Number Our Days
Yesterday, two different people sent me a video from a Texas “apostle” informing his audience that the country will soon be under martial law. He has this on good authority from those “in the know” in Washington, D. C. The video, according to one source, had more than 300k views at the time of this writing. I have never heard of this fellow. Just how my two contacts, one from Georgia and the other, a local from the Twin Cities, came across the video is unclear. But it is apparently making the rounds. I choose not to post a link to the video lest I increase his audience and its attendant fearmongering. It is alarmist at best and really not helpful from a professed minister of the Gospel.
However, much has happened in the last week, from the storming of the United States Capitol building, seemingly with support from the highest levels of government to the banning of POTUS from Facebook and Twitter—a response I can both understand but profoundly regret. What happened on Wednesday, January 6, 2021, will go down in history as a low point in American life. Regardless of who one voted for in the election, this sort of response is hardly consistent with the American way, at least not in our relatively brief national history. I say “brief” as the United States is not yet two hundred and fifty years old. Ours is a short history when compared with China, whose national recorded identity goes back to the Shang Dynasty, more than 1000 years B. C.
America is a fragile nation which self-regulates. Paul Harvey reminded his audience nearly twenty years ago at the 2003 Landon Lecture that “Self-government won’t work without self-discipline.” We, the people, elect our leaders and we voluntarily choose to follow them. If we don’t submit to our system of government, then anarchy will result, bringing our fragile society to an end. Tragically, five people died as a consequence of the mob, with one being a Capitol police officer whose death seems to be attributed to the lawlessness. Yes, we have the right to keep and bear arms, but if we as a nation would choose to bear those arms against each other, the Civil War with its 600,000 plus deaths would pale in comparison with what might occur. The Battle of Gettysburg which took place on a small patch of ground outside the town of Gettysburg had about 180,000 combatants meet for three days in July 1863. There were 50,000 casualties—dead, wounded, missing or captured. More died after the battle than during it. God forbid we descend into this kind of civil strife. God forbid that the time comes when we, the people, think that bearing arms is the only way to stop what we think is going wrong. We are now engaged in another national discussion over the impeachment of a president—the second of his term coupled with a serious discussion of invoking the 25th amendment. Where all this will end, only God knows. God be merciful.
The other issue raised recently that is very lamentable is the banning of POTUS from Twitter and Facebook for inflammatory remarks. To add insult to injury Amazon, Google and Apple have all banned Parler from their platforms. Parler is a conservative social media app (which I do not use), said to be favored by the President’s supporters, and is now suing Amazon for its action. Indeed, Americans have the right to freedom of speech (the First Amendment to the Constitution), but that freedom does not extend to shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre without cause. A shout of fire may save lives if there is a fire, but it may cost lives in the ensuing panic if there isn’t one. So, did the President and some of his supporters shout fire or not? Many think he did. But the banning of POTUS completely from these social media platforms sets a dangerous precedent about which Christians should be concerned. If someone can inhibit the free speech of another, what does this do for people with religious conviction? We can see this already in countries like China where religious people (Christians, Muslims, and others) have their religious liberties controlled or limited by the government regularly. News came out today of Pastor Li Juncai who was given a five-year prison sentence and a fine equivalent to $32,400 for the crime of “objecting to the CCP’s (Chinese Communist Party) forcible cross removal and refusing to change a church proclamation ‘Love God and people’ to ‘Love the country.’” Sounds, in part, like a free speech issue, but China is not known for free speech.
Does all this sound like I am becoming a doom and gloom prophet? Is there not a cause, you say? Shouldn’t someone be “ready to ride and spread the alarm to every Middlesex village and farm, for the country folk to be up at arm?” (from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” (1861).
Hold the phone . . . wait a minute . . . take a deep breath! Did God suddenly fall asleep? Our trust as Christians is not in the political process, though we are deeply affected by it. Our hope is not in the next election or the next president or in our ability to defend ourselves. Maybe the preacher I mentioned at the beginning of this essay is correct and we will all be living under martial law within the month. I personally doubt this. But I’m not a prophet. Let’s assume for a moment that this is what’s going to happen. What could I possibly do to prevent it? Think of Daniel and the threat by civil authorities NOT to pray to any other god but Darius. What did he do? Did he panic or fret? He opened his window, and prayed toward Jerusalem, “just as he always had done” (Dan. 6:10). Nothing changed for him. He went on in quiet confidence, trusting God for the outcome. He was arrested and sentenced to death. We know “the rest of the story” to quote Paul Harvey again. God closed the mouths of the lions and gave Daniel a peaceful night’s rest, in contrast to the king who had a very bad night (v. 18).
We are warned that things are going to get worse before they get better, that “evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived” (2 Tim. 3:13). This doesn’t sound real promising. But Christians are on the winning side. We may not know the future, but we know who holds it. God controls the one who sits on the throne (Dan. 2:21) and God can bend a ruler’s heart to accomplish His divine will even against the ruler’s personal will (Prov. 21:1). Things that men mean for evil, God turns to good (Gen 50:20). This is my Father’s world! Let’s trust Him for tomorrow and focus on His will for us today!
One final comment regarding recent events. There has been some lampooning of these events on various social media platforms by Christians leaders. I get our penchant for humor; it can be a stress reliever. But I wonder is humor the best way to address these incidents? Humor has its place to be sure and I am not assuming that those who use humor are bad. I just appeal for caution here. We need to cry out to God for mercy . . . One man suggested that his church didn’t have a service as usual on Sunday but a prayer meeting. I applaud that as an appropriate response to such a national tragedy. May his tribe increase! I have been asked to fill a pulpit this coming Sunday. No matter what happens this week, the message will likely not be light-hearted. Hope-filled? Yes, but humorous, probably not. We need to call people’s attention to our soon coming King. Are they ready to meet Him? Are we ready? Even so, Come Lord Jesus!
The world is still in the midst of a global pandemic of significant proportions. I say significant for the COVID pandemic because this is not as serious a global problem as similar events that have been faced in human history. The Spanish flu killed an estimated fifty million people worldwide in 1918-1920 and maybe as many as one hundred million at a time when the world population was less than two billion. The US experienced 675,000 deaths when the population was just over 106 million. At week 52 of 2020, the COVID global death toll stood at about 1.77 million, a sad number indeed but not proportionate to the figures of one hundred years ago. Still the problem is serious. The statistics cannot express the grief and devastation the current pandemic has caused in human terms.
There may be any number of factors that account for the differences in morbidity between 1920 and 2020. Our current state of medical advance accounts for important reductions in potential deaths over the earlier pandemic. Things are not as bad as they could be, and the world is generally better equipped to handle disease than a century ago. The US life expectancy reached 78.8 in 2015, while it was less than 60 one hundred years ago. The race for a vaccine for COVID seems to be nearing the finish line. This is welcome news for many as the world awaits a return to normalcy, whatever normalcy may be in the coming months. Still, the threat currently posed by the virus versus the importance of gathered worship is part of the discussion driving the closure of churches worldwide.
Canadian Christians have been hard hit in these troubling days. Churches have been closed or services and gatherings reduced in number and frequency. The celebration of the ordinances, weddings, funerals, fellowships, and conferences have all taken some sort of hit, with many of these events cancelled or moved to online venues. But, there are some things that churches cannot do online. Thus, churches are faced with the dilemma of following government-issued orders, including reductions in meeting sizes and structure, e. g. no singing, or practicing civil disobedience. We know what Americans churches have done, but what about our northern friends?
This essay will not argue for or against the biblical or civil rationale of churches following or resisting government mandates. As a Canadian, I might have an opinion, but the goal of this article is simply to alert American believers of the shuttering of places of worship in Canada that seems to be more stringent than similar closures in the United States. Many believers have followed the events at Grace Community Church and their defiance of Los Angeles mandates. That story is still unfolding. However, many American evangelicals have limited or no knowledge of our northern brethren who are facing similar or more rigorous restrictions from various branches of the Canadian government. This is their story.
Having lived in Canada for nineteen years, I have a place in my heart for the “true north, strong and free.” I served in ministries in three provinces and have visited all of them except the Yukon, a territory. Canada is a beautiful country with a rich history but politically, it is less conservative than the United States. The province of Ontario, where our final Canadian ministry occurred, has been under a very tight lockdown recently. One of my Windsor friends told me that families not of the same household were barred from celebrating Christmas together or face fines of $800, a penalty that would make family gatherings expensive for many. Churches, on the other hand, have had significant restrictions for some time. Currently, funerals, weddings and religious services are limited to ten people, whether the meetings occur indoors or outdoors. These rules have been in place to varying degrees since the early days of the pandemic. Many went online to stay connected with their congregations. Then when churches were allowed to gather, limitations were written to require social distancing and the mask mandate. Churches were prohibited from singing. One former church had a preaching service on Sunday mornings and then held a brief outdoor song service, in an effort to comply with government orders.
While the internet allows pastors to maintain some connection with their congregations, there is nothing ideal about virtual church. Is this even church? Even if churches can do some things on the internet, they cannot do others. Celebrating the ordinances is difficult, even if it can be argued that this is acceptable. I know many churches have celebrated communion online, encouraging those who wish to participate to gather the elements at home and then partake when watching virtually. Some churches have told their members to take whatever they have at hand to use as elements. It need not be unleavened bread or the fruit of the vine. The nature of the elements is less important than the ceremony itself. Still, many churches will not offer communion in any fashion other than at corporate, in-person gatherings. Thus, churches feel overly restricted when they are barred from singing and the ordinances, both viewed as essential parts of corporate worship. Believers languish for want of the fellowship and encouragement that face-to-face assembly brings. Additionally, some groups (e. g. Old Order Mennonites), don’t use technology and aren’t too concerned for the provincial rules.
All of this has taken a toll on Canadian churches. Some leaders have been pushing back. In May, Ontario pastors sent a letter to the premier, Doug Ford, and launched a website designed to explain their position on the importance of opening churches during this pandemic. More than four hundred and forty churches have signed the letter. The Orthodox Jewish community of Toronto also expressed concern about the synagogue closures as parts of their ritual require the faithful to assemble. In September, a small group of Canadian pastors drafted The Niagara Declaration on religious liberty. One of these pastors is concerned that Canada is “on the brink” of “criminalizing Christianity.” (N.B. An issue before the House of Commons now, unrelated to COVID-19, is “conversion therapy.” If Bill C-6 passes, it will significantly impact how Christians address the issue of “gender identity.” This is seen by believers as a religious liberty issue.)
More recently, a protest was held at Queen’s Park, the location of Ontario’s Parliament building, drawing several hundred people representing churches concerned about the restrictions. A few churches have lately been gathering in defiance of government mandates because they feel they have the right to assemble granted in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (equivalent to our Bill of Rights). Last Wednesday, the six elders of Trinity Bible Chapel of Waterloo, Ontario were issued summonses by the Waterloo Regional Police for violating government restrictions. The elders posted a public statement declaring their intention to practice civil disobedience and now face fines of up to $10,000 each. The pastor, Jacob Reaume released a statement on New Year’s Eve explaining the church’s position.
Trinity Bible is not alone in their opposition. Aaron Rock, lead pastor of Harvest Bible Church of Windsor, Ontario, now faces a fine of between $750 and $100,000 for breaking the rules during Christmas week. Harvest issued its own statement. The church planned a Christmas Eve service but was informed that congregants would be barred from the building if they attempted to enter. Similar situations are occurring elsewhere in Canada. A pastor in Aylmer, Ontario has been charged and is facing severe fines for repeatedly defying government guidelines. Yesterday, community members held a drive-in protest to express displeasure over the church holding drive-in services. Individuals connected with Mennonite churches in Leamington, Ontario were likewise charged last week with breaching provincial COVID rules. In early December, Spring Church of Winnipeg was fined more than $32,000 for holding drive-in services. Also charged in early December was the Church of God, Sarto, Manitoba. Another Edmonton pastor was recently cited for the church’s breach in COVID rules. In October, a Saskatchewan church was fined. In British Columbia’s Fraser Valley, the RCMP issued fines in excess of $18,000 to three churches for breaking provincial COVID rules. Just today, the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedom announced that it would represent some of these churches in their efforts to maintain public worship.
The sentiments expressed by the above pastors and churches have caused division among the Canadian evangelical community. The Gospel Coalition has posted a number of essays that engage the issue. Things are delicate when judging between duties to earthly authorities and to God. Paul Carter, lead pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Orillia, Ontario, has a helpful statement on civil disobedience not unlike the statement that came out of 9Marks last year. Other essays may be found here and here. Professor Emeritus Stan Fowler of Heritage College and Seminary posted a short response to the protests arguing against the actions being taken by the protesting pastors and congregations.
Where all of these Christian interactions and legal matters will end up is uncertain. The Canadian Church is divided on what should be done. The legal system has been decidedly more progressive than their American counterpart for years. Will the various levels of government in Canada be successful in efforts to enforce church compliance? Churches among our northern neighbours may be forced to close because of their inability to pay heavy fines. A $100,000 fine is more than most churches could possibly pay. Will these levies become a big cudgel in the hands of civil authorities to bring churches to heel? This is not simply an issue of what is in the best interest of the public, but what is allowed by law. American churches have received some legal relief in their battle to stay open. It is to be hoped that our brethren in the north will find similar support. Canada cannot afford to lose even one church under the heavy hand of government. God be merciful.
What about Christian protest in Canada? This is not likely to occur on a large scale over this issue. I remember a rally I attended on the steps of the Edmonton legislature in the mid-1980s when Calgary pastor Larry Jones was arrested for violating Alberta’s Schools Act for homeschooling his children without government permission. There was a call for public protest, but only about two dozen people attended, mostly Alberta pastors. After a meeting between the deputy premier and the president of a Christian school group, Jones was released. The matter eventually went before Canada’s Supreme Court with Jones losing, but the court telling the province that they must “delicately and sensitively weigh the competing interests so as to respect as much as possible the religious convictions as guaranteed by the Charter.”
Will Canadian churches receive relief as these fines make their way through the legal system? Should they get relief? One pastor told me that Christians and churches in his area are largely in agreement with the government rules. Still, some churches oppose them. These are difficult days for the church in Canada. There is significant diversity among provinces regarding COVID’s impact and government policy. Churches in the eastern provinces are currently more open than churches from Ontario west. Just how far churches should go in civil obedience is a matter of contention. With respect to sanctifying one day over another, Paul concluded “each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5). The same must surely be true regarding government compliance versus civil disobedience. Let’s us pray for the grace of God on our northern neighbours! Even so, Lord, come quickly!
Well, technically we didn’t lose it, at least not in the sense of misplacing it. For many in our world, 2020 was their final year of life and a good many worldwide died of COVID-19. If you are still in the land of the living and can read this essay, then, you didn’t lose 2020, although the year might not have unfolded as you expected. Last January, who would have imagined how the year would progress? 2020 was a year of loss for nearly everyone. As we put it behind us, we remember what we have lost, but we also need to reflect on what we have gained. The title of the blog is “So Teach Us to Number Our Days,” Psalm 90:12. If there was ever a time to “number our days,” surely now is that time. Today’s meditation will be divided into two sections— reminders of what we lost and reflections on what we gained. Hopefully, these thoughts will help to prepare us for what lies ahead in 2021.
First, 2020 was definitely a year of profound loss. Starting with the global COVID-19 pandemic that began in February in the United States, the cost in human life has been nothing short of tragic. Sure, some people would have died anyway. In 2016 for example, there were just under 2,750,000 deaths in the United States. A chart from the CDC lists the ten leading causes of death, with heart disease listed first at 165.5 deaths per 100,000 people. According to the Center for Disease Control’s most recent figures, of the 340,000+ US deaths attributed to COVID, 94% had at least one comorbidity listed on the death certificate. The reality is that we will never know why some people died, but clearly, COVID contributed to many deaths, at least in part. We lost family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, fellow-citizens. There is no way of knowing whether or not these people might have died from something else (a car accident, a stray bullet, a house fire, or some other “random tragic event”). But COVID took its toll on human life. Whether or not COVID was manmade, it is clearly a part of the curse. Sin left its marks on humanity. Death and disease are surely among the effects of the curse.
We also lost much more than life through COVID. Most of those who passed lost the comfort of family, families lost the presence of loved ones, funerals were either suspended or had limited attendance. The grief of death caused many to lose the joy of life. Everyday existence was impacted. People lost jobs; businesses closed, many permanently; weddings were postponed or limited. Travel plans were disrupted. My son and his family arrived home from Africa just ahead of the pandemic and lost nearly all of their planned travels to reconnect with supporters and raise additional support. Christians lost closeness with churches. Even for churches with online meetings, much was missing—fellowship, encouragement, presence. Thanksgiving and Christmas were downsized or celebrated in atypical ways. Businesses that didn’t close lost income, forcing employees to seek other ways of meeting personal expenses. Children lost their educational normalcy. Sports programs were cancelled or reduced. Parents had to assume the educational leadership over their children, having their own lives and careers disrupted. The list could be expanded. . . . There may even have been an increase in suicide rates stemming from the stress that the pandemic produced and more suicides may follow in its aftermath. 2020 was a year of profound loss. Many readers know about our own personal losses. This has been a very hard year.
So, why reflect on what we have lost at all? Why rehearse the pain? While we mourn the losses of 2020, and we may for years to come, we need to turn our hearts toward God and consider what we gained. This fading year was not simply about our losses. There has been much that we should have gained through all this calamity. Remember, what is happening in us is more important than what is happening to us! As we stand on the threshold of a new year, shouldn’t we ponder what we have gained, whether we appreciate it or not?
Among the primary things we should have gained is a new appreciation for life, realizing just how fragile it really is. At any time, our life could be extinguished, and it would be gone. James 4:14 declares that life is like a vapour—here and then absent, oh so quickly. It is interesting that James does not liken life to a sunset . . . slowly fading and gradually setting. For many, life seems to end this way. James uses a powerful simile to describe what really occurs—life is “like a vapour”—your breath on a cold winter’s morning or the steam from a tea kettle, here and then gone. Oh Lord, “teach us to number our days . . .” May believers learn to more fully trust in you. COVID is an unseen foe from which we really cannot defend ourselves—not with masks or social distancing or PPEs or even vaccines. All of these things may help, but you, oh Lord, are ultimately sovereign over all our days. Help us to trust in you.
Further, it should be remembered anew that all have an appointment which will not be missed, no matter how hard some may try. It is an appointment with death to meet the Creator. It is a divine appointment. “It is appointed” unto humans to die and after this the judgment (Hebrews 9:27). Several things are evident in this text. First, this is an appointment made for us, over which we have little control. This is not fatalism. Fatalism isn’t a part of our world. God is the one who made the world; He is the one who sustains it. This is His world. Everything in His world works according to His divine direction (Eph 1:11). Since He made the world and all things that are a part of it, He appoints what happens in His world. Death is certain and applies to the living—all humans have this appointment. Also learned from this text is that death is not the end of things—death is followed by judgment—after this (death), there is judgment. There is both hope and warning in this text. For the believer, what happens to us in this world pales when compared with what awaits us in the next world. The believer enters into their rest in the presence of the Lord. All COVID can do is kill us. Don’t be foolish but neither be fearful. Eternal rest awaits. For the non-believer, there is warning. To die unprepared is to die without hope and without God. Once death comes, things are set. No change is possible. Decisions made in life are finalized at death. There can be no post-mortem salvation. You cannot buy auto insurance after you’ve had your accident, expecting the insurance to pay for the accident. So we, the living, yet have time to prepare. “So teach us to number our days . . .” Our days are limited. We need to live our lives as if we are on borrowed time, for we truly are. Often when I begin my personal prayer, I thank God for “another day of grace.” May I truly be thankful for another day, a day of grace, divine grace, a day to live and serve the Saviour! Oh Lord, thank you for 2020! Thank you for allowing me and my family to come through this most difficult year. Because you have granted me grace, there must be yet more for me to do for you. May I be faithful to pursue your will . . . to the end. Deo volente!
Living in a Facebook world is to live in a world with hundreds of “friends,” many more relationships than people can manage. Rather than thinking of them as friends, it would be better to consider them acquaintances, business associates, clients, relatives, schoolmates, or whatever they really are. They certainly aren’t friends in the biblical sense of the term, though doubtless among the number of connections, some may be true friends. I know when I look at my list, I see names I don’t recognize, nor can I recall how we are connected or when we connected on FB. I have argued that a friend in the biblical sense of the term, is one who will stand with us in the hour of our need. A friend is not afraid to give us a kidney or take a bullet for us. There will be some tangible expression of the depth of the friendship that will eventually manifest itself. Jesus declared (John 15:13) that one who gives his life for a friend manifests the greatest kind of love. We could understand this in the literal sense—to give up one’s life through death to save another or in the metaphoric sense—to give one’s life completely in service for another. Either way, both are expressions of true friendship and great love.
So, is the opposite also true? If one is unwilling to expend themselves for another, either literally or metaphorically, is this a marker of a false friend? Well, it is clearly shows the lack of depth in the relationship. I would do most anything for my wife, but less for someone else’s wife. It’s just the way it is. As a Christian, my commitment to my wife should be deeper than my commitment to any other earthly person. This commitment is to be expected in marriage. The caveat here is that Jesus warned us against loving something more than Him (Matt 10:37).
However, a person who will not carry your torch (see my essay last week), who will not give you a kidney if they could and you needed one, really isn’t your friend. This doesn’t mean you cannot have a relationship with this person if you choose, but don’t expect much in the relationship because not much is offered. You may enjoy a cup of coffee or watching a football game with them, but in the crucible of testing, the person will be like Job’s friends . . . he or she will sit back and watch you suffer without doing much to help. The “friend” may even add to the testing by criticizing you for real or imagined error on your part. You do not need more criticism. You need help in the crisis. Alas, no real help will come.
So, how do you cultivate true friends? What should you do to foster a true friend among your relationships? How do you choose someone to be a friend to? How do you maintain friendships across the miles and time? These are interesting questions that I am not sure can be answered in a simple essay. But let’s try to think through some of these issues.
How do you choose a person with whom to cultivate a true friendship? First, is this something that can actually be done in an early connection? You make acquaintances, develop associations, learn of interests, goals, aspirations, opinions, fears, and personal details as you develop relationships. Potential friends begin to emerge as you spend time together. Over time, and in the good providence of God, He brings people into your lives with whom you will have a deep and abiding relationship. Something will click. Not mystically or magically. When I met my wife in the 9th grade, I did not “fall head over heels in love with her.” She certainly didn’t “fall head over heels in love with me” either. We were not really impressed with each other when we first met. Over the next seven years, we grew to become friends and eventually married.
There are some people with whom you can never develop a true friendship. I was asked recently about my acquaintance with a certain academic. I replied that I hardly knew him. I had had a number of opportunities to be in his presence. I heard him speak on numerous occasions and had meals with others that included this fellow. The more I was around him, the less I felt like we would be friends. In every conversation of which we were both a part, he was the focal point of the discussion. Some in the group had known him a long time, but he seldom asked his conversation partners about their journeys. He loved to regale his auditors about his personal stories, his exploits, his life, but seldom was the conversation redirected toward others. It was weird. Who wants to sit around and talk about themselves most of the time? This chap seemed to do this very thing. I don’t think it would be possible to develop a true friendship with him because he did not seem interested in others, only in himself. If we are not careful, we can all be a bit self-centered. You hear your acquaintance tell a fish story; you jump into the conversation with a story about a bigger fish. If you want to be a true friend, you have to listen and learn; you need to seek meaningful conversations. These take hard work in the early stages and through the course of the friendship. You cannot be the center of attention in every conversation. Moreover, some conversations may be unpleasant. Prov. 27:6 reminds us that the wounds of a friend are faithful, while the enemy is profuse with kisses (ESV). Sometimes a friend needs to speak truth into another friend’s life. Are you willing to hear such words or give such words if necessary? With a true friend, you can give and receive these words knowing that their purpose is biblical.
If you seek to be a true friend to others, potential true friends will begin to manifest themselves as you discover common sensibilities. The more you have in common, the greater the potential there will be for true friendship. Therefore, seeking like-minded individuals may be a place to start but it will take work to cultivate and maintain a true friendship. Want true friends? Be a true friend (Prov. 18:24).
As far as picking friends, you should always choose your friends carefully. A young woman or man probably should not date a person they wouldn’t wish to marry. Isn’t dating the way you decide the one you might consider marrying? Perhaps, but a young adult doesn’t merely select a prospect out of a photo array without knowing something of the individual in advance. Especially in college, the dating game should be played with the realization that dating is for keeps. You may be dating your future BFF (best friend forever), so choose wisely. One of the things that drew me to my wife was her commitment to Christ. She wanted to serve Him with all her heart. I felt that she was going the same way in life as I was. Would God have us travel life’s road together? After forty years of ministry, we rejoice that this was definitely God’s will for our lives! But it took us nine years to figure this out!
Friendships emerge over the course of time and life. Your journey intersects another person’s life, and you find yourself making common cause with them in ways that draw the two of you together. Some of my best friends today are men that I went to college with more than forty years ago. We were roommates, worked out together in the gym, took classes together, went on ministry trips together, and went into ministry about the same time. We also shared difficulties together, facing similar hardships or obstacles. The trials brought us closer for conversation and prayer. We wept together and rejoiced together over the years. The longer you associate with someone, the more likely that the two of you will find joy and fellowship together. I use the term fellowship here, which is the Greek word κοινωνία. It means “holding things in common.” Php 1:5 Paul commends the Philippians for their participation in the Gospel (ESV). Kοινωνία is more than going to a ballgame with a group of people. Fellowship may or may not occur at a ballgame but simply having Christians go as a group to an event doesn’t constitute fellowship. Kοινωνία occurs when there is purposeful effort made to edify or build up one another. This does not mean that for a ballgame to be fellowship, it must be accompanied by a Bible study, but there does need to be spiritual purpose in the activity. True friendship for a Christian must include κοινωνία. James 2:23 marks Abraham as a friend of God because he had κοινωνία with God. David expresses the same κοινωνία with God in Psalm 34. True friendship includes κοινωνία—with God and with others. God gives us people with whom we can have κοινωνία.
Need a friend? Joseph M. Scriven, in 1855, was living in Ontario, Canada. He wrote a poem to his mother who was ill in Ireland to encourage her. The poem, “Pray Without Ceasing,” was later set to music and became “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” What a blessing to know that Jesus is our true friend, no matter how earthly relationships unfold.
It should come as no surprise that to last week’s essay, several friends responded positively on Facebook. Today I continue to explore the biblical idea of friend and my reasons for writing about this topic.
When I first became an evangelical, I did so in the Southern Baptist world. I was baptized in an SBC church in Marietta, Georgia about 1972. It was my first exposure to Christianity remotely biblical, although this earliest touch was less evangelical than I would eventually become acquainted with. In the providence of God, in December 1973, I met a pastor from Indiana who had start a youth camp. He asked me to come as a camp counselor. He was the uncle of a fellow youth group member and an independent Baptist, although I had no idea what that was. He needed help and I wanted to go. I think he also viewed me as a “project.” His motto for the camp—“it is easier to build boys and girls than to repair men and women.” Coming from a broken home, I needed all the help I could get.
I found myself in a new world, the world of churches identified with the Sword of the Lord then under the editorship of John R Rice. The pastor had been saved following military service in Korea. He was a printer by trade and came to Christ in his thirties. Sensing a call to ministry, he attended Indiana Baptist College, founded in 1955 by Ford Porter. After graduation, he took a church out of which he eventually planned to start a home for boys and girls in crisis but started the camp instead, today Hoosier Hills Baptist Camp. He was a follower of men like Lee Roberson of Tennessee Temple, so that summer (1974), we attended the Sword of the Lord conference, held at the Convention Center in Indianapolis. I heard for the first-time men like Jack Hyles, Lee Roberson, Tom Malone, John Rawlings, Jerry Falwell, Curtis Hudson and others. I still have the New Scofield Bible that these Christian “giants” signed. What else would I do? As a seventeen-year-old new to “old-time Gospel preaching”, I watched others line up after the services to secure the signature of the preacher of the hour. I figured it was the thing to do.
What does all this have to do with friendship? It was from a preacher of note in this world that I heard a statement on friendship that has stuck with me—“I will be a friend to my friends!” The slogan may seem redundant and it didn’t affect me much when I first heard it but as I grew in the Lord and began to study for the ministry, I discovered that not all friends were equal. There were friends and there were friends. As a Bible college student, I met many like-minded men and women with whom I could converse about a wide variety of subjects. Over time, there were a few with whom I became closely associated and we went deeper in our relationship. We prayed together and talked about the future in ways that suggested we were headed in the same direction, not necessarily to the same location but the same general direction in giving our lives to the Lord. We encouraged each other in our Christian walk, challenged each other’s foolish ideas, and supported each other in our ministry pursuits.
In 1978, I graduated and stayed on to do grad work. By then, my circle of friends became both larger and smaller. I knew more people, but the number of people that would become life-long friends would be relatively small. (At least until the incursion of Facebook, et al. I just discovered MeWe!) We went our separate ways and seldom if ever saw each other in the years that followed. Some of these men sadly abandoned the faith. One guy that I thought of as particularly spiritual and who seemed to have a heart for missions has abandoned Christianity and become an atheist or similar. I discovered this through Facebook. But with other men, over the years, I have stayed in touch and we have served the Lord together when opportunities arose. To have a handful of friends with more than forty years of history is a rich blessing. Today, a former student emailed about keeping up with friends parted “by life circumstances,” geographically. How do you keep up? Do you keep up? By my reckoning, the friends that I have that are the closest to me as friends, are men I have known the longest and we are far removed from one another, even in different countries. But we remain “close” via email, text, social media, and by cell phone with the myriad of global calling options at little cost. No one has time to keep up at this level with hundreds of “friends.” So, you have to decide who the real friends are and invest time in maintaining those friendships and deepening them.
Therefore, what kind of friend would we actually be? With different people, the answer will be different. Unfortunately, one never really knows the measure of a friend until adversity arises, unless plans are laid to be a true friend with someone. You make acquaintances, but it takes time to cultivate a friendship. In Prov. 17:17 Solomon said “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.” I take brother here not in a biological sense but as a “comrade,” or “close friend.” You never really appreciate this friend until he walks with you through the fire. A true friend will take a bullet for you if need be.
This reminds me of two other statements that were made to me long ago. After a particularly difficult work association ended, I called upon an acquaintance for help, but because of his connection to the former group, he was reluctant to assist me. What would they think if he did? It wasn’t a question if I was worthy of being helped. He was concerned about his reputation with others if he helped me. When I pressed him, his response was “You expect a lot out of your friends.” He was saying at the time, there are friends and there a friends. “It is too risky for me to help you at this time.” I am happy to say that this relationship has deepened over the years. But the reality is that sometimes a friend needs a level of support that most are unwilling or unable to provide. This is when true friends stand out.
I remember another statement made about the same time by a different acquaintance. “I will never carry another man’s torch.” This is an interesting statement. Never? Really? You cannot think of any occasion where you would help a friend by picking up his torch and helping him? The metaphor suggests help holding a light, keeping it aloft. In Exodus 17, as Moses stood before the Amalekites with his arms raised, he grew weary, so Aaron and Hur came to his aid, holding his arms aloft. This helped secure the victory for Israel. There was no torch in this incident. But Moses required assistance. There are some things that a man or woman cannot do alone. We all need friends to help “carry our torches” or hold up our arms!
This statement was also made long ago. I hope my acquaintance would say things differently today. If no one ever carried another man’s torch, we’d never have any Medal of Honor recipients. The Medal of Honor is our country’s highest military award, given to individuals who selflessly do significant acts of heroics that save the lives of fellow soldiers. The Medal of Honor has even been awarded to a conscientious objector—someone who for reasons of personal conviction—would not carry a weapon in combat. Desmond Doss (1919–2006) received this recognition for saving between fifty and one hundred men during the battle of Okinawa in World War II. The movie Hacksaw Ridge was made about his life.
While this is a secular story, it should remind us of the best friend that we have—Jesus Christ. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Jesus spoke and modeled this to the world. He did for us what we could not do for ourselves. He carried our torch. He went to the cross to pay a debt he did not owe for a sinner who did not deserve his favor. He did this for me. What a model of friendship to imitate! To be a true friend is to be like Jesus. I recognize that not every acquaintance will become a true friend. Not everyone will carry our torch when we need it. Many won’t and some will walk away when help is needed. The price of helping is often high. God never leaves nor forsakes us (Joshua 1:5). Thank God for those who carry our torch. Do you have people in your life for whom you would carry a torch? If you don’t I wonder if you realize what you are missing? Jesus was friend to publicans and sinners. He died for them. Thank God he carried our sins to the cross!
How many “friends” do you have on Facebook? It’s not an uncommon question in this social media driven world. Currently, Facebook limits the number of “friends” you can connect with to only five thousand! Only five thousand? What am I going to do about the rest of my friends? Well, I don’t actually have five thousand friends. Or even eight hundred and seventy-five which is the number of connections I currently have on Facebook. I remember when Facebook began back in 2004 as a Harvard student connection. In sixteen years, it has become the largest social media site in the universe, well, in the world anyway.
Started by Mark Zuckerberg and his Harvard roommates, it soon expanded beyond Harvard to other Ivy League schools. By 2006, anyone over the age of thirteen with a valid email address could join. Now with over 2.7 billion users worldwide, it limits “friends” to five thousand. But no one actually has five thousand “friends” though they may have that many connections! Someone might have five thousand followers, or five thousand contacts, or five thousand acquaintances, or five thousand supporters, or she can garner a list of five thousand like-minded individuals, but five thousand friends? I knew a man when I was in college who had a campus job sitting at a desk in a particular building as the information guy. He was there to make sure someone could respond to situations that might arise on short notice. This dear fellow worked hard at knowing people’s names—everyone with whom he came into contact! As you passed him in the hall, he would greet you with a warm smile by your name! Who doesn’t like to hear their name remembered by others? But were we friends? That depends on what you mean by friends.
For my part, I tend to think of myself of having relatively few friends with many acquaintances around the world. During the last two decades, I have taught classes in nine different countries, involving literally hundreds of students, a small percentage of whom I am friends with on Facebook. I am friends with people all over the world! We occasionally greet each other online, follow each other’s lives from a distance, send birthday salutations to one another, rejoice with or pray for each other in times of happiness or sorrow. We follow each other’s journeys through life including marriages, births, jobs, illnesses and finally deaths. We maintain contact at a minimal level through the medium of Facebook, but we are hardly what would qualify as friends; we are more like acquaintances. Like ships passing in the night, in life’s journey, we have associated briefly, and we moved on. Facebook allows us to stay connected but not really. I don’t have a Christmas gift list with their names on it. Nor am I on their gift lists. We remember each other with fondness, and if we were in closer proximity, we might actually become friends in the genuine sense of the term, but really, we are acquaintances, brothers and sisters in Christ perhaps, but acquaintances on the road of life. We remember each other’s names and faces but little flows between us now to mark our friendship more than an occasional “Like.”
What is a friend in the biblical sense of the term? The Greek word that is often translated in our English Bibles as friend is φίλος, a word signifying a “close association” and was used as a term of affection. Jesus was a friend of publicans and sinners (Mt 11:19, Luke 7:34) but he wasn’t their “drinking buddy.” He kept company with them on occasion to show them the love of God. In fact, he was a friend to them in the fullest sense of the word. He wasn’t their friend for what they could do for him, but he was their friend for what he could do for them. Friend is an action word. When Jesus friended someone, they had a real friend.
James called Abraham a friend of God (James 2:23). This is an interesting statement. What could Abraham do for God but love him and serve him? Again, the term is φίλος suggesting devotion and commitment. Abraham’s relationship wasn’t a surface relationship. There was depth and commitment. It was also pretty one sided. Abraham was the major recipient while God was the major contributor in the relationship. Still James calls attention to this relationship as friendship. So too Moses, with whom God spoke face to face as a man would speak to a friend (Ex. 33:11). I want to be a friend of God if I am nothing else!
English often requires us to have a qualifying adjective to explain the kind of friend we have or are. Those who are near and dear to us might be intimate friends. With them, we share our inner thoughts, our aspirations, our burdens, our sins and struggles. We see this modelled in the relationship of Jonathan, son of Saul, and David, the shepherd-turned-giant-killer (1 Sam 18:1-3). They became such close friends that Jonathan sided with David against his own father when he realized that David was the special object of divine blessing. So great was David’s friendship with Jonathan that even after Jonathan’s death, David was looking for ways to demonstrate his friendship with Jonathan through Jonathan’s son, Mephiboseth, for whom David provided in his hour of need. This is also the kind of friend we have in the Lord Jesus, whom we identify as the friend that sticks closer to us than a brother (Prov. 18:24).
At minimum, every married person ought to have this sort of relationship with his or her spouse. We should delight to be in their presence more than anyone else. Occasionally, the Lord brings another person into our lives with whom we can develop a deep friendship, but these are really rare. They take time to cultivate. These sorts of friendships emerge out of a lifetime of shared experiences. Sometimes a shared trial becomes the occasion for establishing a true friend. This kind of a friend would give you one of their kidneys if your life depended on it. They would stand up for you, defend you, support and comfort you in times of sorrow or distress because that’s what true friends do. Prov. 17:17, “A friend loves at all times and a brother is born for adversity.” There seems to be few limitations on the actions of a friend.
What kind of friend am I? I cannot be a friend to all I meet, though I can treat people well. I cannot maintain the kind of intimate relationships that friendship involves without a serious investment of time. Some people don’t want friends for that reason. It takes too much time. It requires too much investment. It involves too much personal sacrifice. It requires too much transparency. You have to be honest with a friend. Perhaps this helps to explain our affection for the world of Facebook. We can have thousands of friends and make little or no effort to cultivate them as friends. Biblical friendship, the kind that Abraham had with God or David with Jonathan, requires much more. Prov. 18:24 reminds us “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” Jesus is the kind of friend we need. This is the kind of friend I want to be. I may not have many friends, but I thank God for the few I do have. They are gifts from God! We will explore more about what the Bible says about friends next time. Stay tuned.