Growing up, I had a best friend named Anthony. Anthony wasn’t always my friend though. In fact, Anthony and I began our association as two high school kids who wanted to fight one another. Anthony used to make fun of me at football practice and would rally other guys to sing degrading songs about my last name. This went on for some time, and it was embarrassing and very hurtful. After an extended period of harassment, I remember the dynamic switching in Spanish class. I used to make everyone laugh, including him, by making a fool out of myself. The real turnaround happened when I let him cheat off my test. After that he liked me and eventually invested the time to get to know me. Unfortunately, I am not able to laugh with Anthony about this now because he passed away nearly 4 years ago. Writing this produces tears because I can’t reminisce with him about how we loathed one another and then ended up becoming kindred spirits. It wasn’t until we both stopped judging from a distance and started speaking up close, spending time with one another, that we grew to be the closest of friends. It was a wild, adventurous, and a hilarious friendship. Now he is gone, and I miss my friend. It seems that it is much easier to make an assessment about someone from a distance before you truly can get to know them. The same can be said about walking with the Lord Jesus. Anyone can look at Jesus from a distance and say whatever they will, but it isn’t until you get up close and personal that you truly can discover who he is. Listen to what God says: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). The notion of not passing judgement based on outward appearances has always been with me. From my youth, my mother always did say: “Steven, don’t judge a book by it’s cover.” I see her wisdom came from God first.
The interpretation of both appearance and heart affect how we treat our friends and they treat us. If I am honest, I often see first the wrong in how people have mistreated me in “friendships,” yet I fail to reflect on how I may have mistreated them. Sadly, my heart posture parallels a warning Jesus gives: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:3-5). My actions often reflect an inward bitterness, resentment, and downright selfishness. Despite all this time spent pointing out the imperfections of others, I was not seeing the deficiencies in my own heart. I hold all of my friends to an expectation that I myself fall short of. If Jesus is our model for all perfect, pure behavior, then we need to look at how Jesus would treat his friends: he never leaves them or forsakes them. He speaks the truth to them in love, with gentleness and respect. He would, and did, lay down his life for us. Jesus washed their feet and fed them. Am I willing to be this way, do these things, to all my friends at all times? I don’t always choose to be, but Jesus does. Is it fair to place the expectations of perfect friendship on imperfect people?
Placing two imperfect people together in a friendship will have its share of flaws. The perfect friendship is defined by the perfect God. The perfect friend is defined in the person of Jesus; he is selfless, he looks to your best interest before his own, he will never leave you, he is always compassionate, he will always intercede on your behalf and he always takes care of you. My pre-Jesus definition of a “perfect” friend was someone who never held me accountable and would allow me continuance to hurt myself, and others, with alcohol and drugs, they would even join me in the debauchery. My pre-Jesus friendships were based more on what I could get out of the friendship not so much as to what I could put in. A more selfish motive than selfless. Having walked with Jesus a decade I see in hindsight where I was wrong, and where I had wronged others. I wasn’t a Jesus-like friend to my friends. Jesus calls us friends and assures us, “I will never leave you. Surely, I am with you until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). I can count on Jesus for anything, at anytime, anywhere. I’ve encountered countless people, yet only a select few individuals stood by and for me during important moments in my life leaving the impression of a “friend” who looked like, acted liked, and loved like Jesus. Therein lies a problem: Jesus is perfect; our friends are not. Even if we want to be like Jesus to everyone we know and love, we cannot do this perfectly because only Jesus himself is perfect. The Holy Spirit has shown me that if I expect my friends to be perfect, I will always be disappointed. No human is perfect; only God is perfect. If we expect our friends to always answer, love, or act like Jesus, we are setting an unrealistic expectation, and where expectations are unmet, the chance of frustration is likely, if not certain.
The perfect friend is defined in the person of Jesus; he is selfless, he looks to your best interest before his own, he will never leave you, he is always compassionate, he will always intercede on your behalf and he always takes care of you.
Jesus said, “Greater love has no man than this: that he would lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). This is God’s standard for the greatest act of love we can show our friends. The ultimate way to show a true act of friendship would be to lay down your very life for your friends. The perfect model of a true friend is Christ because he himself demonstrated this act of love by laying down his life for us. By dying on the cross, he calls us friends. Honestly, there are probably only a few friends I would lay down my life for. Here’s a more pressing question: would I lay my life down for a complete stranger? God never considered you or I strangers, but “while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6). What the Bible means by “ungodly” is that humans are rebellious and not inclined to act in a way that is pleasing to God. As a matter of fact, we are more selfish in our thoughts and actions than we are God-honoring. This means we need help, not from another ungodly person but from the person who was both God and man.
Vulnerability/Willingness To Be Known
Jesus had twelve disciples, but often took aside three, Peter, James, and John, to experience more intimate events. Two examples of this in Scripture are Matthew 17 (The Transfiguration) and Matthew 26 (Jesus praying in Gethsemane). In both accounts, Jesus was both vulnerable and forthcoming with Peter, James and John. Why model this? In Matthew 17 Jesus transforms his figure and is seen speaking with Moses and Elijah, he even tells them not to speak of the vision until after he rises from the dead. Jesus shared this privileged information and experience not with everyone, but with three. In Matthew 26 Jesus took aside Peter and the two sons of Zebedee (James and John), he began to be sorrowful and troubled. He said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me” (Mt 26:38). And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Mt 26:39). Jesus didn’t express his sorrow, troubles and tears of blood from agony (Luke 22:44) with twelve disciples, but with three. Vulnerability with everyone is not safe. Some of us may want to bear all before everyone and may not have a problem doing so, but it is not a healthy practice. In the past I had the tendency to be vulnerable with too many people, and in many of these cases these people had no idea or context of where I was coming from. They simply didn’t know or couldn’t handle the real Steven Butwell, and that frightened them. Could you imagine if Jesus was transformed before all people, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light (Matthew 17:2)? Or overwhelmed with sorrow, prayed more earnestly that there might be another way to save us rather than death on a cross; and in agony his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground (Luke 22:41-44) in front of anyone and everyone? People wouldn’t know what to do with themselves; they would have no idea what was happening. Jesus had his inner circle of Peter, James and John because Jesus understood the importance of expressing vulnerability with close friends. Not everyone is going to understand where you are coming from or what you are feeling unless you allow them to. Jesus allowed Peter, James and John to see his raw emotions exposed.
No human is perfect; only God is perfect.
A relationship with the freedom of vulnerability can be established through the investment of time. Reach out to friends before they have opportunity to reach out to you. Let’s follow Jesus’ example: ”We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Isn’t this reminiscent of how we became so close with Jesus? Didn’t we get to know him more intimately through spending time reading his love letter, the Bible? By being in constant communication with him, through prayer? Not only speaking to him, but allowing him to speak back to us through the quiet times and scriptures? A genuine relationship is an investment; you get out of it what you put in. Relationships take sacrifice. They are a time-consuming work in progress. A strong friendship isn’t built overnight, but the payoff is ten-fold. Trust is one of the hardest things to gain and one of the easiest things to lose, and at the center of any successful relationship is trust and vulnerability. Even our Lord Jesus was not immune from broken trust. Everyone he loved and called “friend” abandoned him in his greatest hour of need. Peter denied three times that he even knew Jesus. Judas, whom he walked with for three years—sharing meals, time, conversations, and life—betrayed him by handing him over to be arrested. Jesus experienced sorrow and is no stranger to heartbreak; he felt it, experienced it, lived it. Yet, Jesus was never deterred by heartbreak; his greatest heartbreak would have been to lose us forever, and that’s why he chose to die on the cross.
Peter and Judas experienced remorse after their decisions to betray Jesus, yet both men chose different paths to reconcile their decisions. Peter embraced repentance and forgiveness; Judas clutched guilt and condemnation. Peter went on to be a patriarch of the early church; Judas went on to hang himself. Perhaps you, like either Peter or Judas, are at a crossroads concerning how to respond to betrayal. The Bible teaches us that “a brother wronged is more unyielding than a fortified city; disputes are like the barred gates of a citadel” (Proverbs 18:19). If I have wronged someone it is easier to breach a fortified city wall than reconcile, and resolution in the matter would be met with resistance like the gates of a fortress. If an offense is not resolved, there can be bitter consequences. Jesus teaches: “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24). In laymen’s terms: forgive the offenses of friends. Make the first move and attempt reconciliation; be honest and share your heart. If an attempt was made, with no return response, then you have made a God-honoring attempt and all you can do is pray that God moves in that person’s heart. Let Jesus carry the burden; hand it over to him through prayer. Jesus will do the fighting on your behalf, and this will be through your vigilant prayers for both the other person’s and your own heart’s conditions. Jesus instructs us to settle matters of anger in the heart quickly for a reason. If left unchecked, these feelings of resentment, hurt, rejection, or betrayal can lead to feelings of immense hatred or hardness of heart towards these people. You will become cold, calloused, and not caring or loving towards your friends. This is not how Jesus intended us to live with one another; on the contrary, Jesus says, “Love one another, as I have loved you” (John 15:12). The Lord says, “In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold” (Ephesians 4:26-27 NIV). Satan can get a strong grasp on our minds and hearts if we continue to hold onto anger towards others. We cannot live the way God intends if bitterness is in our heart towards another person. If we harbor anger towards another it needs to be reconciled immediately. Through Jesus, our mediator, we can confront the issues and speak the truth in love to one another with gentleness and respect.
Jonathan said to David in 1 Samuel 20:4, “Whatever you want me to do, I’ll do for you.” It is a beautiful statement of unconditional love that only a true friend could make. An expression like this will never originate from a place of obligation. These words of commitment, acts of defending, and vows of trust flow from our genuine love for our friends and, ultimately, Jesus. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Our capacity as people to love other human beings the way Christ does comes only from Jesus having loved us first. “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13 NIV). And isn’t this the same act of unconditional love that Jesus demonstrated to mankind through his death on the cross? It’s a flawless expression of unconditional I-love-you-no-matter-what love! Jesus lived the life that God intended for us. His is the way to God, the truth of God, and the life of God. Jonathan loved David as he loved himself. In short, anything Jonathan would have done to care for his own well-being would also have been done for David as his brother in Christ. In doing what Jesus commands, we show that our love and devotion to him and to our friends are authentic and not something forged.
My best friend Anthony started out as an enemy. At first, I wanted nothing but the worst to happen to him. Yet, in hindsight I cannot picture my life without the impact he had on it. Anthony and I invested the time to get to know one another, developing a friendship I wager either of us wouldn’t trade. We quarreled, laughed, had troubles, had fun, shared tears, and caused trouble, but within our friendship was a special bond that enabled quick, wholehearted reconciliation. Onlookers would point this out to us as well. We rarely disagreed or fought, but if we did, the quarrel ceased soon after and we were back to laughing again about how stupid the argument was. I’ve never had another friend quite like Anthony. I always wanted to be around him; he always made me laugh, and rarely did we not see eye to eye. I miss him and wish I could tell him today how grateful I am for the impact he had on my life and how much I cherished the time we had together. I would tell him how grateful I was that I could be vulnerable with him like Jesus was with Peter. I would tell him how I never felt betrayed by him as Jesus did by Judas. I would remind him that I could say to him with no reservations: Whatever you want me to do, I’ll do for you. Like Jonathan loved David, I loved my friend Anthony as I loved myself, and I would have done just about anything for him. Cherish the friendships you have today because they could be gone tomorrow. Anthony passed away unexpectedly, and I never had the chance to say goodbye to him. While we have the opportunity, let’s tell the friends we have how much we appreciate them and love them, through both our actions and our words, motivated by Jesus Christ as our greatest example of a friend.