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Series: The Topics of God

Category: Friendship

Passage: Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

Speaker: Dan Doriani

Sermon for Sunday, February 22, 2009
Dr. Dan Doriani


Ecclesiastes 4

We have lost track of the value of deep, real friendships. Baby boomers became (and still continue to be) so busy with careers and wealth accumulation and general world conquest, that we have little time for friendships. Some men are so careless about cultivating friendships that we may not even know if they have true friends or not.

Those ten years younger move too much, work too much, dote over our kids too much, so friendships get pushed aside. Younger adults are so busy with impersonal forms of communication – facebook, texting, twittering, blogging. And they have such huge groups of friends that they half forget how to look one person in the eye. But we need friendships and the Bible has important things to say…

The church – a friend of friendship?

Christians believe in relationships, therefore we defend the family and try to be kind and welcoming to all who enter our life. Yet, the church is ambiguous about friendship. Churches gather for "fellowship" and "community" but do not promote gatherings for "friendship." Some churches advocated "spiritual direction" where mentors lead novices toward discipleship. But the church rarely mentions the way friends direct each other. It is not hard to see why friendship gets pushed aside.

First, if we compare friendship (philia), to love of neighbor (agape) as Jesus describes it, friendship looks much the poorer.

Agape is indiscriminate. It goes to every neighbor or stranger; philia discriminates, it goes to a favored few.

Agape goes to all who cross its path; philia goes to a few; we ensure that our paths cross.

Agape is inclusive; philia is exclusive. Agape denies no one. Philia denies many.

God's love is the source and model of agape; human attraction is the source and model of philia.

Agape is divine, given with no regard for merit; philia is human love based on affection given to the desirable.

Some Christian literature about friendship illustrates the difficulty. Griffin says that in the attraction between potential friends, "the thread of increased self-esteem is woven into each principle of attraction." A friend is someone who "makes me feel good about myself." This makes us uneasy.

But what, Griffin asks, creates or fosters good feeling between friends? When we see each other, work together and find something attractive in the other person – some skills, some attitudes and interests. And "we appreciate those who appreciate us." The common thread, Griffin says is "our overriding need for self esteem."

“Most of us have some lingering doubts about our attitudes and lifestyle. Having people close who think and feel as we do can be very comforting. The law of selective exposure suggests that we avoid information that challenges our beliefs. Friendship is probably the purest form of selecting our own propaganda. Relationships with similar others make us feel good about who we are.”

So friends make people feel good about themselves, but they may also make others feel bad, for "to announce, 'You are my friend' to someone, is, by implication, to say to another, 'You are not.'" This is what makes the church uneasy about friendship.

C. S. Lewis is a friend of friendship, but has caveats. Mutual affirmation and shared insights can make friends deaf to the opinions of others. A group of friends can easily acquire a superiority complex, a coterie of snobs, proud that they rise so far above others in skill, virtue or insight. Because shared convictions can galvanize people to take a stand, friendship can empower resistance to authority, for evil as well as good.

The value of friendship

Despite these weaknesses, the Bible approves of friendship. Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 describes the four advantages of friendship.

First, friends work together effectively. "Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work" (4:9).

Second, friends help one another in time of need. "If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up" (4:10).

Third, friends offer comfort and companionship in life's cold nights. "If two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone" (4:11)?

Fourth, friends cushion the blows that life deals. "Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken" (4:12). Friends galvanize each other for God-given crusades.

Friends help each other. Some of us like to give aid, but can hardly receive it. Friends cut through that pride: "You need my help and you are going to get it, like it or not." But perhaps the greatest help a friend gives is himself, companionship.

Sometimes a man needs another man.

Marriage and family are the principal avenues for companionship. When God created us, he created a married couple. Face to face, they expressed their love. Side by side they governed God's earth. God created Adam first and he worked alone for a time, but then God declared, "It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make a helper suitable for him" (Genesis 2:18). The marriage of Adam and Eve is more than a friendship, but not less. God ordained marriage to provide companionship and friendship. Happy couples tell each other, "You are my best friend."

Yet marriage can never fully satisfy the human longing for companionship. First, in America, nearly 40% of all adults over eighteen are single. Singles need companionship. Second, many marriages lack deep companionship. Third, even an ideal marriage cannot fulfill all of our needs for companionship. God did not intend one person to supply every social need. To expect a spouse to rejoice at each triumph, to weep at each setback, to converse helpfully upon each topic, is folly. It is an impossible standard, and approaches idolatry. Even married people need a circle of friends.

Even the happiest married man wants to talk to another man about some things. Suppose a businessman has begun to realize that he works long hours, in part, because he actually likes work more than family and leisure. At work, he is an important person. His words and decisions change things. People admire him and want to do him favors. But whenever he gets home, the children don't know "who he is." They are more interested in squabbling than in pleasing him and his wife wears that familiar "where have you been?" frown. A wise man will reveal this to his wife, but he might talk to a man who has faced the same problem first.

Sometimes we need to talk to someone of our gender. Suppose a woman of unspecified age looks in the mirror and says, "I am getting wrinkled, gray, fat and ugly." If she tells her husband, he may try to engineer a solution:

“You have very few wrinkles and gray hairs for your age, and besides you can dye your hair. And you're not fat, just a little overweight..."

But a woman doesn't want a four point analysis of her physical condition, she wants sympathy. She may get it from a woman who knows the melancholy sensation of watching beauty fade. Similarly, a man may think, "I have no friends." If he tells his wife, she may take it personally: "I thought I was your friend!" Or she may commiserate when he wants that four point analysis. It may be best to call an old buddy.

Sometimes a man needs a rebuke

We said friendships can degenerate into mutual admiration societies. But friends also have the capacity to cause creative discomfort. Do friends make us feel good about ourselves? Maybe, but true friends also inflict constructive misery on each other. Friends make us feel bad about ourselves if there is good reason for it. Certainly God, the model friend, stings in order to heal.

Friends correct each other; we listen to each other. Words that would seem judgmental from a stranger are loving counsel when a friend speaks. Proverbs says, "Iron sharpens iron" and sometimes the sparks fly (27:17). Again, "Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Wounds from a friend can be trusted" (27:5-6). Again, "The pleasantness of one's friend springs from his earnest counsel" (27:9).

Once my wife and I visited friends who had moved to another state. Carol had allergies somewhat like mine and was eager to share how she got relief by changing her diet. I am skeptical about all-rice diets and such, so I tried to deflect Carol with a light-hearted remark about oat chaff riding to our rescue. Everyone laughed, but Carol glared. Eyes blazing she cut me off. "I see what you're doing, Dan. You don't believe a word I'm saying, but you're too polite to say so, so you make it into a little joke, like you always do. You don't have to do what I'm saying, but at least listen. It just might help you." What a friend.

OK, so friendship is good. But what does Scripture say about the way to be a good friend and the way to avoid the problems. We need a model of friendship.

The God-centered model for friendship

We tend to focus on friendships described in the Bible: David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi, Jesus and his disciples. There are also a few verses on friendship in Proverbs. From these examples and statements, some people list some virtues titled "The Traits of a Friend." It can be legalistic: "A good friend is faithful, righteous and loving, willing to sacrifice and willing to rebuke. If you want to please God and your friends, do these things.

Let's call that Nike Christianity - Just do it. But we forget the gospel when we quote rules and simply say, "Do this and this, that and that." The problem is we cannot follow the rules in our own strength, as Proverbs itself says (3:7-12).

We must ground friendship in something besides duty. That "something" is the nature of God, the archetypal friend. He shows us how to be a friend, he also remakes us so we can be friends like him (Romans 8:29, Ephesians 4:22-24). He grants us ability to do what the Bible says.

The Bible calls God a friend of his people on five occasions. They reveal the central traits of God as friend: self-disclosure and helpful presence. This is clear in God's dealings with Abraham, the "friend of God" (2 Chronicles 20:7, James 2:23).

In Genesis 18, the angel of the Lord visited Abraham and Sarah when they were old. The angel announced that he would help them, that Sarah would bear the child God had promised twenty-five years earlier. The angel shared a meal with them and confronted their doubts. So he also reveals himself to them.

The Bible also calls Moses the friend of God, in Exodus 33:7-11. As a friend, God helped Moses lead Israel out of Egypt. God also practices self-disclosure. When Israel left Egypt, the Lord instructed Israel to build a "tent of meeting," a special place of prayer. Many prayed and visited the tent, but when Moses went, God visited him in a shining cloud and the Lord spoke to "Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (33:11). Later, the Lord discloses himself more fully: "The Lord is the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving...sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished (34:6-7)."

Jesus also shows the traits of friendships, self-disclosure and helpful presence. His disciples were his friends. He says, "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you" (John 15:13-15].

Of course, God's friendship with Israel is different from typical human friendships. No human friendship is so one-sided.

Beyond help and disclosure, noble friendships feature some "third thing" – a secret, insight, cause, or passion that unites them. Two children may become friends because both are misfits. But usually there is more. C. S. Lewis:

“Friendship arises [when] companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share… The typical expression of opening friendship would be something like, "What? You too? I thought I was the only one."

So human friendship is more than a mutual aid society. Friends share a secret, an enthusiasm, a cause, not just a task. They have a common insight about how the world is and a common dream about how it ought to be. It goes deeper than common goals like winning a game or a war or a profit. It includes a vision for a way of life.

Once we know the pattern for friendship, we can read Proverbs, not as a checklist of duties, but how we live faithfully as friends. So: "A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity" (17:17). There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother (18:24).

Everyone needs friends who are helpful and open. These are the core of real friendship. But there also are forces that work against friendships today.

The ways of men and the ways of women.

Let's contrast the ways of men and women. Most observers agree that women are more serious about friendship than men. 1. Women are "gifted for intimacy." They seek friendships and work at them. If you doubt this, tour a card shop and find the section labeled "Friendship." A typical man does not know this section exists because he sends cards only when he must, plucking something from his wife's card drawer if possible. He has never sent a "Friendship" card. Women send friendship cards to each other when there is no birthday, anniversary, birth or illness to demand it. Friendship cards say, "As I sipped my coffee this morning, I thought of you" or "I am glad you are my friend." There are no "Friendship" cards for men. No one has launched a line of "Buddy Cards" that begin "As I sipped my beer, I thought of you."

Little girls are like their mothers. They hold hands. They talk on the phone about "us." They send notes that say, "You are my very best friend." If little boys sent notes like that, at best, their friends would hit them.

I do not believe women outdo men in every way. If the male quest for strength decays into autonomy, the female quest for socialization can decay into enmeshment and co-dependency. Women can form cliques, become jealous and gossipy. They can become enmeshed. If one becomes miserable, the other literally commiserates and becomes miserable too. Yet, on the whole, women care more and have more constructive friendships than men.

By comparison, men are careless about friendships. We form them almost accidentally. When men work together, it hardly matters who their partners are, as long as they work hard and get along.

Suppose a man named John goes to a basketball court looking for a pickup game. John only hopes to get on the court with players who know how to play as a team. Within minutes, John finds that he can communicate with a teammate, Mike, with a glance, a nod or a single word: "Middle!" or "Outlet!"

Next week, John is glad to be on Mike's team again. The fourth week, Mike and John arrange to be on the same team as sides are chosen. Soon, John and Mike are talking after the game. Seven months, Mike has to move. The next week, John goes to play ball, without Mike and it hits him, "I miss Mike…. he was my friend." So men fall into friendships almost by accident.

For both men and women, many relationships are one-dimensional. At work, we talk about work. In the neighborhood, they talk about children, backyards, and cars. At church we talk about the faith.

One-dimensional relationships aren't all bad. We know so many people that most relationships must be shallow. But something is wrong if we have nothing but one-dimensional relationships, if we relate to others strictly according to the function we have in each other's life.

We can compare relationships by considering the twin traits of self-disclosure and helpful presence and comparing them to God as friend. 2

Good Old Boys: Presence without self-disclosure: Good old boys drink beer and swap stories. They have stayed together through thick and thin. Good old boys are there when you need them, but they never express affection. "If you have to say it, you don't have it." Feelings? There be dragons there.

One point friends: Limited presence, limited disclosure: One point friends have one thing in common – work, sports, politics. They work on that one thing, talk about that one thing, and rarely move further. They may hug or weep when they reach a common goal - winning a big game or sharing a big adventure. But otherwise they stay at arm's length - literally.

Leader and follower: One has needs, the other gives help: If one man exceeds the other in something that's vital to both, the superior becomes the leader. One is "the man," the other, the sidekick. Or one is mentor, the other the disciple. The follower reveals needs, the leader grants help, but they are never equals.

Genuine friends: Helpful presence and self-disclosure: Genuine friendship may begin with one-dimension. But then something happens. Perhaps they share an aspiration, a vocation or a struggle. They wonder, "Is there more here than I realized?" We can become one point friends in a day. But real self-disclosure is slow, often hard. It entails risk, but the investment is worthwhile.

Friendships take time. If you need a friend, take on a project with someone. As you work on something together, take a small step toward self-disclosure. As friendship begins, you will admire his or her strengths. But we seal a friendship when we see the character flaws and continue the relationship anyway.

Obstacles to friendship

In our culture, millions of men are friendly, but have no friends. We know thousands and one hundred could be a friend, but somehow no one is a friend. Let's call friendly associations "post-it note relationships" – there is a mild adhesive and it's easily broken. Society undermines deeper relationships in many ways:

For men, and sometimes for women, there is a desire to be seen as strong, self-sufficient. We endure pain, we suffer in silence, we rely on ourselves and don't confess our weaknesses.

This silence, self-reliance is contrary to the gospel. The Bible says the wise man builds his house on the rock. That rock is Christ, not our wisdom, strength, or resources.

The good provider's accent on earning pushes men to work so long, time elapses for relationships. More insidious, the good provider model promotes willingness to go anywhere, any time to find a better job and fosters the dark side of mobility.

Mobility is part of the freedom we treasure, but it weakens the long, regular contact real friendships need. Yes: cell phones and Skype let us retell the triumphs and sorrows - the big game, unbearable boss, impossible task. Friendships survive but rarely thrive at a thousand miles. Mobility means loss of roots. As we haul up the anchors of family and history, we can try to reinvent ourselves. Family and friends are not there to remind us of the best and worst of who we are.

Mobility isn't intrinsically immoral, but we must resist the careerism and materialism that jumps too quickly at job opportunities or flattery, "You are just the man we need." Friends remind us that the perfect job doesn't exist.

For friendship

We can see why friendship has failed to thrive in Christian communities. Obstacles abound. Friendship suffers from comparisons to divine love. The church promotes fellowship, familial mindset, where everyone accepts everyone. Yet God has also blessed it and modeled closer, deeper relationships – friendships as part of the life of life. Friends help us make commitments and stick to them. We learn to listen, to empathize, to expose our dreams and fears to loving scrutiny. Friendship cures the loneliness of the single and the "gender loneliness" of the married. David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi show how friends teach each other, how they spur each other on toward good deeds.

God as friend. Discloses and helps

Certain spiritual lessons are best taught by friends. Friends warn of hidden weaknesses and encourage hidden strengths. Their confidence impels us to take risks for the kingdom, to uncover buried talents. Friendship provides companionship, taking pressure off marriage. Friends help us walk with God through their wise counsel and godly example. They bring comfort in affliction and adversity and joy in successes. If you believe all this, then pursue it.

1 Brestin, Dee. Friendships of Women, 1989.
2 Balswick. Men at Crossroads, p. 177-184