Mark S. Mitchell

Pastor, Writer, Follower of Jesus


The Lost Art of Friendship

Studies show that we have less true friends than past generations. We may have 1000 followers on Twitter, but last I heard the average American had two people to talk to about things that were important to them. Perhaps even more striking, the number of Americans with no close friends is about 25 percent. Joss Whedon, director of The Avengers, said, Loneliness is about the scariest thing out there.” Albert Einstein wrote, “It is strange to be known so universally, and yet to be so lonely.”

Our society does little to help us in this area. Fifteen-year-olds spend months learning how to drive but rarely learn how to be a friend. College students spend years learning the skills of engineering or architecture, but the skill of friendship is left up to osmosis. So we have a lot of people who aren’t succeeding in this area and it affects every area of their lives.

The book of Proverbs offers advice on both choosing friends and being friends. When it comes to choosing friends Proverbs teaches us to choose our friends carefully. Proverbs 13:20 says, He who walks with wise men will be wise, But the companion of fools will suffer harm.” If we develop intimate friendships with the wise, we’ll become wise. If we develop intimate friendships with fools, we’ll suffer harm. This is an encouragement to walk with people who will influence us the right way.

Several years ago an actor named Don Johnson starred on a TV show called Miami Vice. When his career took off he got caught up in the Hollywood lifestyle and spent a decade taking drugs, abusing alcohol, and “living it up.” Finally, he got his life straightened out and got sober. He was asked once if he had any regrets. He said, Yes, I regret wasting lots of time with a bunch of jerks that I wish I hadn’t spent 10 minutes with now, let alone ten years.”

The way this influence happens is brought out vividly in Proverbs 27:17: Iron sharpens iron, So one man sharpens another.” Two people brought together in close friendship are like iron sharpening iron. Our personalities rub together and are shaped by that contact. This can be a painful process; sparks can fly when iron sharpens iron; but the end result is that both parties are changed. So you should choose your friends carefully because they’ll have a huge impact on us. This is a person whose advice you’ll seek, who you’ll turn to in times of trouble, who you’ll share good times with and who you’ll learn from. Don’t approach the task of choosing friends lightly.

Proverbs also talks a lot about being friends. One skill that’s needed in friendship is loyalty. Proverbs 17:17 says, A friend loves at all times, And a brother is born for adversity.” A true friend is one who loves us in every circumstance of life. There’s a hint here that the true colors of friendship are seen in the midst of adversity. When our lives are falling apart a true friend will stand with us. Or when our friend has failed, we’ll be there to pick them up.

But the most difficult skill of all in friendship is forgiveness. Someone has said that there are three things we must do for a friendship to last—forgive, forgive and forgive! Proverbs puts it this way: He who covers a transgression seeks love, But he who repeats a matter separates intimate friends (Proverbs 17:9). Covering a transgression doesn’t mean we ignore it; it means we see it and acknowledge it for what it is and by an act of our will we choose to forgive that person and not make it public. We don’t repeat it; we don’t stir it up so that every angle of the scandal is exposed and every last drop of shame is drawn from the offender. A good friend will try to contain the damage of our sin. Every close friendship gets to a point where a decision has to be made. Will we cover the offensive actions and annoying traits of that person, and will the relationship then move to a deeper level, or will those things cause us to move away from our friend? Every friendship will have to deal with the reality of sin, weakness, failure and conflict. Many people get to that point in the friendship and because they’re unwilling to endure through the sin they bail out and move on to the next relationship. But, unless we’re willing to love someone at their very worst, we can’t have the very best of friendship.

The skill of friendship is not easy! In fact, I’d say it’s impossible in our own strength. But all of this was meant to be a picture of the kind of love God has for us. Jesus said to his disciples, No longer do I call you slaves, but I call you friends.” Jesus has given to each one of us the promise of friendship. Ultimately, he’s the friend who sticks closer than a brother. Jesus is the friend who covers our transgressions. As we come to grips with that reality we can be that kind of friend to others.

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How to Tame the Tongue

Do some damage control. We might have to start by doing some damage control. Some of the best words we can ever say are “I’m sorry.” Proverbs says in chapter 12 verse 15 that “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes…” Since we all in what we say, saying “I’m sorry” a lot is an absolute necessity for a relationship to remain close. If you’re in a marriage or a close friendship or if you’re a parent and these words aren’t on your lips a lot then something is probably very wrong. Taming the tongue means doing some damage control.

Listen and think. We should listen and think before we respond. Prov. 18:13: “He who gives an answer before he hears, It is folly and shame to him.” Also, Prov. 15:28: “The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, But the mouth of the wicked pours forth evil things.” Both of these verses suggest that we listen before we respond and we think through what we say before we say it. Often times as we do that we’ll have some doubts about what we intended at first to say. A good rule of thumb is, if in doubt, don’t say it. There is a sense here that we should slow down in our speech. Sometimes we’re impressed with the one who has a quick response, but usually that’s a recipe for disaster, especially when emotions are out of control.

Deal with the source. Proverbs also suggests that we go to the source of our words. The source of what comes out of our mouths is what lies beneath the surface. The real issue is our heart. Prov. 4:23-24: “Watch over your heart with all diligence, For from it flow the springs of life. Put away from you a deceitful mouth, And put devious lips far from you.” It would be a mistake if you somehow got the idea that the way to respond to this is to go out and try really hard to control your tongue. The real problem is not with our tongue but with our heart. Jesus said, “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” When I shake a salt shaker, what comes out? Salt. Why does salt come out and not something else? Because there’s salt inside. What else could possibly come out of the shaker than what’s in it? You see, whatever is in your heart comes out of you—especially when people shake you. When I give in to the temptation to say something harsh or cruel, I realize that the problem isn’t with my vocal chords—the problem is with my heart. I see who I am by the words I speak. It’s the same for all of us. Your words reveal who you really are.

In order to change our words, we must change our hearts. But how do we do that? When my dad had a heart attack years ago, his doctor told him he needed bypass surgery. Obviously, my dad couldn’t perform the operation on himself, but neither could the doctor if my dad didn’t cooperate. He had to submit himself to the surgeon so the surgeon could do his job. In the same way, if you want a changed heart, you have to submit yourself to God so he can change you. In the Psalms, David wrote, “Create in me a pure heart, O God.” (Ps 51:10). That’s where you start. To change your heart, give it to God. Submit it to him. The key to taming the tongue is to keep our heart yielded to the Lord. That’s impossible unless you have Jesus dwelling in your heart, but when we invite Christ to come into our lives he comes in and he begins a process of transformation from the inside out. From that point on we have a choice to yield to the Spirit or yield to the flesh. Going to the source means yielding to the Spirit; it means repenting of my bitterness, jealousy, selfishness and lack of faith which gave rise to harsh words in the first place.

As I think about the powerful impact that our words have on our relationships I’m reminded that one of the great themes of Scripture is the idea that God himself has spoken to us. Our God is a God who speaks. But, how does he speak to us?  Hebrews 1:1-2a says, “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways. But in these last days he has spoken to us through His Son…” You see, the preeminent way that God has spoken to us is through the One who is called the Word of God, Jesus Christ. He is the “Word made flesh.” He’s the communication of God to us. He’s the one who expresses to us the heart of the Father. And what a word that is! Sometimes we question how important our words really are. We say, “Oh, mere words, what can they do?” But if anything should convince us of the importance of words in our relationships it is this fact that when God chose to speak to us he chose to speak in one word—his Son. This wasn’t a careless word, was it? This was communication at its best.

As God’s beloved children who have his Spirit dwelling within, we have the privilege of imitating his gracious speech. No one can tame the tongue; you can’t, I can’t. But there is One who can. Will you come to him and ask him to heal your tongue?

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The Life-Giving Tongue

If death and life are in the power of the tongue, how do I bring life with the things I say to others? Let me suggest a few things, all from the book of Proverbs. 

Good words are few. The Lord’s Prayer is only 56 words long, but the Department of Agriculture needed 15,629 words to discuss the pricing of cabbage. It’s not using many words that makes a difference; it’s using the right words. Proverbs 10:19 says, “When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, But he who retrains his lips is wise.” The more we talk, the more we sin. It could be misleading information, thoughtless advice, sarcasm, or expressions of pride. The wise person will use words sparingly. The Quakers used to put it this way, “Never break the silence, unless you can improve upon it.” Another proverb makes the same point with irony. Proverbs 17:28 says, “Even a fool, when he keeps silent, is considered wise; When he closes his lips, he is counted prudent.” Strong, silent types are NOT always wise, but we usually think they’re wise, especially compared to those who are constantly spouting off. Words are like dollars. As we print more dollars, they become inflated and the value of those dollars goes down.

Good words are true. Proverbs 12:22 says, “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, But those who deal faithfully are his delight.” The contrast here is between those who lie and those who deal faithfully. To lie is to deal unfaithfully with those around us. Think how our society depends on truth. What would it be like if we couldn’t believe what we read in our newspapers?  At the heart of journalism is a commitment to tell the truth. How would you feel about that over—the—counter medicine if you couldn’t trust what’s on the label? What about sports? We know how important it is not to cheat. Play by the rules or the whole thing falls apart. In relationships there is no community or friendship apart from truth. Where there is no truth there is no trust and where there is no trust there is no real community.

Good words are fitting. It’s not just enough that words are true. It’s possible to say something that’s right and true but totally inappropriate. Good words are also fitting.  Words that are fitting are timely and appropriate. Proverbs 15:23 says, “A man has joy in an apt answer, And how delightful is a timely word.” An apt answer and a timely word are easily recognized by the response that they invoke. They bring joy and delight to the hearer. To speak words that are fitting requires that we think as much about where and when we say something as what we say. Think back to words that have harmed you in the past. They might have been true, but chances are they came at the wrong time and in the wrong place. Good words are fitting words.

Good words are calming. Proverbs also says that good words are calming words. Proverbs 15:1 says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, But a harsh word stirs up anger.” A gentle, soft and tender word calms a situation that’s about to get out of control while a harsh word just makes things worse. Here is a secret about how to deal with potentially explosive situations. Your spouse is angry at you because you got home late from work. You’re irritated because you did everything you could to get home early, but all you want to do is sit down and read the paper. In a slightly accusatory way she tells you she needs some help in the kitchen and why won’t you ever talk to her. You don’t feel like doing either. But how you respond may be the difference between a tense moment that blows over and World War III. Good words are words which by their tone and content defuse a situation.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of Words That Hurt, Words That Heal, has lectured throughout this country on the powerful, and often negative impact of words. He often asks audiences if they can go 24 hours without saying any unkind words about, or to, another person. Invariably, a small number of listeners raise their hands, signifying “Yes.” Others laugh, and quite a few call out, “No!” Telushkin responds: “Those who can’t answer ‘yes’ must recognize that you have a serious problem. If you can’t go 24 hours without drinking liquor, you’re addicted to alcohol. If you can’t go 24 hours without smoking, you’re addicted to nicotine. So if you can’t go 24 hours without saying unkind words about others, then you’ve lost control over your tongue.”

Most of us would have to admit, that’s me. So the real question is, how can we tame our tongue? Complete mastery of the tongue is impossible for any of us, but we can make progress. We don’t have to go through life tasting the bitter fruit of an out of control tongue. Proverbs says a number of things about this as well. I will write of that in my next post.

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Parenting Skill #3: Discipline

The third and final skill is that of discipline. Proverbs says a lot about the discipline of our children. It clearly lays this responsibility upon the parent’s shoulders. When Proverbs talks about discipline it’s clearly talking about somehow creating consequences for our children when they willfully disobey. This includes spanking, what Proverbs refers to as “the rod of discipline.” But as a child gets older and spanking is no longer appropriate it should include other forms of punishment such as taking away a privilege or assigning an unpleasant task or even allowing a child to suffer the natural consequences of his or her actions.

I realize that what I’m saying here isn’t very popular these days. Part of the reason for that is we have a tremendous problem in our society with out-of-control parents and child abuse. The discipline I’m talking about should only be done by a loving parent who is completely in control of his faculties. When done properly, it’s painful for a child, but it doesn’t injure a child. If there are parents who can’t control their own anger and are at all prone to be abusive, then they should find some other form of discipline.

But look at Proverbs 13:24, He who spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him diligently.” The motive behind all discipline is love. The one who doesn’t discipline his child hates him. Proverbs has a radically different view of discipline than we often do. Many would say that the reason they don’t discipline their children is because they love them too much to hurt them. Parents are rightly concerned about being abusive, but the parent who won’t discipline his child is the truly abusive parent. The parent who won’t discipline his child is creating a situation where the child is bound to fail in life.

Part of the reason for this is the reality of sin in every child’s heart.  Look at 22:15, Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child, the rod of discipline will drive it far from him.” Proverbs has a very realistic view of children. It recognizes the presence of foolishness, sin, and self-will in every child’s heart. We might like to think that every child is born with kind of a clean slate or even a propensity towards good, but that’s not what the Scripture teaches. Yes, every child is of infinite worth to God, but they are born with a bent towards self will. It’s a parent’s job to train a child through discipline that he cannot always have his own way.  And this will pay off later on as that child grows up and learns to submit his will to God. I’ve seen many willful adults, even believers, whose was never broken and still insist on running their own lives.

But all of this is not negative. There’s a positive purpose and result in discipline. Proverbs talks about this in 29:17, Correct your son and he will give you comfort, he will also delight your soul.” The result of discipline is that a child will bring comfort and delight to his parents. In other words, he’ll be a joy to be around! One of the saddest things is to see a family with an undisciplined child that makes everyone, parents included, miserable. God wants us to enjoy being with our children, but that rarely happens automatically; it takes discipline. I see a profound psychology in this. In order to feel secure and happy, children need parents who are firm in their discipline. A disobedient child is often a child who is trying to find out where his parents stand. If his parents don’t take a stand, he’ll continue to test them until they blow up. Deep down, the child just wants to know that someone cares enough about him to enforce limits.

How do we train our children? We start by knowing them, being students of them. Then we seek to train them by being models to them of authenticity in our own walk with God. We also intentionally impart the truth to them with confidence, with clarity, and by sharing our own story with them. And finally we discipline them in love.

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Parenting Skill #2: Teaching

The second skill which is needed in training our kids is the skill of teaching and communicating truth to our kids. As crucial as it is, it’s not enough to be a model; there needs to be an intentional transmission of truth to our kids. Look at Proverbs 4:1-9 .

Hear, O sons, the instruction of a father,
And give attention that you may gain understanding,

For I give you sound teaching;
Do not abandon my instruction.

When I was a son to my father,
Tender and the only son in the sight of my mother,

Then he taught me and said to me,
Let your heart hold fast my words;
Keep my commandments and live;

Acquire wisdom! Acquire understanding!
Do not forget nor turn away from the words of my mouth.

Do not forsake her, and she will guard you;
Love her, and she will watch over you.

The beginning of wisdom is: Acquire wisdom;
And with all your acquiring, get understanding.

Prize her, and she will exalt you;
She will honor you if you embrace her.

She will place on your head a garland of grace;
She will present you with a crown of beauty.

Here we have an inside look at a father teaching his son or daughter. He begins by urging his child to listen to his teaching. He goes on to reflect on how his own father taught him when he was just a young child. He actually recalls some of the things his father said to him. In this conversation we have a very helpful model on how to teach our kids. There are at least three things we can learn from this.

First, we need to be bold. Both of the fathers represented here are not afraid to call their children to account. I see this in the number of commands here, as well as the fact that he seems to equate his own words with that of true wisdom. If we’re going to teach our children there needs to be a kind of godly confidence that we have something to say to them. We need to step up and accept the challenge to be grown ups in our kids’ lives and transmit to them truth that’s rooted in the Scripture. We need not apologize for this. We need not hem and haw.  We have something to say and we need to say it with confidence.

Second, we need to be specific. We need to be clear about what we’re trying to communicate to our kids. As I look at this father’s teaching I’m struck by the fact that he gives the child a very specific goal to pursue. We see it in v. 5 where he says, “Acquire wisdom!” To us wisdom is a nebulous concept, but to the Jewish mind it was a very concrete thing. It had to do with the truth embodied in God’s word. To acquire wisdom meant to revere God by embracing his truth. That’s the goal we must set before our kids—a life which values God’s word.

Third, we need to be personal. As he teaches his son, this father takes time to reminisce about his own childhood. He shares something of his own experience as a child. He recalls a very tender moment when he sat at his father and mother’s knees and learned from them. This isn’t just impersonal truth he is sharing with his son; it’s part of their family heritage. It’s something his own father had given to him and now he is giving it to his child. Our kids need to hear our stories! They need to hear how truth became a reality for us. If it’s part of your family heritage, tell them about that. If it’s not, tell them about how a relationship with God became a reality for you.

So these are three things we learn from the father of Proverbs about teaching our children. The best way to do this is simply as a part of everyday life. This doesn’t all take place in one half-hour you set aside to talk to your kids about God. That’s how a religious home operates. But you don’t want to have a religious home; you want to have a Christ-centered home. In a religious home, God is compartmentalized into one time of the day or week. In a Christ-centered home, He’s allowed to permeate everything we do.

How do we train our children while they are still young?  We model a life of authenticity. And we intentionally communicate the truth of God’s word to them as a part of our everyday lives.


Train up a Child

In my last post I mentioned Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it.” This is the best known of all the Proverbs on parenting, but it’s also one of the most difficult to understand, so I want to unpack this verse. There are three parts to look at here.

First, it says that we are to “train up a child…” The word for “train” here means to inaugurate or to dedicate. The word was used most often in the OT to describe something that was dedicated to God. The Jewish feast of Hanukkah is the noun form of this word because it involves the dedication of the altar. So to train a child in this way can mean to dedicate him to God. It can also mean to start him or to inaugurate him or to prepare him to go in a certain direction. HOW we’re to do that is something I’ll come back to in a minute.

The second thing to notice is that it says we should train a child “in the way he should go.” This is where the verse really gets ambiguous. Literally, this should read, “according to his way.” Some take this to mean that we should train up a child according to the proper or right way to live. This is how both the NIV and the NASB take it. But, the text does say, “his way,” i.e., the child’s way. For this reason, many scholars take this to mean that a child should be trained according to his own unique personality and stage in life. The emphasis here is on really knowing your child well and training him accordingly.

This means that before we can train our kids we have to be students of our kids. We have to know their stage of life as well as their unique characteristics. I have three kids who are each about five years apart. Growing up, they were always at very different stages of life. That means I treated each one differently. They’re also very different in their temperament and personality. Among the three we have an extrovert and an introvert. We have a mercy giver and a truth teller. We have a morning person and a night person. Recognizing these differences kept us from making the all too frequent mistake of comparing them with each other, “Why can’t you bring home the same grades as your sister?” Because they’re different we expected different things from them and taught them and disciplined them in different ways. Two went to a Christian school and the other to a public school. These are the kinds of things that go into knowing your children.

The third thing to notice about this verse is the last line, “…even when he is old he will not depart from it.” Does this mean that after a period of rebellion they will come around and find the right path? Although that might be true, that’s not what it means. Notice that it says, “EVEN when he is old…” The idea here is that, not only in his youth, but even in his old age he’ll not stray from the right path. The beginning determines the end. It’s as if the writer is saying that raising children is like pouring cement. The way you mold it and shape it when it’s newly poured, before it sets, will determine its shape for the rest of its life. Although it’s not a guarantee, this is what child development experts have been telling us for quite some time now: the first five years of life seem to determine so much of what that child is like. Proverbs has been saying that for a few thousand years!

Years ago there was a family in the San Francisco Bay Area. The father was a well known pastor and his son was named David. David grew up in a family where he was “trained up in the way he should go.” He grew up to love the Lord, felt a call into ministry, and went to seminary. David was a big, athletic young man. He was six feet two and 200 pounds. He worked with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. At age 32 he was diagnosed with cancer. It wracked his body and over time he went from 200 pounds to 80 pounds. When he was about ready to die he asked if his father could be brought to the hospital room. Lying there in bed, he looked up at his father and said, “Dad, do you remember when I was little how you used to hold me in your arms close to your chest?  Do you think you could do that again, Dad, one last time?” His father nodded and he picked up his 32—year—old son and held him close to his chest so that their faces were right next to each other. They were eyeball to eyeball, tears running down both faces, and the son looked up at his father and said to him, “Thank you for building the kind of character into my life that has enabled me to face even a moment like this.

It’s this kind of character that every parent wants for his child; the kind that will carry them through even the darkest storms. God, in his grace, can do that with or without us. But the fact is, he has entrusted us parents with the privilege of being a part of that process, a very important part. “Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it.” By God’s grace we can do just that. In my next post, I will write about three skills parents must learn to do this well.