Our Relationships Series has come to an end. On this blog over the last few weeks my main focus has been on the subject of homosexuality. However, I think our time considering friendship was as important. I am convinced (and I made this point again on Sunday morning) that close relationships, where anxieties, temptations and laughter are shared, are vital for our ongoing perseverance and spiritual health.
So we need to ask the question- how can I be a good friend to people? In some ways I am convinced that this is the best way to find those who will be friends to us. Whilst working on the sermon I found various things helpful. I enjoyed reading Vaughan Roberts’ book on the subject. An afternoon reading Aelred from the 12th century was a particular treat! But frequently my mind went back to John Newton. Now I ended up omitting the Newton material from the sermon- partly because I already had too much to say and partly because, ever since I presented a biography of him, I have been mocked for using him as an example of everything! However, I wanted to mention the material here because I am convinced that Newton is indeed a helpful example when we consider the issue of friendship.
He was a good friend to people in different ways. He is striking for his ability to stick with people through thick and thin. I guess his friendship with William Cowper is the supreme example of that. You can hear more about this in John Piper’s lecture on Newton. Newton and Cowper spent time together in Olney where they worked together on a hymn book. However, Cowper faced severe mental illness and eventually was completely unable to attend church or work on hymns. He attempted suicide on a number of occasions. What is noteworthy is Newton’s desire to care for Cowper even at cost to himself. “We walked today and probably shall daily. I shall now have little leisure…,” Newton recorded in his journal at the start of Cowper’s deepest bout of darkness. Newton invited Cowper to live with him and his wife for over a year. I have no doubt this was deeply demanding for Cowper was unresponsive to any help during this period. But at the end of it Newton still spoke of “my dear friend Mr.Cowper.” Nobody could have been a better friend to this man walking through the deepest of despair.
Newton was not afraid to challenge people though. The fruit of this can be seen in his relationship with Thomas Scott. Scott was a curate in a neighbouring parish to Newton at Olney. Like many of his day, he was a liberal who rejected the enthusiastic evangelicalism that was growing up around him. Newton befriended him- and you can tell the warmth of the friendship from the correspondence that survives. Nevertheless, there is no sense that they could agree to differ on the Gospel. Here are some of the things that Newton wrote to Scott:
“You have one hard lesson to learn, that is the evil of your own heart.”
“You speak somewhere of ‘atoning for disobedience by repentance’. Ah! My dear sir…nothing but the blood of the Son of God can atone for the smallest instance of disobedience.”
The challenge bore fruit. Scott became thoroughly evangelical and eventually succeeded Newton at the church in Olney and became one of the founders of the Church Missionary Society.
Newton was also keen to befriend those who were younger. It may well be that one of his most significant acts was to become a spiritual adviser to the young William Wilberforce. During the long years when Wilberforce’s campaign to abolish the slave trade faced intense opposition, Newton was encouraging his young friend to persevere, encouraging him with comments such as these in his letters:
“The Lord reigns. He has all hearts in His hands. He is carrying on His great designs in a straight line and nothing can obstruct them.”
“You are not only a representative for Yorkshire, you have the far greater honour of being a representative for the Lord in a place where many know Him not, and an opportunity of showing them what are the genuine fruits of that religion that you are known to profess…My prayers are particularly engaged for you that the Lord may furnish you with wisdom, grace and strength, every way equal to the importance and difficulty of your situation.”
I have one reflection on all of this. Is a deeply felt appreciation of God’s grace one of the key things that contributes towards being a good friend? Newton’s appreciation of God’s grace ran throughout the second part of his life. He could never forget the way in which he had been brought back to God and experienced His forgiveness despite how wayward he had been. His hymn celebrating God’s amazing grace is well known as is his comment right at the end of his life when his memory was fading- that two things he knew namely “I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Saviour.”
It is worth considering the impact of this on friendship. One who appreciates grace will know that he is needy. He will know that he needs close friends to remind him of God’s goodness. One who knows God’s grace will have a rich generosity of spirit towards others. He will be sympathetic to those who are weak, knowing his own weakness. He will be patient with the young who are still learning knowing himself to be one who has to be trained. And, perhaps counter-intuitively, it is actually an appreciation of God’s grace that enables one to confront sin. I’ve always loved Richard Sibbes’ observation that “there is more mercy in Christ than sin in us” but it is worth noticing the context of that comment. Sibbes says that since there is more mercy in Christ than sin in us “there is no harm in thorough dealing.”In other words, because we know that Christ’s mercy will be more than sufficient to deal with any sin that is uncovered, there is no harm is being open and through with each other about sin. It was that appreciation that enabled Newton and his friends to be able to challenge one another safely. Where we end up unwilling to challenge or be challenged over sin, is it perhaps because we haven’t fully grasped that all of it is covered safely by Christ?
Newton was a great friend to people- and that came out of God’s grace that inspired generosity in him. Meditating on God’s lavish mercy to us will be a great help to us as we seek to be good friends to others.