Sam and Frodo find themselves on the final leg of their journey on the slopes of Mordor, but Frodo is losing heart. He's just about out of strength and courage. Sam reminds him of the Shire back home, how good it will be to get back there again. He reminds him of their mission to cast that ring of gold into the fires of Mount Doom to destroy it forever. Sam can't carry the ring for Frodo, but he can fill him with courage and get him on the way again.
Do you have a friend like that, who will find you in a dark place and remind you of who you are and what you're about? Someone who will speak courage into your life and get you going again?
Apparently many of us don't have those kinds of friends. Last week we talked about the decline of friendship in our society, how many people say they have few, if any, real friends that they can turn to or talk to, especially in a hard time. And if that's true of people in general, it is most certainly true of men.
Some years ago an author named David Smith wrote a book entitled The Friendless American Male. As disturbing as that title is, studies and surveys have shown time and again that men are far less likely to have meaningful relationships than women are. They have fewer friends, first of all, and the friends they do have are not nearly as close. Men tend to have activity friends, golfing buddies, work associates, or convenience friends, guys they see on the soccer sidelines every week or who ride the same train to work. And that's a good start, but those friendships don't require much and they really don't deliver much. And when the golfing is over, when the soccer season ends, the friendship just fizzles. And that's not good, because men were made for friendships, and so were women.
In this winter season we are thinking together about getting closer to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. For a few weeks we're thinking about friendship, about spiritual friendship in particular. Last week we reminded ourselves that the Christian life is all about following Christ on a journey of personal transformation. But we were never meant to make that journey alone. We were meant to be accompanied by other travelers, not just because it's more fun that way, but because God uses those friendships to shape us, to form us spiritually. This means that your friendships are as important to your spiritual development as your daily devotions and your weekly worship. I'll say it again: Your friendships could be as important to your spiritual formation as your daily devotions and your weekly worship.
We began last week by looking at the relationship between Ruth and Naomi and how God used that relationship, first of all, to shape those two women, to heal Naomi of her bitterness and to bring Ruth into the kingdom and purposes of God. And then through those women, he accomplished something even greater by preparing the way for his Messiah. We learned that spiritual friends turn the journey of life into a journey of faith, a journey that actually leads somewhere—to God and his purposes.
Well, today we'd like to develop some of these ideas a little further. We're going to learn that spiritual friends help each other find and follow God in all the seasons of life. In order to do that, we're going to look at the friendship between a couple of very manly men: David and Jonathan. That doesn't mean this is a sermon just for men any more than last week's sermon was just for women. But I do want to bust some of the stereotypes of relationally challenged men, because this friendship between these two men is one of the most profound friendships in all of literature, in all of history. As we follow them on their journey, we're going to find three ways that spiritual friends help each other find and follow God. So if you have your Bible, we're going to start in 1 Samuel 18 and then hit a few other passages along the way.
Before we read our first text, let me set the scene of what's happening. This scene we're about to read happens just after David defeats Goliath. Perhaps you remember the story. The armies of the Philistines and the armies of Israel are encamped on opposite sides of the valley, and every day Goliath, the giant, the Philistine champion, steps out into the valley to challenge the armies of Israel. He mocks Israel's God and dares anyone to come out and fight him. Day after day, Goliath's challenge is unanswered by the Israelites, until young David volunteers. Armed with a sling and five smooth stones, David steps out into the valley, calls out Goliath, rebukes him in the name of God, and then nails him between the eyes with one stone and brings him crashing to the ground. The armies of Israel are emboldened. They rise up and they drive the Philistines from their land. Immediately afterwards, King Saul congratulates David, with Saul's son Jonathan watching.
Let's look at 18:1: "After David had finished talking with Saul, Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and loved him as himself … And Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself. Jonathan took off the robe he was wearing and gave it to David, along with his tunic, and even his sword, his bow and his belt."
This is a remarkable scene. Remember, Jonathan is the prince. He is the heir to the throne of Israel, and yet he honors David by giving his royal garments and his royal weapons. This gesture suggests that David is more worthy of them than he is.
The second thing to remember about Jonathan is that he is a great warrior himself. Back in chapter 14, Jonathan and his armor bearer go on a midnight raid against the Philistine encampment, just the two of them. They scale a cliff with their hands and feet—their swords between their teeth, no doubt—and singlehandedly, Jonathan destroys twenty Philistine soldiers. The rest of the army hears about what's happening and they panic. The Israelites are filled with courage and they rise to the occasion. The scene is right out of Rambo or James Bond or something like that. Jonathan's a fierce warrior. He's passionate for God.
All of this raises an intriguing question: Where is Jonathan when Goliath comes out and challenges the Israelite army? Why doesn't he answer the call? In chapter 14, just before raiding the Philistines, Jonathan says to his armor bearer, "Come. Let's go over to the outpost of those uncircumcised fellows. Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many of by few." Where's Jonathan now? Where's his courage? Where's his faith? Where's his passion? He must have been there. He's the prince. He's second in command in Israel, but he is conspicuously silent. Now, the Scripture never tells us this, but the evidence suggests that Jonathan had lost heart, that he'd gotten discouraged.
Now if you back up in the story, you learn that after that daring midnight raid, Jonathan's father, Saul, never thanked him, never honored him, never acknowledged what he did. In fact, a short time after that, Saul nearly executes Jonathan for unknowingly breaking a foolish command that Saul had given. So by the time we read of Goliath, it seems that Jonathan has lost heart, that he's discouraged, that he's lost confidence in himself, maybe even confidence in God. But then he sees this shepherd boy come out of nowhere and step out to face the giant, armed with just a slingshot. He hears David declare, "I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied." And when he sees the great victory that God gives to Israel through David, suddenly Jonathan, it seems, begins to remember who he is and who God is. He sees something in David that resonates with something deep inside of himself, to be passionate for God, to be a warrior of God. And that day, he declares that he will be David's friend forever.
Setting the pace for one another
The first thing that spiritual friends do for each other is to set the pace for each other. When one is discouraged or afraid or tired or distracted or just plain lazy, the friend leads the way, helps him along, and even pulls him along.
I remember the first time I ever drafted behind another bike. I had been biking for years but always I went out by myself. I kind of enjoyed the solitude. But one day, a friend, who was a stronger rider, was riding with me and he taught me how to draft behind him. Now, I understood drafting. We've all seen that before in races and on TV. You know how that goes. But I had never drafted before, and it's an amazing experience. The rider in front literally breaks the resistance of the wind in front of you, so it's much easier to make progress. Not only that, he or she creates a vacuum behind that literally pulls you along. You don't have to peddle nearly as hard or as fast to keep the same speed. And so two riders taking turns pulling each other can ride a lot farther and faster than they ever could ride alone. And that's what we're going to see David and Jonathan do as they make their journey together. They take turns riding in front, breaking the wind's resistance and pulling each other along.
I mean, here's Jonathan. He's discouraged. He's out of gas. He's lost sight of God and forgotten who he is and what he's about. And all of a sudden, here comes David whizzing by on his way to defeat Goliath, and Jonathan slides in behind him, finds momentum, and his passion and faith in God are restored. From that day on, David and Jonathan decide that wherever the road takes them, they're going to ride together.
Spiritual friends help each other find and follow God by setting the pace for one another. We all have days and seasons in our lives when it's harder to find God, when we can't hear him that well, when we don't see him at work around us. Maybe we're discouraged or afraid. Maybe we're disappointed in God. Maybe we're just distracted by the cares of life—raising a family, making a living, getting an education. And then someone comes alongside of us and they tell us a story about something God has done in their life. They share some insight from their Bible reading that day. Maybe they just point out the beauty of the day that God has made. And suddenly we're aware of God again. We remember that he's present and that we're his children and that we want to follow again. We get pulled along in the wake of their momentum. We need friends like that.
Last week I shared a story of the first time some friends took me to the top of a mountain skiing and told me to follow them down. I couldn't follow them, and it was a miserable experience. Since that time I've gotten better as a skier and I have found better friends to ski with. And I'd like to introduce you to one of them. His name is Jim. Back in January, we were out west skiing together. What I like about skiing with Jim is that we have about the same ability and we like the same terrain, but what I really like is that we challenge each other. After barely surviving a steep mogul run, one of us will say to the other, "Want to do that again and get it right this time?" When our 54-year-old legs are giving out at the end of the day, one us will say to the other, "If we hurry, I think we can catch the last chair to the top."
And that's good. But what we do for each other skiing, we do for each other spiritually. When we first got to the top of that mountain the first day and took in the beauty of our surroundings and the goodness of having our sons with us and a few days to be together, Jim said to me, "We don't deserve any of this, Will. We just get it. God just gives it to us to enjoy." And suddenly I was more aware of God's presence. As we rode the chair lift up and down, we talked about how to love our wives and how to guide our kids through particular seasons of life. Jim is a marketplace guy, but he's very active in his church, and so we always talk about ministry and leadership. When I woke up in the morning for devotions, Jim was already up having his devotions, reading Encounter with God, which I had recommended to him a few years ago.
The truth is Jim has been setting the pace for me for a long time. We were friends back in college, and when I was trying to decide if Karen was the woman for me, Jim took me for a long walk on campus and said, "She's the one." When I first started speaking at CAMP-of-the-WOODS some years ago, Jim and his family would come and cheer me on and laugh out loud at my jokes. When Grace Chapel called and we were trying to discover God's leading, Jim was one of those friends who talked and prayed and walked me through that transition in life. And so we've been doing this sort of thing for a long time, setting the pace for each other.
Do you have a friend like that? Is there someone in your life who stretches you, who helps you find and follow God? Are you that kind of friend to somebody?
Friends stay faithful
A second thing that friends do for each other is to stick by each other. Friends don't give up on each other when the journey gets tough or long or even dangerous. Let's pick up the story of David and Jonathan in chapter 20. They had been riding together for a while now, but things are getting more difficult. Saul has turned against David and seems to be out to get rid of David. David asks Jonathan to help him, to intercede with his father, to find out what's going on and what he has against him. Listen to what Jonathan says in verse 4: "Jonathan said to David, 'Whatever you want me to do, I'll do for you.'" It was a difficult and dangerous thing that David was asking Jonathan to do. Jonathan was risking his father's wrath against him by doing this, but Jonathan's answer is, Hey, whatever you want me to do, I'll do.
Do you have a friend like that? Is there someone in your life whom you can ask to do anything and he or she will say yes? Are you that kind of friend to someone else?
A little while later, when Jonathan realizes that his father is dead set against killing David and that he has put his own life and future at risk by going against his father, he has a favor to ask of David. Verse 14: "But show me unfailing kindness like the Lord's kindness as long as I live … and do not ever cut off your kindness from my family." Jonathan understands that David will be king someday and that Saul's household will be destroyed, but he asks David to show mercy to his descendants, even though they are of the household of Saul. He uses the words "unfailing kindness." It's from a powerful word in the original language: the Hebrew word hesed, which means enduring, steadfast, loyal love. What agape is to the New Testament, the unconditional love of God in Christ, hesed is to the Old Testament, the unending love of God for his people. Hesed is what we sing about when we sing, "Great is thy faithfulness, O God, my Father. There is no shadow of turning with thee … Summer and winter and springtime and harvest …." When we sing, "Oh no, you'll never let go," we're singing about hesed, about God's loyal, enduring, steadfast love. And spiritual friends love each other like that. They stick by each other through good times and bad, across the miles and across the years.
My friend Jim lives in Buffalo, but we make sure that we see each other once or twice a year. We rearrange our calendars, we plan our vacations together, and we spend money to be in one another's lives, because you have to stay close if you're going to draft with one another. You can't be miles apart if you're going to draw strength from one another. Spiritual friends don't pull away when the other one can't keep up. They don't give up when the other's getting too far ahead. They find a way to make it work. They adjust. They take turns. They're committed to making the journey together.
I came across a story of a man named Ken who was grieving the sudden loss of his father. This is what he writes:
After I got back from my dad's funeral and another two weeks had gone by, the sympathy cards and phone calls became a trickle. I realized that for the majority of people I know, my father's death was over and done with. I had this tremendous fear that I was just coming out of the shock and entering into my true grief work and there was nobody around to help me with it. But I remember thinking to myself, I know Tim will listen to me. If I need to bring it up, I can call Tim, and he'll talk about it.
Do you have a friend like that, someone who takes an interest in you, even when others have lost interest? Are you that kind of friend, not giving up on someone?
Friends have an active voice
So, spiritual friends set the pace. They stick by each other. And, thirdly, spiritual friends speak faith into each other's lives.
Let's drop in one more time on David and Jonathan. Now we're in chapter 23. Saul is definitely out to kill David now. There is no question about it. David has been on the run for a long time, and he's tired of it. He's tired of sleeping in caves. He's tired of looking over his shoulder. And he's a bit frustrated with God. Why has he allowed this to happen? He hasn't done anything to deserve this kind of treatment. Jonathan has kept his distance, apparently, probably not wanting to reveal David's whereabouts. But now Jonathan senses that this is a moment when he needs to go find his friend. So we pick it up at verse 15:
While David was at Horesh in the Desert of Ziph, he learned that Saul had come out to take his life. And Saul's son Jonathan went to David at Horesh and helped him find strength in God. "Don't be afraid," he said. "My father Saul will not lay a hand on you. You will be king over Israel, and I will be second to you. Even my father Saul knows this." The two of them made a covenant before the Lord.
Like Sam and Frodo on the slopes of Mordor, Jonathan finds his friend David in a dark place and helps him find strength in God. What a great phrase: "Find strength in God." Now, how does Jonathan do that? How do you help a person find strength in God? Well, firstly, just by showing up. Jonathan's act of finding David in the wilderness, risking his own life and future, probably made David think, If Jonathan can find me and be with me, then God probably knows where I am and is with me, too. And that's what happens when you show up in a hospital room or a funeral home or a courtroom or a coffee shop to be with someone in a time of need. You're reminding them that God knows where they are and that he's there too.
But mostly what Jonathan does is speak into David's life. He speaks courage to David: "Don't be afraid." He speaks hope to David: "You will be king." Now this is not just wishful thinking. He's not just making it up to help his friend feel better. God has already revealed all of this. Jonathan is simply reminding David of what God has already said. And so he speaks confidence into David's life: "I will be second to you." And then the two of them renew their covenant, reminding themselves that God can be trusted. Jonathan returns, and David is ready to carry on the journey, even by himself. And that's what friends do for each other. They speak courage, hope, confidence, and faith into each other's lives.
Telling stories of God's faithfulness, recalling passages of Scripture, pointing out the hand of God at work—this is the attentiveness we talked about last week. Spiritual friends are attentive. They pay attention to what's going on in a friend's life. They help us hear God's voice when it's difficult. They help us see God's hand at work in confusing circumstances. They help us do God's will when we're tired and afraid.
Do you have a friend like that, someone who speaks faith into your life? Are you that kind of friend?
Last week I introduced you to a couple of longtime friends here at Grace Church, Lois and Charlotte. Today I'd like to introduce you to a couple of other friends here at Grace. This is Artie and Kevin. As you can probably tell, we had a harder time getting Artie and Kevin together than we did Lois and Charlotte, which maybe tells you something about men. I asked them for a good picture of the two of them, and Kevin said, "Well, that's going to be a problem." I said, "Well, how come?" He said, "There are no good pictures of Artie." That statement tells you something about the kind of friends these guys are. It turns out they grew up in Stoneham together. They went to the same schools and kind of knew each other as kids. Well, they lost track of each other but literally bumped into each other again in the maternity ward at Winchester Hospital, when both of their wives were giving birth on the same night. So while their wives were in labor, they caught up with each other for a while and decided maybe they should get together again. So they did and they began to discover that they had all sorts of things in common: they were both in the same line of work, they both worked in the same office building in Burlington, and they were both recovering alcoholics. So they began going to AA together, supporting each other, walking that road together.
After a while Artie began sharing with Kevin that Jesus Christ was his higher power. Kevin was an active churchgoer but had never really come to understand a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And so Artie talked with him along the way, invited him to some things here at Grace, and eventually Kevin and his wife came to know Christ in a personal way. But other things happened along the way. At one point Kevin's sister became terminally ill, and so Kevin called Artie and said, "Would you come over and tell her what you told me about Christ?" Artie did and he prayed with her to receive Christ, just before she died. Then it was Kevin's turn to help Artie out, because Artie came down with cancer. Now Kevin was the one who came to encourage and to speak hope and faith and hope into his life. Then it was the other way again, and now one of Kevin's sons was struggling with anxiety and panic attacks. And so Artie came over, because Artie had struggled with panic attacks and anxiety, and he talked the boy through it.
Now after some years they're both here at Grace. They're active in the CR ministry. They and their wives are members of a life community together. That's what friends do for each other. They take turns setting the pace. They're there for each other. They stay close. They speak faith and hope and courage into each other's lives.
As things turned out, that conversation between David and Jonathan in the desert of Ziph was the last conversation they ever had. Not long after that, Saul and Jonathan died in battle, and David mourned for both of them—for Saul his king and for Jonathan his friend. Now David went on to fulfill his destiny, to become the king of Israel, the greatest king Israel ever had. But if you know the story, you know that David got himself in trouble later on in life. And some have wondered if it might have been a different story if Jonathan had been there to set the pace and stay close and speak faith into his life. Who knows?
Some of us here today need a friend like this. Look around you. Remember, you're not looking for a mentor or a coach or a trainer. You're not looking to ride with Lance Armstrong. You just want someone on the same road you're on, traveling about the same speed. Take a risk and say, "Hey, you want to ride together for a while?" Some of us here today need to be this kind of friend to somebody. We need to come alongside them and say, "Hey, I'll ride in front for a while. You want to get together? You want to talk? Can I help?" We need to begin speaking faith into someone's life, because that's what friends do. They help each other find and follow God in all the seasons of life.
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.