The Best Friendship In The World

Three friends together laughing
You can listen to a podcast of this post at Keep On with Abigail Wallace.

I am a mess of unfinished business. I feel pangs of “in process-ness” every single day. Not that I have attained or been made perfect, Paul said. But if there is anything true, lovely or admirable about me, odds are it was shaped by my friends.

The truth is, I wouldn’t be me without my friends.

God Grows Us Through Our Friends

But spiritually, as physically, we can’t usually see growth happen. Discouraged, we ask: God, how are you working in me?

If you’ve ever wondered about how exactly God does work in you, here’s a great answer.

…[It] is rather like the woman in the first war who said that if there were a bread shortage it would not bother her house because they always ate toast. If there is no bread there will be no toast. If there were no help from Christ, there would be no help from other human beings. He works on us in all sorts of ways […] But above all, He works on us through each other…

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Chapter 7

God works in us through our friends.

Our Friends, God’s Grace

God uses their hugs to love and heal us, their words to convict and encourage us. God transforms us through our friends. Christian friendships are a means of grace.

If the phrase “means of grace” is new to you, it refers to the ways in which the Holy Spirit works in our lives to make us more like Christ. We can think of them as “channels through which God’s love and power flow” to his people. Scripture, prayer, and the sacraments are means of grace.

But Christian friendship is too. Friends are a massive means of God’s grace to us—his transforming, often uncomfortable, grace.

Smoothing And Honing

A few months ago, a friend asked me if I saw any “blind spots” in her. That question is not for the faint of heart. But if she could do it, I could too. So I asked her the same. What she said is another post and I’m not suggesting that you ask.

But I do hope that you have friends close enough to smooth your rough spots and to hone your dull edges. Because we all have those.

Good friends shape us as iron sharpens iron (Proverbs 27:17) and as sandpaper rubs wood (“walking with the wise,” Proverbs 13:20). The second process is more gradual and gentle. It throws fewer sparks.

But both are needful. The sanding that comes naturally from walking together is as necessary for our spiritual growth as trusted wounds from a friend (Proverbs 27:5-6).

What Friends Sharpen You?

Author and blogger Tim Challies couldn’t be more clear about why we need iron-sharpens-iron friends.

You need spiritual friendships for the sake of your soul; a sinful person who can hold tight to your depravity. You are a weak-eyed person who often cannot see yourself as you are; a selfish person who sometimes struggles to live for anyone or anything apart from yourself. And you need friends who will help you, serve you, strengthen you, equip you. You need friends to temper your weakness, to challenge your sinfulness, to comfort your sorrows, to speak truth into your tragedies.

Foster Your Friendships

I am a weak-eyed person who cannot see myself as I am. I need friends. You needs friends.

So who sharpens you? Who is sharpened by you?

What Friends Rub Off On You?

While iron sharpening iron implies a focus and directness that might hurt, sandpaper relationships need not rub us wrong. I think of these type of friendships as those that shape us in less direct, edge-of-blade sort of ways.

Our friends influence us—and not only the closest five—simply by allowing us close enough so that they can rub off on us.

Here’s a short list of some sandpapery friends. Not that they’ve never been iron-sharpening friends, but they come to mind now less for their words and more for their rub-off influence.

They are soft-spoken friends like Traci and Brooke who help me to speak more gently and huge-hearted friends like Julia and Chrissy who make me want to give. They are self-controlled friends like Hannah and Mary who help me skip second dessert and hospitable friends like Christin and Jen who make me open to host. Ginny and Donna’s prayers spur me to be faithful in prayer, Sarah and Sandra’s pure hearts show me dirt in mine, and Shari and Myrt’s art help me see beauty. Then there’s my good friend mom.

This list could go on and on. God must give me so many good friends because there are so many prickly sides of me.

We all have those sides. So what friends are rubbing off your rough sides and rubbing off of you?

The Best Friendship In The World

Michael Haykin’s Iron Sharpens Iron is a short book about great friendships. I haven’t read it yet, but I intend to. (Any friends out there who’d like to read it with me? 😄 ) My gratitude to Tim Challies for his book review.

This excerpt is from John Ryland’s sermon at the funeral of his friend Andrew Fuller. Their friendship, Ryland said, had

never met with one minute’s interruption by any one unkind word or thought, of which I have any knowledge. I never had a friend who was so willing to stand by me, even in such services as most others would wish to decline; yet I never had a friend who would more faithfully, freely, and affectionately give me warning or reproof, if ever it appeared necessary; or whom I could more readily and freely, and without the least apprehension of giving offence, tell of any fault which I imagined I could see in him. And this I think is the best friendship in the world. 

For no man is faultless; and true friendship will not be blind to the failings of those we love best; but will rather show itself in an anxious concern to prevent the least appearance of evil in them, or whatever might occasion their good intentions to be misrepresented. […]This most faithful and judicious friend is taken from me, and never will my loss be repaired upon earth!

I’ve been reflecting on that description all week.

It is exquisite because it tells how iron and sandpaper meld. Fuller was a friend who both stood by and warned. He faithfully and affectionately warned, Ryland said, and was so willing to stand by me.

And this I think is the best friendship in the world. 

I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business.

Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.

John 15:15

On Influence & A Good Influence Named Linda

Two women smiling, Linda and author, influence

You cannot be profoundly influenced by what you do not know.

Let’s talk about influence.

Dr. Pepper seltzer, Tim Hawkins, the ragged copy of My Utmost in her WC twenty years ago that led to one in mine; the elegance of Hedgehog and Goudge and countless other good books, whole cream in coffee, radish slices not Ruffles, and those flexible plastic cutting boards. Oh, those blessed chopping mats!

How could possibly forget that legendary Swiss vinaigrette, something like this but on the exact recipe, I’ve vowed secrecy.

Those things are not the half of it. They’re only a fraction of the ways Linda has influenced me.

On Linda’s Influence

You went to Peoria again last weekend? my friends ask. Why’d you go down this time?

It’s alway the same reason: Linda. Linda and John, and their five vibrant kids—remember that long, non-looping trip?— and their beloved “urban family” who have become our friends too.

And Linda. Linda is my husband’s sister, my sister-in-law. But more, she is my friend.

Turns out, my first memory of Linda is my first memory of my husband Jim. I was 14 when my family spent two August weeks at their grandparents’ campground. Jim and Linda would bound and bounce around the deck then spring into that little Meadowlark Acres pool. Vivacious, friendly, bright—I loved the life in them. Thirty-one years after we met at the pool, I still do.

Linda is a good influence—a joyful, faithful, cheerful influence. But you cannot be profoundly influenced by what you do not know.

Linda and her crew are why we go to Peoria. Because we want to know them more. I want them to influence me.

Think About These Things

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Philippians 4:8

As a man thinks in his heart, so is he. Proverbs 23:7

What do you think about when your mind is “resting”? Because the teacher wrote, as you think, so you are.

Lovely people think about lovely things, Alistair Begg said in a message on Philippians 4:8. By extension, truthful people think true thoughts, pure people think pure thoughts, and just people think just thoughts.

But the only way we can get those good thoughts a-thinkin’ is to place ourselves with them in the first place. That means we seek out good influences—influences that build our strength, our faith, our joy.

Do you see why all the three-hour drives to Peoria and all the time spent in the Word? In a word: influence.

Because thoughts stick around. For better and worse, they loop.

There’s a sign on a gravel road in Alaska that reads, Choose your rut carefully. You will be in it for the next 25 miles.

We have a say in what tracks we choose. As Christians, we’re called to choose an excellent and praiseworthy groove. Which means I must wisely choose my influencers. I must make an effort to spend time with people like Linda who affect me for good.

And I must set the Lord always before me.

There Are No Ordinary People (So Be A Good Influence)

God created us to be influenced. Over and over, Scripture calls us to imitate, to be influenced for good. First, by the Spirit applying God’s Word (2 Timothy 3:16-17). But then by the fellow image-bearers with whom we rub shoulders.

But God also created us as influencers.

This bit from Lewis is often quoted, and for good reason. Because we are all in process. We are all heading one direction or the other. We are all influenced and influencers.

It is a serious thing […] to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations -these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. 

From The Weight of Glory, by C.S. Lewis. Lewis delivered this sermon at Oxford University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, on June 8, 1941.

All day long, we are influencing each other in one direction or another. Influence is never neutral.

You are not what you think you are. But what you think, you are.

We are influenced—for good or for ill—by who we know and by what we know. This knowledge base directly impacts our thoughts. As we think, so we are.

Which brings us back to the top. Find yourself some good influences. Latch on to a Linda. And set the Lord always before you.

Because you cannot be profoundly influenced by that which you do not know.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Philippians 4:8

Make A Name, Or Praise His Name

Peter Bruegel painting Tower of Babel make a name
The Tower of Babel, by Peter Bruegel the Elder

We grow small trying to be great.

E. Stanley Jones

The whole earth had one language and the same words. And as the people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there…Then they said, “Come let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heaves, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” Genesis 11:1-2, 4

Fame… I Wanna Live Forever. Baby Remember My Name

Who doesn’t want to make a name for himself? Who doesn’t desire a little bit of fame? Not enough to attract the paparazzi. But just enough so people remember you, colleagues quote you now and then, and your name carries weight; so that with you can enjoy “Basking in the glorious wake of modest achievement”?

Who wouldn’t want that? (If you tend to agree, you might enjoy 9 Quotes for Glory Seekers).

Remember hunting through honor-roll lists to find your name?  Or buying the paper just to see it in print? We’re hardwired to seek significance. At least since Babel, we sons of Adam and daughters of Eve have sought to make a name for ourselves.

Juxtaposed Names

Many of us learned about the Babel confusion in Sunday school. And we’ve known Father Abraham had many sons for just as long. But have you ever noticed how God set the two side-by-side, juxtaposed?

Juxtapose means to place close together for contrasting effect. I think God uses juxtaposition for our instruction, to make things more obvious. And re-reading Genesis this week has me thinking that Babel and Abram can teach us a lot about making a name.

Maybe they way they’re placed is supposed to teach us that making a great name is bit like catching butterflies. If we run straight at them, they flit away.

Here’s what I mean.

Genesis 11 begins like this: Let us make a name for ourselves. Chapter 12 begins like this,

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  

Striving for fame, the tower building, name and fame seekers were dispersed. But Abram who by faith obeyed receives God’s unsolicited blessing: a great nation and a great name.

Do you see? Do I see? For the Christian, a great name is not self-made. It is given. 

We Don’t Make A Name—It’s Given

Throughout Scripture we see that great names are given by God, not made by man. After all, it was our Lord Jesus himself who said, whoever would lose his life would find it and whoever would be first must be last. This is our God, the Servant King.

The book of Ruth reveals the same. Do you recall the name of the guy who had first “dibs” on marrying Ruth? The name of the man who “took off his sandal“? The fellow who rejected Ruth for fear it would compromise his own name, his own inheritance?

Stop racking your brain. His name isn’t recorded. My Bible footnote says the Ruth’s narrator references this man with an indefinite, like “So and So.” In order that his name wouldn’t be remembered at all.

But you do know the name Boaz, don’t you?

Then Boaz said to the elders and all the people,”You are witnesses this day that I have bought from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and Mahlon.  Also Ruth the Moabite, the widow of Mahlon, I have bought to be my wife, to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance, that the name of the dead may not be cut off from among his brothers and from the gate of his native place.  You are witnesses this day.” 

Unconcerned with his own fame, unfazed by maintaining Mahlon’s name, it is the name of Boaz is remember. Boaz, the father of Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David.

Judas And Mary: 2 More Juxtaposed Names

Mark records a gathering at Simon the Leper’s home. Mary the sister of Lazarus (John 12:3) and Judas were there with Jesus. Mary pre-anointed Jesus for his imminent burial with, “an alabaster flask of pure nard worth a year’s wages.”

What about Judas? On the verge spectacular sin, he scolds Mary for “wasting” the perfume. To which Jesus replies,

Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.  For you always have the poor with you and whenever you want you can do good for them.  But you will not always have me.  She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial.  And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.  Mark 14:6-9

And so Mary’s name is memorialized. Which explains why for ages “Mary” held the top honors for girls’ names, while, last I looked, “Judas” has never made it to the top 3,792 in boy names.

Mary’s name is remembered not because she sought fame but because she loved the One whose name is truly great. We don’t know who designed the Tower of Babel, but by faith Abram obeyed and God made his name great. We don’t know who the Sandal Man was, but we know Boaz. He was the great-grandfather of King David.

And we all know the name of Great David’s Greater Son. Because it is the only Name by which we must be saved.

Praise that name and you will live forever.

Oh, magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together!

Psalm 134:3

The Solution to Pollution is Dilution

When good speakers prepare, they anticipate the questions their listeners might ask. Last weekend I was blessed to speak at a women’s retreat.

And there was one question I was not ready for.   

Perfectionism, Stagnation, or Growth?

I’ll tell you about the question that stopped my cold in a minute. But let me start here where I started with the group: growth. I don’t take for granted that we all embrace a growth mindset.

But keeping growth as the goal guards against two life-choking dangers: perfectionism and stagnation. Perfectionism says I can’t believe I messed up. How could I have done that? It won’t bend. It demands 100% in ourselves or others- now. And when failure inevitably comes perfectionism crumbles in defeat.

But stagnation is equally stifling. It wallows and argues that change is simply impossible. That’s just the way I am, it reasons, I can’t help it. John Piper calls it spiritual fatalism and says it’s when we feel that genetic forces and family forces and the forces of past experiences and present circumstances are just too strong to allow us to change. 

A focus on growth prevents both perfectionism and spiritual fatalism. To say that we can amend the soil is to embrace growth.

How’s your soil?

“Amending the Soil” was the theme- it was all about how we can change the “pH of our hearts” for greater fruitfulness, productivity and growth.

With that growth groundwork laid, we moved to a list of “faith fertilizers,” found in 2 Peter 1:5-7. Add-ins like patience and love and self-control that change our heart soil so good things- or more good things- can grow. 

Then we landed on verse 8: For if these qualities are yours and are increasingnote: increasing and growing, not perfected and arrived at- they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. Adding these qualities changes our “soil” for good. 

Now I asked the ladies to describe the current state of their heart soil. Was it muddy, weedy, rocky, or clay? Exhausted, high-yield, wild, or dry? 

The responses were what you expect from hard-working women on a weekend retreat: plenty of exhausted souls, two weedy women and one wild woman. Sharing time was going swimmingly.

Until Shelly chimed in with the question that stopped me cold.

What about contaminated soil?

What about contaminated soil? I’m surrounded by toxic relationships at work and at home. How am I supposed to change those? 

Alrighty then. Easy for me to talk about growth and change and growing in grace. But I was not prepared for this. 

Back to the garden metaphor for a minute. My dad adds coffee grounds to the soil around his blueberries to help the plants grow. But what if there’s a can of paint buried next to the blueberry plants seeping its poisons into the roots? 

What about polluting influences and toxic people we can’t escape? How does growth come then?

The Solution to Pollution? Dilution.

Thankfully, my friend Susanne came to my rescue: The solution to pollution is dilution, she said with a grin.

Susanne’s a nurse and she knows. You can’t always remove toxins from the blood, but you can dilute them. You can insert an IV and dilute with fluids.

To go back to the garden metaphor, it means if you dilute a pollutant enough, the resultant intensity of the pollution is reduced; therefore adding clean material to a contaminated product will reduce the toxicity of the resultant mix…diluting the intensity will reduce the potency of a problematic pollutant with dilution.

Shelly was right. We can’t remove all the corruption around us. Workplaces, families of origin, debilitating diseases- all be out of our control.

But we can “reduce the potency of the problematic pollutant.” We can do that.

Change what you can change.

We can’t always change our circumstances. Our world is polluted. It is contaminated and polluted and we feel it. Little ones get infected and we weep. As much as we’d like to insulate ourselves and those we love from contamination, we just can’t.

But we can change what we can change. We can dilute the toxic influences in our soil with good influences.

We are not spiritual fatalists, so toxic relationships” need not hinder growth. We can phone a friend and say, Help me please or text a group, Please pray. We can open the Bible and let its pure words cleanse our contaminated souls.

It won’t be easy. It will take God’s power energizing our effort to “reduce the potency” of the pollution we can’t escape. But we can–we must- dilute.

But there will come a day. 

But there will come a day when we won’t have to deal with toxic people and debilitating diseases, with polluted water and contaminated land. All mysterious will be bright at last.

All will be healed and clean. There will be no toxins seeping or wounded weeping then. And there will be abundant fruit. 

But while we await that glorious day, the best solution to pollution might just be dilution. 

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face…

Revelation 22:1-4a