by Kevin Balder
Philosophers and poets have waxed eloquent on the subject of friendship, but one verse from the Bible says more than all their panegyrics combined. It is Proverbs 17:17, “A friend loveth at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.” What haunts me from this verse is the expression, “at all times.” This is the phrase that the Hebrew text emphasizes. It is the hook upon which the verse hangs. A friend—a real friend—does not merely love at some times or under some circumstances. He loves at all times.
If I am a friend only when I find friendship convenient, then I am not a friend. If I am a friend only when I stand to gain from the friendship, then I am not a friend. If I abandon a friend when he is in need, or even when he is in sin, then I was never a friend to begin with. If I exchange one friend for another, then I have not been a real friend to either.
This lesson has been hard for me to learn. Several years ago one of my closest friends walked away from the Lord. He engaged in conduct that did irreparable damage to his family and his testimony. He was not repentant—indeed, he attempted to justify his wrongdoing. I spent hours with him, hoping to influence him toward repentance. When it became clear that he was not going to change, he asked, “Is this the end of our friendship?”
My answer at the time was that friendship is based upon common shared interests and perspectives. I observed that he had betrayed our mutual interest and adopted an alien perspective. I told him that I simply did not know how his settled rejection of truth would affect our friendship.
He didn’t reply, but he never cut me out of his life. In fact, he took it upon himself to maintain contact with me. He let me know by his actions that, as far as he was concerned, our friendship was not over. And that is when Proverbs 17:17 began to eat away at me. I eventually concluded that, however wrong he might be in other areas, in this respect he was the better man.
We had shared much through the years. We had helped each other accomplish deeds that might have seemed small to the rest of the world, but that mattered to us. We had walked through adversities together. We had not chosen to be friends; friendship had grown unbidden as we were thrown together. He understood that. I did not.
Today he is my friend. I hope that I am his. Because he is my friend, he knows that I cannot allow him to remain unchallenged in a pattern of life that dishonors God. Because I am his friend, I refuse to throw him away, even though we disagree sharply.
Two people do not have to be like each other to be friends. They do not even have to agree with each other. Friendship is not predictable in those ways. One does not make friends. One discovers them. What we call “making friends” is simply the attempt to create an opportunity for a friendship to be discovered. These discoveries are sometimes made in the most unlikely places. To discover a friend is to discover a treasure indeed, a treasure that is too precious ever to be cast away.
Friendship has many counterfeits. Co-belligerence can bring people together for a time, but it is not friendship. Collegiality has its uses, but it is not friendship. Neither mutual admiration nor mutual advancement is friendship. A friendship may include any of the above, but it must not be confused with them.
Why these reflections? Because over the past couple of years, I have watched a few more of my friends walk in directions with which I disagree. Only now, these friends are Christian leaders. Their commitments have changed. In one or two instances, they have even betrayed my trust. As they have changed, so have the organizations that they have led. In some cases, I have had to stop supporting the organizations.
But here’s the thing: a friend loveth at all times. If these men were my friends, then they are still my friends. I do not have to throw them away to be true to the faith. I may (and do) disagree with some things they have said and done. I may (and do) express some of those disagreements privately. I may (and do) even state some of those disagreements publicly when they matter to the cause of Christ. But I do not have to contemn these people. I do not have to throw away our friendship.
What I find, however, is that other Christians often expect me to end these friendships. When I say expect, I mean it not only in the sense of, “he probably will,” but also in the sense of, “he really should.” Within certain Christian circles one encounters the attitude that disagreements over direction, policy, and the application of principles must necessarily kill friendships. How very sad. A friend loveth at all times.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary.