Maurice Roberts on Christian Friendship

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Brief Biography:

Rev. Maurice Roberts was born at Chester, England in 1938. He was educated at Durham University. After teaching Latin and Greek in secondary schools in Scotland, he studied theology at the Free Church of Scotland College, Edinburgh. He was the minister of Ayr Free Church of Scotland from 1974 to 1994, and since then has been the minister of Greyfriars Congregation, Inverness, a congregation of the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing). He was editor of the Banner of Truth magazine from 1988 to 2003, and is the author of The Thought of God, The Christian’s High Calling, Great God of Wonders, and Can We Know God? He is married, and has one daughter and two grandchildren.

Christian Friendships

by Maurice Roberts

The Christian discovers that, while he has fellowship with all his brothers and sisters in Christ, he has special friendships with only some of them. It is not always easy to say why such friendships between some Christians develop or why potential friendships with others come to nothing. But it is a fact of observation and experience which must ultimately have its explanation in the mystery of God’s providence. Fellowship in a general sense exists among all who are born of God. But that special delight which friends find in each other’s company is something which goes beyond this. Fellowship is there because of the grace which is enjoyed in common. But friendships occur almost mysteriously and yet not without explanation, as we shall see. No doubt in heaven, when grace becomes glory, this imperfect state of our relationships will improve so that all will be equally the friend of each. But it is not so now and no act of will can now make it so, it would seem.

The best of God’s servants have had special friends and their names are wreathed together and intertwined in the pages of Scripture. Moses and Joshua, David and Jonathan, Daniel and his friends, Peter and John, Paul and Timothy — they belonged together on earth and their names come easily to our memory in pairs or groups. Even the Lord Jesus Christ had his special relationships with his own disciples. Out of the twelve, three were specially intimate: Peter, James and John. Out of these three, one was unique. Only John was “the disciple whom Jesus loved”, in the relationship of a friend par excellence. It appears clear therefore that we ought not, as Christians, to be surprised to find that we have closer relations with some of God’s people than with others. This must not lead us to be dismissive of brothers who are not in our intimate circle of friends. But it reassures us that there is no sin in the Christian’s having closer ties with some rather than with other believers.

Christian friendships are no doubt ordained to draw forth from us the highest powers of our soul and so to lead to our greatest usefulness and sanctification. It is not hard to see how this comes about. Most friendship, if not all, consist of a bond of affection between one who is more talented, or else more spiritually advanced, and another who is less so. Within this relationship there is a mutually felt, even if tact, recognition of the need for grace and forbearance. The gifted brother must shows his brotherliness by generous, but concealed, condescension, and the less-gifted brother must advance the friendship my mortifying his envy. Thus pride is weakened in the one and jealousy in the other. Both are strengthened in their graces and as a result “iron sharpens iron”.

It belongs to the genius of friendships that we must accept our brothers and sisters for what they are and extend affection to them accordingly. The gifted brother who cannot bear to be anything other than idolized will have admirers but not friends. There is a significant difference. An admirer loves us for the sake of our talents; a friend loves us for our own sake. Friendship is far more beneficial to us than admiration because it makes sanctifying demands upon our character. Those gifted brothers who want only our admiration seek only additional fuel for their own self-love. But genuine friendship leads to the destruction of self-love because it forgets itself in a sincere desire to do good to the other person.

To accept our brothers and sisters for what they are, within the bond of Christian friendship, is to leave them room to think and act as they wish, provided they keep within scriptural bounds. This is far from easy because we are all inclined to hold our opinions in lesser matters rather too strongly and, given opportunity, we tend to squeeze others into our own mold even in matters indifferent. It is notoriously easier to quote the dictum than to act according to it in our friendships: “In things essential, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

Friendship is good and necessary for us just as, in most cases, marriage is necessary. It corrects our angularity and rubs off our corners. The recluse is the first to fall into eccentricities. The more we are with ourselves, the more we become like ourselves. It is only when we come back into the circle of our godly friends once again we realize how awkward, or else opinionated, we have become as Christians. We all go astray “like sheep”, but we go astray less if we keep within the flock and refuse the temptation to wander off into solitary pastures where we are all on our own. This fact alone should have been enough to warn the early Christian ascetics against the monastic cell. But history shows that it was not. The monk’s cell was the ideal situation for the development of quirks and crankish habits of spiritual character. Healthy Christian character, which is full-orbed, well-rounded and rich in good fruits, can best be formed within the circle of sanctified friendships.

It is a common proverb that “a man is known by his friends”. This is not surprising because, as the Romans put it, “a friend is a second self”. That is to say, our intimate friends are what they are to us because they are essentially like us in all that is morally important. We choose our friends, not by accident, but because their souls mirror ours and their minds vibrate in harmony with ours. Friendship begins as soon as this mutual harmony of hearts is felt, and it ends when the harmony ends. We can be respectful to believers with whom we feel we have little in common, but it is emotionally impossible for us to count them among our intimate friends.

Our best friends are those whose company most makes us afraid to sin. These friends are rare to be valued like solid gold. It is clear that this was the effect which M’Cheyne had upon Andrew Bonar. Bonar could never be the same once he met M’Cheyne. All his life, and on anniversary occasions especially, he remembered that saintly friend whose presence made God more real and therefore sin more foul. Those who have seraphic friends will at last become angelic. It is one reason why we should aim more at godliness. An exemplary life may do as much good as a lifetime of sermons. There are some Christians who impress us by their talents. But there are also others whose awesome holiness makes us afraid. If we find one friend of this kind, we shall do well to cherish his friendship for life.

It is marvelous how different the effect of different men is on our spirit. Some men’s company shuts our mouth and seals our lips as if we were imprisoned. Other believers unlock our tongue and draw forth the secrets of our hearts so that we can tell them all our thoughts and trust them with all our secrets. Some men cow and intimidate us so that we put up a wall of defense around our real thoughts till they are gone. Others win their way to our affections at once, and melt our reserve, so that we can share our choicest meditations with them. Some men bring out the best in us, and some bring out the worst. It is hard to say how all this works. But it is a fact of life. In this writer’s opinion, we should take seriously our instinctive reactions to different men and not say more to anyone than we feel convinced would be wise and well-taken. When you meet a man who is not your friend, and who refuses to become your friend, you will not please him “whether you rage or laugh” [Prov. 29:9]. Therefore it is best to keep the secrets of your heart where they are, safely under lock and key.

A Christian ought to prize his friends and to preserve them. Much is owed to true friends. They impose duties and obligations on us which are not to be neglected, even when life is full of business. Church work can sometimes make us too dogmatic in minor things and the remedy for over-certainty is to listen at times to our friends’ judgment of us. The wounds of a friend are”faithful” [Prov. 27:6] in that they hurt us for our good. Therefore we should not resent them.

The temptation we all have is to keep the company of those who only admire us and never dare to stand up to us. Luther was a toweringly great man, but he would have been greater still if he had allowed Zwingli to correct his view of the Lord’s Supper. If was Luther’s weakness and the church’s loss that he would not be moved by either the logic or the tears of his friends. Similarly, the Wesleys should have listened more to Whitefield. Edward Irving was a most brilliant speaker but he ought to have paid more attention to the frowns of Chalmers and other orthodox believers. Had he done so, or had he married differently, he would have given off more light and less smoke to the church. As it was, he felt too sure of his erratic opinions and so lost the chance of becoming a great leader of God’s people.

One of the most painful parts of Christian friendship is to to be honest with believers we love when we consider them to be wrong or misguided. We do not all have the moral courage to stand up to our brothers and sisters when they go off at a tangent. In this respect, we must remember how Paul faithfully “withstood Peter to his face” [Gal 2:11]. We generally prefer keeping a criminal silence to giving a well-timed rebuke. But, when we do so, we do not act as friends should. We are not to ‘suffer sin in our brother” [Lev 19:17]. “Open rebuke is better than secret love” [Prov. 27:5]. Our perfect Lord felt no inconsistency in altering his tone of voice to Peter from “blessed art thou” [Matt. 16:17] to “get behind me, Satan” [Matt 16:23]. The two expressions appear to have come from Christ’s lips in one and the same conversation. This shows how quickly we must sometimes change our voice from praise to blame when dealing with friends in Christ whom we love.

The price of real friendship is honesty therefore. A genuine friend must at times be ready to appear cruel. But we must be cruel to be kind. However much we have to wound those we love, we know that it is the part of hatred, not love, to see our brother wander from the path unchecked. However much we love our brother, we love Jesus Christ more. “I love Plato but I love truth still more,” said Aristotle. This sentiment is fully consistent with the gospel and, indeed, is the very essence of gospel friendships. But such friendships are rare because we either lack the courage to correct our brothers and sisters in their crankish quirks or else we take it badly when they put their finger on our own cherished eccentricities.

A good friend can be a sublime comfort to us in hours of loneliness. And the Christian will meet many occasions of loneliness in his pilgrimage. So we shall be both better in character and lighter in heart if we allow a due place to the forming and fostering of contacts with like-minded believers in the Lord. To start the day with a short phone call or with a brief letter from an esteemed saint can be the difference between a day of victory and triumph, and a day of depression and temptation.

Generally speaking, when we are depressed and dejected we should seek the remedy, not in prayer and fasting, but in fellowship and friendship. As Luther’s Letters wisely say, we ought not to go to prayer hen we are depressed, but into the company of good people. Satan is always more menacing when we meet him on our own. Depression dislocates all the parts of the soul and paralyzes our creative powers. Every preacher knows that he has spent long hours preparing a sermon to no effect on one day only to complete it in no time at all the next morning, when joy has returned to his soul. Half an hour of fellowship, therefore, when the mind is dejected, will often release the springs of our creativity and cause the life-blood of Christian gladness to flow afresh in our veins. Whatever gives us a sense of well-being as Christians is good for us. High on the list of things which bring us a sense of well-being is friendship.

Perhaps we fail to notice, as we read the Bible, that the highest pattern of Christian friendship is in God himself. The manner in which the three divine persons relate to and refer to one another is the exalted out-flowing always of perfect mutual love. Let us apologize for the poverty of human language when we say so, but there is in each person of the Godhead a kind of self-effacing quality. The Father’s attitude to the Son is expressed in the simple words: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” [Matt 3:17]. The Son’s love of the Father is reflected in the statement: “My Father is greater than I” [John 14:28]. Similarly, the Spirit does not speak of himself but bears witness to Christ [John 15:26]. Yet the Son declares that blasphemy against the Son will be forgiven but not blasphemy against the Spirit [Matt 12:31].

Admittedly, many comments and qualifications to what is here said would need to be added if these texts were to be fully explained. But the important and instructive fact remains that the divine persons of the Holy Trinity never refer to one another except with perfect honor, respect and love. They each delight to give the other persons their high and honored place. O how transcendentally perfect are these holy Three, whom we know as Father, Son, and Spirit! How worthy of our imitation they are in the matter of our Christian friendships, as in all else! Sin makes men “hateful and hating” [Titus 3:3]. Let us see to it that we have grace to be good friends one to another for life, or rather, for eternity.

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