Friends and Neighbors
Preached by Pastor Jason Abbott
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I have walked into coffee shops and had the attendant, whom I’ve never met, welcome me by saying: Hello friend. What can I get for you?
We have constructed in our society a shallow set of proverbial truths about friendship like: A dog is a man’s best friend.
We have an iconic book in our social history that has sold innumerable copies with the title: How to Win Friends and Influence People.
And, in these ways and various others, we have cheapened real friendship! We have cheapened what true friendship means!
None of these even scratches the surface of the deep biblical and God ordained picture of intimate friendship!
It’s consequently my hope that today we can dig into the rich proverbial soil, the fertile biblical dirt, and ask what real friendship is.
However, before we go any further, allow me to set the table just a bit.
In Hebrew, the common word for friend can also simply mean neighbor. Context decides if it means a close companion or just a dude living up the block. So, when you’re reading through Proverbs, it’s important that you consider what real friendship means based on context—not simply if the word friend is present. For example:
The poor is disliked even by his neighbor, but the rich has many friends (Proverbs 14:20).
If we simplistically take in this proverb then we might come away thinking that it’s saying rich people are more likely to make friends than poor people are. However, that is obviously not what this proverb is saying! Instead, it tells us that the rich may seem to have more friends but they may, in fact, be no friends at all. Perhaps (it tells us) “friendship” can be (and often is) a mere self-serving ploy!
We thus need to think discerningly and deeply about friendship in Proverbs.
To do this, we’ll ask 3 questions about friendship in the book of Proverbs: (1) How does one come by friendship? (2) How does one foster healthy friendship? (3) How does the gospel transform friendship?
1. How does one come by friendship?
In his book The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis writes this about how real friendship begins:
Friendship arises out of mere Companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.”1
According to Lewis, therefore, real friendship is not made but discovered. Real friendship comes through the recognition that we share something deep and essential in common with another person—something that cannot be manufactured but must be discovered!
Consider this proverb as you think about discovering friendship:
Oil and perfume make the heart glad, / and the sweetness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel (Proverbs 27:9).
What’s so interesting about this proverb is that when Proverbs was written nobody produced sugar or sweeteners. If you wanted to make or eat sweet food, you had to go out and find your sugar source; you had to discover it—maybe like, honey from a beehive.2
This proverb is saying that a true or authentic friend is like sweet food. Consequently, you don’t just whip one up like we do a batch of brownies or a cake; you don’t go out to the store and buy one like we do a tub of chocolate ice cream. Instead, you look and look and finally discover such a friend, and, once you do, that friendship is incredibly sweet or valuable to you!
My wife jokes that I call many of my friends my best friend, and she’s right. I have friends with whom I have 30 plus years of shared history; I have friends whom I have fought to protect and who have fought to protect me; I have friends whom I’ve traveled thousands of miles to see so we could laugh and cry together. And many times I refer to these friends as best friends.
But my true best friends—according to a biblical definition of friendship—were not made by accumulating time spent with them or miles traveled to them. Rather, my true best friends are those with whom I share the deepest of all bonds—the bond of Jesus Christ.
Don’t get too excited. I’m not saying that you are all my true best friends. However, I am saying that—because of the bond of Jesus Christ which we share—there’s an uncommon potential between Christians for deep, authentic friendship, the kind in which you say:
“What? You too? I thought I was the only one.”
2. How does one foster healthy friendship?
Now this question might seem strange since I’ve just made the point that real, authentic friendship can’t be created but can only be discovered. However, just because you must discover friendship doesn’t mean you can’t work to cultivate it when you find it. In fact, you must if it’s going to last!
How then can we do this?
Well, it seems in Proverbs that there are four necessary ingredients when fostering friendships—(a) constancy, (b) carefulness, (c) candor, and (d) counsel. Everywhere I looked—in preparing this sermon—these four friendship fertilizers were mentioned by various names and in various orders.3
This means being there for the person we call friend in all kinds of times. Being a true friend doesn’t mean being a friend only when it’s easy but also being a friend when it’s hard—even really, really hard!
Look at a couple proverbs with me:
A friend loves at all times, / and a brother is born for adversity (Proverbs 17:17).
A man of many companions may come to ruin, / but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother (Proverbs 18:24).
Robert Frost has famously written:
Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / they have to take you in.4
In a similar way, these proverbs explain that one’s brother (i.e. one’s family) should be there in adverse times. Indeed, perhaps like Frost explains in his poem, they have to be there for you, even if they don’t want to be there for you.
These proverbs, however, also explain that in such times you find out who your real or your true friends are, for such a genuine friend loves with constancy—at all times and in all situations.
Such a friend loves at all times and sticks closer than a brother.
When I turned 16, I was the first one in my class, by a few months, to do so. I quickly found that I had no shortage of friends to drive all around Jefferson City. I also found that these friends disappeared as others in my class began to turn 16, especially others in my class driving something a little nicer than an orange 1980 Volkswagen Rabbit.
Yet, there were some true and faithful friends among those early riders. Friends who would give me a ride when my car wasn’t running for some reason; friends who would still catch a ride with me when my horn became depressed and wouldn’t stop honking; friends marked by constancy.
Do you have friends like this? Are you a friend like this?
A second ingredient which fosters (or fertilizes) a deep and healthy, true friendship is:
Being a careful friend means being a friend who considers others’ feelings. Such a person will sensitively make wise choices especially in regards to a friend. Consider how Proverbs, in various ways, makes this point:
True friends don’t overstay their welcome or make themselves a nuisance:
Let your foot be seldom in your neighbor’s [or friend’s] house, / lest he have his fill of you and hate you (Proverbs 25:17).
True friends sensitively consider if and when to speak and whether their actions will be well received:
Whoever blesses his neighbor [or friend] with a loud voice, / rising early in the morning, / will be counted as cursing (Proverbs 27:14).
True friends carefully judge when they’ve gone far enough (and not too far) with a joke or prank:
Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death / is the man who deceives his [friend] / and says, “I am only joking!” (Proverbs 26:18-19).
In each of these cases, the word for neighbor is the same word for friend. Consequently, we see that a true friend is one who is careful to think about the other person’s feelings—a true friend exhibits empathy!
A third ingredient that fosters (or fertilizes) a deep and true friendship is:
What does this mean? It means a friend is honest, open, frank, and truthful. However, such candor is always for the good of the friend and the friendship! Consider these proverbs:
Faithful are the wounds of a friend; / profuse are the kisses of an enemy (Proverbs 27:6).
A man who flatters his neighbor / spreads a net for his feet (Proverbs 29:5).
If we’re true friends, we’ll say the hard things that will ultimately help!
If your friend’s fly is down (and you’re a true friend), you’ll tactfully say so. If she is being rude at a party (and you’re a true friend), you will gently tell her so. If he is tending toward some very clear, sinful pattern of behavior—gossip, drunkenness, divisiveness, greed, envy, dishonesty, gluttony, idolatry, laziness—(and you’re a true friend), you’ll lovingly, though perhaps firmly, tell him so!
One of the great sins in Christian friendships today is a lack of godly candor! We must learn that sometimes wounding a friend (by intervening when we see sin) is the only way we can really love our friend.
A final ingredient that fosters (or fertilizes) a deep friendship is:
Essentially, this means that a true friend will help us make good decisions. Real friends enable one another to lay sound plans and navigate the journey of life. And so we find ourselves back at our first proverb:
Oil and perfume make the heart glad, / and the sweetness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel (Proverbs 27:9).
True friends should encourage “one another [toward] love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24). As “iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27:17) so good friends’ should sharpen one another through sweet and godly counsel.
Look, in the Christian life, having a friend or two who can openly counsel us is of supreme importance for our sanctification—or our growth in Christlikeness. A Christian friend (through earnest counsel) can develop in me (by the power of the Holy Spirit) an aspect of Christian holiness which, on my own, I could never have developed.
God is pleased to sanctify us through our relationships in the church, especially godly friendships.
Well, as we close, we must ask:
3. How does the gospel transform friendship?
If you’re like me, when you consider the biblical picture of true friendship, you both want such friendships and don’t want them simultaneously!
We want them because such friendships sound so totally satisfying to us. However, at the same time, we don’t want them because we know how bad we are, or how bad we would be, at such intimate friendships!
But, the gospel changes everything for us about friendship.
See, Jesus (going to the cross) was pleased to call us, through faith, friends. Though we had betrayed him, he called us friends and laid down his life for us. Our lack of constancy, carefulness, candor, and counsel toward him, could not separate us from his love and most perfect fulfillment of true and godly friendship toward us and for us.
So, if we have experienced such divine friendship through the love of Jesus, then God lovingly tells us to enjoy Jesus’ perfect constancy and carefulness and candor and counsel every single day! There’s nothing that can separate us from the love and friendship of God in Christ (Romans 8:39)!
And this divine friendship makes deep, intimate human friendships possible since when I fall short—in constancy or carefulness or candor or counsel—I know I am forgiven. Furthermore, where my friend falls short—in the very same ways—I know I must forgive him even as I’ve been forgiven by Christ Jesus.
Praise God that the gospel of Jesus transforms and fulfills our friendships!