Not Settling for Substitutes
None of us, I think it is fair to say, is immune from the temptation to settle for worldly substitutes of other-worldly blessings. Entertainment might be a substitute for worship. Gossip might be a substitute for prayer. “Venting” might be a substitute for biblical confrontation. Making acquaintances might be a substitute for biblical friendship.
In The Company We Keep: In Search of Biblical Friendship, Jonathan Holmes has provided fellow believers with an incisive and deeply penetrating analysis of the problem of settling for “making acquaintances” rather than committing ourselves to forging biblical friendships—friendships that have Christ and His kingdom service as their motivation and goal. In Jonathan’s words, “…I want to try to show you God’s great design for biblical friendship and describe how we can all take concrete steps toward the kind of friendships that can and should exist among believers” (p. 18).
Yet, “this vision of friendship stands in stark contrast to the status quo” (p. 32). In our day, it is so easy to spend our time interacting with other people while being “insulated” by technology (with the ever-expanding variety of social media options) or by common interests (sports, shopping, homeschool co-ops, etc.). So although social media and common interests afford opportunities for communicating information or engaging in common activities, they can also provide “comfort boundaries.”
For example, two young men on a church volleyball team might see one another weekly and appreciate one another’s contributions to the team—and they might even offer some help to one another in a time of need—but they would not necessarily have to become vulnerable or transparent about what goes on in their hearts. What brings them together, playing volleyball, can also set a comfortable limit for their interaction with one another. As long as they share volleyball as a common interest, their interactions need not reach beyond the boundaries on the volleyball court.
Is that a problem? Possibly. These two volleyball teammates might never have what Jonathan defines as a biblical friendship with one another, but a problem is created when these men assume their level of relationship as teammates is all that God has for them.
Jonathan explores the practicalities of developing vulnerable, transparent, kingdom-oriented relationships with considerable balance. Biblical friendships do require commitment and time to develop and flourish—and Jonathan clearly describes what he calls the “marks of biblical friendship: constancy, candor, carefulness, and counsel” (pp. 45-59). Since we all have limited time and resources, the number of close friendships we have will be limited as well. Consequently, The Company We Keep offers practical suggestions for using one’s time wisely and creatively in order to foster biblical friendships.
God’s Design for Our Friendships
The Company We Keep excels beyond much of the relationship literature already in Christian bookstores by explaining friendship in terms of God’s design for us on two fronts. First, he draws implications about the depth of relationship we should expect to be a part of our lives given that we are made in the image of a triune God. God has always existed in intimate communion as Father, Son, and Spirit. It should not surprise us that we feel uneasy, dissatisfied, and “empty” when we are starved of close friendships in our lives.
Second, he draws implications about the motivation and goal guiding of the relationships that occupy our lives. Biblical friendships are friendships that should further God’s kingdom agenda. They should strengthen our resolve to reach to others with the love of Christ. They should equip us with opportunities to contribute to the Great Commission. They should provide opportunities to further our growth in grace so that our lives “adorn” the message of the gospel with a realism that should capture the attention of non-Christians. By writing about friendship in this way, Jonathan has kept The Company We Keep from being another “do-it-this-way” self-help book.
Jonathan clearly thinks theologically about his topic, but he does not overwhelm readers with tedious or obscure discussions. Instead, he carefully uses Christian thinkers—ranging from Augustine to Tim Keller—to illuminate his points. Furthermore, he uses bold and humbling illustrations from his life and ministry. I found myself many times resonating with examples he gave thinking, “Yes, I’ve seen that…I’ve experienced this.”
For Further Reflection…
The Company We Keep, for all its valuable insights, is brief and can be read is a relatively short time. This is by design of the publisher. The book’s brevity, however, leaves open numerous opportunities for further research and reflection on biblical friendship. Among those opportunities, I thought of the following:
- The implications of the Bible’s covenant theme. Clearly the covenant theme is a primary way in which the believers’ relationship with God is presented in the Old and New Testaments. Some writers, such as Michael Horton, understand “image of God” in covenantal terms, making it central to understanding all of human experience. How might the notion of covenant extend and expand how we understand Christian relationships? How might a covenant backdrop shade our understanding of the two great commands, love God and neighbor?
- The implications of Ephesians 4:1-3 for setting priorities in our Christian friendships. Paul says that honoring the call we have received—the call to be part of the church—begins with a particular attitude regarding relationships. Humility, gentleness, and patience are prerequisites—and they pave the way for “maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” The unity of the Spirit, then, gives expression to the realities of one body, one hope, one faith—and one God who is over all and through all and in all. In what ways can biblical friendships foster this grand demonstration of the grace of God’s redemptive plan? How do biblical friendships exhibit or promote the “unity of the Spirit”? How does the unity of the Spirit, made possible by the ministry of Christ and predestined by the plan of God, shape our lives with one another?
Exploring such questions certainly would take Jonathan’s initial insights into some new and beneficial directions. We can be thankful for Jonathan helping us see the blessings that lay ahead of such explorations.