Are you a good friend? Most of us might be inclined to answer “yes” to that question—at least regarding a prescribed number of close acquaintances. “I really like Bill; we get along well all the time.” “Jane and I think alike.” “We share the same interests.” “Alice and I have similar temperaments.” “I can share all my problems with Cynthia, and she’ll always sympathize with me.” “Ed never criticizes me.” All those things are expressions of some level of friendship and may be useful to a limited extent on various occasions. But the Word of God sets forth a higher standard for friendship than those described above. For example, A friend “sticks closer than a brother” (Pro. 18:24). Or, “A brother is born for adversity” (Pro. 17:17). Then there’s the one that may be abused; namely, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Pro. 27:6).
What the proverb does not condone. Caustic criticism, observations (however true) intended to hurt or humiliate, ridicule, sarcasm, and words spoken without charity are all examples of words that would fall under the category of harmful wounds rather than “faithful wounds.” Words intended to belittle or put down, or put another in his place are not faithful wounds. Sometimes it is possible to say the right words with the wrong motive (e.g., anger, jealousy) or the wrong purpose (e.g., self-exaltation); in which case the wounds are not faithful.
What the proverb requires of the friend who speaks. Put simply, wounding! The courage and love to wound someone whom we love. “Oh, she never hurts my feelings.” “He’ll never say anything to make me mad.” Those are not descriptions of a true friend. A true friend must on occasion consciously, deliberately say something that offends our flesh. If my wife loves me, she will not let me leave the house with remnants of my just-eaten dinner smeared on my face. No parent worth his salt will fail to warn his child that he is not behaving like a Christian, even going so far as to “wound” the child on the part of the anatomy God provided for such wounding. A real friend does not look the other way when he sees his friend heading into sin. A true friend does not pretend that everything is okay when he witnesses attitudes or behavior that he knows from Scripture God must chasten. A real friend recognizes words or actions that have dangerous consequences and “speak[s] the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). We will not keep silent out of fear of hurting the feelings of another or from a concern that the relationship might be harmed; we will set aside those selfish concerns in order to do what is best for the spiritual well-being of our friend—regardless of what it may cost us personally in terms of our relationship with our brother.
What the proverb requires of the friend who receives the wounds. First of all, humility. Yes, sometimes we may receive exhortations, corrections, and even rebukes that are misguided and miss the mark. But even these may be instructive and beneficial if we recognize that God allowed them although they are not apropos to any recognized sin or weakness. Second (if it is not the case that the words have been spoken in error), willingness to acknowledge that the words we have received are true and that they have exposed an unrecognized weakness or an unadmitted sin. Godly humility will provoke us to examine ourselves regardless in order to discover the reason God allowed the correction or rebuke. And when the words hit the bullseye, humility will, first of all, keep our mouths shut; second, provoke self-examination; third, lead us to recognize our failing and/or lead us to repentance; and finally, bring victory over sin and renewed faithfulness.
If we live on the western plains where we seldom hear a discouraging word, we ought to move. God requires true friends sometimes to give and to receive words that are unpleasant to the flesh. If the Word of God never gets under our skin (It is God’s love letter to us and always reveals the often-unpleasant truth about our lives.) or if those we consider to be our friends never goad us to examine our ways, we are in dire straits. We should seek godly friends who will “let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds” (Heb. 10:24).
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