People often ask me what the “secret” to enduring faith is. They want to make it all the way with Jesus, but they’re afraid that something might derail them along the way. When they ask this, I know they’re expecting some spiritual advice—possibly a theological truth or a key spiritual discipline. I’m all for theological truth and spiritual disciplines. But if there is a secret ingredient to enduring faith, it’s this: Your friends are your future you.
Friendship may not be the most important factor in your spiritual life. But it’s certainly one of the most overlooked. That’s why I refer to it as a secret ingredient to enduring faith. Christians know they need to read the Bible (even if they don’t do it). They know that they should believe certain things about God. But somehow they forget that they’re social creatures, shaped by the people closest to them.
The way King Solomon put it was, “The one who walks with the wise will become wise, but a companion of fools will suffer harm” (Proverbs 13:20 CSB). In other words, show me your friends, and I’ll show you your future.
I can’t tell you how often people simply ignore this. They get really motivated to become something great for God, but because that decision never affects their friendships, their intentions never become reality. One of my mentors in college told me, “For most decisions in your life, it’s not the big dreams you dream but the small decisions you make.” There is probably no better application of that than in our friendships. Our future is shaped less by our dreams and ambitions of what we’ll do for God and more by the company we choose to keep in the present.
Now, whenever I mention this, people ask, “Pastor J.D., are you saying that we shouldn’t have non-Christian friends?” Not exactly. To answer that, I often think of friendship in three concentric circles (I’m pretty sure I got this from Andy Stanley, but I can’t remember):
In the innermost circle, intimacy, you have a small group of friends—probably just three or four—that profoundly shape you, and vice versa. If you’re married, your spouse goes in this circle. These need to be people that share the ultimate convictions you have. These are the ones that forecast your future.
In the next circle, influence, you have a larger number of friends. You influence them, and they influence you—not as deeply as your closest friends but still in meaningful ways. Most of these ought to be Christians.
In the outermost circle, care, you have the largest number of friends, including more casual acquaintances. These are people that you love and care for. You legitimately want the best for them and are willing to sacrifice for them, sometimes in stunning ways. But the shaping influence, in both directions, is lower. These can (and should) be Christians as well as non-Christians.
The mistake I often see isn’t that Christians have too many non-Christian friends but that people who should be in the care or influence circles are actually in the intimacy circle.
Our future is shaped less by our ambitions of what we’ll do for God and more by the company we choose to keep in the present.
One of the most heart-breaking ways I see Christians flout this is in dating. Your spouse should be your closest and most influential friend. And yet, I so often see Christians pursuing romantic relationships with non-Christians. I want to shake them and ask, “Do you have any idea what you are doing to your future?”
You say, “Well, I think this relationship is different.” You imagine that you really can change your boyfriend. Things just feel so right when you’re together. Plus, you know about that one couple where it actually worked out: He became a Christian, they got married, and everybody lived happily ever after.
And yes, God’s grace is amazing. I have seen him dramatically change people you’d never expect. If you are currently married to a non-Christian, obey Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7, stay true to your spouse, and pray like crazy for God to move. But why would you jump into that situation on purpose? Do you know what it’s called when you willfully break God’s rules and then look to him to fix everything? It’s called mocking. And God will not be mocked.
Besides, is this really a gamble you want to take? Now that I’m a father, I realize that the single most important person in the lives of my children is my wife. If you’re dating a non-Christian, you’re implicitly saying that you don’t really care about the salvation of your future kids. Don’t gamble with your kids’ eternity for the sake of a romantic thrill (that won’t last anyway).
Sermons might inspire you, but it’s your community that shapes you. So in your friendships—your marriage chief among them—choose with wisdom.
Your future you will thank you.