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!