Many years ago I served a mainline church in a small town. The church had a rough history and seemed plagued with marriage problems. At one point I was counseling with four families whose marriages were struggling. It seemed to be all we could do to keep the couples together.
I left town for a few weeks on vacation and returned to find that five couples in the church had filed for divorce in my absence. It was obvious they had waited until I was gone to do what they felt they needed to do. I was hurt, offended, and angry.
I determined that I should preach on divorce, why God hated it and how evil it was (you know, condemnation). When I told the elders, they were subdued and said little. But one man came to me afterward, privately, and told me that I couldn’t do it. That got my hackles up a little and I asked why. He told me I couldn’t preach on divorce because I was angry. His words hit me right between the eyes and I have never forgotten them. I didn’t preach the message I had planned.
If any of the others had come to me with the same words, I probably would have ignored or scorned them. It might have started a fight. But this man was my friend. I knew that he prayed for me every day. He had never asked me for anything. I knew that he could be critical, but he had never been unkind toward me. He was my friend.
And when my friend came to me and told me something I needed to hear, I listened. I listened because he had already proven his love and support. I listened because he wasn’t critical of me. I listened because I knew it hurt him to say it. And I knew he was concerned about me. It wasn’t divorce that was in his mind, it was my heart and my integrity.
As far as I can judge myself, I never brought my anger to the pulpit after that. His simple words still ring in my ears. And I have never been so sure of a man’s friendship as I have of his.
You see, a friend can bring us the words we need to hear—but he needs to be a friend first. We build defenses against the criticisms and challenges of others, especially in times of anger. But a friend is someone we haven’t needed to build defenses against. And, when that friend comes, we know we don’t need defenses even then. They can speak into our hearts because we are sure of their love.
This man was my friend for 30 years, until his death at 92. This was the only time he chastised me. His ministry of exhortation, rebuke, or admonishing in my life brought him no joy, no perverted pleasure. He did it because he had to. He did not see himself as my judge nor a force to keep me in line. He was just concerned about me.
That’s the influence a real friend can have.