NO FRIENDSHIP WITHOUT TRUST
If God wants us to be his friends, why does he often seem so unfriendly
in the Scriptures? Doesn’t the Bible teach that if a man wants to have
friends, he should himself be friendly?
It certainly seems to say that in Proverbs 18:24, especially as it has
been translated in the 1611 King James Version:
“A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly:
and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother.”
Most people have probably discovered from their own experience the truth
of the first line of this proverb. You can hardly expect to have friends if you
are not friendly yourself. But to this day, Bible translators are not agreed
that this was the meaning intended by the Hebrew writer. Many variations of the
first line are offered in the versions.
Closer than a Brother
But translators seem to be agreed on the meaning of the second line: a
true friend sticks closer than a brother. The implication seems to be that the
friends in the first line cannot be trusted, and many versions translate
There are friends who pretend to be friends, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother. (RSV, 1952)
Some friends play at friendship but a true friend sticks closer than one’s nearest kin. (NRSV, 1989)
Some friendships do not last, but some friends are more loyal than brothers. (GNB, 1976)
When Jesus made the offer of friendship to his disciples, was he only
“playing” at friendship? Was he only “pretending” to be so
friendly? There can be no lasting friendship without mutual trust and
trustworthiness. Is there good reason to trust the Son of God as “a friend
who sticks closer than a brother”?
How are we to understand those “terrifying stories” that
seemed so forbidding to the Scottish gravedigger, those “more ferocious
aspects of the Scriptures” that the saintly Bible teacher hesitated to
discuss with her young pupils? Are those passages, perhaps, to be understood as
representing the character of the fearsome Father rather than his gentle Son?
Could the Father Be Like Jesus?
Philip was one of the disciples privileged to hear the Master’s invitation to understanding friendship. Evidently he too had been puzzled by the apparent difference between the friendliness of Jesus and what he assumed to be the picture of the Father in the Old Testament. “Jesus,” he requested, “show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied.”1
“Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still
don’t know me?”
“But our questions are not about you,” Philip persisted.
“We know and love you, Lord. And even though we worship you as God’s
Son, we are not afraid to be so close to you here in the upper room. The one we
have questions about is the Father. We want to know about the God who thundered
on Sinai, who drowned the whole world in a flood,2 who destroyed the
cities of Sodom and Gomorrah;3 the one who consumed Nadab and
Abihu4 and opened the earth to swallow up rebellious Korah, Dathan
and Abiram,5 who ordered the stoning of Achan and his
family6 and rained fire down from heaven on Mount
“Jesus, could the Father be like you?”
And the Lord replied, “If you really knew me, you would know the
Father as well. Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show
us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in union with the Father,
and the Father is in union with me? If you trust me, you can trust the one who
“And as for those distressing stories of discipline and
death,” Jesus might have continued, “do not misunderstand them to
mean that the Father is less friendly and approachable than you have found me
to be. Actually it was I who led Israel through the wilderness. The command to
stone Achan was mine!”
Paul understood this when he wrote, using the familiar Biblical symbol
of the rock, “They all drank from the supernatural rock that accompanied
their travels—and that rock was Christ.”8
If only Philip had gone on questioning, the disciples might have heard
some priceless explanations to record in the gospels. He could have asked,
“Why, Jesus, did you order the stoning of Achan and his whole family but
work to prevent the stoning of the woman caught in adultery? Why did you
thunder so loudly on Sinai but speak so softly to us now?”
Unfortunately the disciples were more interested in who got the best
places at the table and what positions they would hold in the future kingdom.
So now it is our turn to ask questions, and Jesus invites us as his
friends to pursue such understanding.
Why Did God Raise His Voice on Sinai?
Imagine being present on that awesome day when God came down on Sinai to
speak to the children of Israel. The whole mountain shook at the presence of
the Lord. There was thunder and lightning, fire and smoke, and the sound of a
very loud trumpet.
And God said to Moses, “Keep the people back. If anyone even
touches the mountain, he must be put to death. Whether animal or human being,
he must be stoned or shot. Set a boundary around the mountain. If anyone breaks
through to look at me, he will perish.”9
The people were terrified. “They trembled with fear and stood a
long way off. They said to Moses, ‘If you speak to us, we will listen; but we
are afraid that if God speaks to us, we will die.’”10
But Moses reassured the people that there was no need to be afraid, for
Moses knew God and was his friend. Though he always approached him with deepest
reverence and awe, he was not afraid. And the Lord would speak to Moses
“face to face, as one speaks to a friend.”11
Remember how fearlessly but reverently Moses responded to God’s
offer to abandon Israel and make a great nation of him instead.12
But all the way from Egypt to Sinai the people had behaved most
irreverently, grumbling and complaining—in spite of the miraculous
deliverance at the Red Sea and God’s generous provision of water and food.
How could God gain the attention of such people and hold it long enough to
reveal more of the truth about himself?
Should he speak softly to the people, in a “still, small
voice,” as he would speak years later to Elijah at the mouth of the
cave?13 Should he sit and weep over Israel as he would centuries
later, sitting on another mountain and crying over his people in
Only a dramatic display of his majesty and power could command the
respect of that restless multitude in the wilderness. What a risk God would
thereby run of being misunderstood as a fearsome deity, hardly one to be loved
as a friend.
However, it was either run this risk or lose contact with his people.
Without reverence for God, they would not listen or take his instruction
seriously. This is why another Old Testament proverb teaches that “to be
wise you must first have reverence for the Lord.”15 And God is
willing to run the risk of being temporarily feared, even hated, rather than
lose touch with his children.
Would You Care Enough to Do the Same?
Parents and teachers should be well able to understand this risk.
Imagine yourself a grade-school teacher known for dignity and poise. In all
your years of teaching you have never found it necessary to raise your voice to
your young pupils. But now the principal has just urgently informed you at the
door that the building is on fire and you must direct the children to leave the
room as quickly as they can.
You turn and quietly announce that the building is on fire. But the room
is very noisy following the excitement of recess. No one notices you standing
there in front. Out of love for your roomful of children, would you be willing
to shout? Still failing to gain their attention, would you care enough to climb
on the desk, even throw an eraser or two? The children might finally notice
this extraordinary sight—their gentle teacher apparently angry for the
first time, shouting and gesturing as they have never seen her before! They
would slip stunned into their seats, perhaps frightened at what they saw.
“Now, children, please don’t go home and tell your parents
that I was angry with you,” you might begin to explain. “I was simply
trying to get your attention. You see, children, the building is on fire, and I
don’t want any of you to be hurt. So let’s line up quickly and march
out through that door.”
The Risk of Discipline
Which shows greater love? To refuse to raise one’s voice lest the
children be made afraid? Or to run the risk of being feared and thought
undignified in order to save the children in your care?
God runs this same risk every time he disciplines His people. “For
the Lord disciplines those whom he loves.”16
“Disciplines” is a better translation than the King James
Version “chasteneth,” which suggests only the idea of punishment.
The original Greek word is not limited to this. It means to
“educate,” “train,” “correct,”
“discipline”—all of which may call for occasional punishment, to
be sure, but always for the purpose of instruction.
This explanation of the loving purpose of God’s discipline is
included in yet another of Solomon’s proverbs:
My child, do not despise the Lord’s discipline
or be weary of his reproof,
for the Lord reproves the one he loves,
as a father the son in whom he delights.17
The book of Hebrews cites this proverb and then urges God’s
children not to overlook the encouraging meaning. “God is treating you as
sons. Can anyone be a son and not be disciplined by his father? If you escape
the discipline in which all sons share, you must be illegitimate and not true
sons. Again, we paid due respect to our human fathers who disciplined us;
should we not submit even more readily to our spiritual Father, and so attain
life? They disciplined us for a short time as they thought best; but he does so
for our true welfare, so that we may share his holiness. Discipline, to be
sure, is never pleasant; at the time it seems painful, but afterwards those who
have been trained by it reap the harvest of a peaceful and upright
A Lesson Learned on the Bottom Stair
I realize now how much my gentle mother ran this risk of being
misunderstood every time she determined there was need for some especially
impressive instruction. The usual place for the administration of this
discipline was in the front entrance hall of our two-story home in England. On
one wall stood a tall piece of furniture with a mirror, places for hats and
umbrellas, and a drawer in the middle for gloves. In the drawer were two
leather straps. I never discovered why there were two, but in imagination I can
still hear the rattling of the handle on that drawer and the ominous shuffling
of the straps as Mother made her selection. Then we would proceed together
toward the stairs.
After Mother was seated and the culprit had assumed the appropriate
posture, it was her custom to discuss the nature and seriousness of the
misdemeanor committed, all to the rhythmical swinging of the strap. The more
serious the crime, the longer it took Mother to discuss it! I cannot recall
ever having thought while in that painful position, “How kind and loving
of my mother to discipline me like this! How gracious she is to run the risk of
being misunderstood or perhaps of causing me to hate her and obey her out of
fear!” On the contrary, I seem to recall very different feelings at the
But when it was all over, I had to sit on the bottom stair and reflect
on the experience for a while. And before I could run out and play again, I
always had to find Mother and there would be hugging and kissing and
reassurance that things would be better from now on.
Sometimes repentance was a little slow in coming. I can remember
climbing to a higher stair so that I could look out through the stained-glass
windows at the flowers around the lawn. But it was hard to stay angry for long
or to go on feeling afraid. Mother never seemed to lose her temper. We knew
there was nothing she’d be unwilling to do for us children, and no limit
to her patience in listening to all we had to tell. She seemed so proud of our
successes and so understanding when we failed.
Recently I visited that bottom stair again. The stained-glass windows
were still there, but the stair seemed a bit lower when I sat on it this time.
Somehow I couldn’t remember the pain and embarrassment of it all. But as I
thought about my mother, who’s been gone for many years, I did feel a
specially warm sensation—but not where I used to feel it during the
swinging of that strap!
I hope I shall never lose the meaning of those sessions with Mother at
the bottom stair. She helped us learn an essential truth about God. Not that we
understood it right away. Mother was willing to wait. And if we had grown up
fearing and hating her for those times of discipline and punishment, it would
have broken her heart. But she cared enough about us to be willing to run that
God Much Prefers the Still, Small Voice
The message of Scripture is that God cares enough about his people to
run this same risk. It is true that if we insist on having our own way, God
will eventually let us go. He does not give us up easily, however. He
persuades; he warns; he disciplines. He would much rather speak to us quietly
as he finally could with Elijah. But if we cannot hear the still, small voice,
he will speak through earthquake, wind, and fire.19
Sometimes, at very critical moments, it has been necessary for God to
use extreme measures to gain our attention and respect. On such occasions our
reluctant reverence has been largely the result of fear. But God has thereby
gained another opportunity to speak, to warn us again before we are hopelessly
out of reach, to win some of us back to trust—and to find that there
really is no need to be afraid.
Surely in all this God has shown himself to be a friend who “sticks
closer than one’s nearest kin.”20 The one who wants us to
be his friends is so good a friend himself that he is willing to stick with us
when we are not very friendly toward him. Patiently he works to change even his
enemies into understanding friends.
How God Won Saul
God “stuck” with his enemy Saul and turned him into Paul, the
great apostle of trust and love. Before Saul met Jesus on the Damascus road, he
was utterly dedicated to eradicating what he believed to be dangerously false
teachings about God. If anyone had dared suggest that he was actually
God’s enemy, Saul would have been highly incensed. He had reason to regard
himself as God’s most zealous, hardworking servant and defender of the
But Saul worshipped an unfriendly god who would use force to have his
way. So in the name of the god he knew, Saul tried to force the early
Christians to give up their heresy and come back to the truth. If they refused,
he would have them arrested and even destroyed—just as he believed his god
That’s why Saul could assist in stoning so good a man as Stephen.
He did not enjoy the execution, but he “approved of their killing
him.”21 He remembered the story of Sinai. Did not the just and
holy God direct that the disobedient should be stoned or shot?
“Please Forgive Saul”
How could God win a man like Saul to be his friend, the friend of a
The Lord chose to confront his future friend on the road to Damascus.
Saul was troubled by his memories of that execution. Stephen had shown
remarkable knowledge of the Scriptures, and Saul’s conscience still
acknowledged the authority of truth.
Perhaps especially disturbing was Stephen’s prayer of forgiveness
just before he died: “Lord, do not hold this sin against
them.”22 There were reports that the heretic Jesus had behaved
the same way on the cross: “Father, forgive them; they do not know what
they are doing.”23 If these two men really were ungodly
heretics, how could they endure such torture with such godlike grace?
But, Saul could have reasoned, what about all those stories of divine
wrath and retribution, the exercise of justice in stamping out sinners and sin?
Had not the chief administrators and theologians authorized him to carry out
this unpleasant but holy mission? So Saul continued on his way to Damascus,
“still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the
Would it have done any good for God to tap him gently on the shoulder
and inquire, “One moment, Saul, could I have a word with you?” Saul
wouldn’t even have felt God’s touch. He certainly couldn’t have
heard the still, small voice. First something dramatic must be done to capture
In a blaze of light, God floored him right there on the road. More than
that, to ensure his undivided attention to what God had to say, he took away
his eyesight for a while.
As Saul lay helpless on the road, he must have been shocked to discover
that his assailant was none other than the meek and gentle Heretic he had once
despised as weak—teaching such nonsense as loving our enemies and even
praying for the Romans!
“But he could have killed me just now,” Saul may have thought
to himself. “I would have, if I’d been in his place. Why is he not
destroying me the way I’ve been destroying his disciples? Instead, I hear
him talking to me softly in my own language.25 And he’s talking
about my conscience!
“I’m sorry, Lord. I was terribly wrong. Now please accept me
as your servant, and tell what you want me to do.” Years later, in his
letter to the believers in Rome, Saul—now called Paul—was honored to
introduce himself as “a servant, or slave, of Jesus
Paul, the Servant
But God wanted more from Saul than just submissive service. So he gave
him no specific orders at that time, except to get up and go on to Damascus.
“There you will be told all that you are appointed to
A man named Ananias met him in the city with the friendly welcome,
“Saul, my brother, receive your sight again!”28 Then
Ananias went on to give a description of God’s great expectations of his
new disciple. Saul was to be God’s assistant29 in making known
the truth. “The God of our fathers,” Ananias continued,
“appointed you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear
him speak, because you are to be his witness to tell the world what you have
seen and heard.”30
Paul, the Understanding Friend
As Paul reflected on God’s persuasive skill in treating him so
firmly but graciously on the Damascus road, he was changed into more than a
faithful servant. He became a most understanding friend, whose highest aim was
to witness to the truth about his Lord by treating others as God had treated
“Imitate me, as I imitate Christ,” he wrote to the
Corinthians.31 Never again would he resort to the abuse of force. To
those who disagreed with him—even about important matters—he would
say, “Let everyone be fully convinced in his own mind.”32
And of those who felt free to criticize and condemn, he would ask, “Who
are you to pass judgment on another?”33
Paul showed how well he knew God, and understood the ways of friendship
and trust, by his Christ-like dealing with grossly misbehaving members of the
church in Corinth. At first he appealed to them with reason and love. It was to
them that he wrote the famous chapter on love that we now know as 1 Corinthians
13. But they were not impressed, and disdainfully rejected his advice.
Before Damascus, Paul would have known exactly what to do—imprison
them, have a few of them stoned! But now, of course, this was out of the
question. He decided to visit them in person, travelling from Ephesus to
Corinth. There he was rudely insulted as weak and vacillating. They scorned his
claim to be an apostle and challenged his authority to correct them at all.
Some scoffed, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily
presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.”34 Obviously
they would not take him seriously until he did something to win their respect.
Paul returned to Ephesus to decide his next move. It seemed clear that
more gentle talk about love would only worsen the problem. Like the teacher in
the burning school, should he risk misunderstanding by sternly raising his
voice? Would they then accuse him of more vacillation, of contradicting his own
chapter on love?
He was committed to following the example of Christ—if only he
could know what the Lord would do in such a situation. But he did know.
Christ raised his voice on Sinai to win respect and attention. He raised it
again on the Damascus road, for which his former foe will be eternally
Paul made his decision. He sent a blistering letter. It was so stern
that he cried as he wrote it. Worried that he might be misunderstood, he
couldn’t wait for a reply, and started out again for Corinth. He began to
regret what he had written, but only for a while. For on the way he received
the news that the emergency measure had succeeded. Raising his voice had
worked! The letter had been received with “fear and trembling.” And
with new-found respect, the apostle’s advice had been fully
Can the God Who Stoned Achan Be Trusted?
As Paul cried while writing to the sinners in Corinth, so God, too, must
have wept as he ordered the execution of Achan and his whole family. And he
required their fellow Israelites to stone them, then burn the remains. Could
such a God ever be trusted as a friend?
As they crossed the border into hostile Canaan, the people’s only
hope of survival lay in taking God seriously enough to follow his instructions
in every detail. There was danger that Achan’s rebellious and
disrespectful spirit would spread throughout the camp.36
In a day when life was held all too cheaply—the people had already
told Joshua that anyone who disobeyed him should be put to death—it was
necessary that God’s discipline be sufficiently awful and dramatic to make an
adequate impression.37 But as the stones were finding their target,
how the one who even sees the little sparrow fall38 must have hated
every horrible moment!
A Consistent Picture of God
A hundred and thirty-five trips through all sixty-six books, in company
with thousands of people, have served to convince me that the Biblical record
reveals a consistent picture of an infinitely powerful but equally gracious and
trustworthy God, whose ultimate purpose for his children is the freedom of
As he works toward this goal, he is willing to stoop and meet us where
we are, leading us no faster than we’re able to follow, speaking a
language we can respect and understand. To keep open the channels of
communication, he has often resorted to measures that risk misunderstanding.
To his enemies and careless observers, these are acts of an unfriendly
God. But to understanding friends, they are further evidence of God’s
trustworthiness that is the basis of their trust.
And without such trust, there can be no true friendship.