I once knew a man who was absolutely convinced that going to parties was a ministry. In fact, he was so convinced that he would scoff at the chance to hang out with Christian brothers and sisters, preferring instead to spend time with non-believers. He found pride in being able to maintain non-Christian friendships and would do whatever it took to be accepted by his group of friends: he would attend every party just to fit in, he would laugh at the perverse jokes that his inebriated friends would play on each other, and he’d even have a few drinks when pressured to do so. But when probed about his intentions at these parties he’d play it off, knowing what to say to get the concerned off his back. This was a ministry in which he can be a light in the darkness, he claimed. He asserted that eventually, eventually God would open up the door for him to share his faith but until then he’d hang back and gain the world’s trust. Finding justification in the fact that Jesus placed himself among sinners for the sake of saving their souls, I watched as his faith flickered and deteriorated; he was unknowingly being dragged down by his surroundings, desensitized to the worldliness happening all around him. This man was me.
This installment of our Theology of Friendship series is one close to my heart, and one that took a while for me to understand and embrace–in many respects, I’m still working on this even now. Today we consider the issue of discernment in our friendships. Whether you’re a believer or not, we all know certain people we have second thoughts about. These are the friends (Christian or not) that you’re sometimes ashamed to call friends, the type that you wouldn’t want around your kids on a daily basis or you’re embarrassed to introduce to your church friends. Yet they might give you some of your fondest memories or times of comic relief. Maybe you’ve just known them forever and “that’s just how they are”; they’re your secret stash of worldliness that you break out when the Christian life becomes overbearing. But how do we know when these friendships have become detrimental? When do we consider breaking off a friendship? What are good reasons to break off a friendship?
Yes, Jesus once reclined at a table with sinners and tax collectors (Mark 2:15; Matt. 9:10), and yes, Jesus did say “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). But to use this as justification for our friends is more often just another justification for our own sinfulness. We want to make what we’re doing–even though we know it’s bad–sound good. But Jesus was the perfect Son of God who came and died free of sin, and to compare ourselves to him is like comparing a speck of dust to the sun. We are chalk full of sinfulness that blinds our hearts and decisions; we have a human bent that makes us prone to sin, prone to wander. Though we strive to be like Christ, we have not yet arrived. So we cannot allow our blindness to justify our lack of discernment, especially when it comes to friendships. And just so it’s clear that discernment is crucial in our friendships, Paul even exhorts us likewise in 1 Corinthians 15:33 writing, “Do not be deceived: Bad company ruins good morals.”
Maybe you’re tip-toeing the line and you don’t know how to be discerning about a particular person. Well, there are two specific areas that should be red flags concerning the direction a friendship is headed: influence and engagement.
First, influence. Who is the influencer and who is the influenced in the friendship? If you, as the Christian, have fallen to a place of being influenced by this worldly friendship, you are no longer in a position to minister to that friend’s heart. No more excuses, that friendship probably has to go. Many Christians evangelize relationally: by relating to their situation, spending time with them, being present during the good times and bad; all of that is good and great but only as long as you have your mind on Christ-centered ministry and are not being negatively influenced by your friend’s lifestyle. Once you succumb to the temptations that even an evangelistic friendship will bring, your ability to be a witness to them greatly diminishes. If a friend’s worldly habits are rubbing off on you–i.e. drinking, smoking, cursing, etc.–then it’s safe to say that you are being led away from Christ rather than toward him. Regardless what you think or say to justify the friendship, that friendship needs to stop for the sake of your holiness.
The next is engagement. How do you engage with this friend? What do your times of hanging out look like? A general rule is that if you have to sin in order to hang out with a friend, then you best be looking elsewhere for companionship.Or, do you have to sin in order to gain their trust? Our friendships should not cause us to sin, plain and simple. Now, the gray area comes with discerning whether your interactions with this friend will potentially lead to sin or give you a greater inclination to sin later down the line. However, it’s a gray area because only you know your own intentions or heart motivations. Only you know your greatest weaknesses. These are all things that we need to take into consideration when we evaluate our friendships.
Ultimately discernment in friendships is dependent on your evaluation of yourself. I can’t sit here and tell you your heart motivations for having certain friends, but you most likely know if you’re honest with yourself. I only ask two things of you as you take a step back to look at friendships: be honest with yourself about your friendships (Haggai 1:5) and your greatest temptations to sin, and reconsider the real purpose of having friends (Rom. 15:5-6). Friendships are necessary for growth and edification, but not at the expense of your own holiness nor the glory of God in your life. So look at your friendships with discernment.