Rev. Gritters is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Byron Center, Michigan.
Suppose you have a close friend with whom you do just about everything. Melody, we’ll call here, doesn’t have much money because she has to pay a big part of her own school tuition and because she’s not able to take a job during the school months, since her parents want her to spend all her time concentrating on school. At first, Melody begins to take a few things at the store without paying for them. After a while, even though you don’t do the same yourself and even though she knows you are uncomfortable with what she is doing, she steals more and more, without getting caught. Should you approach Melody? How? And what do you do if she laughs it off?
Or suppose your good friend, Vince, begins to smoke marijuana, or do another drug. He tells you that you ought to try it. “It’s no big deal; it’s not addictive; it won’t hurt your mind.” For one reason or another, you don’t do it with him. Vince knows you don’t like what he does, but keeps on smoking. How would you handle this?
Perhaps your friend confides in you that she has lost her virginity, is not ashamed of it, and intends to continue in her untoward ways. What would be the Christian way to deal with this?
More difficult yet it is when you are doing precisely the same things that your friends are now doing, but have promised yourself you are going to stop the practice. You were shoplifting, or drinking, or doing drugs, or committing fornication, or whatever, with them. But now, by the grace of God, your conscience has bothered you much and you have decided to stop. But your friends have continued in the ungodly walk. This problem is probably more common, but also more difficult, because as soon as you would do or say anything about their sin, they would look at you like . . . .
Has this happened to you? Some of us are bothered quite badly when a good friend begins to walk this kind of life, but because we would not want to make waves or lose the friend, we don’t do anything about it. Some of us have no little turmoil in our soul and would like to do something for our friend, but don’t know what would be both proper and good for them. So, because of our uncertainty about what to do, we do nothing, and pretty soon our feeling of responsibility fades away.
Knowing what not to do in these circumstances is helpful.
We could tell some of our other friends, if they don’t know already, and spread the story. Probably the most common thing done when a friend sins, this is also the most damaging both for our own life and for our friend whom we ought to be helping. At the very least, when our friend sins, don’t make things worse by telling others about the mess or letting them know that you have quit but your friend hasn’t. Remember this too: when you confide in one person and ask them not to, tell anyone else, you can be sure that most of the time that person will tell their friend and add the “Just don’t tell anyone else.” It spreads quite quickly. We might call this the “law of the leak.” Don’t spread the story.
Or, we could change friends. This happens to. Because either our lifestyle or the lifestyle of our friend has changed, we decide that we can find new friends. Yet this is no help for your friend either.
Easier yet would be to ignore the problem, acting as though nothing were wrong. Then we keep our friend, content ourselves by saying that we haven’t violated the ninth commandment by slandering our friend, and we won’t hurt ourselves by sticking our nose into the business. But we must do something. The problem is, What should I do?
Don’t think I do not sympathize with you in your dilemma. Who wants a friend to continue living in a way that could have serious, permanent consequences? But who wants to take the chance of having a friend look at you as if you think you’re a messenger sent straight from God? Who wants to be a “narc”? Who wants to risk the reputation of having turned on a friend? Living as a Christian young person is not simple. The only way you can is by grace. Pray for grace!
First, it is imperative that you talk to your friend. I’m going to tell a little story at the end to illustrate how valuable this is, but let me just make the point here. With a prayer in your heart that you’ll be able to speak carefully, talk to your friend. If you are friends, you know how to talk; and you know how to talk seriously. Don’t shout it to the world; don’t act as though you are sinless; but go to the friend and talk. Patiently, humbly, kindly, but not condescendingly, talk. You don’t need to take out the Bible and quote passages to them.
You don’t need to be angry. Simply tell them how you feel. Tell them of the fear in your heart about getting caught. Tell them about what could happen if they continued. In your own way, tell them that you fear God. (Talk to your parents or pastor about what exactly you should say.) Then go home and pray that the Lord will use what you’ve said. That’s all you can do up to that point. When the Lord gives you another opportunity (and He will), talk again. Pray that the Spirit will convict of sin in your friend’s heart as He did in yours—because that’s the only reason you have (or have changed) your attitudes toward that sin. Even if you haven’t walked in that sin yourself, it’s still important that you come as a sinner.
Second, if that brings no result—and it just may not—you may bring another friend with you to try to persuade your impenitent friend of his sin. (This should be a mutual friend.) Don’t threaten with anything. Don’t accuse or slander. Only show your friend you care. And let me emphasize here that if you don’t care about your friend, then pray to God until you do care, because if there is no deep concern for the spiritual welfare of your friend, you’ll blow every step of the way.
The difficulty comes if you see no results in your friend’s life. Now what? Here is where, I believe, the path you follow must be different from the path that an adult follows when his friend walks in sin. If my friend—even my closest—walks in sin and will not repent, even after I have taken one or two “witnesses” with me (Matthew 18), my duty is to “tell it to the church”, that is, tell it to the elders. But in your situation, it may be that your duty is not to follow the way of Matthew 18.
Why not? Because I believe that your responsibility is rather (Third) to tell the parents of your friend. Your friend, let’s suppose, is not a confessing member of the church. Your friend is still living at home with his or her parents. Your friend, therefore, is still under the discipline and rule of his parents. Because he has not committed himself to the supervision of the elders by confession of faith, he is subject first of all to his parents. Even a confessing member, still living with his or her parents, lives under the supervision of the parents, and the age and circumstances (I believe) would determine whether the parents or elders should be informed first. If your friend continues in sin, your responsibility is to the parents.
But please, don’t do this unless you forewarn your friend about it. Tell them, “Look, we love you enough (we’re concerned about you enough) that we are going to talk to your parents about this. We realize that you may be angry with us for this, but also realize that if things keep on the way they are now, our friendship will be ruined permanently.” And then go. This may not be a threat to scare them into changing; it’s a promise. “We’re going to your parents.”
Do you love your friend? Then this is the way you must walk. Tell the parents how much you care for their son or daughter. If you were, admit to them that you were involved in the same activity. Then explain to them the steps that you took to try to convince their child of his error. And I believe that all godly parents will thank you for coming and, with your help, will be used by God to bring their son or daughter to repentance.
If I may speak to parents for a moment, doesn’t this point out the importance of knowing your children’s friends, of inviting them into your home once in a while, of sitting down with them in the den to chat now and then, or shooting a game of pool with them just to show them that you care? How else will they ever dare approach you with a problem if there has never even been any communication with them before, much less if the contact they have had with you showed that you were a stern, untalkative old brute? And then doesn’t this all the more underscore the importance of being able to talk with your own children?
If this does not work, privately tell your pastor or an elder in whom you can confide and they will be able to counsel you regarding what to do next, or begin the work that then belongs to the church.
To emphasize this, let me tell you the story that I promised earlier. When I was in high school, one Friday afternoon my friend and I were cruising around in his nice ’66 Chevelle (what else do high school students do to kill time?) waiting for our soccer game to start. We weren’t part of the “radical” and “rowdy” group, but neither did we have the kind of reputation that would make a mother proud. While we were driving around (and I don’t remember what we were talking about) my friend said, “Barry, we should quit . . . . sometime, don’t you think?” As shocked as I was that he would dare say something like that, it was exactly how I had felt but never dared say. That little comment he dared make brought out in the open how we both felt, but were so afraid to talk about.
Three months later, my friend died next to me on the soccer field (from myo-carditis—an unusual constriction of a heart muscle). If there is ever anything that I remember about our friendship, it was that short, spontaneous conversation. What is it that you would like to remember about your friend?