who loves you enough and cares about you enough to be honest with you at all times?
But it’s also important to ask — Are you willing to be a friend like that? We tend to not want to say anything negative, but sometimes we need to be honest and tell it like it is. That’s what a true friend does.
And wouldn’t it be wonderful if you had more than just one anamchara, more than just one soul-friend. A whole group of friends who love you. Where there is this close spiritual relationship, where you learn from them and they learn from you, and you influence each other to be more like Jesus, where they love you enough to tell you the truth when you’re doing something stupid, when they’re there to celebrate with you in the good times and there to cry with you in the times when you’re hurting. Wouldn’t it be great to have a group of friends like that? What a difference it would make in our spiritual journey!