I waved goodbye to my parents as they pulled their minivan out of my dorm parking lot. Nervous yet excited, I embarked on the chapter of life called college. I was in a new domain — all on my own. Though the academic challenge I would encounter felt daunting enough, my biggest fear was being alone. I wondered how I would make friends.
Of course, I knew college wasn’t just about friendships. A broadened experience, a learned mind, and a piece of paper on the other side of four (or more) years motivated me to attend a university in the first place. But the friends I would make turned out just as important as the tests I would take.
When I transferred schools my second year, I made friends carelessly, and I experienced the fallout. Because I didn’t want to be alone, it was easy for me to latch on to people without seriously examining their values. But a couple months into the first semester, I was struck by how often the people in my group ridiculed each other. Although we were presumably good Christians, we were shamefully swift to humiliate one another — we always had to outdo the last guy’s comment (usually an insult). Sarcastically pointing out each others’ flaws, we would pride ourselves whenever we looked better than someone else (the Lakers don’t play football, idiot!).
But the worst part of all was that I was just as guilty as the rest. I became the very thing I resented in the guys and girls I hung out with — and I didn’t like who I was becoming.
That’s when I began to grasp the consequences of ignoring the Proverbial warning to be wary of the friends we choose: “A righteous man is cautious in friendship, but the way of the wicked leads them astray” (Proverbs 12:26). By hanging out with people who valued their image more than God’s standards, I began to “learn” their ways, mock others, and get “ensnared” (Proverbs 22:25).
But what was I to do if these students were teaching me to be more concerned about my ego than the wellbeing of others? Should I forget about friendship altogether and lock myself in the library? Solomon didn’t say that a righteous man is friendless; he said he’s “cautious” in his choice of companions. I needed to be educated in God’s school of friendship.
The first lesson I learned was that being part of a group isn’t vital. Though I was lured by peer acceptance, being part of a group proved disappointing — in my case, destructive: “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24).
But is it so bad to have lots of friends who stick closer than a brother? Maybe not, if they’re really that close, but authentic friendship can rarely be developed and maintained in multiple relationships. Only with time can a true companion be found.
With that exhortation in mind, I began to separate myself from the group and, instead, invested most of my time in only a couple friendships. I particularly connected with a guy named Mark and can only attribute his presence in my life to God’s grace (which attests to the importance of praying about potential friendships).
The more we hung out, the more I saw his character. And even though we once had a spat in the cafeteria (over something neither of us can remember), our friendship had grown deep enough to overcome that silly incident.
So what made Mark different from the others?
He was honest, vulnerable and trustworthy. Not only did he bare his soul and share his struggles, but I could trust him enough to uncover my own hopes, fears, and sins. And I could accept his “[w]ounds from a friend” — his advice against poor decisions and suggestions about my spiritual walk — which helped me grow and stay on a straight path (Proverbs 27:6).
Mark wasn’t fickle either (Proverbs 17:17). I could count on him to be there when I needed him — like the time he found me dehydrated from the stomach flu, groaning on the bathroom floor of our apartment at 2 a.m. and drove me to the ER in a blizzard.
Whereas I first befriended a group of people who thrived off of humor at others’ expense, Mark was seeking to know Christ and live for Him. We can’t help but be shaped by the people around us, and the influence of a companion who was pursuing holiness and wisdom could only reap good benefits in my life. No, he wasn’t perfect, but he was growing in wisdom, and I was “[walking] with the wise” that I might grow wise as well (Proverbs 13:20a).
But this growth isn’t always easy. Proverbs 27:17 describes it this way: “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” Iron against iron means metal is being chipped away. What’s left is being refined for effectiveness — but that certainly isn’t always painless or fun. Mark and I had our share of disagreements, sometimes heated (I was exhausted by daily college chapel; he was refreshed by it), but our differences helped me question my assumptions and realize that my preconceptions weren’t always right. He opened my eyes to a world outside myself and helped me appreciate people and their distinctions. As we wrestled with life’s issues, found some answers, and unearthed new questions, what I discovered most of all was a faithful friend who didn’t stagnate my spirit, but stirred the waters of my soul for God.
It’s tempting to conclude that this means we should protect and separate ourselves from the heathen. But that’s not the point. We have to differentiate between a friend and a companion. Should our deepest companions hold values and beliefs that differ from our faith? Whether we realize it or not, our closest companions will mold us into the people we’re becoming, and we need to remember: “Bad company corrupts good character” (I Corinthians 15:33).
So while we must embrace Christ’s command to love all people, including our neighbors and enemies (see Luke 10:27 and Matthew 5:44), our companions should be individuals who love the Lord and are trustworthy, faithful, and wise. That’s why it’s vital to choose carefully.
Whether you’re preparing for your first step on campus or getting ready to walk out with your diploma, it’s never too late to choose iron-sharpening friends. Don’t settle for fool’s gold when you can have the real thing. You don’t want to end up as an egocentric scoffer who can only be happy when someone else isn’t.
Copyright 2003 David Barshinger. All rights reserved.