Choosing friends

I’ve read many posts, articles, and even sections of books on “how to choose one’s friends.”

Some of these echo back to themes in works like the New Agey-epitome “The Secret”: the “power of attraction” and “surround yourself with positive, uplifting people” and “avoid people who will bring you down.”

This seems to echo Biblical themes of “seeking wise counselors” and “being with the righteous” and “being part of the fellowship of believers” – but actually, there’s a dark part to “surrounding yourself only with positive people.”

We tend to equate “positive people” with “prosperity” – health, wealth, happiness, etc.

If I only surround myself with happy, healthy, wealthy people, what do I do with the poor, the hungry, the oppressed, the sick, the naked, the grieving?

Dunbar’s Number suggests we can have, at most, about 15 deep relationships (due to time constraints, cognitive load, etc). Some of those relationships are set at birth – they are family members. The remainder need to be chosen with some intentionality.

These social groupings are important, because we tend to adopt the same patterns as those we associate with. This can be referred to as mirroring, imitation, etc. If you hang out with people who do _X_, you are more likely to do _X_ as well. (For a further example, see “A teen’s friends are a powerful influence“–there’s plenty of other examples in sociological and media literature.) While this can be a powerful force of negativity in our lives, it’s also true that it can be a powerful force for good.

This plays out in the Gospel, too: Rodney Stark has noted that relationships with believers are the primary factor driving any single individual’s faith: we discover, develop, and then confess the belief that we see modeled in our best friends. If we can’t, then we tend to change friendships. We both seek out those who exemplify what we believe, and we become more like them as well. We walk together on the road, or we choose different paths.

If we accept this as true, it follows that we must walk with believers – but also encourage nonbelievers to join us. It’s good to walk with people who will lift us up – and also to walk with those whom we can lift. If we surround ourselves only with people further along the road than us, how are we going to ourselves obey the 2 Timothy 2:2 injunction to pass on to faithful people what we have ourselves received; how are we going to obey the communion injunction: “What I have received, I share”; how are we going to obey the Matthew 28 injunction to make disciples?

2 Timothy 2:2 implies that we will be walking with those we receive from, and those we give to. It runs counter to the idea of only surrounding ourselves with people who lift us up. Let’s not fall for the temptation to justify our desires to disassociate from people who are difficult. To those who are “further on than us,” we may be the more difficult ones – and we wouldn’t want them