By Michael C. Mack
My friends and I were rolling alongside a creek on a rocky, rooty, rutted-out trail, laughing and enjoying the crisp air. Our mountain-biking group had traversed this trail a hundred times before, but this time my front tire hit a root the wrong way and my bike and I careened over the embankment into the creek. I lay half-submerged in the flowing water for just a moment, and then stood up to notice that the sides of the ditch were steep, muddy, and slick; I couldn’t climb out on my own.
I was thankful that my friend Dave came back, reached down, and pulled me out. He checked on me and my bike to be sure we were both OK, and then we saddled up and continued on our ride.
Later I recalled King Solomon’s wise words: “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up” (Ecclesiastes 4:9, 10).
Rocks and roots are not the only things that throw me into ditches. So does my sin and so does life. When I fall I can stay down there alone, stuck with little hope, or I can allow other people to reach down, as Dave did, and help me up.
What do you look for in a spiritual friend? I’ve been blessed that God has used many friendships over the years to transform my life. Here are four principles I’ve learned from them:
Real Friends Are, Well, Real
Not long after I became a Christian 25 years ago, I met a guy at church named Kevin. He and his wife didn’t just invite us to their Sunday school class—they grabbed us by our elbows and dragged us there. Kevin is one of the most passionate Christ followers I know, and I believe God put him into my life to disrupt my entire viewpoint.
I was a Christian, but most of the time I was still living life as my own god, with no other God before me. I lacked humility and authenticity in my relationships. Of course I didn’t have the self-awareness to realize any of this. Kevin quickly became a bold friend. He asked me questions that confronted my beliefs, ideas, and behaviors. He challenged my stories, my decisions, my assumptions, my behaviors. He made me squirm. And yet I always knew that Kevin had my best interests in mind.
Eventually Kevin and I and some other men from our church launched a small group. It wasn’t for sissies. Kevin’s leadership paved the way for us to confess our brokenness to God and to one another and then work together to become more godly men—better husbands, dads, employees, and leaders.
I am who I am today because of Kevin and those other friends.
True spiritual friends don’t try to hide their genuine selves from you and they expect you to be the real you with them. There’s no hiding, no half truths, no putting on your “Sunday best” when your life is at its Friday-night worst. God will use these kinds of authentic friends to mold us into who he wants us to become.
Real Friends Show Up
When Kevin was rushed to the emergency room after a workplace accident, our group of friends filled the waiting room, encouraging his wife, making arrangements for their kids, and praying fervently for Kevin. When our senior minister walked in and surveyed the situation, he said matter-of-factly, “Looks like I’m not really needed here!” I began to apologize, but he interrupted. “No. This is exactly the way the church is supposed to operate,” he said, smiling.
What we did for Kevin and his family was what he had done for us many times. I’ve called him or he’s called me at 3 a.m. and we’ve met at an open restaurant to talk. Even after many years and moves, Kevin has been there for me, often on the phone, to listen, give godly advice, and pray.
Real friends show up. They live as the early church did, valuing others above themselves, not looking to their own interests but to the interests of others (Philippians 2:3, 4).
Real Friends Share
One young couple in our class was going through a painful separation. One practical complication was that the wife was left with no car. My wife, Heidi, was a stay-at-home mom at that time, so she generously offered her car. Several weeks later, Heidi’s circumstances changed and she needed a car. Another couple had a car they could live without, so we borrowed their car until they needed it back. Then another couple decided to sell us their van for just a couple hundred dollars. One day my next-door neighbor asked me about all the different vehicles in our driveway over the last month, and when I told him the story, he was incredulous. “You know, normal people don’t do that,” he said. It gave me an opportunity to tell him about God’s grace.
We didn’t consider what we were doing for our friends abnormal. Our model was the New Testament church, where “no one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had” (Acts 4:32).
Real Friends Are Partners
I learned a valuable lesson with that group of friends: authentic biblical friendships always have an external purpose. God blesses us with friends, but the blessing is meant to become a blessing to others. Kevin and I became teammates on the basketball courts around our neighborhoods. We played to win, but our ultimate win was to have an opportunity to share our faith with the guys we were playing with. When my wife and I started an investigative Bible study in our apartment building, one couple from our group of friends came to the meetings to support us. Other friends were praying for us.
Nothing cements a friendship more than a common mission and partnering together for something bigger than ourselves. As ambassadors for Christ, we need partners. Jesus sent out his disciples two-by-two because “two are better than one.”
My friend Dave and I love riding bikes together, but we’ve found a much more significant purpose than exercise and fun. Together with some other Christian cyclists, we’re extending our hands to friends we’ve met on the trails who do not have a relationship with Christ. We pray daily that God will do for them what he did for us years ago when he reached down to pull us out of a slimy pit we couldn’t climb out of on our own.
I used to ride alone, but now I know that group rides are best. I need friends like Dave and Kevin and others who I know will pull me up, spur me on, make me better, give me strength, and partner with me to do the same for others. And they need me too. The truth is we can’t grow into what God wants us to become without friends like that.