You know that old adage, “Tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who are”? It’s true. In fact, it’s biblical. We imitate our friends, for good and bad; so who are your friends, and do they help you grow in those things that are most important?
If you’re a Christian, this means that it would be wise and beneficial for your walk with God to have other believers as your close friends. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be friends with others who believe differently from us, but that in our social life, other Christians, and members of your church in particular, should be prominent.
In his brief and excellent Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus (Crossway, 2012), Jonathan Leeman shows how this works – the ways in which our friends influence us. After reading this, ask yourself: who are my close friends, and how do they influence me?
“Churches should be more than social clubs, but they shouldn’t be less. Our friends are the ones we imitate and follow. We spend money where they spend money. We raise our children like they raise their children. We pray like they pray. Our friends form who we become as we imitate one another (see James 4:4; also 1 Cor. 15:33)” (97-98).
In The Meaning of Marriage (Dutton, 2011), pastor and author Tim Keller says that at the heart of marriage is friendship. So if we’re ultimately pursuing marriage, he says, we shouldn’t put such a high value on things like sex, chemistry, and attraction, which will change over time, but rather we should look for a companion – the kind of person we can walk alongside for decades in a mutually satisfying and meaningful relationship.
So how do we find this kind of companion? I like how Keller puts it:
“It often happens that you have a good friend of the opposite sex with whom you share common commitments. You trust this person’s wisdom and you find you can open up and share many intimate things without fear. He or she understands you well and listens to you and gives you great advice. But the person doesn’t attract you romantically. Maybe he or she doesn’t have the body type that you find appealing. You feel no sexual chemistry at all. Then imagine that you meet someone else to whom you feel very attracted. This person has the physical and social attributes you have been looking for and is interested in you, too. So you start seeing each other and you have a lot of fun together and things are moving along into more and more romantic intimacy. But if you are honest with yourself, this person you say you are falling in love with does not make nearly as good a friend as the one you already have, nor is that likely to change.
“You are in trouble. Your spouse has got to be your best friend, or be on the way to becoming your best friend, or you won’t have a strong, rich marriage that endures and that makes you both vastly better persons for having been it” (125).
“Look for someone who understands you better than you do yourself, who makes you a better person just by being around them. And then explore whether that friendship could become a romance and a marriage” (126).
William Wilberforce’s journey to faith was not in isolation. He had the good fortune to be helped by Isaac Milner, a rare genius and physical giant of a man who, though not personally committed to Christianity, was a theologian in his own right, well equipped to explain and defend the great doctrines of Christianity which he respected. On a voyage across the English Channel and through France, they read a book titled The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, of which Milner declared to Wilberforce, “It is one of the best books ever written” (47). Together they read, examined, discussed and reflected on its contents (what one would give to listen in on their conversations!), and the wheels of their souls began turning. Before long, Wilberforce, age 26, put his faith in Christ.
Shaken out of his carefree, pleasure-seeking attitude to life by his newfound faith, Wilberforce was at first harsh with himself. He resolved to eradicate his vices and replace them with virtuous habits, even making a list of the number of times he failed or prevailed in each vice or virtue each day. What floored me, however, was the agreement he entered into with his friend Isaac Milner to, in their own words, “exercise the invaluable practice of telling each other what each party believes to be the other’s chief faults and infirmities” (67).
This episode offers two practices that can enrich friendship and lead to personal improvement:
1) As seen above, friends can be candid with one another about the other’s “faults and infirmities.” This requires not only a close friendship but strength of character, for it entails humility, candor, and above all, genuine love, which will guard against mean-spiritedness and over-sensitivity.
2) The other is reading books together. A person reading alone is a happy sight; but when you see two friends reading together, you know something special is taking place. There are few pleasures like going through a good book with a kindred spirit. Not only do you gain a deeper understanding through discussion as well as another perspective, but you also gain a more intimate knowledge of your friend.