Agone, One walked the earth, his life
A seeming failure;
Dying, he gave the world a gift
That will outlast eternities."
The world has always paid high honor to friendship. Some of the finest passages in all history are the stories of noble friendships, -- stories which are among the classics of literature. The qualities which belong to an ideal friend have been treated by many writers through all the centuries. But Jesus Christ brought into the world new standards for everything in human life. He was the one complete Man, -- God's ideal for humanity. "Once in the world's history was born a Man. Once in the roll of the ages, out of innumerable failures, from the stock of human nature, one bud developed itself into a faultless flower. One perfect specimen of humanity has God exhibited on earth." To Jesus, therefore, we turn for the divine ideal of everything in human life. What is friendship as interpreted by Jesus? What are the qualities of a true friend as illustrated in the life of Jesus?
It is evident that he lifted the ideal of friendship to a height to which it never before had been exalted. He made all things new. Duty had a new meaning after Jesus taught and lived, and died and rose again. He presented among men new conceptions of life, new standards of character, new thoughts of what is worthy and beautiful. Not one of his beatitudes had a place among the world's ideals of blessedness. They all had an unworldly, a spiritual basis. The things he said that men should live for were not the things which men had been living for before he came. He showed new patterns for everything in life.
Jesus presented a conception for friendship which surpassed all the classical models. In his farewell to his disciples he gave them what he called a "new commandment." The commandment was that his friends should love one another. Why was this called a new commandment? Was there no commandment before Jesus came and gave it that good men should love one another? Was this rule of love altogether new with him?
In the form in which Jesus gave it, this commandment never had been given before. There was a precept in the Mosaic law which at first seems to be the same as that which Jesus gave, but it was not the same. It read, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." "As thyself" was the standard. Men were to love themselves, and then love their neighbors as themselves. That was as far as the old commandment went. But the new commandment is altogether different. "As I have loved you" is its measure. How did Jesus love his disciples? As himself? Did he keep a careful balance all the while, thinking of himself, of his own comfort, his own ease, his own safety, and going just that far and no farther in his love for his disciples? No; it was a new pattern of love that Jesus introduced. He forgot himself altogether, denied himself, never saved his own life, never hesitated at any line or limit of service, of cost or sacrifice, in loving. He emptied himself, kept nothing back, spared not his own life. Thus the standard of friendship which Jesus set for his followers was indeed new. Instead of "Love thy neighbor as thyself," it was "Love as Jesus loved;" and he loved unto the uttermost.
When we turn to the history of Christianity, we see that the type of friendship which Jesus introduced was indeed a new thing in the world. It was new in its motive and inspiration. The love of the Mosaic law was inspired by Sinai; the love of the Christian law got its inspiration from Calvary. The one was only cold, stern law; the other was burning passion. The one was enforced merely as a duty; the other was impressed by the wondrous love of Christ. No doubt men loved God in the Old Testament days, for there were many revealings of his goodness and his grace and love in the teachings of those who spoke for God to men. But wonderful as were these revelations, they could not for a moment be compared with the manifestation of God which was made in Jesus Christ. The Son of God came among men in human form, and in gentle and lowly life all the blessedness of the divine affection was poured out right before men's eyes. At last there was the cross, where the heart of God broke in love.
No wonder that, with such inspiration, a new type of friendship appeared among the followers of Jesus. We are so familiar with the life which Christianity has produced, where the fruits of the Spirit have reached their finest and best development, that it is well-nigh impossible for us to conceive of the condition of human society as it was before Christ came. Of course there was love in the world before that day. Parents loved their children. There was natural affection, which sometimes even in heathen countries was very strong and tender. Friendships existed between individuals. History has enshrined the story of some of these. There always were beautiful things in humanity, -- fragments of the divine image remaining among the ruins of the fall.
But the mutual love of Christians which began to show itself on the day of Pentecost surpassed anything that had ever been known in even the most refined and gentle society. It was indeed divine love in new-born men. No mere natural human affection could ever produce such fellowship as we see in the pentecostal church. It was a little of heaven's life let down upon earth. Those who so loved one another were new men; they had been born again -- born from above. Jesus came to establish the kingdom of heaven upon the earth. In other words, he came to make heaven in the hearts of his believing ones. That is what the new friendship is. A creed does not make one a Christian; commandments, though spoken amid the thunders of Sinai, will never produce love in a life. The new ideal of love which Jesus came to introduce among men was the love of God shed abroad in human hearts. "As I have loved you, that ye also love one another" was the new requirement.
Since, then, the new ideal of friendship is that which Jesus gave in his own life, it will be worth our while to make a study of this holy pattern, that we may know how to strive toward it for ourselves.
We may note the tenderness of the friendship of Jesus. It has been suggested by an English preacher that Christ exhibited the blended qualities of both sexes. "There was in him the womanly heart as well as the manly brain." Yet tenderness is not exclusively a womanly excellence; indeed, since tenderness can really coexist only with strength, it is in its highest manifestation quite as truly a manly as a womanly quality. Jesus was inimitably tender. Tenderness in him was never softness or weakness. It was more like true motherliness than almost any other human affection; it was infolding, protecting, nourishing love.
We find abundant illustrations of this quality in the story of the life of Jesus. The most kindly and affectionate men are sure sometime to reveal at least a shade of harshness, coldness, bitterness, or severity. But in Jesus there was never any failure of tenderness. We see it in his warm love for John, in his regard for little children, in his compassion for sinners who came to his feet, in his weeping over the city which had rejected him and was about to crucify him, in his thought for the poor, in his compassion for the sick.
Another quality of the friendship of Jesus was patience. In all his life he never once failed in this quality. We see it in his treatment of his disciples. They were slow learners. He had to teach the same lesson over and over again. They could not understand his character. But he wearied not in his teaching. They were unfaithful, too, in their friendship for him. In a time of alarm they all fled, while one of them denied him, and another betrayed him. But never once was there the slightest impatience shown by him. Having loved his own, he loved them unto the uttermost, through all dulness and all unfaithfulness. He suffered unjustly, but bore all wrong in silence. He never lost his temper. He never grew discouraged, though all his work seemed to be in vain. He never despaired of making beauty out of deformity in his disciples. He never lost hope of any soul. Had it not been for this quality of unwearying patience nothing would ever have come from his interest in human lives.
The friendship of Jesus was unselfish. He did not choose those whose names would add to his influence, who would help him to rise to honor and renown; he chose lowly, unknown men, whom he could lift up to worthy character. His enemies charged against him that he was the friend of publicans and sinners. In a sense this was true. He came to be a Saviour of lost men. He said he was a physician; and a physician's mission is among the sick, not among the whole and well.
The friendship of Jesus was not checked or foiled by the discovery of faults or blemishes in those whom he had taken into his life. Even in our ordinary human relations we do not know what we are engaging to do when we become the friend of another. "For better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health," runs the marriage covenant. The covenant in all true friendship is the same. We pledge our friend faithfulness, with all that faithfulness includes. We know not what demands upon us this sacred compact may make in years to come. Misfortune may befall our friend, and he may require our aid in many ways. Instead of being a help he may become a burden. But friendship must not fail, whatever its cost may be. When we become the friend of another we do not know what faults and follies in him closer acquaintance may disclose to our eyes. But here, again, ideal friendship must not fail.
What is true in common human relations was true in a far more wonderful way of the friendship of Jesus. We have only to recall the story of his three years with his disciples. They gave him at the best a very feeble return for his great love for them. They were inconstant, weak, foolish, untrustful. They showed personal ambition, striving for first places, even at the Last Supper. They displayed jealousy, envy, narrowness, ingratitude, unbelief, cowardice. As these unlovely things appeared in the men Jesus had chosen, his friendship did not slacken or unloose its hold. He had taken them as his friends, and he trusted them wholly; he committed himself to them absolutely, without reserve, without condition, without the possibility of withdrawal. No matter how they failed, he loved them still. He was patient with their weaknesses and with their slow growth, and was not afraid to wait, knowing that in the end they would justify his faith in them and his costly friendship for them.
Jesus thought not of the present comfort and pleasure of his friends, but of their highest and best good. Too often human friendship in its most generous and lavish kindness is really most unkind. It thinks that its first duty is to give relief from pain, to lighten burdens, to alleviate hardship, to smoothe the rough path. Too often serious hurt is done by this over-tenderness of human love.
But Jesus made no such mistakes in dealing with his friends. He did not try to make life easy for them. He did not pamper them. He never lowered the conditions of discipleship so that it would be easy for them to follow him. He did not carry their burdens for them, but put into their hearts courage and hope to inspire and strengthen them to carry their own loads.
He did not keep them secluded from the world in a quiet shelter so that they would not come in contact with the world's evil nor meet its assaults; his method with them was to teach them how to live so that they should have the divine protection in the midst of spiritual danger, and then to send them forth to face the perils and fight the battles. His prayer for his disciples was not that they should be taken out of the world, thus escaping its dangers and getting away from its struggles, but that they should be kept from the world's evil. He knew that if they would become good soldiers they must be trained in the midst of the conflict. Hence he did not fight their battles for them. He did not save Peter from being sifted; it was necessary that his apostle should pass through the terrible experience, even though he should fail in it and fall. His prayer for him was not that he should not be sifted, but that his faith should not altogether fail. His aim in all his dealings with his friends was to train them into heroic courage and invincible character, and not to lead them along flowery paths through gardens of ease.
We are in the habit of saying that the follower of Christ will always find goodness and mercy wherever he is led. This is true; but it must not be understood to mean that there will never be any hardness to endure, any cross to bear, any pain or loss to experience. We grow best under burdens. We learn most when lessons are hard. When we get through this earthly life, and stand on the other side, and can look back on the path over which we have been led, it will appear that we have found our best blessings where we thought the way was most dreary and desolate. We shall see then that what seemed sternness and severity in Christ was really truest and wisest friendship. One writes: --
"If you could go back to the forks of the road --
Back of the sorrow and back of the care;
Then, after you'd trodden the other long track,
That the road you first travelled with sighs and unrest, Though dreary and rough, was most graciously blest, With a balm for each bruise and a charm for each ache, Oh, pilgrim of sorrow, which road would you take?"
Sometimes good people are disappointed in the way their prayers are answered. Indeed, they seem not to be answered at all. They ask God to take away some trouble, to lift off some load, and their request is not granted. They continue to pray, for they read that we must be importunate, that men ought always to pray and not to faint; but still there seems no answer. Then they are perplexed. They cannot understand why God's promises have failed.
But they have only misread the promises. There is no assurance given that the burdens shall be lifted off and carried for us. God would not be the wise, good, and loving Father he is, if at every cry of any of his children he ran to take away the trouble, or free them from the hardness, or make all things easy and pleasant for them. Such a course would keep us always children, untrained, undisciplined. Only in burden-bearing and in enduring can we learn to be self-reliant and strong. Jesus himself was trained on the battlefield, and in life's actual experiences of trial. He learned obedience by the things that he suffered. It was by meeting temptation and by being victorious in it that he became Master of the world, able to deliver us in all our temptations.
Not otherwise can we grow into Christlike men. It would be unkindness in our Father to save us from the experiences by which alone we can be disciplined into robust and vigorous strength. The promises do not read that if we call upon God in our trouble he will take the trouble away. Rather the assurance is that if we call upon God he will answer us. The answer may not be relief; it may be only cheer. We are taught to cast our burden upon the Lord, but we are not told that the Lord will take it away. The promise is that he will sustain us under the burden. We are to continue to bear it; and we are assured that we shall not faint under the load, for God will strengthen us. The assurance is not that we shall not be tempted, but that no temptation but such as man can bear shall come to us, and that the faithful God will not suffer us to be tempted above that we are able to endure.
This, then, is what divine friendship does. It does not make it easy for us to live, for then we should get no blessing of strength and goodness from living. How, then, are our prayers answered? God sustains us so that we faint not; and then, as we endure in faith and patience, his benediction is upon us, giving us wisdom, and imparting strength to us.
The friendship of Jesus was always sympathetic. Many persons, however, misunderstand the meaning of sympathy. They think of it as merely a weak pity, which sits down beside one who is suffering or in sorrow, and enters into the experience, without doing anything to lift him up or strengthen him. Such sympathy is really of very little value in the time of trouble. It may impart a consciousness of companionship which will somewhat relieve the sense of aloneness, but it makes the sufferer no braver or stronger. Indeed, it takes strength from him by aggravating his sense of distress.
It was not thus, however, that the sympathy of Jesus was manifested. There was no real pain or sorrow in any one which did not touch his heart and stir his compassion. He bore the sicknesses of his friends, and carried their sorrows, entering with wonderful love into every human experience. But he did more than feel with those who were suffering, and weep beside them. His sympathy was always for their strengthening. He never encouraged exaggerated thoughts of pain or suffering -- for in many minds there is a tendency to such feelings. He never gave countenance to morbidness, self-pity, or any kind of unwholesomeness in grief. He never spoke of sorrow or trouble in a despairing way. He sought to inculcate hope, and to make men braver and stronger. His ministry was always toward cheer and encouragement. He gave great eternal truths on which his friends might rest in their sorrow, and then bade them be of good cheer, assuring them that he had overcome the world. He gave them his peace and his joy; not sinking down into the depths of sad helplessness with them, but rather lifting them up to sympathy with him in his victorious life.
The wondrous hopefulness of Jesus pervades all his ministry on behalf of others. He was never discouraged. Every sorrow was to him a path to a deeper joy. Every battle was a way to the blessing of victoriousness. Every load under which men bent was a secret of new strength. In all loss gain was infolded. Jesus lived this life himself; it was no mere theory which he taught to his followers, and had never tried or proved himself. He never asked his friends to accept any such untested theories. He lived all his own lessons. He was not a mere teacher; he was a leader of men. Thus his strong friendship was full of magnificent inspiration. He called men to new things in life, and was ready to help them reach the highest possibilities in achievement and attainment.
This friendship of Jesus is the inspiration which is lifting the world toward divine ideals. "I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me," was the stupendous promise and prophecy of Jesus, as his eye fell on the shadow of the cross at his feet, and he thought of the fruits of his great sorrow and the influence of his love. Every life that is struggling to reach the beauty and perfectness of God's thought for it is feeling the power of this blessed friendship, and is being lifted up into the likeness of the Master.
This friendship of Jesus waits as a mighty divine yearning at the door of every human heart "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock," is its call. "If any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me." This blessed friendship waits before each life, waits to be accepted, waits to receive hospitality. Wherever it is received, it inspires in the heart a heavenly love which transforms the whole life. To be a friend of Christ is to be a child of God in the goodly fellowship of heaven.