Monday, 1 December 2008

Friendship - Brotherly love at its Best

Some years ago C S Lewis wrote a book called The Four Loves. His point was to help us see that in the English language we only have one word to describe our intense passion about something, love. And we use it in many contexts to express how we feel about life; ‘I love football’, ‘I love Italian cooking’, ‘I love my job’, ‘I love you’. We intuitively know that each of these contexts carries a different sense of the word love. But the Greeks had more words at their disposal, four in fact. Eros – meaning sexual or physical love, Storge – meaning family love, Phileo – meaning brotherly love and Agape the word most often adopted by the NT writers to refer to selfless love or the love of choice. They used this word to describe God’s love.

Phileo love or brotherly love is best understood as friendship love. Experience has taught me that my ability to grow in the love of God, agape love is often determined by my ability to grow in brotherly love. The one makes room for the other. Looking at the scripture it has a lot to say about friendship. Prov 27.17 says; ‘As iron sharpens iron so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.’ The inference is that we grow and develop as people through friendship! And it isn’t always easy. Iron on iron causes sparks to fly. Yet through this interaction we come to new places of understanding, maturity and personal development. We become more than we would be without the friendship.

One of the best accountants of this kind of friendship is in 1Samuel. It records the friendship of Jonathan and David. Jonathan is one of those rare breeds. Nothing negative is written about him in the Bible. He is a truly great man, but he is also a man who seems content to stay in the shadows. Early on in the book of Samuel Jonathan distinguishes himself by taking on a Philistine garrison with only his armourer bearer to help him. Yet along with all the other fighting men he too is intimidated by Goliath. When David shows up and accomplishes a great victory for Israel it makes a big impression on Jonathan. In 1Sam 18 he forms an instant friendship with the young teenager giving him everything that speaks of his position as the son of the King.

This is astonishing! His father’s sin has effectively robbed him of any opportunity to reign over Israel and here before him stands the one who has taken his place. Yet Jonathan does not display an ounce of jealousy or insecurity; quite the opposite. He divests himself of his royal apparel and gives them to David. In one sense he is the first to truly acknowledge David’s call to rule the nation. From that moment, ‘He loved him as his own soul’. This phrase is repeated three times; 1Sam 18.1, 3; 20.17. Whatever else it means it conveys a deep level of appreciation for this young warrior. Out if it they made a covenant of friendship – a commitment to stay true and loyal for all time.

Jonathan effectively became the older brother that David never experienced. David was sidelined by his own family but in this relationship he flourished. Somebody believed in him and made room for him. Further, Jonathan treated David as an equal which is the distinguishing feature of all true friendships. I once counselled a woman who thought she had a good friend. They even went on holiday together with their two families. But after ten years she came to a sudden realisation; the relationship was really one way. There was a lack of genuine equality and respect. The simple fact was that over the ten years they had known each other, her ‘friend’ had never been to her house one time. The relationship worked when things were on the other woman’s terms. When this woman eventually pointed this out her ‘friend’, she wept – but nothing changed.

True friendships are not just about taking. They are also about giving – and doing so with joy and enthusiasm. Jonathan is a great example of this. The scripture says, ‘he greatly delighted in David’, 1Sam 19.1. Everything about David brought joy to Jonathan. Further he demonstrated other qualities of friendship that we do well to emulate. Just as his father Saul kept a jealous eye on David, Jonathan kept an eye on him too – always watching his back and speaking up for him when he was falsely accused. 1Sam 19.4 says: ‘Thus Jonathan spoke well of David to Saul his father...’

On this occasion he was successful in turning away his father’s unreasonable anger. He was not afraid to challenge his father, the King, and align himself with David. However, as time goes on Saul moves back into his old pattern of persecuting David. This time David escapes with the help of his wife Michal and runs to Samuel; 1Sam 19. Think of how confusing this whole situation was for David. The father of his best friend wants to kill him – for no reason. ‘What have I done, what is my iniquity, and what is my sin...’, is his earnest cry to Jonathan, 1Sam 20.1. Saul’s behaviour was so unreasonable neither he nor Jonathan could really understand it. There was no justification, no explanation.

In time Saul begins to resent his own son, interpreting his loyalty to David as disloyalty to him. Jonathan is now left out of the circle of trust and though Jonathan is unaware of this, David perceives the reality of the situation, 1Sam 20.2-3. Notice Jonathan’s response in verse 4, ‘Whatever you yourself desire, I will do it for you’. This is friendship at its most available and most unselfish. Dale Carnegie once said: ‘You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you’. Jonathan was interested in what he could do to help David. There was no selfish or hidden agenda.

The two friends now hatch a plan to expose Saul’s intensions, 1Sam 20. The consequence releases Saul’s full anger against his son with highly insulting words that by today’s idiom could be captured by the phrase; ‘you son of a bitch’, 1Sam 20.30. Notice too how Saul appeals to his son’s self interest, ‘For as long as the son of Jesse lives on the earth, you shall not be established, nor your Kingdom’, 1Sam 20.31. But Jonathan is not interested in establishing his own Kingdom. He is more interested in the truth and the real issue at stake; ‘Why should he be killed? What has he done?’ verse 32.

Real friends fight for the truth on our behalf. They speak when we have no voice. They intervene when we have no power. They carry the burden of fighting for our cause. Jonathan left the scene angry and upset. He couldn’t eat. All he could do was grieve for his friend, embarrassed by a father who is blinded by jealousy and rage. The following day they meet and words fail them. They cry together – but David more so. We sense that he feels the greater loss. Here are friends that through no fault of their own and no choice of their own must be separated. The only comfort they have is the knowledge that the Lord is between them, 1Sam 20.41-42. Sometimes the only thing you do for a friend is cry with them.

Being separated from a friend is never easy. I remember my early days as a believer in a new church. I made friends with a very gifted young man. We just hit it off. Our humour, our love for the Word, our love for the Lord, even the fact that we both had Italian ancestry seemed to give us a special connection. He was the best man at my wedding. But some years later we were separated. Our lives went in two different directions and it was nothing either of us chose. Years later I found myself in the States and a mutual friend helped us to reconnect. I remember how apprehensive I felt. But the truth is we connected in a way that felt like we had never been apart. This is the beauty of real friendship. You can pick up from where you left off. We spent hours talking sometimes till three in the morning - and it felt like moments. Others observed us. They could not believe we hadn’t seen each other for over 15 years. We felt so at ease in each other’s presence.

Having been separated for a while, Jonathan is able to visit David in his stronghold and ‘Strengthen his hands in God’, 1Sam 23.16. What a great phrase that is. David is on the run. He has lost virtually everything, his income, his status, his freedom, his wife. Yet Jonathan takes the time to search him out and speak words of encouragement to him. He speaks God’s reality into David’s heart, ‘Do not fear, for the hand of Saul my father shall not find you. You shall be king over Israel, and I shall be next to you’, verse 17. This is friendship at its most committed. Again they take the opportunity to renew their covenant of friendship.

Pressures often come to us to test our friendships. At those times it is good for us to reassure and renew our commitment to each other. In this way we give no place to the devil to sow seeds of mistrust. Proverbs 17.9 tells us that gossips are able to separate the best of friends. Jonathan did not allow that to happen. He made the effort to find David and to speak words of truth. And David’s hand was strengthened as a result.

So David stayed in the woods and Jonathan went to his own house. This is remarkable to me. Jonathan remained true to his father at the cost of spending time with his friend. He could have defected and ridden with David, but this would have dishonoured his father. Instead he returns home and will stand beside his father in battle making the ultimate sacrifice that men of integrity make – giving his life.

News finally reaches David of their death. He is inconsolable and writes one of the most beautiful laments ever penned. Nothing disparaging is said of Saul. This is remarkable. A lesser man would have left Saul out of this song and dedicated it only to Jonathan, but not David. Saul and Jonathan are called, ‘the beauty of Israel’, ‘mighty’, ‘beloved’, ‘pleasant’, ‘swifter than eagles’ and ‘stronger than lions’. Perhaps the most touching part of this lament is the line, ‘Your love to me was wonderful, surpassing the love of women’, 2Sam 1.26.

My eyes fill with tears every time I read this. It touches my heart. Perhaps David remembered Jonathan’s words; ‘You shall be King over Israel and I shall be next to you’, 1Sam 26.17. But it was not to be. Their expectations were unfulfilled. Jonathan is dead and David is left with his grief. But he is left with something more. This friendship has changed David. He is bigger and better than he would have been without it. An investment was made that will bear fruit. And David treasures the memory.

Much fighting will take place with the house of Saul before David is finally acknowledged as the true King. But once his position is secure he seeks for an opportunity to bless the house of Saul for Jonathan’s sake, 2Sam 9.1. He finds a son of Jonathan, Mephibosheth, who is lame in his feet. Everything is restored to this man with the promise that he may eat at the king’s table continually. The grandson of David’s greatest enemy is given the greatest honour because of his greatest friend. This is being a true friend.

I pray that we learn to place a value on friendship that is greater than what we commonly experience today. Friendships are not disposable. You can tell a lot about a person by the friends that they choose. They are what inevitably end up defining us as people. Choose wisely. Stay true and experience the blessing of becoming more than you would without those people who know you intimately, but love you just the same. Your friends!