That’s What Friends Are For

What are friends for? How do friends act? The Book of Proverbs provides answers to both questions.
Let’s begin with what friends are for. Proverbs 17:17 is as good a place as any to start:
A friend loves at all times,
and a brother is born for adversity.
This proverb compares a friend and a brother. Proverbs 18:24 contrasts them:
A man of many companions may come to ruin,
but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.
If I had to summarize the gist of these two proverbs, I’d do it this way: A friend is as good as a brother, but a good friend is even better than a brother.
In his book, Ex-Friends, Norman Podhoretz describes himself as a “foul-weather friend” to Norman Mailer, the literary enfant terrible. I like that phrase. Friends, like brothers, comfort us in tough times. Foul weather is, in fact, the test of friendship. Several proverbs warn us about fair-weather-only friends:
The poor are shunned even by their neighbors,
but the rich have many friends (14:20).
Wealth brings many friends,
but a poor man’s friend deserts him (19:4).
Many curry favor with a ruler,
and everyone is the friend of a man who gives gifts.
A poor man is shunned by all his relatives —
how much more do his friends avoid him!
Though he pursues them with pleading,
they are nowhere to be found (19:6-7).
True friends don’t care how much money we have. They don’t befriend us for what they can get out of the relationship. They’re our friends because of what they can give in the relationship.
What are the gifts of friendship? How do friends act?
They forgive and forget.
He who covers over an offense promotes love,
but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends (17:9).
They are faithful.
Many a man claims to have unfailing love,
but a faithful man who can find? (20:6)
Do not forsake your friend and the friend of your father,
and do not go to your brother’s house when disaster strikes you —
better a neighbor nearby than a brother far away (27:10).
They’re free of malice.
He who loves a pure heart and whose speech is gracious
will have the king for his friend (22:11).
They offer great advice.
Perfume and incense bring joy to the heart,
and the pleasantness of one’s friend springs
from his earnest counsel (27:9).
They make us better people.
As iron sharpens iron,
so one man sharpens another (27:17).
Taken together, these proverbs present us with a diagnosis of our level of friendship.
  • Do I stick closer to my friends than their brothers (or sisters)?
  • Do I befriend people because of wealth or other benefits?
  • Do I overlook my friend’s faults?
  • Do I remain faithful to him (or her) in good times and bad?
  • Do I have a pure heart about other people?
  • Do I offer them good advice?
  • Do people turn about better because of my influence?

Resolving Destructive Conflict

Yesterday, I defined a destructive conflict as one that occurs when wrong assails right for self-interested motives. A high school cheerleader gossiping about a student in her class, a drunk picking a fight in a bar, and a politician smearing a rival through lies and innuendo: these are examples of conflicts that destroy.
The question is, “How do we resolve such conflicts?”
The first step toward resolution is self-examination. Are you the source of the destructive conflict? Read Proverbs 17:19:
He who loves a quarrel loves sin;
he who builds a high gate invites destruction.
My sophomore year of college was a difficult one for me. I was a philosophy major, and I loved to argue with people. But my friends got tired of me picking fights with them for my intellectual amusement. So my roommate found someone else to live with, my fellow majors filled up their schedules with other relationships, and I found myself living in a dorm by myself at the far end of campus. Trust me, a year of enforced isolation taught me the importance of self-criticism and friendliness. If you find yourself constantly at odds with others, the chances are that you’re the problem.
Assuming that you’re not the problem, the second step in the resolution of destructive conflict is discernment. Ask yourself, will I make the situation better by overlooking it or by confronting it head-on? Sometimes, confrontation will only make the problem worse:
Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam;
so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out (17:14).
An offended brother is more unyielding than a fortified city,
and disputes are like the barred gates of a citadel (18:19).
In such cases, follow the advice of these two proverbs:
A man’s wisdom gives him patience;
it is to his glory to overlook an offense (19:11).
It is to a man’s honor to avoid strife,
but every fool is quick to quarrel (20:3).
Other times, however, you can contribute to the resolution of the problem:
A hot-tempered man stirs up dissension,
but a patient man calms a quarrel (15:18).
The question is, how do you exercise the role of the “patient man”?
That brings us to the third step toward resolving destructive conflict: confrontation. Proverbs 22:10 says:
Drive out the mocker, and out goes strife;
quarrels and insults are ended.
Think back to the three destructive-conflict scenarios I mentioned above: the gossiping cheerleader, the fight-picking drunk, and the lies-and-innuendo politician. Confrontation involves three steps: (1) Clarify the issue (gossip, fights, lies and innuendoes). (2) Identify the trouble-maker (the cheerleader, the drunk, the politician). And (3) consequence their behavior. If the trouble-maker admits they were wrong about the issue, then you should forgive them.
Hatred stirs up dissension,
but love covers over all wrongs (10:12).
Absent repentance, however, the only thing you can do with a trouble-maker is exclude them from the circle of your friendship. It’s not easy, but sometimes the only way to secure peace is to “drive out the mocker.”

Sources of Destructive Conflict

Nobody likes personal conflict. It takes a toll on you emotionally, physically and spiritually. But sometimes conflict is unavoidable, even necessary.
There are two basic types of conflict: constructive and destructive. Constructive conflict arises when right challenges wrong and calls for repentance and reform. Destructive conflict, on the other hand, occurs when wrong assails right for selfish reasons.
The Book of Proverbs advocates constructive conflict. This is most evident in its repeated exhortation for parents to discipline their children. But it everywhere condemns destructive conflict. Indeed, according to Proverbs 6:19, “[God hates] a man who stirs up dissension among brothers.”
What are the sources of destructive conflict?
Hatred appears first on Proverbs’ list of sources:
Hatred stirs up dissension,
but love covers over all wrongs (10:12).
In this proverb, Hatred is the contradiction of love. If love wishes the best for the other, then hatred wishes the worst. There can be no harmony or peace between two parties when at least one of them is motivated by an irrational, implacable hatred for the other.
Another source of destructive conflict is anger.
A hot-tempered man stirs up dissension,
but a patient man calms a quarrel (15:18).
An angry man stirs up dissension,
and a hot-tempered one commits many sins (29:22).
There is, of course, such a thing as righteous anger. But righteous anger is the initial response to an injustice. What Proverbs warns against is the quick temper which flares at any slight, real or perceived, and then keeps burning without resolution.
A third source of destructive conflict is malicious speech.
A perverse man stirs up dissension,
and a gossip separates close friends (16:28).
A fool’s lips bring him strife,
and his mouth invites a beating (18:6).
Without wood a fire goes out;
without gossip a quarrel dies down.
As charcoal to embers and as wood to fire,
so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife (26:20-21).
Gossip, ill-chosen words, and a love of quarreling are the quick route to destructive conflict.
Substance abuse is a fourth source of destructive conflict.
Who has woe? Who has sorrow?
Who has strife? Who has complaints?
Who has needless bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes?
Those who linger over wine,
who go to sample bowls of mixed wine (23:29-30).
Alcohol in and of itself doesn’t pick a fight. But a person who drinks (or snorts or injects) until he loses self-control is bound to get himself in a scrape.
Meddling in other’s business also initiates unnecessary conflict.
Like one who seizes a dog by the ears
is a passer-by who meddles in a quarrel not his own (26:17).
A sixth source of destructive conflict is greed.
A greedy man stirs up dissension,
but he who trusts in the Lord will prosper (28:25).
It is hard to be at peace with another person when you’re scheming about how to get their stuff.
There are more sources of destructive conflict than the six listed above. But if you want to avoid destructive conflict, start by avoiding them. 

A Hebrew Lesson on Parenting

Proverbs 22:6 is a well-known proverb about parenting. The New International Version of the Bible translates it this way:
Train a child in the way he should go,
and when he is old he will not turn from it.
Some people take this proverb as a promise. If they raise their children well, their children will turn out alright in the end. On occasion, I hear a worried mom or dad cite this verse about their adult children who have taken a wrong turn spiritually or morally. “He wasn’t raised that way,” they say. “Some day, he’ll come back to God.”
Unfortunately, that’s not the way proverbs work. They don’t make promises. They describe the law of averages. In general, it’s true that well-raised kids become good adults. But it’s not always true. Some well-raised kids become rotten adults. Not always, but sometimes. Even God has problems with his kids. Consider what he says about us in Isaiah 1:2: “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me.” If you want to increase the odds of your kids turning out alright, train them in the way they should go. Don’t presume that they will, however.
Let me throw another monkey wrench into the interpretation of this proverb. During my first year of graduate school, my Hebrew teacher pointed out that “the way he should go” is not a literal translation of Proverbs 22:6. “The most serious difficulty with the traditional rendering of Prov 22:6,” he writes, “is the startling fact that in the Hebrew text there is virtually no basis for the all-important qualifier ‘should’ in the phrase, ‘the way he should go.’” He goes on: “Instead, in each case ‘his way’ (8:22; 11:5; 14:8; 16:9, 17; 19:3; 20:24; 21:29), ‘his ways’ (3:31; 10:9; 14:2, 14: 19:16), ‘her ways’ (3:17; 6:6; 7:25), ‘their way’ (1:31), etc., refer to the way these persons actually go.”[*]
In other words, a more literal translation of Proverbs 22:6 looks like this:
Train up a child according to his way,
and when he is old he will not depart from it.
Some people take this as a commandment about how we should raise our children. We should teach with the grain of their personality and aptitude. Now, there’s a lot of truth in that. You don’t want to shove ballet lessons down a kid who really wants to play basketball. But by the same token, the Book of Proverbs indicates that training a child often requires disciplining his “natural” inclinations.
So, if Proverbs 22:6 is neither a promise that your kid will turn out all right nor a commandment to take his personality into account, what is it? Again, we return to the law of averages. Proverbs 22:6 is a generally true description of what happens if you leave your kids to their own devices. If you let them run amok, they probably will.
But they might not. That’s the great thing about the law of averages. Even bad adults can find the right path if they want to.

[*] Gordon P. Hugenberger, “Train Up a Child,” in Gary D. Pratico and Miles Van Pelt, Basics of Biblical Hebrew Grammar, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 162-163.

Discipline, Obedience, and Consequences

In his book, The Social Contract (1762), Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote: “Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains.” This statement is often cited in support of the notion that the family and other social institutions warp a child’s natural goodness. Rather than imposing rules on children, so this thinking goes, parents should just let their kids express themselves however their little hearts desire.
(Why anyone listens to Rousseau has always been a mystery to me. Rather than raising his own five children, he fobbed them off on orphanages soon after their births. Perhaps he thought he would make a bad father. If so, what authority does he have to tell other people how they should raise their children?)
The Book of Proverbs expresses the exact opposite advice. Parents should raise their children according to God’s moral law and common sense. Children are not born good, in other words; they become good through proper instruction. Consider, in this light, the following proverbs:
Discipline your son, for in that there is hope;
do not be a willing party to his death (19:18).
Do not withhold discipline from a child;
if you punish him with the rod, he will not die.
Punish him with the rod
and save his soul from death (23:13-14).
The rod of correction imparts wisdom,
but a child left to himself disgraces his mother (29:15).
Discipline your son, and he will give you peace;
he will bring delight to your soul (29:17).
These proverbs advocate corporal discipline for hard cases. But surely such discipline is supposed to be rare! The normal mode of instruction for children is, instead, dialogue. That is why Proverbs so often calls upon children to listen to their parents.
Listen to your father, who gave you life,
and do not despise your mother when she is old.
Buy the truth and do not sell it;
get wisdom, discipline and understanding.
The father of a righteous man has great joy;
he who has a wise son delights in him.
May your father and mother be glad;
may she who gave you birth rejoice! (23:22-25)
Interestingly, it seems that siblings also play a crucial role in the moral development of children.
A friend loves at all times,
and a brother is born for adversity (17:17).
Our siblings, it seems, help our parents teach us the difference between right and wrong.
What is the danger of not instructing children in the way they should go, of not disciplining them (in some form, not necessarily corporal) when they stray? Two proverbs utilize avian imagery:
Like a bird that strays from its nest
is a man who strays from his home (27:8).
The eye that mocks a father,
that scorns obedience to a mother,
will be pecked out by the ravens of the valley,
will be eaten by the vultures (30:17).
Parents, it turns out, are the frontline for teaching children how to get along in society. They aren’t born free; they become free. So, teach your children well!

Parents and Children

Tiffany and I are the usually proud parents of a Forkie named Charlie. (A Forkie is a fat Yorkie.) We’re only usually proud because while Charlie is friendly and well-behaved indoors, the moment his paw hits the porch, he becomes less a Yorkshire Terrier than a Yorkshire Terrorist.
The other day, while walking with Charlie at dusk, we came across a married couple and their three German Shepherd puppies. Charlie predictably transformed himself into a furry, ten-pound ball of snarling meanness. When one of the German Shepherd puppies became slightly agitated, the wife leaned down, stroked his head, and said, “You don’t have to be a bad dog.” I was so embarrassed.
The Book of Proverbs teaches that how we live reflects well (or badly) on our parents—much like how Charlie makes me and Tiffany look like good owners or complete idiots, depending on his behavior. Proverbs associates living well with living wisely, as these verses teach:
A wise son brings joy to his father,
but a foolish son grief to his mother (10:1).
A wise son brings joy to his father,
but a foolish man despises his mother (15:20).
To have a fool for a son brings grief;
there is no joy for the father of a fool (17:21).
A foolish son is his father’s ruin (19:13a).
A man who loves wisdom brings joy to his father,
but a companion of prostitutes squanders his wealth (29:3).
That last proverb shows us that wisdom (or folly) can be described specifically in terms of actual behaviors. A wise person is good with money and sexually chaste; a fool spends his money on hookers.
Here are some other specific behaviors of wise (or foolish) children:
He who robs his father and drives out his mother
is a son who brings shame and disgrace (19:26).
If a man curses his father or mother,
his lamp will be snuffed out in pitch darkness (20:20).
He who keeps the law is a discerning son,
but a companion of gluttons disgraces his father (28:7).
He who robs his father or mother
and says, "It’s not wrong" —
he is partner to him who destroys (28:24).
There are those who curse their fathers
and do not bless their mothers… (30:11).
Wise behavior is lawful behavior, God-commanded behavior. Foolish behavior is the opposite; it is self-centered behavior.
In addition to reflecting well on one’s parents, wise behavior has other benefits. Indeed Proverbs 17:2 suggests that wisdom is more valuable than biological ties when it says,
A wise servant will rule over a disgraceful son,
and will share the inheritance as one of the brothers.
Of course, parental behavior also reflects well (or badly) on the children.
Children’s children are a crown to the aged,
and parents are the pride of their children (17:6).
The righteous man leads a blameless life;
blessed are his children after him (20:7).
So, how should we live? Not only by doing the wise thing, the God-commanded thing, but also by doing the honorable thing, that is, what reflects well on our families.

Honest Weights and Measures

When it comes to purchasing diamonds, does God care about the four Cs? This may surprise you, but according to the Book of Proverbs, he does. Before I show you chapter and verse, let me explain why this is an important issue.
In the fall of 2004, I purchased an engagement ring for Tiffany—then my girlfriend, now my wife. I wanted to buy a flawless, princess cut diamond in a platinum setting. But since I am not a millionaire, I settled for a very good diamond which I could afford (barely). It took me months, and more than a dozen visits to different jewelers, to find the right stone. Along the way, I learned a lot about how diamonds are graded.
When you purchase a diamond, you want to pay attention to the four Cs: cut, color, clarity, and carat weight. In the United States, the Gemnological Institute of America and the American Gem Society grade most of our diamonds. The cut and carat weight of a diamond are objective measurements. But the color and clarity of a diamond are a bit more subjective. Unfortunately, the GIA and AGS don’t use the exact same standards for measuring color and clarity. So, caveat emptor if you’re in the market for a diamond ring.
Now, back to God. Several proverbs make it clear that God desires objective standards of measurement.
The Lord abhors dishonest scales,
but accurate weights are his delight (11:1).
Honest scales and balances are from the Lord;
all the weights in the bag are of his making (16:11).
Differing weights and differing measures —
the Lord detests them both (20:10).
The Lord detests differing weights,
and dishonest scales do not please him (20:23).
Notice several things about these proverbs. First, God is the source of honest measurements. “All the weights in the bag are of his making.” Second, as a consequence of the first point, honest measurements are a source of God’s happiness. They are his “delight.” God always delights in his good creation, you see. And third, any deviation from honest measurements is a source of displeasure to God. He “abhors dishonest scales.” He “detests” them. They “do not please him.”
Of course, these proverbs apply to more than the four Cs. They also apply to a quart of oil or a gallon of milk or a pound of beef. When you buy these things, you assume that the seller is using an objective standard of measurement. You assume that he’s not putting his thumb on the scale to charge you more money than what you’re buying is worth. An economy simply cannot operate without such basic honesty in our transactions with merchants. God cares very much about honesty—and about the economy.
But, at the end of the day, caveat emptor still applies. Let the buyer beware! Trust the seller, but be shrewd. Proverbs 20:14 praises the person who drives a hard bargain:
“It’s no good, it’s no good!” says the buyer;
then off he goes and boasts about his purchase.
P.S. According to Tiffany, I bought the right ring.

Don’t Loan; Give!

In March 2003, I decided to purchase a brand new Honda Element. But after I made a down payment on the car and traded in my older vehicle, I still owed money on the purchase price. So, I borrowed the remaining principal through American Honda Finance Corporation. Thankfully, I have paid off the entire debt and now own the car outright; but that monthly payment was a real hassle for the entire time I had to pay it.
My personal experience of debt confirms the truth of Proverbs 22:7:
The rich rule over the poor,
and the borrower is servant to the lender.
One time, I calculated that 25 out of my 245 work days went toward paying off my car loan. Now the fruit of those 25 work days goes into my pocket, or rather my wife’s, which I guess amounts to the same thing. Proverbs 22:7 teaches us that we should be wary of taking on debt because it restricts our financial independence.
Interestingly, Proverbs also warns us against the foolishness and danger of co-signing another person’s loan.
A man lacking in judgment strikes hands in pledge
and puts up security for his neighbor (17:18).
He who puts up security for another will surely suffer,
but whoever refuses to strike hands in pledge is safe (11:15).
The basic danger is that the other person will default on the loan, and we’ll be left holding the bag.
Do not be a man who strikes hands in pledge
or puts up security for debts;
if you lack the means to pay,
your very bed will be snatched from under you (22:26-27).
The safest course of action, then, is not to co-sign a loan at all. If we do, however, Proverbs advises us to secure collateral, especially if the other person is not the world’s wisest money manager. Two proverbs—20:16 and 27:13—make an identical point:
Take the garment of one who puts up security for a stranger;
hold it in pledge if he does it for a wayward woman.
Another way to make the loan a bit safer is to charge interest on it, although Proverbs warns about this practice as well.
He who increases his wealth by exorbitant interest
amasses it for another, who will be kind to the poor (28:8).
A good example of the truth of this Proverb is the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage market. All those mortgage companies that stood to make a killing on adjustable rate mortgages are now finding themselves in hock to foreign investors.
So, if we’re supposed to avoid borrowing, lending, and co-signing loans, how can we help people with financial needs? Proverbs 11:24-26 tells us:
One man gives freely, yet gains even more;
another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty.
A generous man will prosper;
he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed.
People curse the man who hoards grain,
but blessing crowns him who is willing to sell.
God rewards generosity. So, don’t loan; give!

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