2. The practices of Christian friendship: talking, listening, and fellowship
So, faith and fidelity are absolutely vital for relationships of any sort. But faith and faithfulness are particularly important for friendship.
Friends make and keep promises to one another. In some friendships, these may not be verbal promises; in others, such as a marriage, they are. Even when unspoken, we know what we expect of friends, we know what they have promised. We expect our friends to listen to us, to keep our secrets, to dream with us, and to stand with us in times of trouble. We expect a “friend to love at all times”; we expect “a true friend to stick closer than one’s nearest kin.”
With our friends, our behavior creates expectations, needs, and loyalties with the other. Even if we don’t say so, there are promises that we make when we enter into a friendship. What we must recognize is that these expectations are based upon trust and loyalty, upon faith and faithfulness. When we enter into a friendship, we implicitly or explicitly promise to do certain things and we trust the other person will do the same. As long as we faithfully keep our promises, and the other party does as well, then the relationship works. When there is break down, when there is broken faith, then the relationship is wounded; our friend feels betrayed; and forgiveness needs to be sought.
What, then, are the promises that we make in friendship? Or to put it differently, what practices or habits do we develop in order to be a friend to another?
There is great potential benefit in our speaking with our friend. The writer of Proverbs says, “Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body” (Proverbs 16.24). Our words penetrate and spread their effects in the lives of our friends. When we as a friend can speak to another and unburden our souls, we find a renewing of our hearts.
There are four kinds of speaking we do with our friends. First, there is the word of comfort. When we sense that our friend is in pain or despair, we deliver “a word fitly spoken [which] is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Proverbs 25.11). We point them to the comfort that is found in our Triune God:
· To the one who has experienced sorrow, we point them to the One who in the last day will make sorrow and sighing to flee away (Isaiah 35.10)
· To the one who is weary, we point them to the One who invited all those who are tired and weary to himself
· To the one who is fearful and who despairs, we remind them that God himself will never leave you nor forsake you (Hebrews 13.5)
We say to our friends: “do you not know? Have you not heard/that firm remains on high/the everlasting throne of him who formed the earth and sky…Supreme in wisdom as in power/the Rock of ages stands;/though you cannot see, nor trace/the working of his hands.” In delivering words of comfort to such ones, we demonstrate our faithfulness in walking with them in their sorrow and suffering for we know that “anxiety weighs down the human heart, but a good word cheers it up” (Proverbs 12.25).
Sometimes we speak the word of rebuke. We know that the Proverbs say, “Like a gold ring or an ornament of gold is a wise rebuke to a listening ear” (Proverbs 25.12). And while we fear the others response, we must have courage to blame and scold in a sharp way—in doing so, we let our friends know that we are willing to lose constant contact with them in order to be faithful to them.
As friends, we also may speak words of wisdom. Our friends will face challenges and difficult decisions—when they come to us for advice, they do not want “yes men,” but rather they seek wisdom. We must keep faith with our friends by looking at the situation from our perspective, sifting it through Scripture, and giving them wise words. The Scriptures tell us that “the wise of heart is called perceptive, and pleasant speech increases persuasiveness,” and “the mind of the wise makes their speech judicious and adds persuasiveness to their lips” (Proverbs 16.21, 23). Those who speak wise words know that wisdom is communicated not only in what is said, but also in how it is said. The manner in which we give advice can be just as or even more persuasive as the advice we give. When our friends come for advice, we must entreat them and persuade them with a kind and gentle tone, helping them trust that we have their best interests at heart.
Finally, friends speak words of vision and dreams. I don’t mean that friends experience dreams and visions from God about each other and then relay the information on. Rather, I mean that friends that keep faith will dream what their friends might do and envision further spheres of usefulness for their friends. Thus, when we speak, we open ourselves, our souls, up to our friend in speaking the word of rebuke and of comfort and of wisdom and of dreams and visions.
We keep faith to them and dream for them; we seek their betterment with our words and not their hurt. We are willing for them to see themselves as sinners, for who else will be so faithful?
And we are desirous that they be comforted in times of grief and pain. Speaking is one of the great practices necessary for keeping faith for our friends. In speaking we keep promises and live faithfully with one another.
However, not only is speaking an important practice for faithful friendship, but listening is equally important. Listening is important because communication is always reciprocal. In order to trust another enough to extend ourselves in speech, we must believe that the other will listen to us.
And good listening is difficult. It is difficult because there is so much in our age to hear, both outside and inside ourselves. But we are called upon to “be quick to listen” (James 1.19).
Listening faithfully to our friend involves two things.
· First, listening involves the restraint of ourselves.
We must set aside the voices that we hear inside ourselves, and two in particular, the voice of self-promotion and the voice of self-protection. Self-promotion cries out to us, particularly when our friend is speaking. We want to set ourselves forward as witty, funny, intellectual, aware, sophisticated, and so forth. However, in order to so manipulate our words in order to put ourselves forward in this light, we must be unfaithful to the person speaking largely by ignoring them. In order to set this voice aside, we must practice humility, looking to the interests of others rather than to the interests of self-promotion.
The other voice we must set aside is the voice of self-protection. This is the voice that refuses to bear our soul to our friend—we protect ourselves from our friends from the point they say, “How are you doing?” to the point they say, “Well, see you later.” We never would actually listen to their pain and grief or their successes and happiness for fear that it might demand something from us. And so, much of our conversation devolves into mere hearing and grunting noises to attempt to lull the other person into believing that we are actually listening. Here again, in order to keep faith with our friends, we must be those who are willing to involve ourselves in their successes and failures.
· However, a faithful practice of listening also involves the extension of ourselves.
Listening is a grace which is patterned on how God listens to us. The Psalmists continually asked God to hear their prayers. In Psalm 5, David sings, “Give ear to my words, O Lord; give heed to my sighing. Listen to the sound of my cry, my King and my God. O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice” (Psalm 5.1-3a; cf. Psalm 17.6, 54.2, 55.1; 61.1; 86.1, 6). And in Psalm 86, David asks God, “Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me” (Psalm 86.1). God is pictured as one who will interrupt what he is doing in order to bow down and hear the prayer of God’s people with a single-minded interest.
In the same way, we are to set aside what we are doing and listen to our friend with a single-minded interest. For it is in this faithful listening to one another that we are able to carry out James’ admonition to be quick to listen and that we might keep faith with those who are our friends.
A third practice which both demonstrates friendship and preserves faith and faithfulness is fellowship. Commonly, evangelicals have thought of fellowship as that which was done over coffee and doughnuts after church or in a week-night Bible study. And in the evangelical mind, fellowship would entail swapping stories about how the week past went and what is going to happen in the week coming. Or perhaps “fellowship” pictures for many what happens at a place of spiritual experience where there is a lot of people, whether at a retreat or a camp or Christian pep rally—Christians will return from such events and talk about the “fellowship.”
However, I would suggest to you that this is a truncated view of fellowship—for fellowship means that friends worship together, as in Acts 2.42: Acts 2.42, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers.”
· When we practice fellowship with our friends in worship, we share the Word.
And in order to share the Word with them, we must awaken ourselves to our various practices of worship—attentive listening, quiet meditation, thoughtful prayer, heart-felt singing, focused reading. It is only as we practice worship in these various activities that we can in any sense share the Word with our friends and thus practice fellowship with them.
· Likewise, the practice of fellowship means we also share the Lord’s Supper.
As we gather around the Lord’s table, and as we pass the elements among our friends, we are expressing a mystery that we cannot fully understand—that we, disparate people from various backgrounds and experiences which we cannot even guess, come to this table as a mob but in partaking the Lord’s supper, we are Christ’s body.
· Finally, fellowship means we share discipline together.
We share the discipline which the body of Christ receives from God; and we share in the discipline we practice in our own midst. It is only, then, in the means of grace, in the Word and the Supper and discipline, that we can truly practice fellowship.
These three practices—speaking, listening, and fellowship—represent some of the promises on which Christian friendship is based. As we speak and listen to each other and as we worship together, our hearts are tied together in Christian love and affection. We rejoice together and weep together; we speak comfort to each other and listen to one another’s rebuke; we sing songs of praise and heard the Word of God.