Monday, May 02, 2005

Proverbs and Friendship

A glorious day filled with sunshine. A clean clear deep blue sky studded with fluffy meringue clouds. Birds chirping among the shady branches of old rambutan and mango trees. Proud palm trees tapping in the light breeze. A great day to read Proverbs under the perfume of a frangipani tree.

A wonderful day for cat-spotting near the Singapore River...

a not-so-good day for the cat who gets spotted...

This lovely black cat reminded me of Kiki's best friend, Jiji, in Miyazaki's "Kiki's Delivery Service". Kiki and Jiji were brought up together from infancy so shared a friendship more intimate than any of the other relationships in their lives.

And a common topic of conversation with various people these few weeks has been that of Christian friendship. The Book of Proverbs observes that good friendship is friendship that is:
  • constant: fair-weather friends are many, especially when one is wealthy ("The poor is disliked even by his neighbour, but the rich has many friends" (14:20), "Wealth brings many new friends, but a poor man is deserted by his friend" (19:4), "Many seek the favour of a generous man, and everyone is a friend to a man who gives gifts. All a poor man's brothers hate him; how much more do his friends go far from him! He pursues them with words, but does not have them." (19:6-7)); but a true friend "sticks closer than a brother" (18:24) and "loves at all times" (17:17). The reader of Proverbs is urged to give this type of loyalty in friendship (27:10), especially to old, staunch friends who may be easily dropped for new company, but whose staunchness has withstood the test of time;
  • honest: "faithful are the wounds of a friend" (27:6), for a man that flatters his friend spreads a net for his feet (29:5). But any thanks that a friend gets for this service is likely to be delayed (28:23);
  • cheering in fellowship: "Oil and perfume make the heart glad, and the sweetness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel" (27:9);
  • sharpening in a healthy clash of personalities or views: "Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another" (27:17); and
  • tactful: there is respect for another's feelings (eg. outstaying one's welcome and forcing one's friendship on the other (25:17), being jolly at the time when it is unwelcome (27:14)); a refusal to play with his emotions (eg. being cruel: "Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, and like vinegar on soda." (25:20), not knowing when a joke has gone far enough (26:18-19)).
Proverbs also speaks of the vulnerability of good friendship and implies the need to guard it against the malicious gossip's delight in disruption ("a whisperer separates close friends" (16:28)) or the delight of one who holds an advantage over his fellow, in pursuing it ("whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends." (17:9)).

As God, in his grace, cuts away at the cancer in more and more aspects of my life, I am challenged in my pagan consumerist concept of friendship: is a good friend too burdensome? Too boring? Too hurtful? Doesn't agree with my views? Why not just move on to another who is more agreeable? Why suffer in an unpleasant relationship when there are so many others to be explored out there?

And why not? Because we are God's covenant people; because we are given the ability to live in fear of God and also in intimate relationship with him; we are given true knowledge of God and his ways, so we live as God has made us to live, in proper relationship with our fellowmen. And a right friendship is that which is constant, honest, cheering, sharpening and tactful and must be protected.

One of the most heartwarming examples of good friendship I've witnessed recently is that of a chap in ARPC whose care of his mate who was injured in a bad motorcycle accident was delightfully loyal: his constant virgils at the hospital, his patience in sending this friend to and fro, his kindness and generousity with his time and energy was a great encouragement to me treat my friends with such brotherly love.

Yet, I am also reminded that it is easy to be generous with a friend's weaknesses when those weaknesses don't affect us personally; it costs us little to say that we love that friend in spite of his failings. But when those failings burden us in more than just time and energy but also in emotion, or cause us deep hurt, and weary us tremendously, it is difficult to stop ourselves from running away, from leaving the friendship, from not staying to help and see this friend through his struggles with his sins but shout from a safe place far away from all the mess and misery, "Don't worry! God is sovereign! He will help you! I'll pray for you!".

Like a certain variety of fairy tales where, to succeed in his quest, the protagonist has to hold on to a certain person no matter what that person shape-shifted into (terrible monster, fire-breathing dragon, poisonous snake, ugly old hag, squeaky rat, branch of fire), we are to hold our friend close through all shape-shifting trials and tribulations of living as a sinful people in this life.

How can we fit such a tall order? Like so much of Proverbs, it's not about our having a right morality nor good manners nor strength of character. That's all centred on ourselves. Instead, wisdom in friendship is God-centred: it's about the fear of the LORD: an intimate knowledge of him, given by his revelation to us, our reverence and obedience to his ways, and our trust and faith that his ways are how we were constructed to live and how we can best relate. It's about repenting of our past way of life in a very practical way: by doing away with what we ourselves think is best and informing our minds and trusting and living out God's ways. And we have the Spirit himself to guide us through the Scriptures and to renew our hearts and minds to do so.


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