Why We Need the Wise Counsel of Good Friends
Not long ago a good friend of mine came over to enjoy some warm spring weather. As the evening drew to its close, my friend helped put everything away, and was soon off. I turned to look at my whiskey glass, which I thought had plenty of liquor left — it was empty, its contents poured down the drain.
I realized what my friend had done. He figured I had reached my limit, and had disposed of the liquor before it could cause me harm. Momentarily annoyed, I checked myself and thanked God for this friend, a true gentleman, who possessed the virtue and integrity to quietly, yet determinedly, take action to help me avoid sin. These are the kinds of friends we need: friends whose wisdom, spiritual maturity and virtue challenge us.
We need wise friends. I’ve been blessed with developing friendships with those wiser than myself, often unintentionally. When I met my best friend the second week of college, I had no idea that a religiously indifferent pre-med student would eight years later be my intellectual guide into the Catholic Church. I owe this friend, in a very real sense, my life.
We may be tempted to enjoy the feeling of thinking ourselves the wisest among our peers. Yet when we need guidance or advice, where will we turn? Throughout the Bible, wise, capable men of God advised kings — consider Joseph in Egypt or Daniel in Babylon. Wiser friends not only elevate our own intellect, they save us from foolish choices. Despite their many failings, the Apostles had Jesus. They preserved enough of the wisdom of their greatest friend to be the early Church’s wise men.
We also need exemplars of spiritual maturity. Not long ago, I wrote an article critical of a Christian social media celebrity. It elicited a response on her YouTube channel, which has been viewed tens of thousands of times. I was tempted to “up the ante” and pick apart all her errors and inconsistencies. Yet several close friends urged caution. They suggested that my pugilistic tendencies could cause unhelpful strife among Christians. Moreover, they reminded me, this celebrity was sincere, serious about her faith and even willing to accept some of my criticisms.
The safer route, my friends urged me, was caution, prayer and a humble acceptance of the ad hominems launched at me by her fans. I took their advice.
He who walks with wise men becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm. — Proverbs 13:20
Surrounding yourself with sophomoric friends is a recipe for disaster. Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, inherited the kingdom of Israel at the peak of its political power. 2 Chronicles 10 tells us, “he forsook the counsel the old men gave him, and took counsel with the young men who had grown up with him and stood before him.”
He didn’t lighten the load of the Israelites, who had suffered hard labor at the hands of Solomon. On the advice of his buddies, he doubled down instead: “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke; my father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions.” The result was a rebellion that tore the kingdom in two. If we allow ourselves to be influenced by immature friends, we will likewise find our lives torn apart.
We also need friends whose virtue will challenge us to be saints. My friend who ensured I didn’t drink more than I should is an easy illustration of this. St. Basil of Caesarea and St. Gregory Nazianzus, two fourth-century Church Fathers known for their deep theological reflections and devotion to orthodoxy, provide another example. They enjoyed an intimate life-long friendship, so much so that Gregory wrote of Basil,
Then not only did I feel full veneration for my great Basil because of the seriousness of his morals and the maturity and wisdom of his speeches, but he induced others who did not yet know him to be like him. … The same eagerness for knowledge motivated us. … This was our competition: not who was first but who allowed the other to be first. It seemed as if we had one soul in two bodies.
Their mutual love for Christ gave them the substance of a deep spiritual friendship. The two men sought each other out precisely because of that desire to grow in faith. If we seek the same passion for godliness in our friendships, the results will transform our lives.
Friendships Change Us Forever
The widely-hailed Russian novel Laurus tells of a departing exchange between two close friends, a Russian Orthodox holy man and a Catholic friar. The Russian slaps his Roman comrade on the back and says:
You know, O friend, any meeting is surely more than parting. There is emptiness before meeting someone, just nothing, but there is no longer emptiness after parting. After having met someone once, it is impossible to part completely. A person remains in the memory, as a part of the memory. The person created that part and that part lives, sometimes coming into contact with its creator. Otherwise, how would we sense those dear to us from a distance?
This is what I look for in friendships: a deep, lasting bond of spiritual communion that changes me, leaving an indelible imprint that makes me wiser, more mature and ultimately holier. This is humbling, but it is essential. As Christians, we already have the greatest example in our Savior. Indeed, he is our first and greatest friend, one who will never leave or forsake us. As Christ Himself declares to his disciples, “I have called you friends” (John 15:15).