A Proverb on Debt Between Friends

Debt is the scissors of love.

Regional Oral Tradition

This Central Asian proverb speaks to the danger of friends going into debt with one another. Borrow money from your friend, this wisdom claims, and risk the love between you getting cut up.

I’ve experienced the great strain that friendships can come under when money I’ve loaned out to friends in Central Asia isn’t returned or acknowledged in an honorable way. Even though our family tried to be very cautious in loaning out money, it is still an expected practice in a patron-client society where the foreigners are often much wealthier than the locals. Some foreigners take a “never loan money” approach to the culture. But over the years we’ve developed more of a practice of conservatively lending money the first time, and then letting that experience determine if the door is still open or not for future requests. For those who repay their debts, this can greatly increase the trust in the relationship. And it is a wonderful thing to have friends you know you can trust with money, especially between believers who must function as a new household for one another. For those who don’t repay, we know not to extend the same trust in the future, at least when it comes to money. The money may be lost, but wisdom in the relationship is gained. But even with this general approach, we tried to spare our dearest friendships this debt/trust test whenever possible. It’s stunning how money can so quickly come to divide people.

In general, Central Asians are much more comfortable than Westerners with having money be a part of their close relationships. So much so that many feel they can’t honorably say no to a friend asking for a loan. So it’s curious that this proverb also exists in the culture, standing as a wise warning, even if many will struggle to feel they are free to heed its advice.

Some local believers are seeking to change this culture. Harry* once told me his response to requests for loans. “I’m honored that you would ask me this, my respected brother. But I value your friendship so much that I dare not risk it by getting money involved.” This kind of response takes an action viewed as shameful – saying no to a loan – but explains it by appealing to the value of the relationship, something very honorable and close to the heart of the culture. To me, this seems like a very wise way to say no. The goal is to communicate that my refusal is not a rejection of our relationship, but rather a statement of just how important it is to me. So important, I would protect us from the money that might cut our bonds of friendship.

*names changed for security

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A Proverb on the Rewards of Work


It’s a chicken.

Local Oral Tradition (NASB-style translation)


Don’t be shirkin’ to work hard,

Get a chicken as reward.

Local Oral Tradition (The Message-style translation)

This local proverb is a very short rhyming couplet, making up only two words in total. The first part is a one-word command to work, the second part is a one-word statement about the reward of work – in this case, earning a chicken (Our local language can smash the noun, the article, and the be verb into one word.) My first attempt above at rendering it into English is a wooden, direct translation, but it loses its rhyme and its meaning is obscure. The second attempt, more of a paraphrase, keeps some rhyme but also adds a number of words to spell out what’s implied in the original. Such are the choices presented to those who attempt to translate from one tongue to another. There are very few direct one-to-one translations of words, never mind structure, and getting over this expectation is an important step for any language learner.

Another local proverb gets at a similar meaning. It goes, “A tired hand on a full belly.” Both of these sayings speak to the crucial connection between work and food so common for most humans throughout history. Work hard, get food. Slack off, go hungry. Of course, food here is representative of all good results that come from hard work, and also of those lost if one embraces laziness. This is a lesson many a dad has attempted to get through to his children. “Boys are born with a lazy bone,” one friend once said to me while we talked about trying to parent our sons well.

Solomon may have been the second wisest human to ever live, but he was still a dad. A recent read-through of proverbs at bedtime devotions with my kids (ten verses at a time) seemed to hit on this theme almost every night. “Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread, but he who follows worthless pursuits lacks sense” (Proverbs 12:11).

Hard work results in chickens (or bread). Solomon agrees with our peoples’ ancestral proverb. Or, rather, they agree with Solomon. This is how the universe works. Ignore this wisdom and you won’t get any chickens, bread, gas money, etc. Follow it and you may have tired hands, but they will rest on a belly full of good food, maybe even some kantaki.

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A Proverb on the Self-Sufficient Laborer

One flower doesn’t bring spring.

Regional Oral Tradition

This proverb is spoken to the person who tries to accomplish too much on his own. Such a laborer is under a delusion that his isolated efforts can bring about the needed results. But just as one flower cannot by its own appearing bring about spring, humans cannot truly achieve great and meaningful things without a community supporting them and laboring alongside them.

It is a proverb quite appropriate for Westerners, who fall into this self-sufficient way of thinking far more than those from Central Asia. But ultimately every culture must face the short-sighted nature of individualistic labor. We are simply not strong nor talented enough to effect great change on our own. And those who cut ties with others, charging off into the world to do great things by themself will one day realize they have simply run out of fuel. I’m reminded of the English proverb, “many hands make light work” and the popular African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone; If you want to go far, go together.” The Preacher of Ecclesiastes writes on this same theme, “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12).

It is not good for us to be alone. Not even in our labor.

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Drinking Hot Tea in the Desert Actually Cools You Down

I was twenty, sitting in a tea house in a far-flung desert town. It was summer, so the temperature hovered around 120 degrees (48 C) in the dusty bazaar. My friend had suggested that we stop for some tea as he gave me a tour of the marketplace of his hometown, famous for its castle, its hard workers, and its heat. “Welcome to hell,” another local friend had quipped earlier as we drove into town, wiping the sweat off his brow.

Always one to prefer heat to cold, I had been eager to see if the summer weather in this town was as bad as everyone made it out to be. Rising early our first morning, shortly after sunrise, I had stepped out of the house and into the sunlight. Immediately, I was hit by a rush of blasting, hot wind and oppressive radiant heat, as if the entire sky were a giant hair dryer aimed right at me. Mind you, it was only 6:30 am. I quickly stepped back into the protective shade of the cement house. If I had ever doubted before why so many desert cultures wore so much protective fabric, now I understood. At a certain level of heat, you do whatever you can to keep the sun’s rays off your skin, even if it means going around covered in many folds of cloth.

As we later made our way through the bazaar, and then found our seats at the tea house, I was beginning to adjust somewhat to the constant feelings of living in an oven and clothing always soggy from sweat. I gratefully received a bottle of cold water alongside my scalding black chai. I chugged the water eagerly.

“Are you hot, my son?” asked a mustachioed older man, sitting across from me and smiling in his turban and flowy local robes.

“Yes, I’ve been told about the summer heat here, but now I see how true it is!” I responded, gulping.

“You know how we stay cool?” he asked me, raising his small steaming chai cup and saucer. “We drink this all day!” he said, laughing.

I looked at him, a little puzzled, wondering if he was joking or serious. He picked up on my expression and explained further.

“We drink the hot chai and it makes us sweat. And our sweat cools us down. That is how it works,” he said, seemingly satisfied that he had just handed down an important life lesson to this young foreigner.

I could tell he believed what he was telling me, but I wasn’t sure if I believed him or not. My love for local chai was intense, and so I was willing to drink it all year round, even in the fever heat of summer. But surely hot chai doesn’t actually cool you down in the desert. Maybe it was just a trick of the mind, a placebo of sorts that these desert men had learned to tell themselves in order to justify downing so many cups of sugary caffeinated goodness seasoned with cardamom and cinnamon. The logical thing to believe is that hot drinks raise your core body temperature and cold drinks cool it down. I left our interaction mostly sure that I was right and the locals mistaken. But a part of me has always wondered if there was something to what the old man was saying.

Then this week I came across an article in The Smithsonian that would make the old desert man crack a big smile, exposing all of the teeth he’s missing because of his chai habit. Turns out a hot drink on a hot day really does cool you down. And this has now been scientifically verified with the help of a bunch of scientists and cyclists. Somehow, the cooling effect of the sweat produced by a hot drink on a hot dry day is actually greater than the warming effect the drink has on the body, making it a net win for a cooling effect. The article gets into the likely biological process for those interested.

So now I know. Hot drinks warm you up in the winter. They also cool you down in summer. How strange and wonderful. No wonder I like them so much.

There is one big caveat in all of this, however. In order for a hot drink to cool you down, you must be in an area of dry heat, not one of humidity. Since a humid environment prevents sweat from evaporating, the hot drink will actually raise your body temp, not decrease it. But as long as you are in some kind of desert or low humidity setting (and able to sweat), the trick should work.

All of this reminded me of what a tricky thing it is to interact with local lore and tradition. By default, we want to dismiss local knowledge that seems bizarre to us as superstition or old wives tales. But quite often there is something to it after all. Not in every case, but often enough that we ought to reserve judgement on local claims until we’ve looked into them somewhat. As Tolkien wrote in The Lord of the Rings, “Pay heed to the tales of old wives. It may well be that they alone keep in memory what it was once needful for the wise to know.” Oral tradition should not be dismissed out of hand, simply because it initially strikes us as absurd.

A missionary friend in Cameroon shared with me this past week about a volcanic lake in that country. At some point in the 80’s, large amounts of toxic gas were released from the lake, killing all who lived in the villages around its shores. However, all of those villages had been founded and populated by newcomers to the area. The long-time residents did not live close to the lake, since they had an oral tradition that it was spiritually deadly to dwell too close to the water. Apparently this lake is prone to these kind of toxic gas releases every 150 years or so, meaning that the indigenous villagers had an oral tradition that preserved a deadly historical event from the distant past, although it had become clothed in their animistic worldview.

I remember another story from my childhood in Melanesia, where a village pastor, eager to prove the local traditions wrong, had decided to cook and eat a bird locally believed to be poisonous and used in witchcraft. The pastor ate the bird, and almost died as a result. Turns out this black and orange bird is the only poisonous bird known in all of nature. Local oral tradition wins again.

Why do we so often assume that local tradition is untrustworthy and bogus? Because sometimes it really is, and it keeps locals in bondage to empty and dangerous lies. Consider the Middle Eastern and Central Asian belief in patrogenesis, the idea that offspring one hundred percent come from the father, and the mother is merely a carrier, a vessel. All kinds of bad stuff has come from this cultural belief, including laws that disadvantage the mother when it comes to custody of her children – even if the man is abusive. Or, the cultural belief that the honor of the extended family is most dependent upon the sexual purity of the women in the household, resulting in honor killings which almost-exclusively target erring female family members. In Melanesia, tribes until recently believed that if your enemy was strong in something, you could kill them and eat their corresponding body part for that ability, thereby getting stronger in that ability yourself. This local tradition led to widespread cannibalism and all of the dark effects associated with it.

However, what often happens is that Christians of the reformed camp approach culture with eyes only for these cultural lies. We often have a default posture of Christ-against-culture when it comes to local knowledge and traditions. We know that all cultures, like all people, are fallen and under the curse of sin. We know that this affects every aspect of a person, and every aspect of the culture – that total depravity is not just individual, but corporate as well. The mirror which once reflected the image of God so well has been shattered, and gross distortion has resulted. And yet a shattered mirror has not ceased reflecting entirely. No, if you lean in close and focus on small individual shards, a somewhat accurate, limited reflection can sometimes be found. The fact that the fall has damaged every aspect of a culture does not mean that the image of God is no longer present at all, shining out – sometimes dim, sometimes bright – through the distortion. Just as the restoration of the image of God in believers will not be perfected until the age to come, so the utter loss of that image in unbelievers and their cultures will not be complete until that same coming age.

This means that we cannot approach the culture of an unreached people group only prepared for the gospel to begin rejecting and discarding local beliefs and culture. We must be prepared for much of this, but not only this. We must also be ready to discover local beliefs and customs that fit quite well with a biblical worldview – that at times fit even better than those of our own culture. In these cases, the local cultural practice or belief is to be retained, but filled with a new motive, that of the glory of God and love for neighbor.

Few contemporary missionaries are at much risk of the kind of overt cultural pride present in the colonial era. In fact, we are more often at risk of the opposite, an unbiblical open denigration of our own cultures as we seek to embrace the local one. But pride is a slippery thing, and if our only setting is Christ-against-culture, then we will find ourselves prematurely scoffing at local wisdom that will eventually prove to be just that – wisdom. And scoffers don’t win trust. Those who sneer at local methods of chai drinking are less likely to find a hearing when it comes to the bigger questions of life and death and eternity.

Such is the challenge of engaging local lore and tradition. You may find lies straight from the pit of hell. Or, you may find truth that has been marvelously preserved, against all odds. We must learn to anticipate both, and to humble ourselves when we get it wrong. We should listen carefully to the old men of the desert, ready both to learn and to stubbornly upend the traditions of ancestors when needed. We are tasked with this great untangling, with the laborious task of seeking to glue the shattered mirror back together. It will take a long time and countless conversations. And hopefully, lots of cups of chai. Even when it’s hot outside.

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A Proverb on the Absurdity of Nepotism

It’s the same donkey, but with a new saddle.

Regional Oral Tradition

This Central Asian proverb is used of someone who has been appointed to a position they’re not qualified for. In Central Asia, this almost always takes place because the person appointed is a relative or client of the one making the appointment. This sort of nepotism is rampant, holding back all kinds of effectiveness in the public and private sectors, and leading to lots of bitterness on the street as locals eventually lose hope that a qualified person could ever be chosen over a patron’s relative or yes-man. Turns out that even in patronage cultures, the human heart knows that character and experience are what really qualifies someone for a job, not the mere bestowing of a title. You can change the saddle, but the donkey is still a donkey.

This proverb is not only a statement of lamentable reality, but also serves as a humorous dig – donkey being a very common way to insult someone in Central Asia, where donkeys are a favorite butt of all kinds of jokes. This leads to many proverbs that speak of donkeys (examples here, here, and here), and to the rule that you should never mention a donkey in your sermon, lest you want to lose the local believers in fits of suppressed laughter. Which makes one wonder, what would happen to the preacher who has to preach on Balaam?

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The Power of Proverbs

Before we moved overseas we lived in an apartment complex full of refugees, immigrants, and low-income Americans. By that point I had become aware of the power of proverbs among those from the Middle East and Central Asia. What surprised us was finding that proverbs and truisms also functioned centrally in the speech and relationships of the low-income Americans around us.

While proverbs didn’t really feature much in the speech of my middle class, highly-literate peers, or only functioned in an ironic way, I found that my black or white Kentuckian neighbors from difficult backgrounds dropped them on the regular. They were not always helpful proverbs. I can’t tell you how many times we tried to engage someone with the gospel and were met with opaque responses such as someone’s commitment to “let go and let God” or insistence that “God helps those who help themselves.” But other times they contained biblical wisdom, such as “Y’all reap what y’all sow.”

What we were experiencing was a curious similarity between the cultures of our Arab and Sudanese neighbors fleeing war and our American neighbors trying not to get arrested for dealing drugs. It seemed that every culture in our apartment complex – other than ours – was considerably more oral in its ways of thinking and speaking. Being primarily oral might mean that someone is illiterate, but it often means that someone knows how to read and write, but only does so when necessary, and not for pleasure or for organizing their life. It means that someone’s use of language is largely independent of the written word, and the corresponding ways that the written word shapes how we think and speak. Instead, it is the memorized and spoken word that come to dominate an oral person’s use of language. This has nothing to do with degrees of intelligence, though it can often reflect a person’s level of education.

There is a significant communication barrier between those who are highly literate and those who are from an oral culture, even if they are from the same country and speak the same language. This is because the ways we use language and the ways our brains have been shaped by that usage are so very different from one another – and this is a reality that is often invisible. An oral communicator relies heavily on stories and proverbs. They end up with a kind of language that is less direct and more full of symbolism and concrete metaphor. A highly-literate communicator relies more on argument and logic and ends up with speech that is more direct and abstract.

Often this communication barrier can result in a situation such as highly-literate communicator asking an oral communicator about a concept such as sin. The oral communicator responds to the question by telling a winding story, one which might be interspersed with several proverbs or truisms. When the story is finally over, the highly-literate communicator is left unable to discern what kind of point or answer has just been made. So he tries to get back to the abstract concept he was asking about, only to be met by another confusing story. Both leave the interaction not confident that they have been heard or understood.

For about ten years I have been chewing on this communication barrier between those who are highly literate and those who are oral communicators. This is one reason I have been on my long-term experiment to learn and employ Central Asian proverbs as we’ve ministered overseas. The challenge of orality is a serious one, since it limits our effectiveness in communicating the gospel cross-culturally or to huge portions of our own societies that are poor or working-class. This is likely one reason why reformed evangelicalism is so homogeneous when it comes to our socioeconomic status and educational backgrounds. We are, if anything, an extremely literate tribe of Christianity. There are amazing strengths that come along with this, but one weakness is that we are no longer naturals in communicating with those who are oral thinkers and speakers. It’s as if we speak a different dialect than huge chunks of our own fellow countrymen, especially those who are working class or coming out of backgrounds of poverty.

If this is true, then what can we do to become better oral communicators of the gospel? First, we need to recognize that this communication barrier exists. It does us no good to continue thinking that the rest of society is just as literate as we are. If you are reading this post, that likely means you are in the top literacy bracket of your nation (for the US, this is only 12 percent of the population). This means that the vast majority of our neighbors are less literate than we are. And literacy profoundly impacts how we think, speak, and comprehend others. Have we been assuming that our communication with others is being truly understood? Perhaps it’s time to reexamine that assumption. As George Bernard Shaw wrote, “the problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.”

Second, let’s learn how to employ proverbs and truisms. We might feel like those that are still in circulation in English are cliche or unhelpful. But let’s redeem what we can and set about crafting some new ones if we have to. The key to a good proverb is its ability to condense complex truth into a short, catchy statement that can easily be memorized. For oral communicators, these memorized moral statements provide a ready framework for navigating the complexities of life. What would it look like to build a discipleship curriculum around key biblical proverbs? Or an evangelism strategy? Just as you would give a literate friend a good book, consider how to give away a good proverb to a friend who is an oral communicator.

Third, let’s not be afraid to tell stories. Sometimes those of us in the reformed camp can complain about illustrations, as if this part of the sermon is really only fluff. But a good illustration or story may be one of the most important components of a sermon for oral communicators. Even for those who are highly-literate, the illustration often remains in our brains long after the outline has faded. In a sermon that is largely abstract language, a good illustration provides some helpful concrete imagery. Stories also engage our affections in important ways. And after all, our Bible is three-fourths narrative, so we should think seriously about how story functions in our own efforts to communicate God’s truth.

Music also has a huge part to play in engaging and discipling oral learners. Again, the idea is to have truth that can be memorized and carried around, ready to be engaged without the help of a written resource. To serve oral communicators, some of our songs need to be of the sort that can be memorized and sung without any instrumentation, much as was the case with the great hymns of the past. Good songs can be an incredible tool for oral cultures.

Finally, let’s stay curious about the communication breakdowns that are happening around us. I am not saying that we abandon our highly-literate forms of communication, as if we should replace all outline-based preaching and bible studies with stories, proverbs, and songs. But rather, what can we do to meet oral communicators half-way? Can we learn to become bilingual as it were, able to communicate the same truth orally to those with only an 8th grade education as well as in highly-literate fashion to someone with a PhD? These are complex, invisible dynamics. It will take some chewing and curiosity to make any changes here and to not just revert to our defaults.

Proverbs still matter. In fact, most of the world’s population still employ them as a key part of their primarily oral engagement with reality. Actually using them may seem strange, or cliche, to us. And yet learning how to use these and other oral tools may allow our churches to break out of our highly-educated, middle-class strata, and finally communicate well with the poor, the immigrant, and the hard-working laborer. And that seems a goal worth striving toward.

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A Proverb on Reading the Signs

A tree doesn’t move unless there is a wind.

Regional Oral Tradition

This Central Asian proverb is equivalent to, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Certain things only happen as effects or symptoms, meaning there is necessarily a cause somewhere. Smoke doesn’t appear unless something is burning. Trees (excepting those in Narnia and Middle Earth) do not visibly move unless something else is moving them – usually the wind.

This category of wisdom is important for dealing with people who might be gifted in deception. They may present to us in a certain positive way, but have a curious trail of broken relationships behind them or a cloud of troubling interactions with others around them. We should pay attention when our personal interactions with someone don’t seem to match the questions regularly raised about them or the consistent negative reputation they have with others. While we’d like to think that we are special and can uniquely activate this person’s potential, usually this is not the case. And we are likely to ourselves get burned soon enough. Is there smoke? Are the branches moving? This means something.

This proverb could also be applied to the sins we regularly struggle with. Sins always have context, a story, behind them. They have not arisen out of nowhere, they have roots, and often function as symptoms of deeper struggles going on. This is why we often don’t make progress against them. We end up focusing on the smoke instead of the fire, the branches instead of the wind. Anger is one sin that is almost always a symptom. If we dig for its roots of sadness, fear, or otherwise, we may be very surprised to see what has been functioning as its fuel.

Treating symptoms has its place, but we should be wise to recognize that symptoms point to something deeper that is also present, and seek to understand and treat the cause. Let us be people who seek to read the signs wisely, neither ignoring them nor mistaking them to be the main thing.

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A Proverb On Hope

There is a path to the top of even the highest mountain.

Regional Oral Tradition

It is a satisfying thing to summit a mountain. It is even more satisfying after a previous attempt to do so has failed. I had this experience while trying to climb a tall peak overlooking our city, named after an unknown magi from the distant past. Our first attempt up the nearer side of the mountain failed when we reached cliffs and vertical stone walls that barred us from going any further. We weren’t alone in not making the summit. Other foreigners had recently gotten stuck on the mountain side and had to be rescued by military helicopter. But rather than give up, we sought a different route. On our second attempt we came up the back side of the mountain, a route which took longer but provided mostly walkable slopes all the way to the rocky top. At the summit, we were richly rewarded by the stunning views, the cool breezes, and the taste of chocolate – which is somehow always richer on long hikes, so make sure you’ve got some in your pack. There had indeed been a path up the mountain, even though we had previously failed to find one.

This Central Asian proverb speaks to hope in spite of great obstacles. To me, this proverb sounds more American than Central Asian, since my passport culture tends toward the naively optimistic while Central Asian culture tends to be more fatalistic. Yet here it is, a proverb from the heart of Central Asia defying fatalism and offering hope that even the most daunting of obstacles might be overcome. This is a good proverb for those learning a new language. Or for those attempting to do something which feels impossible, like planting a church.

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A Proverb On Proximity and Affections

The one before the eyes is the one upon the heart.

Local Oral Tradition

This Central Asian proverb speaks to the effect proximity and distance have upon our affections. We have a similar saying in English, though it focuses on the inverse of this idea – “Out of sight, out of mind.” As humans, we seem to be hard-wired to prioritize the relationships that are immediately in front of us, and we struggle to maintain those relationships that are long-distance. We quickly give resources to the needs that we are faced with, and have trouble feeling the weight of those needs that we don’t ourselves physically interact with.

A wise person will therefore do what they can to to be reminded of those important people and needs in ways their eyes can see and body can sense. This is particularly important for those who have grown up with a lot of transition and goodbyes, as missionary kids have. The temptation after a move is to cut off contact completely and to only focus on those relationships right in front of us. This is because continued contact reminds us of the distance and the change, and therefore the loss. But the seemingly easy way is not really the healthy way here. MKs and others like us need to learn to be present friends, even from a distance. I still have a long way to go on this front.

This is also why daily spiritual disciplines and corporate worship are also so crucial. We do not physically interact with Jesus in the ways his first disciples did. Instead, we interact with him by spirit, through faith, in the realm of the unseen. Our affections for him will fade and we will largely forget him if we do not have ways in which we are reminded regularly of his friendship for us. Hence Bible study which engages our eyes and hands, prayer which engages our lips and ears, and tangible reminders like the Lord’s Supper that engage our taste buds. In fact, Christians should be known as those whose deepest love is for the one not before our eyes, the one we can’t yet see and touch.

Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and full of glory.” – 1st Peter 1:8

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A Proverb On True Friends

A good friend is in suffering revealed.

Local Oral Tradition

This Central Asian proverb speaks to what many in seasons of suffering have experienced – that suffering reveals who our truest friends really are. When the good times end and the trials have come, we find out who is still able to be a companion, even in the darkness. And who was there only for the proverbial melons. We have an equivalent English proverb that gets at the same idea: “a friend in need is a friend indeed.”

Very few people naturally know how to be a good friend in suffering. It seems to be something we must learn, often as we suffer and grieve ourselves and thereby grow in the unique wisdom of those who mourn. We also learn how to do this as we experience responses to our suffering that are not so helpful.

I am trying to learn to not pivot so quickly to the sovereignty of God in the midst of pain. I’ve learned there is a cheap way to turn to this glorious doctrine that can keep us from lamenting as we need to, whether for our own pain or for others. It can function as a deflecting mechanism of sorts because I am afraid of what will happen if I am truly open to the pain. I find it instructive that Jesus does not plainly tell Mary and Martha in John 11 what he is up to, that he allowed Lazarus to die because he is purposefully bringing about his resurrection from the dead. Instead, he hears their tortured questions, reminds them of who he is, and then weeps with them. It seems that even a death of a mere four days must be mourned before it is appropriate to start putting the pieces together. The faithful friendship of Jesus is revealed not only by his bringing Lazarus back from the dead, but also by his choosing to weep with his family first. “See how he loved him!” (John 11:36).

Many of us can grow in being better friends in suffering. Our own suffering will inevitably teach us how to do this. But we can also learn by listening well to those who are currently in seasons of grief and pain, or those who are reflecting on what they needed during their own dark season. Often, the desire to be a good friend is there. It’s a part of our new nature as believers to want to be this kind of friend for others. But we can often lack the practical know-how of how to actually weep with those who weep (Western culture is a terrible tutor when it comes to how to grieve). Our fear of saying the wrong thing can cause us to not send that note or make that call. When in doubt, we should take the risk and err on the side of extending comfort, imperfect though it may be – especially since so many agree that it’s not the words in the midst of suffering that mean the most, but our presence and mere willingness to enter into the sadness.

This Central Asian proverb echoes the eternal wisdom of God’s word also. Proverbs 17:17 – “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.”

When adversity inevitably comes to those around us, may we be revealed to be good and true friends. And may God provide these kinds of friends for us in our suffering as well.

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