In a recent venture to the attic, I came across a box of schoolwork and report cards my mom had kept from my elementary school days. In the early 80s, report cards were pre-printed carbon forms which carried the personal touch of my teachers’ handwriting.
The bulk of these cards were devoted to reporting a letter grade for each academic subject such as language arts, arithmetic, social studies, and handwriting, but the final column was reserved for assessments of behavioral expectations such as “pays attention in class” or “shows kindness to others.”
As I took a trip down memory lane, my nostalgia crumbled a little as I realized my teachers, who I assumed counted themselves blessed to have me in their classes, hadn’t always left me stellar remarks for my behavior, especially in categories like “displays self-control” and “is considerate of others”.
I began to recall how my two best friends and I were rarely placed in the same classes after the third grade. We caused too much trouble. We talked a lot. We were hard to control. We were corrupting influences on one another. At some point, our parents and teachers conspired to keep us separated. And so, we were kept apart for two years. It was torture.
Three-and-a-half decades later, I’ve come to understand this parental instinct to curate our children’s friendships. While our culture debates the scientific possibilities and ethical implications of "designer babies," many parents desire to handpick “designer friends” for their children. Children whose character traits, personality types, behavior, family dynamics, and manners match our preferences.
A diligent attention to life-giving and healthy friendships is not unbiblical. The wise father of Proverbs pleads with his son to avoid bad company: “[M]y son, do not walk in the way with them; hold back your foot from their paths, for their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed blood. . . . Do not enter the path of the wicked, and do not walk in the way of the evil. Avoid it; do not go on it; turn away from it and pass on” (Prov. 1:15-16; 4:14-15).
The positive and negative possibilities of friendship urge us to train our kids in discernment. We should teach them wisdom in choosing their companions because foolish friends can be a tremendous burden, even a curse. As parents, we know that bad company has the potential to ruin good character (1 Cor. 15:33), so we should exercise diligence, extend wise counsel, and retain open dialogue with our kids in regards to their choices of friendships.
However, as we help our children navigate their friendships, we can’t only take up defensive positions to shelter our kids from the “bad seeds,” but also go on the offensive to help our children bless others. Parenting should include training our own children towards a picture of life-giving friendship.
The questions we ask our kids should range to both sides of the spectrum. Not just, “Who are you going to choose as friends?” but also, “What kind of friend are you going to be?”
Perhaps the best scriptural example of friendship is the relationship between Jonathan and David. Their deep love for each other extended into every part of their lives:
“As soon as he had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. . . . Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was on him and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt” (1 Sam. 18:1, 3-4).
TRUE FRIENDSHIP IS COURAGEOUS
Jonathan took a risk in befriending David. His father, King Saul, was becoming increasingly jealous of David, and he wanted him dead. Jonathan courageously opposed the most powerful man in the country and risked his own life and status in the process (1 Sam. 20:33).
Knowing David would eventually become king instead of himself (1 Sam. 23:17), Jonathan also took a risk by entrusting his future to David. It was customary for new kings to establish themselves by annihilating potential heirs to the throne. David’s ascendancy would put Jonathan’s future and his life at risk (see 1 Sam. 20:31), yet Jonathan was willing to take the risk because of his love for his friend.
Jesus himself displayed the same kind of courage, exemplified in the company he kept: fishermen, tax collectors, sinners, lepers, prostitutes, and outcasts. He hung out with the loners and the losers. He loved the unlovable regardless of their social status, cleanliness, vocation, or sin.
He risked his reputation and was willing to be called “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matt. 11:19; Luke 7:34)! Jesus’ choice of friends caused even his family to think he had lost his mind (Mark 3:13-21)—these certainly were not the kinds of people his mother had taught him to hang out with!
When we train our children in courageous love, it means we encourage them to do the right thing, not the popular thing. This includes seeking out friendship with outsiders and unlovables—those whom no one else wants to be around. Will they share a table, a meal, a game, or a conversation with those who might cost them their reputation, comfort, and prestige (2 Sam. 9)?
TRUE FRIENDSHIP IS SACRIFICIAL
Friends should want what is best for the other as much as for themselves. They don’t make a distinction between their own good and the good of the other person. This is the way Jonathan loved David “as his own soul” (1 Sam. 18:1,3; 20:17) and how Jesus taught us to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39).
Sacrificial friendships make promises that cost something. Jonathan and David bound themselves to one another with a covenant (1 Sam. 18:3), the deepest kind of promise that two people can make. This covenant cost Jonathan his crown and his right to succeed his father to the throne. When Jonathan stripped himself (the language is purposefully extreme) of his royal robes, military tunic, sword, bow, and belt (v. 4), he wasn’t just offering to share his wardrobe with his best buddy.
By giving David his royal robe and military equipment, Jonathan affirmed and submitted himself to God’s promise to make David the next king. He was submitting himself to God’s will that David’s status would rise while his own diminished. He was okay with God’s plans to pass over him and place David on the throne, even though this would eventually require his own death (2 Sam. 1:4). This signified that his concern was for David and his well-being, not for his own tenuous position as heir to the throne.
Psalm 15 commends the person who “swears to his own hurt and does not change” (Ps. 15:4), who commits so deeply to a relationship that they are willing to pay whatever it costs. This is how Jesus loved his friends:
“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). True friendship is willing to sacrifice comfort, position, money, time, and reputation for a friend.
WHAT KIND OF FRIEND WILL YOU BE?
Courageous and sacrificial love are not just ideals to teach our children, but challenges for every disciple. We should ask ourselves the same question: “What kind of friend will I be?”
Will I be a courageous friend and take risks like Jonathan and Jesus did? Or will I play it safe and protect my comfort and reputation?
Will I be a sacrificial friend who lays down my life for my friends? Or will I fall prey to petty jealousies and fail to champion the success of others? Will I make promises and follow through on them, even though it might hurt?
Courageous and sacrificial friendship is difficult. But as we and our children learn to walk in the ways of Jesus through courageous and sacrificial love, God will cause his kingdom to break into this world in ways that we can’t even imagine.