When I was in college and grad school there were a couple of people who would come by and say, “Let’s go for a walk.” More often than not, they were using code language for an invitation into the relational realm of life. I learned during these walks that neither the exercise nor the destination was what was important. What was important was having the opportunity to share thoughts and feelings in a relaxed, unhurried manner with someone we wanted to be with. It was another way of saying, “I’d like to open my heart to you and have you open your heart to me.”
The book of Proverbs talks about relational walks, but not the kind that last a few minutes or even a few hours. When Proverbs speaks of walking with friends, it refers to the kind of walks we enjoy with a handful of close companions over the course of many years, sometimes even a lifetime.
Most of us have casual friends, acquaintances, and work associates who pass in and out of our lives. But if we are fortunate, we will also develop a few close friends who become increasingly important to us as the years go by. Beyond our family, these people are the VIPs of our relational worlds. We socialize with them, recreate with them, enjoy deep fellowship with them, and sometimes even vacation with them. In significant ways, our lives become intertwined.
The Bible frequently extols such friendships. One particularly rich passage is from Ecclesiastes:
Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken. (4:9-12)
This passage, and many others, suggest that we build little teams of people with whom we can walk through life. People who tell us to try again when we fail, encourage us when we’re discouraged, lighten out load when it gets too heavy to bear alone, comfort us and give us strength against the temptations and trials we face.
The book of Proverbs also offers some words of warning about walking through life with friends:
Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise,
but the companion of fools suffers harm. (13:20)
Yes, we may want to walk closely with a few friends, but we need to be very careful about who we choose as friends. Wise friends will make us wise; foolish friends will bring us harm.
According to this proverb, close friends are more deeply connected than we think. Though we may view ourselves as independent individuals, we are joined to our close friends by something akin to a permeable membrane. What passes between close friends are values, convictions, morals, habits, and goals. They pass back and forth whether we realize it or not. So despite our illusions of individuality, we end up being deeply affected by either wisdom or the foolishness of our friends.
We can enhance our chances of growing in a positive direction by choosing the right people with whom to become friends. If we want to develop sound judgment, we choose friends renowned for making wise decisions. If we want to strengthen our convictions, we pick people with reputations for standing up for what they believe. If we wish we were kinder, we spend more time with those who treat others with kindness and grace. Choosing the right friends is like putting together our own personal development team. It will greatly enhance our efforts in moving forward on the right path.
We must ask ourselves: what kind of person do I want to become? Once we clarify that issue, the rest is rather academic. We choose to walk with people whose thoughts, words, and actions are such that we’d like to claim them as our own. I’m not talking about issues of personality, lifestyle, talents, or career; our close friends may be very different from us in these areas. What I am talking about are the deeper issues of integrity and character. If we’re committed to following God’s path and growing in the areas discussed in Proverbs – wisdom, initiative, goodness, truth, and so on – then we intentionally surround ourselves with people who exhibit these qualities.
Proverbs also offers practical advice about how to put together a team of walking companions who can help us move forward on God’s path. The first highlight comes at this issue from the negative side and tells us what kinds of people should not be candidates for our team. We’re warned that if we see these characteristics in people, we definitely check them off our list of potential close friends.
Who are these people? Here’s the clue:
There are six things that the Lord hates,
seven that are an abomination to him:
haughty eyes, a lying tongue,
and hands that shed innocent blood,
a heart that devises wicked plans,
feet that hurry to run to evil,
a lying witness who testifies falsely,
and one who sows discord in a family. (6:16-19)
Whenever we see any of these characteristics in a person, we ought to have that oh-oh feeling, red flags going up everywhere. This is not the kind of person to count among our intimate circle of friends.
So what does that look like in 2011? Haughty eyes? Someone with an attitude of superiority. Someone who says, if only with her eyes, “I have value; you’re worthless. I’m a professional; you’re blue-collar. I’m educated; you’re a dropout. I’m married; you’re single. I’m a career woman; you’re a stay-at-home mother.” Any of these pairs can be reversed; haughty eyes can look both ways.
The second person to avoid is someone with a lying tongue. We can’t walk too closely with someone who’s loose with the truth without getting our hearts broken. Sooner or later we will pay the price for choosing such friends by being deceived or betrayed by them. It is inevitable and the pain is excruciating.
The next person to watch out for is the one whose hands shed innocent blood. You’re probably thinking: I get this one. I’d never invite an ax murderer to be on my personal development team. But the principle implied covers far more than the physical shedding of blood. Innocent people can be destroyed in a variety of ways. It happens every time those who are strong violate those who are weak or powerless. And every time it happens, God hates it.
We’re warned to steer clear of people who devalue others. Steer clear of people whose hearts are not moved by the suffering, hardship, and needs they see around them. Steer clear of people who take advantage of other people’s vulnerability. You can bet that if you walk closely with people like these, someday you too will become victim to their insensitivity and misused power. Even worse, their way of thinking, speaking, and acting will likely rub off on you!
In addition, we’re advised to steer clear of hearts that devise wicked schemes and feet that run quickly to evil. The writer tells us to keep an eagle eye out for anybody who can devise, implement, and then justify shady, illegal, or evil plans. These are frightening people who could spell disaster for any team of walking partners.
The next person to avoid is a false witness who utters lies. On the surface, this sounds like the same person with a lying tongue. But the red flag is being raised against a specific form of lying: a slandering tongue. If we meet people who are quick to pass on damaging information about a third party or are unable to keep sensitive information confidential, we need to walk the other direction…fast. This is not a safe person to get close to.
One major reason for walking closely with others throughout life is to have people with whom we can bare our souls; people with whom we can share our secrets, reveal our dreams, and confess our fears and failures. But we can’t do that without the full assurance that nothing we says ever, under any circumstances, going to be inappropriately repeated.
The other side of this warning is like a finger pointed at our own hearts. It’s the reminder that few sins are as easy to yield to as the sin of slander. We all have selfish tendencies and inner wounds – insecurities, fears, jealousies, selfishness – than can drive us to use careless or dishonest words to tear down other people or to ruin their reputations. The last thing we need is to hang around with people who have made it a habit of yielding to these temptations. How long before we too become the bearers of false witness against others? So the writer tells us to steer clear of such people. That will keep us from getting hurt and lessen the likelihood of our falling into the same selfish pattern.
The last person to keep off our personal development team is one who speaks strife among family. Do you know anyone who frequently stirs the pot of conflict? Have you ever tried to have a relationship with someone who has a habit of nursing grudges, demands huge apologies, or has a chronically unforgiving spirit?
Proverbs says people like that are perverse; they’re determined to do what is wrong. Such a person delights in dwelling on disputes, alienating friends, and can have no lasting place among people who want to walk together through life. Walking companions must have full confidence that every member of the team is committed to resolving conflicts and establishing peace.
Let’s go back to our key verse:
Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise,
but the companion of fools suffers harm. (13:20)
The book of Proverbs is about making life work. According to Proverbs, it’s not going to work if we surround ourselves with the wrong kinds of people.
This life you and I are living is real life. This is not the preview before the movie. This is not a pre-game show. This is it. This is the one and only chance we get at this great adventure called life. The whole grand adventure was designed to be experienced in community. So one of the most critical decisions we face is choosing the people with whom to do this adventure.
We each need to take the initiative in this matter. We need to take risks. If we want to make life work, we need to put together a personal development team. If we want to become all God has in mind for us to be, we need to surround ourselves with godly people who can challenge and encourage us. If we want to experience the adventure of life fully, we need to put together a group of friends who can share its joys and sorrows with us.
The adventure awaits! It’s never too late to create your circle of friends.