A Picture of Wisdom (Proverbs 31:10-31)

For the past few months we've been going through the book of Proverbs together. Proverbs is about wisdom, and wisdom means living skillfully in the world that God has made. Wisdom isn't about IQ or education; it's about becoming good at life. If you want to live well, then Proverbs is a book that promises to help you. We've been looking at what Proverbs has to say about many different areas of our lives.

Today we're coming to a passage that's often preached on Mother's Day. You may have mixed feelings as you read this passage.

On one hand, it's hard not to be inspired as you read the description of the woman in this passage. I'll never forget hearing my grandfather read this passage in tribute to his wife, my grandmother. It was especially meaningful because he wasn't the type to exaggerate in his praise.

But on the other hand, it's hard not to be intimidated by this passage. Just take a look at the woman we read about. She's a tireless worker. She manages a household and business, helps the poor, and is prepared for disaster. She's thrifty but not cheap. She is charming, successful, energetic, competent, and godly. Her husband and even her children praise her. She's quite the person.

She's so accomplished that when you read Proverbs 31:10, "A wife of noble character who can find?" you almost want to answer, "No one, because she doesn't exist!" Who really is as good as she appears to be?

The answer is, actually, no one. One commentator writes, "This lady's standard is not implied to be within the reach of all, for it presupposes unusual gifts and material resources" (Derek Kidner). Another writes, "The description is ideal and should not be used as a standard by which to measure and critique women" (Tremper Longman III). So if anybody ever tries to clobber you with this passage, then don't let them.

In fact, I think it's here at the end of Proverbs for a couple of reasons. One is for the reasons we normally use it. Women are important, and this chapter is an inspiring example of what a godly woman can be like.

But I think there's another layer here, and it's this layer I want to look at today. Proverbs 31 isn't only for women, and it's not only for Mother's Day. At the end of the book of Proverbs, what we have here is a picture of what wisdom looks like in real life. It's like the author of this passage has taken everything that we've looked at in Proverbs 1 to 31:9 and said, "If you want to see what all of this looks like, let me give you a picture." So this isn't just for women; it's for all of us. This is a picture of wisdom in real life. It's a model for all of God's people for all of time. Bruce Waltke writes, "Wise daughters aspire to be like her, wise men seek to marry her, and all wise people aim to incarnate the wisdom that she embodies, each in his own sphere of activity."

You see, one of the problems you have as you read the book of Proverbs is picturing what this looks like when you put it all together. You've probably had the experience of somebody describing what something looks like. Someone was trying to explain to me what a bathroom cabinet looked like. Then they showed me a picture, and I could really see it.

That's what's happening in Proverbs 31. We've read the descriptions. We've tried to picture what this looks like. But in this passage we actually get a picture that we can hold up, and this picture tells us three things about the way wisdom's going to look in our lives. It's going to look rare; it's going to touch everything; and it's going to be about God.

1. Wisdom is going to look rare

The first thing we see as we look at the picture of wisdom in this passage is that wisdom is rare, and if you are wise you are going to be not only rare but valuable.

Verse 10 says: "A wife of noble character who can find?" The implied answer is, "Very few people." The reason why is because a person of noble character is hard to find. Because of this, such people are valuable. Verse 10 continues, "She is worth more than rubies." A person of wisdom is as rare and as valuable as wisdom itself.

After all, Proverbs said this earlier about wisdom:

She is more precious than rubies;
nothing you desire can compare with her.
(Proverbs 3:15)

...wisdom is more precious than rubies,
and nothing you desire can compare with her.
(Proverbs 8:11)

This is very important to realize. If you take seriously the teaching of Proverbs and apply it to your life, you will become a very rare kind of person. There won't be many people like you around. All throughout Proverbs, we've seen that there are three paths that people end up taking in life. One is the path of the simple. Simple sounds like an insult, but it's really about those who are still young. It's too soon to tell which way they will go. But then Proverbs describes the two paths that all of us eventually will take. One is the path of wisdom, and the other is the path of foolishness.

Proverbs tells us that we're going to have a lot of people inviting us to take the path of foolishness. It's the path that goes along with the crowd. It's the path that flirts and even gives into sexual temptation and anger. It's the path that doesn't listen to others, that goes with the flow. It's the path that rejects the fear of the Lord, and it's a path that ultimately leads to death. Proverbs tells us that this is the path's our default path, and without deliberate evasive action you're going to end up on this path.

The other path you can take is the path of wisdom. Ironically in Proverbs, wisdom is available for anyone who wants it. It's not just for the privileged or the well-positioned. If you want it, you can have it. Fools and simpletons are invited to feast at the table of wisdom. All throughout Proverbs, wisdom actually calls out and invites us to embrace her. But as we come to the end of Proverbs, we realize as we see this picture that wisdom is exceptionally rare.

The lesson is that if you want to be wise, then wisdom is freely offered to you. It can be yours. But you need to realize that the path to wisdom is not the path commonly taken. You will be going against the flow to become a wise person, and people will wonder why you're headed in a different direction than everyone else.

But the result is that you will also be seen as a valuable person. Verses 11 and 12, and then verses 28 and 29:

Her husband has full confidence in her
and lacks nothing of value.
She brings him good, not harm,
all the days of her life.

Her children arise and call her blessed;
her husband also, and he praises her:
"Many women do noble things,
but you surpass them all."

Have you ever met someone, and the more you get to know them the less you like them? If you are wise, you will be the opposite. Here the person that knows her the best praises her the most. If you pursue wisdom, you'll be rare, and the people who know you best will stand up and praise you.

That's the first thing we notice as we look at this picture of wisdom. What we see in this picture is available to everyone, but few people embrace it. If you pursue wisdom, you're going to go against the flow, but you'll become a person whose noble character is rare and recognized as valuable by those who know you best.

There's something else we notice as we look at this picture of wisdom:

2. Wisdom touches everything

If you think of a really religious person, you may think of a pastor or a missionary or someone who is really good at religious things. But what you probably don't think of is someone who is accomplished in business, or renowned for their accomplishments in some area. You think of someone who's good at religious stuff, but not necessarily at the non-religious part of life. We tend to compartmentalize our lives, and those who are good at God aren't good at the other stuff, and those who are good at the other stuff aren't good with God.

But that's not what we see as we look at this picture of wisdom. We see a person who is accomplished in many different areas. She manages staff and invests money and property in verses 15 and 16. She's a shrewd seller and buyer, as we read in verses 13 and 14, and then 18 and 24. Verse 15 says she's a tireless worker. But she doesn't just horde everything for herself. Verse 20 says she helps the poor. She also provides for her family so that they are prepared for the ups and downs of life. She's an extremely competent business person, and is also appreciated by her family.

As we think about this, we realize that the wisdom we read about in Proverbs is not just about becoming more spiritual. It's not just about Sundays. It is definitely about God, but it also touches all of life. We look at this picture of wisdom and see it's about living skillfully in all of life in the world that God has made.

A person who becomes wise becomes the best kind of artist, engineer, teacher, and entrepreneur. They are the best students, doctors, neighbors, and citizens. Wisdom is about all of life. Abraham Kuyper put it best when he said, "No single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: 'Mine!'"

The wisdom we discover in the book of Proverbs is wisdom is based on God and being rightly related to him. But it's not a wisdom that will only make you a more spiritual person. It is a wisdom that will touch every part of your life. It's a wisdom that will touch everything - your family, your work, your studies. It's a wisdom that touches all of life.

So wisdom is rare and valuable, and it touches all of life. We notice one more thing about wisdom as we look at this picture:

3. Wisdom is ultimately about God

We just said that wisdom isn't only about God. Wisdom is about living skillfully in every area of life. It touches everything. But don't make the mistake of thinking that wisdom has nothing to do with God. It has everything to do with God. As we come to the end of this picture of wisdom we see the ultimate source of her wisdom. Verse 30 says:

Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.
(Proverbs 31:30)

The first part of this verse reminds us that many of the things that cause us to praise people are actually deceptive and fleeting. They're skin-deep and temporary. Charm can conceal a nasty personality. You can meet a beautiful person and really be attracted to them, only to realize later that their character leaves you deeply disappointed.

But wisdom is different. At the end of verse 30 we see that this person of wisdom has a quality that is not deceptive or fleeting. She has a quality rooted in what's of ultimate importance. She has what is unseen and eternal. She fears the Lord.

Most of this book seems to be at the horizontal level: what it takes to live skillfully in the world we have around us. But at the end of Proverbs we're taken right back to the beginning. We're reminded that living skillfully at the horizontal level begins with being rightly related vertically with God. Proverbs 1:7 told us, "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge." The fear of the Lord, as we've said before, means being rightly related to God: knowing that he's God, and we're not, and living life in reverential fear of him. And living skillfully begins and ends with this.

This is even more important for those of us who know about Jesus. If you want to talk about a real life picture of wisdom, we have an even better one than the Proverbs 31 example, as outstanding as she is. We have one who is wiser than Solomon in all of his wisdom. He is the ultimate embodiment of wisdom. The apostle Paul wrote that in him "are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Colossians 2:3).

You see, Solomon could tell us about wisdom. He could describe it in great detail, and tell us how to attain it. But ultimately he failed to live up to the wisdom he wrote about in his life. But then Jesus came. He not only taught wisdom, but he perfectly embodied it. Solomon called for obedience, but Jesus came to take upon himself our disobedience to atone for our sins. He gives us his Spirit to empower us to obey.

As we close the book of Proverbs, we're given this picture of what applied wisdom could look like.

  • It's rare. Even though wisdom is available to everyone, you're going to be in the minority if you embrace wisdom. And it's rarity will cause those who know you best to praise you.
  • It will touch all of your life. Wisdom will allow you to live skillfully in every area of your life: your family, your work, everything.
  • It's ultimately about God. Wisdom begins with being in right relationship with him.

The question we face at the end of Proverbs is what our response will be. In a sense you face the verdict of which path you'll take. There's a path that's widely travelled that you'll take by default, but that will ultimately lead to death. But then there's this other path that is rare, that will change you so that the people who know you best appreciate you the most. It will touch every part of your life. And it will be based on what matters most and can never be taken away: being brought into right relationship with God through his Son. Which path will you take?

Thank you, Father, for what we've read in Proverbs. I pray that we won't just shelve the book now that we've finished this series. I pray that we will return to its lessons often and embrace the wisdom that's freely offered to us within its pages.

But thank you that ultimate wisdom came to us in the form of Jesus Christ. He freely offers us what we really need to live skillfully in the world you have created. My main prayer today is that every person here would embrace not only wisdom as a concept, but that they would embrace wisdom personified: Jesus Christ. And as we do so, would you change every part of our lives through the power of the Spirit. We pray in Christ's name. Amen.

Repairing Relationships (Proverbs)

We're in our second last series on the book of Proverbs today. We've seen that Proverbs is a book about wisdom, and that wisdom is about living skillfully within the world that God has made. This is important, because we need to know not only what is moral or right. We also need to know what is wise. This is exactly what Proverbs offers us: insight into not only what is right, but what is actually going to lead to skillful living and wise decision-making in our lives.

Today we're in the last topic we're going to cover from Proverbs, and it's the subject of broken relationships. Most of you here know the pain of a relationship that's fallen apart: a friendship, a marriage, or even a working relationship. If you've experienced this, then you know the deep feelings that surface that can linger for years, and that can actually take you by surprise, feelings of betrayal, hurt, and anger. We can live with the consequences of broken relationships for years, even our entire lives.

What does Proverbs tell us about how to handle broken relationships? Three things. First, the seriousness of broken relationships. Second, how to respond to broken relationships. Third, where to get what we need to deal with broken relationships.

First, Proverbs tells us how serious broken relationships really are.

One of the biggest mistakes we could ever make is to underestimate the seriousness of this issue. So Proverbs is very blunt about what a serious matter it is when relationships are broken. This doesn't just apply to deep friendships; it also applies to even casual relationships.

For instance:

Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam;
so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out.
(Proverbs 17:14)

A brother wronged is more unyielding than a fortified city;
disputes are like the barred gates of a citadel.
(Proverbs 18:19)

Stone is heavy and sand a burden,
but a fool's provocation is heavier than both.
Anger is cruel and fury overwhelming,
but who can stand before jealousy?
(Proverbs 27:3-4)

An angry person stirs up dissension,
and a hot-tempered person commits many sins.
(Proverbs 29:22)

If you've ever opened a can of soda pop that's been shaken, you know what it's like to be surprised by all this fizz that's suddenly spraying you and spilling all over. That's what broken relationships are like. Proverbs compares them to a dam that's breached. Once that breach starts, it's hard to control and bring to an end. It easily gushes out of control. It's like coming up against a fortified city. At one time the gates might have been open to you, but you may find it hard to break past the barriers that and reestablish a relationship. It's like a cruel and furious storm. And in the middle of all of this - the lack of control, the raised defenses, the stormy emotions - it's hard not to end up committing many sins. And these are only a sample of the Proverbs that talk about the seriousness of this issue. Conflict can damage relationships and our reputation, exhaust us, imprison us in attitudes of resentment and bitterness, and spill over and damage every part of our lives.

The application of these verses is clear. Look again at the first Proverb I quoted, found in Proverbs 17:14:

Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam;
so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out.

Now don't mistake what Proverbs is saying here. It's not saying to always smooth over issues and never deal with them. Last week we looked at one of the qualities of true friendship, which is candor and even confrontation of our friends for their own good. Proverbs is not saying to just bury your head in the sand and to never confront another person or deal with issues. But it is saying that we need to carefully weigh whether or not it's worth entering into conflict, because conflict is a serious issue, and there is always damage. There are always casualties.

Proverbs 15:18 says:

The hot-tempered stir up dissension,
but those who are patient calm a quarrel.

Proverbs 19:11 says:

A person's wisdom yields patience;
it is to one's glory to overlook an offense.

Ken Sande, author of The Peacemaker, suggests asking, "Is this really worth fighting over?" Given the cost of conflict, isn't it better to overlook minor offenses? The best way to deal with broken relationships, according to Proverbs, is to do everything we can to avoid damaging relationships, because broken relationships really are a serious matter.

Now I know that despite all of this, there are times in which a broken relationship is unavoidable. Maybe you've tried everything you can, but it's too late. Maybe the other person has damaged the relationship despite your best efforts. Or maybe it's already too late.

What does Proverbs say about handling broken relationships?

A lot, actually. Let's cover a few.

The place we absolutely have to begin is with humility. In other words, in conflict I tend to become self-righteous and proud, and look down on the other person. As Miroslav Volf said, we tend to "exclude the enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners." The place to begin, then is, as Volf says, is to remove "the enemy from the sphere of monstrous inhumanity" and to move myself "from the sphere of proud innocence into the sphere of common sinfulness."

Proverbs 11:12 says:

Those who have no sense deride their neighbors,
but those who have understanding hold their tongues.

The word deride there means to belittle or to show contempt for someone else, to look down on them. It reflects an attitude of pride and judgmentalism, which is exactly the attitude we tend to have in conflict. Pride has no place in conflict, especially when we see ourselves as we really are.

Proverbs 14:3 says:

A fool's mouth lashes out with pride,
but the lips of the wise protect them.

Proverbs 20:9 says:

Who can say, "I have kept my heart pure;
I am clean and without sin"?

The implied answer is, "Not me." The wise person recognizes how far from perfection they are, and that they have no business acting self-righteously. When we see ourselves as we really are, we have no business looking down in pride at another person. The place to begin in a broken relationship is not with the other person, but with ourselves, in dismantling our own pride.

Secondly, Proverbs tells us to absorb the offense. This will take a little bit of explaining. Proverbs 10:12 says:

Hatred stirs up dissension,
but love covers over all wrongs.

Proverbs 17:9 says:

Whoever would foster love covers over an offense,
but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends.

In these verses there's a contrast. On one hand, we can be hateful, and we can repeat what happened to ourselves and others. This is our normal way of responding when someone wrongs us. We get agitated, we stir things up, and we keep reminding ourselves and everyone else about what happened. The only alternative, according to these verses, is to cover over the wrong.

What does cover mean? It's the opposite of stirring things up. Instead of exaggerating the faults, it means looking for ways to make them disappear. Bruce Waltke, who wrote an excellent commentary on Proverbs, says:

Instead of placing the transgressor on stage and withdrawing the veil to expose his faults and so exact revenge, love endures his wrongs to reconcile him and save him from death and to preserve the peace. Love withdraws the burning wood of gossip...

Now, if you do this, you realize that you're no longer expecting the other person to pay for what they've done. In a sense, you're paying for it. You're absorbing the hurt and the pain of the wrong actions they did. You're not rehashing it, you're not inflicting revenge. Instead, you're absorbing the pain. In a sense you're bearing the cost of the wrong that they've done.

Then Proverbs gives us the well-known advice to overcome evil with good. Proverbs 25:21-22 says:

If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat;
if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head,
and the LORD will reward you.

One man tells the story of having lunch in McDonald's with his daughter and mother-in-law. They were enjoying a pleasant conversation when a man, with his wife and children, plopped down at a nearby table. The man was someone who in the past had hurt him. They faked pleasantries and exchanged hellos, but he could feel his blood begin to boil at the thought of what this other man had done to him.

They gobbled down our food and on the way out of the restaurant overheard his "enemy" and his wife arguing because neither had any money to purchase the food they had ordered. Their three kids were screaming for their Happy Meals. The couple was embarrassed. His first thought was, "Praise God, there is justice in this world. He deserves every bit of embarrassment he's feeling, and I'm so glad I got to see this."

Suddenly God spoke to him through the text he had read that morning in Romans, which was based on the proverb we just read.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. On the contrary:

"If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head."

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17-20)

Listen to what this man says of that moment:

God was saying to me: Here's your chance to be set free of your pain and overcome your hurt. I knew I had a choice either to obey or bask in my bitterness. Somewhat reluctantly I reached into my wallet, pulled out $20, and gave it to this man who had been my enemy. "Have lunch on me."

Is there a place for rebuke? Yes, as we've seen in other Proverbs. But when a relationship is broken, the way of wisdom is to respond with humility, with a willingness to absorb the pain of the offense, and then a willingness to bless the other person.

You may say that you don't feel like doing this. What I love about Proverbs is that we don't have to feel like it in order to take these steps. When wronged we'll never feel like doing these things. But it's got nothing to do with feelings. When we follow the wisdom of Proverbs, we'll find that eventually the feelings do follow. In one of his writings, C.S. Lewis says "last week, while at prayer, I suddenly discovered - or felt as if I did - that I had really forgiven someone I had been trying to forgive for over thirty years."

This is what we need to do, but it leaves us with a question.

The question is where we can find the power to do all of this.

Becky Pippert tells the story of tells the story of auditing a course at Harvard on counseling. In one of the case studies the therapist used a technique called psychodynamic psychology. In this particular case the therapist helped uncover a hidden hostility he had toward his mother.

The professor moved on, but Pippert wasn't satisfied. She mustered the courage the raise her hand and asked, "Let's say the patient returned a few weeks later and said, 'I'd like to get beyond my anger. I'd like to be able to love her and forgive her. How do I do that?' How does psychodynamic psychotherapy help a person with a request like this?"

There was silence. Then the professor answered, "I think the therapist would say, 'Lots of luck!'" You see, psychodynamic psychotherapy can surface the problem, but it can't tell us how to love our enemy. Pippert writes, "After we see the need to change, how do we find the power to do it?" (Hope Has Its Reasons)

The answer is that we follow a God who has forgiven us in this exact way. He humbled himself, even though had no reason to be humbled. Philippians 2 tells us that Jesus, the Son of God, "humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!" (Philippians 2:8). He absorbed our sins, every sin that we have committed, past, present, and future. Isaiah 53:6 says, "The LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all." And he overcame our evil with ultimate good. "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Romans 5:8) He's also given us his Spirit to change our hearts, to change our hearts like nothing else will.

Jesus taught us that when we understand how much we have been forgiven, we will be ready to move towards forgiving others. If we aren't in the process of forgiving others, then it's an indication that we haven't grasped the expanse of God's forgiveness of us.

Broken relationships are serious. They're deadly. But we can move toward forgiveness as we humble ourselves, absorb the pain of what others have done, and as we repay evil with good. The best, the only way, to do this is to experience God's forgiveness ourselves.

Let's pray.

Father, I pray for those of us who are experiencing the pain of broken relationships today. I pray that you would humble us so that we don't look down on the person who wronged us. Enable us to absorb the pain rather than inflict it upon them. I pray that we would take the opportunity to overcome evil with good.

You know that nobody here can do this on their own strength. So I pray that you would bring us to the foot of the cross. Help us see Jesus, and the weight of our sin that he bore. May we turn to him and marvel that God himself bore our sins. And may our hearts therefore change so that we are freed to forgive others. In the name of Jesus we pray, Amen.

Friendship (Proverbs)

As we get to the end of our series in the book of Proverbs, we've left one of the biggest themes for last: our relationships with other people. Jon McMurray spoke on anger a few weeks ago, and today we're going to continue that relational theme and talk about friendship.

One of the reasons I want to talk about friendship is because we are so conflicted about it. In his classic book The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis pointed out that if you want to talk about erotic love, you'll have a ready audience. Books and movies come out all the time about love. If you read the newspaper, you'll get gossip about which celebrity's in love with which other celebrity. But Lewis said, "Very few modern people think Friendship a love of comparable value or even a love at all." Nobody picks up a tabloid to read who's friends with whom. The modern world, Lewis says, ignores it. We admit that every person needs a few friends, but overall "it is something quite marginal; not a main course in life's banquet; a diversion; something that fills up the chinks of one's time."

So I want to look at what Proverbs has to say about friendship today, specifically looking at three things. First, the types of friendship. Second, the marks of true friendship. Finally, where we can find true friendship.

First, what are the types of friendship?

If you'll look carefully throughout Proverbs, you'll discover that there's a word that appears repeatedly. It's neighbor. For instance:

Seldom set foot in your neighbor's house— too much of you, and you will be hated. (Proverbs 25:17)

Like a maniac shooting
flaming arrows of death
is one who deceives a neighbor
and says, "I was only joking!"
(Proverbs 26:18-19)

If anyone loudly blesses a neighbor early in the morning, it will be taken as a curse. (Proverbs 27:14)

Actually, if you wanted to you could read or search through the whole book and pull out all the times that Proverbs mentions neighbors.

Then there are a number of other proverbs that mention friends. For instance:

The righteous choose their friends carefully,
but the way of the wicked leads them astray.
(Proverbs 12:26)

One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin,
but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.
(Proverbs 18:24)

What's interesting is that the Hebrew actually uses the same word for neighbor and friend, and it comes from a verb that means to associate with.

But if you read carefully, you'll notice that there's a difference in the contexts. In one case you have people who are physically close to you, but with whom there is little attachment. That's why Proverbs says things like don't speak too loudly to your neighbor in the morning; don't go to their house too often; think very carefully before you take your neighbor to court. (Today you could say, think carefully before you call the building inspector on your neighbor or call the police when they're having a loud party.)

Proverbs actually has a lot to say about this. It's incredibly important how we relate to people who aren't especially close to us emotionally, but are part of our lives just because their lives happen to intersect with ours. I was thinking of this recently as I've been reading about the life of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, a famous pastor who lived in the last century. One day he went somewhere to speak. As he was going in, he said to one of the staff, "I remember you." They had only seen each other ten times, and this person was not somebody important, but Lloyd-Jones remembered him. It meant so much to that individual that he came in to hear all the sessions that Lloyd-Jones gave at that conference. How we treat those who are close physically, but not emotionally, is a very important issue.

Proverbs is very useful, by the way, in identifying some of the social faux pas that get in the way of relationships. I won't list all of them here, but if you want to improve your people skills, it wouldn't hurt to go through Proverbs and pick out everything that it says about social irritants to avoid so that we can have good relationships with others.

So there are neighbors, people who are physically close, but not emotionally. But then if you look carefully there is a whole other level of relationship that is normally translated friendship. Proverbs says that these are people that we choose, people who love at all times, and who tell us the truth about ourselves out of love. We need these.

The place to begin in Proverbs, then, is to be able to tell the difference between a neighbor and a friend, and to make sure that we actually do have friends. To quote C.S. Lewis again, there are people we hang out with, cooperate with, and have fun with just because we're gregarious. It's what we enjoy, he says, in barrooms, common rooms, messes, and golf clubs. It's what he calls companionship. The problem, he says, is:

Many people when they speak of their "friends" mean only their companions. But it is not Friendship in the sense that I give to the word. By this I do not at all intend to disparage the merely Clubabble relation. We do not disparage silver by distinguishing it from gold.

So we need to ask, then, what is real friendship?

In other words, what separates companionship from true friendship? What are the marks of real friendship?

As you look at Proverbs, you see that it offers two qualities of true friendship that are incredibly rare. One of them is constancy, and the other one is candor.

First, constancy. Proverbs says that when it comes to true friendship, that the other person is committed to sticking it out with you and will not abandon you when things get tough.

Proverbs 17:17 says:

A friend loves at all times,
and a brother is born for a time of adversity.

And then there's Proverbs 18:24 says:

One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin,
but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.

A friend, Proverbs says, never lets you down. You've all heard the term "fair weather friend." According to Proverbs, they're not true friends. A true friend recognizes the inherent worth and dignity of the other and desires to be faithful at all times, even when it costs.

You see this type of friendship in The Lord of the Rings. Actually, friendship is one of its major themes. In Fellowship of the Ring, Sam says to Frodo, "I made a promise, Mr Frodo. A promise. 'Don't you leave him Samwise Gamgee.' And I don't mean to. I don't mean to." That's what Proverbs is talking about.

If you have run-of-the mill friends who abandon you when things get tough, Proverbs says, you'll come to ruin. Some are buddies but won't stick with you when you get into trouble. In contrast, there is they type of friend who is utterly committed to you, more committed to you than even your own family. That is the type of friend that you need. You can't have many, but even one or two will do. Constancy, a stick-with-you no matter what commitment, is a mark of true friendship.

The second mark of friendship according to Proverbs is candor. True friends are constant, but your friendship with them is also marked with candor.

For instance, Proverbs 27:6 says:

Wounds from a friend can be trusted,
but an enemy multiplies kisses.

A few verses down in Proverbs 27:9:

Perfume and incense bring joy to the heart,
and the pleasantness of a friend
springs from their heartfelt advice.

Proverbs 28:23 says:

Whoever rebukes a person will in the end gain favor
rather than one who has a flattering tongue.

This is strange when you first read it. According to Proverbs, there is such a thing as friendly wounds, and there is also such a thing as wounding kisses. Sometimes when people kiss you and flatter you, it's not because they actually like you. Sometimes it's a sign that they don't love you. But when you know that somebody truly loves you, when they speak plainly to you, you can be confident that those words are for your good, even if they are hard to hear at the time. It's more than a mutual admiration society. They don't always admire you; they love you enough to tell you what you need to hear, even if you don't want to hear it.

We've all reached that point in our relationships in which we ask, "I wonder if I should tell them the truth?" This happens with small things, like the piece of food stuck in someone else's teeth. Have you ever sat there debating whether or not you should tell someone? But it also applies to bigger issues. A true friend is so committed to you that they will open up - offer you "heartfelt advice" as Proverbs 27:9 says. They will also tell you the things that you may find hard to hear. They love you enough to tell you the truth, even if it hurts.

The result is what Proverbs says in chapter 27:17:

As iron sharpens iron,
so one person sharpens another.

What this says is that when we find true friendship, it improves us. It makes us better than we would have been without that friendship. Sharpening isn't always a pleasant process. It involves some scraping and, in the case of relationships, some confrontation. But the end result is that both friends are better than they would have been before.

This is what sets true friendship apart from companionship. Companions have fun, but they don't really help each other. True friendship, however, is characterized by constancy and candor, and it actually makes us better people than we were before.

Well, that leaves us one last question that we need to answer.

Where in the world can we find this type of friendship?

I think you'll agree that the type of friendship we're describing is rare. As I reflected on myself, I realized that I've got tons of companions, but I've had very few of this type of friend. Yet looking at this, I realize how much we need even one friendship that is characterized by these qualities.

One of the answers to how to get this type of friend is surely to look for opportunities to be this type of friend. It may be that as you show this type of friendship to others, that you will discover one or two people who will become this type of friend for you.

But C.S. Lewis points us to something else we can do if we would like to have true friendships. After giving an example of true friendship from John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Lewis writes:

For a Christian, there are, strictly speaking, no chances. A secret Master of Ceremonies has been at work. Christ, who said to the disciples, 'Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you,' can truly say to every group of Christian friends, 'You have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another.' The Friendship is not a reward for our discrimination and good taste in finding one another out. It is the instrument by which God reveals to each the beauties of all the others...At this feast it is He who has spread the board and it is He who has chosen the guests.

The very qualities of friendship - constancy and candor - are the qualities that you find applied to the church in the New Testament. When Jesus brings us together to the table, we are called in a very real sense to be true friends to each other: to admonish one another, to encourage one another, to confess our sins to one another. God has chosen the guests, and we have the privilege of building genuine friendship with the other guests he has invited.

Jesus said:

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because servants do not know their master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you...This is my command: Love each other. (John 15:13-17)

If you have friends, you know how much they're worth. But you also know that they will from time to time let you down. But when you see Jesus, you realize that he sees you inside out. He knows you, and he isn't afraid to tell you the truth about yourself. Yet he is completely committed to you. He's so committed that when we were at our worst, he lay down his life for us. When you see Jesus, you have seen ultimate friendship. And then we are invited to love each other with the same candor, constancy, and love.

Let's pray.

Father, thank you that you exist as a relational being enjoying perfect fellowship within the Trinity from all eternity. Thank you for making us relational beings after your image. Thank you for Jesus, who not only is completely candid with us, but who also gave up his life for us. As we see him may we see that there is no greater love than when he offered up his life for us on the cross.

You have invited us to your feast, and you have chosen the guests. May we learn to love each other, to be constant and candid in our relationships. May we learn real friendship from the one who called us friends. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.