What Are Friends For?

circle_of_friends“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Pr 27:17).

At a recent breakfast with a group of Christian men, one person offered this verse as an illustration of how believers ought to have fellowship with one another. Real friendship, he suggested, is not merely for relaxing and enjoying one another’s company; it is also for holding one another accountable and telling one another the hard truths that we all need to hear.

Accountability is certainly needed. And who can dispute the importance of telling anyone the hard truths that they need to hear?

But as the friend was sharing this verse, I looked it up on my Kindle, and noticed the two verses immediately before it: “A quarrelsome wife is like the dripping of a leaky roof in a rainstorm; restraining her is like restraining the wind or grasping oil with the hand” (Pr 27:15-16).

And the verse immediately before that: “If anyone loudly blesses their neighbor early in the morning, it will be taken as a curse” (Pr 27:14).

As I read those verses, I started to chuckle. If Rodney Dangerfield had been transported back in time and inspired to become an author of Scripture, these are the kinds of things he might write. Who says God doesn’t have a sense of humor?

Some of the verses in Proverbs seem to be stand-alone sayings, but other verses appear to loosely cluster around common themes. If this is a thematic section, then the saying about the loudmouthed neighbor (the guy who, as your kindergarten teacher would say, needs to learn how to speak with an “inside voice”) and the verses about the cantankerous spouse might shed some light on how to read the “iron sharpens iron” verse. No intelligent person would interpret verse 14 as a positive example of how to be a good neighbor. Nor should we treat verses 15-16 as a picture of a healthy marriage. So why should we take verse 17 as positive advice for how friends ought to treat one another? If we read 17 in the same vein as 14 and 15-16, it becomes another negative example or perhaps even a summary statement. When fallen human beings live in community with one another, they grate, scratch and abrade. They expose one another’s rough edges and file them smooth. Verse 17 could be taken as descriptive rather than prescriptive, a statement of how things are rather than how they ought to be. Just by being together, friends will naturally do this to one another. Should we intentionally go out of our way to do this even more?

Yesterday, my wife sent me this gut-wrenching story of a Christian woman (a former missionary) whose husband had extramarital affairs and eventually divorced her. As she shared her struggles with a friend, the friend responded with a tough question: “Why do you think he had an affair?” Then the friend asked even more pointedly: “How do you think you contributed to his affair?”

Tears streamed down the woman’s face. Looking back on that encounter with her friend, she concluded: “That conversation was one of my lowest moments.”

I’m sure that the friend had good intentions. She wanted to be balanced. To see all sides of the complex issues. To rise above the messy, dirty details of dispute and see the whole thing from a higher plane where she could love the woman while also challenging her and leading her to repentance. While doing that, she didn’t realize how merciless she was, and how those questions were piercing her friend’s heart like poison-tipped arrows tearing into flesh.

Had the woman whose husband cheated on her ever thought about those questions before? Had she ever considered that her behavior as a less-than-perfect wife might have left her husband at times feeling disrespected, unloved and unfulfilled? Of course she had! She wrestled with those questions long before the friend brought them up. She describes herself as “introspective, self-analyzing, self-critical” almost to a fault. On her own, she had come to the conclusion that she did bear part of the blame for her failed marriage. And she had discerned that, despite her failings as a wife, the husband was entirely to blame for his extramarital affairs. The fact that he had run off with another woman was not her fault.

This story brings up some painful memories of how well meaning Christians have treated me — and embarassing memories of how I have treated others — in times of messy struggle and conflict. Somewhere along the line, we seem to have gotten the idea that to be a true friend to someone, we have to take it upon ourselves to listen to their side of a painful story and then rise above it all to be a source of enlightened wisdom. We can sympathize with their plight, but not too much, lest it fuel their hurt feelings and cause them to be bitter. A true friend, we think, is not merely a confidante or an ally, but someone who needs to give hard advice and tough love under the guise of leading them toward brokenhearted repentance before the truth.

Is that what friends are for?

Apparently, that’s what Job’s friends thought.

Why are well meaning Christian friends so quick to take it upon themselves to sharpen one another? Perhaps we don’t yet know the meaning of love.

Love is notoriously hard to define. In the famous poem of 1 Corinthians 13, the Apostle Paul ascribes numerous adjectives to love, but he doesn’t try to define it. One of the best definitions that I’ve ever seen appears in the book The Jesus Creed by (yes, you guessed it) Scot McKnight. I’m sorry for constantly referring to books by Scot McKnight these days. For some unknown reason, the things I’ve learned from his writings seem to come up again and again. That definition of love goes something like this (not an exact quote): Love is a rugged commitment to being WITH someone, for the sake of being FOR them, to divine ends.

To love someone who is going through a painful crisis does not require us to offer advice or render judgment. There are times when advice is called for, but those times are probably much rarer than we think. Love require us to listen and try to understand the person’s plight. Not to pretend that we understand. (If we are unable to understand, then it’s better to admit that than to pretend that we do.) And to stand with that person in support. And to love them unconditionally, as God loves them unconditionally.

Why is that so hard to do? Why do we so quickly lapse into the role of teaching others, shepherding others, giving them advice, and so on, instead of just standing with them and standing for them?

Let me offer a theory.

When someone tells us a painful story, very often it is about how they were damaged by someone else. Person A was hurt by Person B or by Faction C. By default, we tend to think that if we are going to stand with Person A, then we must necessarily stand against Person B or Faction C. That’s what human logic dictates.

But the gospel defies human logic. As Jesus hung from the cross, he suffered in the place of those who loved him. He also suffered in the place of those who hated him. He identified with his friends, with his enemies, with his friends’ friends, with his friends’ enemies, with his enemies’ friends, and with his enemies’ enemies. He took everyone’s infirmities upon himself and gave his life for all.

When you hear the painful story of how Person A was hurt by Person B or by Faction C, then human logic drives you to choose whether you are going to be loyal to Person A and stand against Person B or Faction C. If you are also a friend of Person B, or if you happen to belong to Faction C, then you are placed in an uncomfortable postion. You find yourself trying to walk the fine line, to thread the needle, to remain fair and balanced, to rise above it all and see things from God’s point of view (yeah, have fun with that). Under human logic, community life becomes characterized by endless shifting of alliances, balancing of opposing persons and perspectives, causing you to remain aloof from the suffering person before you who, being afraid to actually love them lest you drift too far into their camp and away from their enemies’ camp.

But gospel logic understands that the line between good and evil does not divide one person from another or one faction from another. The line that divides good from evil runs through every human heart. Every perpetrator is also a victim. And person who is oppressed by someone else will, at other times, act as an oppressor. Calvary love does not call us to stand for the victim and against the oppressor. It calls us to stand for the victim and for the oppressor.

Yes, there are times when a friend will need to offer another friend some hard-to-hear advice. But those times are few and far between. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us in Life Together, the first and foremost way that we are called to serve our friends is by a ministry of listening. Here is a quote from the chapter titled “Service”:

The first service one owes to others in the community involves listening to them. Just as our love for God begins with listening to God’s Word, the beginning of love for other Christians is learning to listen to them. God’s love for us is shown by the fact that God not only gives us God’s Word, but also lends us God’s ear. We do God’s work for our brothers and sisters when we learn to listen to them. So often Christians, especially preachers, think that their only service is always to have to “offer” something when they are together with other people. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking. Many people seek a sympathetic ear and do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking when they should be listening. But Christians who can no longer listen to one another will soon no longer be listening to God either; they will always be talking even in the presence of God. The death of spiritual life starts here, and in the end there is nothing left but empty spiritual chatter and clerical condescension which chokes on pious words. Those who cannot listen long and patiently will always be talking past others, and finally no longer will even notice it. Those who think their time is too precious to spend listening will never really have time for God and others, but only for themselves and their own words and plans.


  1. Joe Schafer

    After speaking to my wife, I realized that this article doesn’t fully flesh out what I’m trying to say. So let me add a couple of comments on my own piece.

    1. When you hear stories (for example, like the ones posted here on UBFriends) of people you know being hurt by other people that you know, the righteous path is not walking a fine line between siding with one versus siding with the other. Gospel logic is not about trying to split the difference or balance the extremes. The gospel is a genuine third way, a both-and thinking that defies either-or thinking. It is not a 50-50 split between the sides, but standing with one side 100% and standing with the other side 100%. It does not minimize or defend bad behavior. It calls out sin without condemning the sinner. It sides with the victim of injustice while demonstrating love for the one who is unjust.

    2. This is why I do not believe that UBFriends is an anti-UBF website. Here we can read stories of people who were hurt by UBF members and leaders. We can take these stories seriously and acknowledge that they did happen. We can do so without condemning the organization and its members and leaders, because Jesus does not condemn them. And we can do so without berating the ex-members, without constantly telling them that they ought to say things differently, that they ought to be more fair and balanced, and so on. If someone is not yet fair and balanced (whatever that means), God can set them straight in due time. Our job is to listen and understand and love. And to repent of any wrongs that we have done.

    • “This is why I do not believe that UBFriends is an anti-UBF website.”

      I agree. I don’t see ubfriends as “anti”. But clearly almost all articles encouraged critical thinking about ubf. So ubfriends is indeed “critical” and “independent”. There is no missionary here to orient and explain. There is no native shepherd spinning a missionary’s words to sound more Christian. We are freely thinking about a multitude of topics in an “open mic” forum.

      I think this is awesome. But Brian-1998 would have freaked out an rarely commented here. Brian-2004 would have participated, but as “Tom Cruise” or “Baghdad Bob”.

  2. Joe Schafer

    3. If you take the third way, you will be walking alongside Jesus, and you are probably going to get bruised and beaten and betrayed as he was.

  3. Friendship indeed can often be a complicated matter. For Christians, friendship gets confusing really quick. I think you expressed part of the reason why: “the gospel defies human logic.”

    The good news Jesus proclaimed is deeper than atonement. Jesus proclaimed the gospel of freedom, fulfillment, forgiveness, peace, glory, kingdom, love, grace, etc. If we only understand the gospel as atonement, we become limited in our friendship. But as I begin to comprehend the multi-faceted gospel of Jesus, my ability to build friendships is improving. [Although I still find that I am clueless as to how to be friends with those who put doctrine before fellowship, since those kind of people tend to stop talking to me.]

    Speaking of Proverbs 27, that is one of my favorite Proverbs, along with Proverbs 28. A while a go, I tried to articulate some things I learned from Proverbs 27 and other verses related to the teaching of “covering theology”. A misunderstanding of the difference between “cover up” and “cover over” severely impacts our idea of friendship, for those who have been in ubf.

    • Joe Schafer

      “If we only understand the gospel as atonement, we become limited in our friendship.”

      Perhaps we need a richer understanding of atonement, one that doesn’t merely focus on our individual relationship with God, but our relationships with one another in the community. That’s the essence of another great book that I just read, A Community Called Atonement. The author is (you guessed it) Scot McKnight.

    • Joe Schafer

      As I’ve said many times before, “doctrine before fellowship” is a false choice, because fellowship is one of the essential doctrines of Christianity. That’s why it was mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed. And at the end of Acts chapter 2 as the main activity of the church.

      But that doesn’t answer your question of how to remain in fellowship with people who put non-essential doctrines before the essential ones. Such behavior is, I think, inherently divisive.

      How do you talk to people who won’t talk to you? Another good question.

    • Indeed, we should expand our thinking of the atonement metaphors, as this review of the book indicates:

      “Over the centuries the church developed a number of metaphors, such as penal substitution or the ransom theory, to speak about Christ’s death on the cross and the theological concept of the atonement. Yet too often, says Scot McKnight, Christians have held to the supremacy of one metaphor over against the others, to their detriment. He argues instead that to plumb the rich theological depths of the atonement, we must consider all the metaphors of atonement and ask whether they each serve a larger purpose.”


      My contention is that we need to go beyond atonement metaphors if we are to experience the abundant, effervescent joy and “new wine” Jesus gives.

    • Joe Schafer

      I would like to do a careful review of this book on UBFriends. If possible, I will start next week.

    • This would be helpful. And for the record, I do not reject all atonement metaphors. Atonement is a critical theme of the OT. The word atone appears at least 100 times in some form in the OT. The word only appears 3 times (that I can find) in the NT: Romans 3:25, Hebrews 2:17 and Hebrews 9:5.

      I would love to hear McKnight’s insights, as his name comes up often. My only hesitation in adopting atonement metaphors as the only expression or the main expression of the gospel is that we run the risk of rebuilding a form of the Judaic atonement system by focusing too much on the OT principles of atonement, which are helpful and insightful, but have only limited power when it comes to the gospel Jesus proclaimed (so says hereticman :)

    • Joe Schafer

      Based on what you just said, I predict that you will be very pleased with the book.

    • I suspect I would too. Atonement is a topic I eagerly want to discuss. And perhaps based on this thread, atonement and friendship are related somehow.

      For example, some of the OT verses were written during the time of building the atonement system, and some were written after it was already in place for many years. Interestingly I find no reference to atonement before Exodus 25:17.

      Anyway, I notice that in ubf I was part of a system that was caught up in rebuilding the atonement system, perhaps because we focused so much on the OT ideas. When we read the verses about instituting God’s atonement system in the OT, we need to be careful in how we obey those verses and teachings. Clearly we are not to obey them in the sense that we rebuild the atonement system that was fulfilled in Christ. And neither should we exhort our friends to “go back” to some sort of atonement system after reading the prophets’ teachings on atonement (like Nehemiah or Isaiah). We should be obeying these OT teachings by learning something about Jesus and the work of His ministry or the work finished on the cross.

      These are all things that make it so very difficult to remain friends with ubf directors, who continually promote and insist absolutely on things like “be a bible teacher” based on Ezra (which btw many of you will hear yet again soon), instead of teaching things like “listen to God’s voice and discern how to follow Jesus in our generation”.

    • Ok now I need a “time out” because I just read the passages that will be presented at the ubf staff meeting this weekend…

  4. I find this to be excellent gospel logic:

    “The line that divides good from evil runs through every human heart. Every perpetrator is also a victim. And person who is oppressed by someone else will, at other times, act as an oppressor. Calvary love does not call us to stand for the victim and against the oppressor. It calls us to stand for the victim and for the oppressor.”

    The main reason I’ve been able to remain in the ubf conversation and even meet ubf people in person, is because I am “for” them. This does not mean I agree with their ubf theology (I don’t at all). But I see them as human beings.

    Obviously I have struggled with the “loud blessing in the morning” syndrome, but I sincerely do seek to find a way to love and befriend ubf directors and ubf members. I will certainly fail at doing this, but I won’t stop trying. Ever.

  5. Phil 2 Five

    “To see all sides of the complex issues.”

    > Some UBF leaders don’t want to see ‘all sides of the complex issue!’ They think they know it all. UBF would be far better off if that was the case! They tell the ‘sheep’ not to make excuses, yet they themselves make excuses and brush aside important issues that cause so many to leave the ministry! What is so hard about sitting down and communicating?

    • Good observation, Phil2Five. I think we should remember that the gospel is not so mysterious or magical. The gospel messages Jesus proclaimed are not above our reasoning ability (Luke 10:21).

      The gospel will often defy human wisdom/logic (as I think Joe pointed out in the article) but the gospel does not deny reason/Logic.

      In looking back, ubf leaders often claim “the gospel is a mystery” and then use that excuse to justify not making an attempt to understand and reason with former members. And they often take this one step further. They think that since the gospel is so mysterious, we need to submit to our visible human shepherds. Then things become “clear”.

      Indeed the gospel has a mysterious side (1 Timothy 3:16), but this should not be an excuse for insulting the Holy Spirit (Hebrews 10:29). The reason side of the gospel is far more accessible than ubf makes us think. Romans and Hebrews are masterpieces of reason, for example.

  6. Joe, thank you for your wonderful and powerful article.

    “But the gospel defies human logic. As Jesus hung from the cross, he suffered in the place of those who loved him. He also suffered in the place of those who hated him. He identified with his friends, with his enemies, with his friends’ friends, with his friends’ enemies, with his enemies’ friends, and with his enemies’ enemies. He took everyone’s infirmities upon himself and gave his life for all

    But gospel logic understands that the line between good and evil does not divide one person from another or one faction from another. The line that divides good from evil runs through every human heart. Every perpetrator is also a victim. And person who is oppressed by someone else will, at other times, act as an oppressor. Calvary love does not call us to stand for the victim and against the oppressor. It calls us to stand for the victim and for the oppressor.”

    You succinctly summarized the essence of the gospel. Yes, the gospel defies human logic. It defies “cause and effect principle” as in John 9 about the man born blind. God’s love for us is is so great in spite of our situations and sins. When Jesus died on the cross, he committed to love us in eternity in spite of our unworthiness. I have been thinking about the Father’s love for his two sons in the parable of the Prodigal son. This Father committed to love his two quite different sons unconditionally and to love them in eternity in spite of all their sins and weaknesses. (I will not be back for a few days)

    • Joe Schafer

      James, thank you for your kind words. Sharon and I look forward to seeing you tonight. Have a safe trip, and welcome to the great Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

    • “God’s love for us is is so great in spite of our situations and sins.”

      True enough, James. Yet this love does not “cover up” our sins. The bible is clear about exhorting us to confess our sins (1 John 1:9, James 5:16).

      God is love. God is also light. We cannot walk in darkness and expect to be free from the consequences of our sin. Perhaps, yes, we would be free from the ultimate consequence on Judgement day, but no human being is exempt from consequences of our actions here on this side of Heaven.

      Studying 1 John 1 should not lead to cozy kumbaya moments. It should lead us to tearful repentance, honest self-examination, and eager restitution (2 Corinthians 7:11).