Every Christian Needs a Faithful and a Hopeful
Friendship is a significant theme of Pilgrim’s Progress. We can’t but wonder whether Christian could have passed through Vanity Fair untarnished if Faithful had not been at his side. Christian certainly would not have escaped Doubting Castle without the encouragement of Hopeful. As we close the pages of Bunyan’s classic, we ought to appreciate that a life of discipleship is far too dangerous a journey to be attempted alone. Although there may be moments when we have to fight as individuals in the Valley of Humility, only a fool would choose to isolate himself intentionally. We ought both to pray for and seek after Christian friends. Next to the Holy Spirit and the Word of God, such friends are the greatest support that we have on route to the Celestial City.
Not All Friendship Is Created Equal
Yet, friendship by itself is not enough to support the Christian life. Men must be aware that, just as there are different types of cars, built to different degrees of quality (a Fiat is not a Mercedes), so there are multiple types of friendship, some of greater spiritual worth than others. In fact, to make this point as plain as possible, it is worth describing in brief the different types of friendship that exist so that men know what exactly to look for.
First, there are friendships of fun. A group of men that play golf together on weekends provides a classic example of this. Such men regularly hang out to do one thing – have a good time. These friendships are not bad, but they are (usually) shallow. They tend to grow no deeper than the grass on the green. If someone suffers injury, or gets bogged down with responsibilities at home, no one hears from him; no one checks on him. Fun is too weak of a glue to seal a deep commitment.
Second there are friendships of need. Here imagine work colleagues that share life daily, but only because each needs the other to get tasks done. If Jim moves to another department, or if John retires, he vanishes like a mirage in the desert. Lacking substance, these friendships do not last.
Third are friendships of genuine care. These are high school friends, college roommates, and any other people who are in your life, not due to pleasure or work, but because you actually like them. Such friends may be a good or bad influences. In most cases, these friends are not loved because of character or noble aspiration, but because of shared stories and the spontaneous ‘click’ of personalities.
Finally, there is spiritual friendship. Spiritual friendship is as different from the other types as gold is from silver, brass, or iron. What sets this type of friendship apart is that spiritual friends share a vision of excellence. They are pilgrims together on a road to a common destination. Accordingly, the goal of spiritual friendship is not to have fun (though fun may be had), or to get stuff done (though projects may be accomplished), or to reminisce (though laughter might erupt). Instead, the aim of spiritual friendship is for each partner involved to draw as close as possible to a horizon of perfection. The picture of Olympic athletes training together provides a useful picture of this. Why do world-class sprinters train together? The answer is because they share a vision of excellence and because, by joining effort, each athlete advances farther together than he would alone.
The application of this is not hard to grasp. Pillgrim’s Progress is a story of Christians traveling together in order to keep pace, avoid temptation, reinforce resolve, and overcome discouragement. Bunyan powerfully illustrates the abiding relevance of Ecclesiastes 4:9-12:
Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.
Clarity: a Key Ingredient of Spiritual Friendship
But how is it that Christians are able to comfort each other, to encourage each other, and to stir up one another to love and good works? The answer is what we have been calling ‘clarity’, that is, because they share the same perspective on life. Spiritual friends are friends who are traveling according to the same itinerary. The circumstances of each life might differ, but the overall pattern is the same. Once you and I both realize that the instructions I am following are the same as yours, a spirit of fellowship erupts like a flame from kindling. Suddenly, I know something very intimate about you even as you know something personal about me. We are no longer strangers, but comrades. Our shared perspective seals a friendship that is deeper, stronger, and more durable than friendships of fun, utlity, or mere affection.
Questions for Small Groups/Self-Reflection
How is the importance of friendship seen in the story of Pilgrim’s Progress?
Re-read Ecclesiates 4:9-12 (see above). What are the benefits that come from spiritual friendship?
World-class athletes never train alone. They seek out coaching, and they train with other high-performing athletes. What should Christians learn from this?
This is our last week of Challenge 2 of the Decathlon. How have you benefited from reading Pilgrim’s Progress?