Reading Time: 11 minutes

When good kids make bad friends

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: John 15:9-17

Last weekend our family visited Janet’s parents in the Ozarks of north Arkansas. And so I got to do my favorite thing: floating down the White River, fishing for trout. I have never seen clearer, purer water than is in that river. I could even see the log in the river I hung three hooks on.

What a contrast from the fishing hole I used to visit growing up in Houston. You had to climb over barbed wire to get to it. There were beer cans and bottles scattered everywhere, the bank was all mud and rocks, and the water was so thick you could walk on it. But it was my fishing hole—at least until the day the owner saw me and chased me out with a shotgun.

The difference between the White River and my old fishing hole? The sources of the water—Ozark streams and Houston rain.

What sources determine who and what we are today? The direction our lives will take, the people we will become?

Two weeks ago I reported some sobering facts about teenagers today. Among them: nearly half drink alcohol weekly; 45% have used illegal drugs; 100,000 take a gun to school every day; 2,000 commit suicide daily; 40% say they are sexually active; 20.1% of teenage girls will have had an abortion by the time they reach 20 years of age. What is the source of these self-destructive decisions?

Not their parents, we can assume. What parents want their children to abuse drugs or alcohol, to commit sexual sin or suicide? Popular culture has its role in glamorizing such behavior, to be sure. But as we’ll discover today, the most formative single influence on our youth is the friends they choose. And that influence remains with us for the rest of our lives.

So any series dealing with our key relationships must focus on friendships. How do we choose good friends? What do we do when good kids make bad friends? On this subject, I need to be very simple and very direct. We’ll look to Jesus for the crucial and practical guidance we all need today.

First, how do we choose good friends?

As though your future depends on them, because it does

First, choose them as though your future depends on them, because it does.

In our text, Jesus called these disciples his “friends.” He promised that he would “lay down his life for his friends” (v. 13). He says that he will not call them servants but friends (v. 15). Now, how did he choose them?

It is an interesting fact that our Lord prayed all night long only once in recorded Scripture. How significant must an issue be for Jesus to pray over it all night? Here was the decision facing him: who would his disciples be? Whom would he choose for his closest followers, his best friends?

About this crucial issue, “Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles” (Luke 6:12-13). These are the very men Jesus addresses in our text as his “friends” (John 15:15). He knew that the future and ultimate success of his life and work would depend on them. So should we.

Psychologists know that in adolescence, peers typically replace the family as the center of the person’s social life. Adolescents become more physically and psychologically distant from their parents, and friends move to the center of their relational world.

Then, as peers become more dominant, they shape our identity and life purpose, the very decisions which are formative for our lives and futures.

And these peer relationships are especially influential in introducing adolescents to problem behaviors such as substance abuse and sexual immorality. As we determine who and what we will be, our friends play the crucial role.

Note that Jesus prayed about this issue. He didn’t just think hard or reflect well—he prayed to his Father. He knew that God has a will for us in this matter.

So allow me the question: have you prayed about your friends? Have you consulted your all-knowing, all-loving Father on this issue? Choose your friends as though your future depends on them, because it does.

By your values

Second, choose your friends by your values, not your values by your friends.

Jesus chose for his friends some unusual candidates, to say the least: fishermen, tax collectors, and poor peasants. Not the rabbis, priests, or officials we would expect him to select. Why? Because Jesus knew these men would be teachable and leadable; they would depend on the power of the Holy Spirit and not their own abilities. He knew his purpose for them, and the values he wanted them to live by.

He says so plainly in our text: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit” (v. 16). Jewish students typically chose their rabbi, but this rabbi chose his students. He chose his friends to “bear fruit,” to fulfill his purpose for their lives and ministries. Jesus chose his friends according to his values, not his values according to his friends.

How often we are shocked at the “good kids” who are arrested for drug possession, or become pregnant, or get abortions. The simple fact is: they didn’t choose their friends according to their values, and in time their friends’ values became their own.

Bad lowers good far more often than good raises bad. Apart from a miracle of God’s power, you cannot change your boyfriend or girlfriend, your spouse, your friends. When the tide goes out, every boat in the harbor sinks lower.

In 1921, Norman Vincent Peale saw Henry Ford standing beside his car in front of a railroad station. He approached Ford, introduced himself, and told him how much he admired him.

Ford responded with a strange question: “Who is your best friend?” Without waiting for an answer, he scribbled on a piece of paper these words: “Your best friend is the person who brings out the best that is within you.” He signed it, “Henry Ford.” Then he said to the young Norman Vincent Peale, “Think about that and always associate yourself with the best men you know.”

Decide to follow Jesus fully, to obey his call to love him with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Then choose your friends according to your values, or they will choose your values for you.

Pray for your friends constantly

So we have chosen our friends according to God’s will and our godly values. Now, pray for your friends—constantly and consistently.

Jesus prayed about his friends, then he prayed for them all through the rest of his earthly ministry. He prayed for them the very night he would be arrested, and he prayed for them from his cross. This very moment Jesus is “at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us” (Romans 8:34). He chose his friends according to his Father’s will and his own values, but still he knew he must pray for them constantly. So must we.

We pray to God about our problems, our health, our finances, our family. When last did you pray for your friends? Not just those with problems, but each of those who are close to you?

The wise Dr. Johnson said, “A man should keep his friendships in constant repair.” Theirs is the crucial, formative influence on your life and future. It is only a wise investment to pray for them every day.

Trust those who earn your trust

Last, trust those who earn your trust.

Jesus loved each of his disciples and friends, but he trusted only those he could. And he trusted them with responsibilities appropriate for them. He trusted Mary to John, not Peter—but he trusted Pentecost to Peter, not John. And he trusted nothing about the future of their ministry to Judas.

This was a new insight for me as I prepared this message. We typically trust our friends until they show us that we cannot. But we pay a price for that strategy—sometimes a very high one. How much pain have you experienced because you trusted a friend you couldn’t?

As Jesus chose his friends according to God’s will and his values, and prayed for them constantly, he learned who and what he could trust. So can we.

At the end of World War II, a group of soldiers was released from a prison camp. One boat was leaving for home, with not nearly enough room for all the soldiers. Two dear friends were standing side by side. They had gotten each other through the worst circumstances we can imagine.

Sadly, one of these soldiers was chosen to go, the other told to stay. Those allowed to board the boat were told they could bring only their most important piece of luggage. So the first soldier emptied his duffel bag, told his friend to get in, and carried his most valuable possession onto the boat.

A friend who has earned your trust may be your most valuable possession today.

Conclusion

Now, what if good kids have made bad friends? What if you or someone you care about has strayed from Jesus’ example and teaching? What then? How do these principles help us?

If this is your situation, it’s not too late to make some crucial changes.

Realize that bad friends will damage your life, for your future depends significantly on them. While driving back from Arkansas this week I saw a church sign with an instructive thought: “Don’t give the devil a ride—he always wants to drive.”

Decide today that you will live by Jesus’ values, whatever your friends say. If they abandon you because you won’t abandon your Lord, they were not your friends, anyway.

Pray for them continually. You cannot change their hearts or character. But God can.

As you pray for them, trust only those who have earned your trust. And begin adding good friends to your life, as God leads you.

If this situation describes your children, you can teach them these principles. And you can take some additional, very practical steps.

Make your home and family a place your kids want their friends to visit. Then you can know their friends and encourage them.

Know the parents of your children’s friends.

Don’t push too hard to break up a friendship you don’t approve of—this can backfire and draw your child even more strongly to the person.

On rare occasions, you may have to set boundaries with your kids, limiting or banning them from certain friends who have a negative influence on them.

Find ways to minister to your children’s friends. Invite them to church. Pray for them.

Model choosing good friends. Parents are still a dominant influence in the lives of their children, even in adolescence.

No matter what your children do, stay in relationship with them. Keep your door open. Never give up on them. Pray constantly for them. Ask God to do what you cannot.

Above all, for all of us, make Jesus your best friend. He died for you, proving his sacrificial love for you. He wants to be your friend. He wants you to be his.

I’ve been a Christian since 1973. For years I saw Jesus as my Savior, the one who rescued me from hell for heaven. Then I began more and more to turn my life over to him as my Lord. For the last several years I have tried to follow him as my guide and teacher. But only recently have I begun to view him as my friend—as my best friend.

And this changes everything. You talk to your friend out of joy, not obligation. You read what he has written out of delight, not duty. You serve his best interest out of love, not legalism.

The Savior and Lord of the world wants to be your friend. And help you choose your other friends. He’s waiting for your reply to his invitation, right now.