Genuine Friends

I know I’ve broached the subject of friendship before, but I’ve been wondering lately what constitutes a genuine friend. So many in history, most especially the philosophers, have attempted to define the term “friend.” Cicero called a friend a “second self.” Aristotle said so famously that a friend is a “single soul dwelling in two bodies.” I think his is one of the better depictions. This is about as close as it gets to what I was feeling when I asked Jennifer to marry me. I knew that without her, I was only half of what God made me to be.

Of course, the poets serve us just as well. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s reminder that “the only way to have a friend is to be one” has adorned the walls of elementary school classrooms for who knows how long. Jaques Delille insisted that while fate chooses our family, we choose our friends. There is great truth in that statement, along with the reminder that both fate (tongue-in-cheek) and free will have a sense of humor. Anaïs Nin wrote with incredible profoundness that a “friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.” This is profound in the sense that so much of who and what we are, both good and bad, would never have been stirred into existence without the prompting of others. Perhaps that’s why Marie de Sévigné warned, “True friendship is never serene.”

If we’re willing to be honest, we can agree with her. Indeed, friendships can be a source for some of the most joyful times we’ll know this side of the grave. They also hold the potential for some of the most agonizing moments we’ll ever experience, some resulting in painful and penetrating wounds that injure in ways few other things can.

I mentioned at the beginning I’ve been wondering lately what makes for a true friend. Perhaps more precisely, I’ve been wondering which hurts more, a friend standing against me or a friend who deceives me.

I suppose before even arriving at such a question, it pays for Christians to be mindful of the caliber of the ones we’d call friends—that is, what they believe, the language they use, how they live, and so many other determiners. And, yes, this is being judgmental. Even Saint Paul warned pragmatically that “bad company corrupts good character” (1 Corinthians 15:33). Paul had good reason to write these words, especially since one of God’s wisest—King Solomon—already insisted a thousand years prior with the same practicality, “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (Proverbs 13:20), and “Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man, lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare” (Proverbs 22:24-25). In other words, no matter how secure in your identity you might believe yourself to be, the ones we surround ourselves with will influence us. They will change us. Since this is true, let the ones we call friends be inclined toward righteousness, not unrighteousness.

And so, back to my question. It’s one worth answering, not necessarily in a theoretical sense, but because no matter how hard we try to do what Paul and Solomon suggest, we’ll always find ourselves in broken relationships. We’re human, and all humans are broken, which means practical self-analysis is always a good thing. In this regard, I’m still wondering which is worse, an opposing friend or a deceptive friend?

I’m of the mind that a lying friend is likely to generate the most pain. Being lied to or about harms in ways other sins cannot. On the other hand, a friend taking a position against me might be doing so for my good. Again, Solomon, having a good grasp on the nature of Godly friendship, reminded that wounds caused by a true friend are faithful and worthy of our acceptance (Proverbs 27:6). Having never read any of the books, that reminds me of something I saw in the only “Harry Potter” movie I’ve ever watched. An element of this truth found its way into a scene in which the character of Dumbledor, while awarding house points at the end of the film to a young boy, said something like, “It takes courage to stand against one’s enemies. It takes more to stand against one’s friends.”

Not as profound as Solomon, J.K. Rowling’s point is still a good one. Faith at work through genuine self-analysis will discern the dimensions of the offending friend. What he’s saying, is it leading you to Christ? If so, give thanks to the Lord for his courage. He cares enough to put himself in harm’s way, namely, the possibility of your rageful retribution. Now, repent and amend. On the other hand, is what he’s saying coming from ill-intent designed to lead you away from Christ and into harm? Are his words being crafted to give credence to his own Sin? If so, mark and avoid him. He’s not a friend—at least not in this particular episode.

By contrast, a deceptive friend—one who betrays or dupes those closest—is a completely different story. A deceptive friend has parentage, namely, the devil (John 8:44). Such a friend grows gross tendrils, all reaching out in countless directions with moldable excuses, all designed to preserve the self. I feel sorry for this kind of person. Self-analysis seems beyond his or her reach. I suppose I have equal sorrow for the people ensnared by such folks, especially since there’s little examination needed for deciding if the behavior is good or bad. It’s bad. If you can’t see it, then your deceptive friend has changed you, just as Paul and Solomon warned.

And so, what to do?

Well, for starters, align with truth, putting your trust in the One whom Solomon fore-described as sticking closer to you than a brother: Jesus (Proverbs 18:24). No one knows us like our siblings. No one knows us like the divine sibling, Jesus. Let Him be your lens for observation. Holding fast to Him, remembering His description of the truest compatriot (epitomized in Himself) as the one who lays down His life for his friends (John 15:13), you’ll have all you need for discerning a true friend from a false one. Finally, heartened by your friendship with the greatest Friend, Jesus, enjoy the newfound freedom for facing off with the sinful world around you. Enjoy the Spirit-endowed voice of faithfulness to call out and gather other allies into your collegium, shouting as Iachimo did in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, “Boldness be my friend! Arm me, audacity!”

A friend with the bold audacity for faithfulness to Christ, no matter what, is the best kind to have and be. Although, if you find yourself averse to such people, it might be time for self-analysis, that is, if you haven’t been changed by others in a way that has made you incapable of such things (1 John 1:8-9).

The Devil Comes Out

It may be somewhat of an abrupt way to begin, but as a pastor, I’ve seen and experienced plenty to affirm the existence of the devil. And I’m not just talking about the philosophical deduction that comes from observing our world in chaos and concluding that he’s the only possible explanation for all of it. Instead, I’m admitting to being fairly sure I’ve met him face to face a time or two. Even further, I’m confessing to having experienced unexplainable things, that is, I’ve been brought into situations involving particular places or people, and what was going on around me didn’t play by the rules of natural expectation. I won’t give you the details, but rest assured, some would serve well as scripts for horror flicks.

I guess what I’m saying is that if you disbelieve the existence of the devil, I’m here to tell you that you’re fooling yourself. He’s real. And every now and then I find myself working with someone who has the bruises—both physically and spiritually—to prove it.

It used to be a fashionable thing to say that the devil’s greatest trick was convincing the world he doesn’t exist. I’ll be honest and say I never really fell for that line. The devil has always been captain of the blowhards. Anyone at all familiar with the scriptures will know it was his prideful arrogance that brought about his fall (Isaiah 14:12–15 and Ezekiel 28:12–17), and so I find it difficult to believe that he’d ever be willing to give up the spotlight in any room. Although, if indeed his non-existence has been one of the go-to plays in his playbook, I think he’s using it less and less these days. From some of the things I’ve read and seen lately, I get the sense he’s beginning to step from the shadows in order to let more and more people know he’s there. In fact, I think he’s not all that far from coming out of the closet completely, since that seems to be the grandest sign of nobility in our culture these days. In other words, don’t be surprised if one day you hear the pronouncement that the devil has announced his premier interview and that it’ll take place on “Ellen”—or better yet, “The View.”

But to come out would mean he’s willing to tip his BLM, Inc. hat to the existence of God, too, and wouldn’t it make life harder on the devil if people believed God actually exists?

Not as long as the devil emerges as the hero in comparison.

The devil has been hard at work in our radically individualized society framing himself as the first in a long line of “misunderstoods” who have throughout history been met by unjust systems built by self-appointed and self-righteously intolerant people—God, of course, being the chief of the intolerants. To establish this premise, the devil has been exemplary in his usage of universities and the civil government—one being a locale for learning “truth” and the other a system of legislators, judges, and lawyers in place for employing that truth on behalf of victims for the sake of justice.

Truly, it is as the old saying goes, “The devil makes his Christmas pies of lawyers’ tongues and clerks’ fingers.”

In addition to this, it sure seems the devil is more openly making his case from the reasonable premise that there are two sides to every story, and yet God has written all the so-called “official” literature on the subject, so the system is inherently rigged and isn’t to be trusted. It’s time to see things from a better perspective. And so the devil is more forthrightly suggesting that, yes, while the pathways apart from God are different, they aren’t necessarily bad. And they’re certainly not condemnable. But because God says they are, the devil becomes the good guy, and God is the over-lording villain working to support a system that needs to be completely torn down and rebuilt.

Do you see what he’s done here? Indeed, it is as Elizabeth Barrett Browning said: “The devil’s most devilish when he’s respectable.”

For the record, while so many in our world are succumbing to this kind of “critical theory”—even in the Church—I intend to stand as diligently against it as I can. I’m not going to fall for it, but rather I’m going to fight it with everything I’ve got. I hope you will, too.

But how?

I mentioned at the beginning that I’m more than certain I’ve met the devil. I mentioned that I’ve worked with people who’ve been tormented by him personally and I’ve stood against others who were clearly sent by his directives. In each of the circumstances, my practice has been the same—to advise or engage in an exorcism. But I don’t mean the kind you see in the movies. I mean the exercise of Word and Sacrament ministry—the pure preaching and teaching of the Gospel and the right administration of the holy sacraments according to Christ’s command—all of this most certainly being delivered to the world through the Church in the midst of holy worship.

In other words, every time you gather for worship, in a sense, you can be sure you are experiencing an exorcism. You are gathering together with the One true God—the Father, + Son, and Holy Spirit—who loves you, and He is giving to you His merciful gifts of forgiveness and the knowledge of the way of righteousness, and He’s driving from you the powers of Sin, Death, and the lying devil.

This is how you keep from falling for the deception.

This is how you prevent the devil from inhabiting your heart and mind.

This is how you are equipped for the seemingly endless warfare against his tireless assaults.

Apart from this, using your reason and mortal senses alone, your defenses will be weak and you’ll be fooled. But with the continued strength of the Holy Spirit by way of the Gospel of God’s grace, your fortifications will be sturdy as your otherworldly senses are heightened. By these, the devil won’t be sly enough to make it into your camp undetected. Even better, when you see him slinking into the camps of others, you’ll be ready and able to grab your weapons and run to their aid to protect and defend them.