The Lost Art of Keeping Friends

Whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends.

Proverbs 17:9 (ESV)

One of the most amusing books in the evangelical world came out several years ago and is entitled The 77 Habits of Highly Ineffective Christians. Understanding that sometimes satire makes a point better than a straightforward proposition, its author, Chris Fabry, asserted that those Christians hoping to rise to new levels of mediocrity should adopt Habit #72: Hold Grudges: “First tell yourself you have the right to be angry. This is the ‘mull’ stage. Then move from the mull to active hatred. Begin thinking of terrible things you’d like to do to that person or their family members. The third stage is ‘holding.’ A grudge does you no harm unless you continually pull it out, poke it, prod it or mentally play with it.”[1] All kidding aside, nurturing relationships is hard work. True friends are both forgiving and discrete. This is biblical wisdom.

The character of a true (and a false) friend is one of the recurring themes of the book of Proverbs. Shallow friends are attracted to wealth (14:20; 19:4, 6-7), but the faithful friend is marked by steadfast love (17:17), “earnest counsel” (22:24), and perseverance (18:24; 27:10). In other words, a false friend asks what he can get from another person; a true friend is scheming for ways to give.

This sentiment is captured in Proverbs 17:9 as well. What characterizes the friend who seeks love? A willingness to cover an offense. Sometimes, it is appropriate to overlook a friend’s sin. This, of course, should come as no surprise to followers of Jesus. It is the Savior who charged his disciples, “[I]f anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt. 5:39). Christians, in general, are to be marked by a willingness to endure being wronged. However, more particularly, when slighted by another brother or sister, Christians are to forgive, and forgive, and forgive (seventy times seven).

What is a surefire way to end a friendship? Repeat the matter (v. 9). Instead of covering over the offense and moving on, remember it and relive it. This may be as simple (and harmful) as gossiping. A true friend knows when to be silent. This is the point of a parallel proverb: “a whisperer separates close friends” (16:28). Clearly the gossip, the whisperer, refuses to forgive. He has chosen, instead, to pay back venom for venom, evil for evil, sin for sin.

One might think that this kind of verse, this kind of teaching, would be unnecessary in a local church. However, Christians gather not because they are finally sanctified but because they are fully redeemed. As Paul put it, “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Eph. 5:2). This is the starting point for Christian friendship; we who are loved and forgiven by Christ should be ready to love and forgive others as well.

Easier said than done? Undoubtedly; enduring wrongdoing by those we love can be painful – and even more excruciating when it involves a spouse. Some sins, of course, are too harmful to be overlooked, but most of the wrongs we encounter on a daily basis must be. This is a truth for shepherds of the flock to understand if only because, sadly, pastors spend so much time mediating disputes. However, it is not always the pastor’s role to figure out who is right. Such an outcome rarely saves a friendship anyway. Rather, healthy churches learn to seek love by imploring their own to cover an offense.

Of course, this verse can be personal for pastors as well. How often, after all, are they the ones wronged? With a congregation of “friends,” a pastor could spend Monday through Saturday stewing over Sunday’s grievances. “Why wasn’t my fellow elder more encouraging?” “Why does Bill have to take a stand on this?” May the Lord give embattled pastors the grace to seek love, day in and day out, and model for their people Proverbs 17:9. After all, pastors are called to be shepherds, not sheep.

[1] Chris Fabry, The 77 Habits of Highly Ineffective Christians (Downers Grove: Il: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 87.