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"A friend loveth at all times, and as a brother is born for adversity."—Prov. xvii. 17. (This rendering, based upon the margin of the R.V., yields a much better sense than the loosely connected, "And a brother is born for adversity.")

One of the most striking contrasts between the ancient and the modern world is in the place which is given to Friendship by moralists and religious teachers. In Aristotle's famous treatise on Ethics two books out of nine are devoted to the moral bearings of Friendship, and these books form the climax of the work, and are the natural transition to the work on Politics, or the science of the State. This central position given to the subject by the greatest and most systematic teacher of antiquity, compared with the very subordinate part which friendship plays in Christian ethics, is calculated to make us reflect and enquire. Is not the explanation probably this? Our Lord gave a great new commandment to His disciples, that they should love one another; and though Christian men have as yet but imperfectly understood what He meant, or carried out what they have understood, an ideal was created which far transcended that lower relationship of antiquity. Greek friendship was to be merged in Christian love.228 The meaning of such a change will appear if we remember two characteristics of mere friendship, on which Aristotle dwells. One is that it is necessarily based upon selfishness; springing from a wish to realize oneself in the life of another, fed by the benefit or pleasure derived from the mutual intercourse, it lies under the necessary limitation that we shall not wish for our friend a good which would remove him from us, or an improvement which would raise him too far above us. For the second point is that friendship can only exist between equals, and the best friendship is that between good men who stand upon the same level of virtue. Christian love, on the other hand, springs from a complete abnegation of Self. It seeks nothing: it gives all. So far from laying stress upon the equality of conditions, it is never better pleased than when it can raise another to a position of excellence far surpassing its own, and instead of seeking its highest satisfaction in intercourse with its spiritual peers,—the good, the great, the saintly,—it attains its apotheosis when it is allowed to embrace the weak, the sinful, the fallen, and to lavish all its Divine resources upon those who may never be able to repay it even with gratitude.

It is obvious, then, that friendship is on a lower plane than Christian love, and it marks a great advance in ideal ethics when the lesser star pales in presence of the greater; but it may be urged with truth that friendship still has its place in life, and deserves a more careful attention than it receives. In the individual, as in the race, friendship may be a prelude and a practice of the nobler and wider relation. And there is this further reason for trying to understand the nature of friendship, that it is more than once in the229 Bible used as a type and a figure of the relationship which may exist between the soul and its God.

We will proceed then to examine some of the characteristics of friendship referred to in the book of Proverbs.

Friends, according to the original sense of the Hebrew word, are those who delight in one another's companionship; either they are useful to one another because each possesses gifts which the other has not, or they are agreeable to one another because they have certain tastes in common. Thus there may of course be a friendship in evil, in vice, in destructive practices; thieves may enter into a league to carry out their antisocial designs, and may be very true to one another; vicious men may find a bond of friendship in the common indulgence of their vices; and in this way friendship, so called, may be a means of ruining the friends. "There are friends for mutual shattering," just as "there is a lover that cleaves more than a brother."478478   Prov. xviii. 24. This sense is obtained by what appears a necessary change in the text; we must read יֵשׁ for אִישׁ. A similar error occurs 2 Sam. xiv. 19 and Micah vi. 10. There may also be an interested comradeship which is entirely hypocritical; such a friendship is usually marked by a loud and ostentatious demonstration: "He that blesseth his friend with a loud voice, rising early in the morning, it shall be counted a curse to him."479479   Prov. xxvii. 14. But, in the main, friendship implies a certain amount of goodness; for it is in itself a virtue. The suspicious, malignant nature of evil men speedily snaps the ties which bind them together for a time; and where honour exists among thieves it affords a strong230 presumption that the thieves are the product of a wrong social state, rather than of a naturally evil disposition.

We may then practically, in thinking of friendship, confine our attention to that which exists between well-meaning people, and tends on the whole to bless, to strengthen, and to improve them. We may come to look at some of the uses and the delights of friendship. "As in water face answers to face, so in the heart man answers to man."480480   Prov. xxvii. 19. In the heart of our friend we see our own character reflected just as gazing into a still pool we see the reflection of our own face. It is in the frank and sympathetic intercourse of friendship that we really get to know ourselves, and to realize what is in us. We unfold to one another, we discover our similarities and mark our differences. Points which remained unobserved in our own hearts are immediately detected and understood when we see them also in our friends; faculties which remained unused are brought into play to supplement the discovered defects in our friend's nature. We hardly guess what a fund of happy humour is in us until we are encouraged to display it by observing how its flashes light up the face we love. Our capacities of sympathy and tenderness remain undeveloped until we wish eagerly to comfort our friend in a sudden sorrow. In a true friendship we find that we are living a life which is doubled in all its faculties of enjoyment and of service;481481   "Sorrows by being communicated grow less and joys greater."—Bacon. we quite shudder to think what cold, apathetic, undeveloped creatures we should have been but for that genial touch which unfolded us, and231 warmed our hearts into genuine feeling while it brought our minds into active play. This intellectual value of friendship is brought out in the happy saying: "Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend."482482   Prov. xxvii. 17. A friendless person has a lack-lustre face; his talk has a dull edge; his emotions a poor and feeble flow. That delightful readiness of thought and expression which makes all the charm of social intercourse, the easy tact which rubs off the angles and smooths all the relations of life, the bright coruscations which seem like sunlight playing over summer seas, are usually the result of close and intimate communion with congenial friends. Reading may make a learned man, and without hard study few people can accomplish much permanent good in the world, but reading does not necessarily make a really social man, one who brings his fellow-creatures together in happy and helpful relationships; that beautiful faculty is only acquired by the fostering and stimulating influences of heart companionships. When we have real friends, though they be only a few, we diffuse a friendly feeling amongst others, wherever we go. Possibly also in the simile of the iron lies a reminder of the discipline which friendship gives to character, a discipline which is not always unaccompanied by pain. Friends "rub each other's angles down," and sometimes the friction is a little distressing to both sides. The blades are sharpened, by a few imperceptible filings being ground off each of their edges. The use of friendship depends very largely on its frankness, just as its sweetness depends upon232 mutual consideration. When the frankness hurts we have to remind ourselves of the wholesome truth that the soft speaking is not always a token of love, and the hard sayings of our friend may be uttered at a great personal cost, for our good rather than his. "Faithful are the wounds of a friend: but the kisses of an enemy are profuse."483483   Prov. xxvii. 6.

If, however, friendship ripens through many years of kindly growth, or if a swift elective affinity forestalls at once the fruit of years, all the pain of mutual counsel and correction disappears, and may be changed into a joy very sweet to the soul. "Ointment and perfume rejoice the heart: so doth the sweetness of a man's friend that cometh of soul counsel."484484   Prov. xxvii. 9. It is a very beautiful condition of things which is referred to in this proverb. Two people have learnt thoroughly to understand one another, and have become in a certain sense one. Each recognises the service that the other renders, and welcomes the advice or even the rebuke which is made possible by their relationship. The interchange of affection is naturally sweet, but as sweet, or even sometimes sweeter, is the delicate aroma which arises when one sees a fault in the other, and with a tenderness begotten of affection, and a humility which trembles to presume, speaks gently but frankly to his friend. Never do the eyes more eagerly respond to one another, never is the hand-clasp so firm and hearty, as after such a passage between true friends.

But the decisive test and the most beautiful proof of real friendship will be found in the day of adversity. A friend is never known till needed.485485   "Amicus certus in re incerta cernitur."—Cicero. When calamity233 falls upon us, false friends make excuses and go; lip-friends relapse into silence; but we begin then for the first time to find out who is a friend indeed. Then it appears that the true friend is entirely unchanged by the changed aspect of affairs; it seems as if he had been born into a brotherhood with us for this express occasion. There is no wish to cry off; he seems even to press the brotherly tie in a way which we should not have presumed to expect, and thus he contrives to lighten the oppressive burden of obligation for the favour that he confers on us, by making it appear that he was bound to act as he does by a necessity of kinship. This seems to be the meaning of our text. Such a friend, if he be near at hand and in constant contact with us, is of more service than our own brother;486486   Prov. xxvii. 10. and when through his timely aid or effectual comfort we have come out of the furnace, and our tears are dried, we say constantly to ourselves that we doubt whether our own brother would have clung to us so faithfully, would have borne with our querulous murmurs so patiently, or relieved our necessities so delicately and so liberally.487487   Prov. xviii. 24.

If you have such a friend as this, your own or your father's, take care to retain him; do not alienate him by negligence or a deficient consideration. Put yourself out of the way to show that you appreciate and value him; do not allow a false reserve or a foolish shyness to check your expression of gratitude. A friendship is a delicate growth; and even when it has become robust, it can easily be blighted. The results of years may be lost in a few days. And if a root of234 bitterness springs up, if a division occurs, it may be quite impossible by every effort in your power to heal the breach or to pluck up that obstinate root. "A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city: and such contentions are like the bars of a castle."488488   Prov. xviii. 19. The closer the intimacy had been, the tenderer the friendship, so much the sterner will be these bars, so much the more inexpugnable the castle. For it will be felt, if such protestations, such interchange of affection, such mutual delights, could have been deceptive, mere hypocrisies or delusions, what hope can there be that the same things broken and patched up again can be of any worth? A difference with a chance acquaintance is easily removed; further knowledge may improve our opinion of one another, and even if we separate we have no deep resentment. But a difference between true friends may quickly become irreparable. They feel that there is no more to know; they have seen the best and that has proved disappointing. The resentment springs from a sense of abused confidence and injured love.

If you have real friends then, take pains to keep them. Watch carefully for the small beginnings of a rupture and hasten to heal it. Think no effort is wasted, and no apology or explanation is too humiliating, which may avert that great calamity,—the loss of a true soul-comrade; one whom you have learnt to honour with the name and dignity of friend.

"The friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,"

says our wise poet,

"Grapple them to thy soul with hooks of steel."


Such a friendship as we have been considering, rare and beautiful as it is, forms a noble stepping-stone to the loftier relationship of Christian love. In tone and quality it is almost the same; it differs only in its range and in its motive. What one man feels to another in an ideal friendship, the Christian is called upon, according to his capacity and opportunity, to feel to man as man, to all his fellow-creatures. We cannot of course fulfil all the offices of friendship to every one, and we are not as Christians required to abate one jot of our love to those who are our friends by affinity and by choice. But where the heart is truly Christian it will become more expansive, and it will be conscious of the powerful claims which weakness, misery, solitude, or even moral failings, make upon its friendship; it will shrink from the selfishness inherent in all affections which are merely selective and exclusive; it will earnestly desire to feel an affection which is inclusive and quite unselfish. Where is to be found the motive for such an enlarged spirit of friendship? Whence is to come the impulse to such a self-surrender?

Surely such a motive and such an impulse are to be discovered only in that relation of friendship which God Himself deigns to sustain towards the human soul. Jehoshaphat in his prayer appeals to God on the ground that He had given the land to "Abraham His friend for ever."489489   2 Chron. xx. 7. And we read of Moses that "the Lord spake unto him face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend."490490   Exod. xxxiii. 11. But in this position of one who is called the father of the faithful, and of one who was the leader of his people, we cannot but236 recognise a promise and a foreshadowing of a relation with God which was meant to become more general. The whole tendency of the Gospel is to put every believer in our Lord Jesus Christ on a spiritual level with the most favoured and richly endowed of a former dispensation. And since the Incarnate Son lived on earth, and called the simple peasants of Galilee to be, not His servants, but His friends, if they did whatsoever He commanded them,491491   John xv. 14. we may without presumption—nay, we must if we would not grieve Him by unbelief—accept the mysteriously dignified position of God's friends. The feeblest and the poorest, as well as the strongest and most gifted, believing in Jesus Christ, in proportion as he heartily accepts the authority and obeys the commandment of his Lord, is a friend of God. It is a very unequal friendship, as we must all feel. He has all the strength, all the wisdom, all the goodness, all the gifts; but the sense of inequality is removed by His own gracious friendliness: He attaches such importance to a heartfelt love that He is willing to accept that as the fair equivalent of all that He does and gives to us; and He remedies the terrible inferiority of His friends by realizing His own life in them and merging their imperfection in His perfectness, their limitations in His infinity.

Now, shall we venture to assume that you and God are friends; that the beautiful relation which we have examined, the delight in mutual companionship, the interchange of thought and feeling, the quick and quickening response of love and comprehension, exist between you and Him? Come and read some of these237 sayings again and apply them to Him. You may gaze into the heart of God, and as face answers to face in a quiet pool, you may find yourself in Him,—a larger self, a truer self, a holier self, than you could ever find in any human fellowship, or than you had ever dared to imagine. This familiar intercourse with God, which has its roots in a profound reverence and its fruits in an unutterable joy, is the new creation of a human soul. A man will be known by his friends, and most assuredly he will be known, if his Friend and most constant Companion is God. He will regard that status as his highest title and distinction, just as Lord Brooks was so proud of knowing Sir Philip Sydney that he wished his epitaph to be "Here lies Sir Philip Sydney's friend."

Again, in this close fellowship with God, in His warnings and encouragements and chastisements, even in the "faithful wounds" that He inflicts, does not the heart perceive His sweetness as an ointment and perfume? Does not the quiet place where these passages of tender friendship between your soul and God occur become redolent with a precious fragrance, as of incense or of fresh flowers?

And then the deep meaning which the friendship of God brings into our text, "A friend loveth at all times, and as a brother"—yes, our Divine Brother, the Lord Jesus Christ—"is born for adversity;" or into that other saying, "There is a lover that cleaves more than a brother"! Let us have no loud pharisaical ways in blessing our Friend,492492   Prov. xxvii. 14. but let no effort seem too exacting to retain unbroken this priceless blessing of the Divine Communion!


Now, where the soul counts God its nearest and dearest Friend,—the Friend of whom nothing in life or death can rob it,—this effect follows by a beautiful necessity: the chief and all-inclusive friendship being secured, we are at leisure from ourselves to soothe and sympathise, we are able to extend our thoughts and our ministries of love to all around us, and to reflect in our relations with men that exquisite relation which God has deigned to establish with us. Our own private friendships then produce no exclusiveness, but rather they become the types of our feelings to others, and the ever-springing fountainhead of friendly thoughts and courteous deeds; while these private friendships and our wider relations alike are all brought up into the lofty and purifying friendship which we hold with our God and He with us.

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