The Joy and Grace of True Christian Friendship

The old saying is surely right: “We are known by our friends.” True friends feel each others joys and sorrows as their very own. I cherish my friends and seek to know my enemies so I might be careful about what they may do to me. The worst sort of friendship is the one that ends up making people into enemies. I've had a few of these too, just like most of you who have lived long enough.

I am amazed by how often the world’s wisdom tells us that we can only enjoy real friendship with a person if we totally agree with them. I have found my friends are often people who do not agree with me completely at all but deeply love me just the same. I have one friend who says this well: “My friends are never my projects.” If you keep that in mind you will avoid many personal difficulties.

Several years ago I had a student at Wheaton College who was the daughter of a University Bible Fellowship (UBF) missionary at the University of Chicago. Grace Lee loved my classes and then introduced me to her father, Mark Yoon. Mark and I have been friends ever since. Mark, and a friend of his, introduced me to other people in the UBF movement, a Korean international missionary movement. Soon I developed a friendship with Pastor Ron Ward, a leader in the international UBF movement and the pastor of the Chicago congregation. Ron and I began to meet for lunch quite often and over these meals we developed a bond of real Christian friendship. We talked about all kinds of things including the various ways people responded to UBF and its mission. He was never defensive or aggressive but gentle and truly humble.

While this was happening in private I began to write about UBF on this blog spot. I was not prepared for the hostile response that I would get from former-UBF people, both in North America and beyond. I was told by some writers that I was being duped and this movement would use me for its own purposes. Nothing has been further from the truth now that I look back over the last four-plus years or so. My relationship with UBF has been a two-way street. I have taught UBF leaders and also had many hours of personal fellowship with a number of UBF leaders. This last week (May 29) I did the second of a two-part series for the Chicago UBF on The Apostles’ Creed. With complete freedom I taught and answered questions. No one in the American UBF leadership has ever once told me what I could, or could not, say. I am loved, respected and trusted.

John Rick Deborah me I believe the reason for this is rooted in friendship and love, particularly between Pastor Ward and me. (I also maintain a strong friendship with Mark Yoon since the time we first met. Mark is now serving UBF and students at Boston University in Massachusetts.) Ron Ward entered the Wheaton Graduate School program in evangelism and leadership two years ago and received his M.A. two weeks ago. (The photo here, left to right, is Dr. Rick Richardson, the head of the evangelism program at Wheaton, Mrs. Ron (Deborah) Ward, me and Pastor Ron) I was thrilled to be present with so many other friends of Ron and Deborah that I know within the UBF ministry in Chicago. It was a great day of celebration.

The late Catholic mystic Thomas Merton once wrote: “May God preserve me from the love of a friend who will never dare to rebuke me.” Another piece of counsel about friendship that has helped me a great deal comes from a letter Robert E. Lee sent to his son in 1860: “Never do a wrong thing to make a friend or keep one.” These two statements represent the kind of counsel that have helped Ron and me develop a true friendship. We welcome the input of the other person and would never do something wrong to make or keep our friendship. Put simply, we trust one another and both love the same Christ deeply.

I believe that those precious former-UBF members who warned me about my relationship with these believers felt deeply that they were expressing concern for me and the UBF mission. If so, I deeply respect their concern. But my friendship with Pastor Ward has only brought great blessing to both our lives. I also believe that it has brought immense benefit to many of God’s wonderful people in UBF. I think this is how the kingdom is advanced in many cases. Friendships open doors and build trust with the result being blessing for all. I know no other method for building up the body of Christ in faith, hope and love.