Monday, January 28, 2019

Anonymous Asks (24)

“How do you separate from bad friends without hurting them or making them think you’re stuck up?”

That is indeed a tall order. And I suppose the answer depends very much on how bad your friends are, and in what way.

There are two different situations we ought to consider: bad friends who are professing Christians and bad friends who are not.

Bad Friends Who Claim to Know Christ

The apostle Paul gives a number of instructions to Christians about separating from people who claim to know Jesus Christ but continue to engage in certain ongoing patterns of immoral behavior. One well-known list of such sins is found in 1 Corinthians 5, and includes a variety of sexual sins, obsession with money and possessions, worship of things that are not God, “reviling” (which I believe refers to people with chronic anger issues who are constantly looking for trouble), drunkenness and theft.

The purpose of separating yourself from a person like this is really for his own good, “so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” The idea is to give the sinning fellow believer reasons to reconsider his choices, so that he will change his ways, return to the faith and the fellowship of his Christian friends, and ultimately find himself without regret when we are each called to give an account of our service to Jesus Christ. It’s a very positive sort of “separation”. It’s not about being stuck up at all.

Paul also gives instructions in his epistles about having nothing to do with people who are trying to divide the church, but since this is a question from a teen, I think we can safely assume his “bad friend” is not yet quite that influential.

But other than friends engaged in the specific behaviors Paul mentions, I would be reluctant to recommend separating from professing Christians — even struggling ones — unless they are becoming a source of testing and you feel yourself in danger of dishonoring the Lord when you are with them. In such a case it is better to “flee youthful passions” than give in to them.

Bad Friends Who Don’t Know Christ

The other situation involves friends who are openly unbelieving. Oddly, unless your friends are hardened criminals and any association with them may land you in jail, there are actually fewer reasons to separate from non-believers than to separate from Christians. As Paul puts it:
“I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people — not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. For what have I to do with judging outsiders?”
Our own Lord and Savior was frequently maligned for eating with “tax collectors and sinners”. This was not something he ran away from; rather, these much-criticized gatherings were opportunities to win hearts and change lives, and the Lord Jesus took full advantage of them.

I can’t claim to be even the tiniest fraction as effective in this as the Lord was, but my weekly routine is full of unsaved people just the same. I don’t go places with them that I wouldn’t go otherwise, and I don’t do things with them that I believe would displease the Lord, but these folks are certainly major factors in my life. Would I call them friends? I think I would have to. They are not mere acquaintances. I can’t think what else I would call them.

Partnership vs. Friendship

Sure, we don’t share the same view of eternity or of Jesus Christ, we don’t know the same joy, hope or peace, nor do we have the same goals, so I could not say I “have fellowship” with them. They are not members of the Body of Christ. They are not partners. That relationship is, sadly, not there yet. I have no guarantee they will be with me in eternity, so I am kind of obsessive about praying for them. I very much want them to be.

All the same, they seem to enjoy being with me and I very much enjoy being with them. I have benefited a great deal from my unsaved friends over the years. Not only do they help me learn how to better share the gospel, but they constantly remind me (if only by accident) what a wonderful privilege I have in knowing Jesus Christ and how blessed I really am. They also keep me in touch with how real people live, interact … and, frankly, suffer. It is not easy to get through this life without Jesus Christ, and those of us who have personally known the source of eternal life for decades tend to forget it.

Parting Ways

That said, if you have unsaved friends who are an ongoing source of temptation to you, there may be good reason to put some distance between you. I don’t believe it is ever necessary to cut off unsaved people entirely, but it is unwise to spend time with them in situations where you are in danger of compromising your own testimony, not least because it gives them a reason to dismiss your faith as unimportant and your interest in their salvation as a distant second to satisfying your own desires.

The question is how to do this if you have to. I’m not sure it’s possible to tell friends your current relationship with them can’t continue the way it is without it hurting. If someone really cares about you, explaining that you’re not going to spend your time with them anymore is bound to sting. But that sting may be necessary in order to really make clear that there are differences between you that are not at all superficial. Paul puts it this way:
“What partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols?”
This is pretty unequivocal: if you really know Jesus Christ, you are fundamentally different from every unsaved man or woman in the world right down to the core of your being. How can you not be? You answer the most important question in the entire universe differently.

A Hard Pill to Swallow

This is a hard pill to swallow for unsaved friends and, yes, they may decide you’re “stuck up”. Putting the blame on you may be the only way they can deal with what they perceive to be rejection. So before you kick them to the curb in the interest of being more holy, or because you think other Christians want you to, stop and think about what it is you’re trying to accomplish by separating from them. After all, in the Bible we are taught that we are not just to be separated FROM the world (“go out from their midst”), but separated TO Christ (“I will welcome you”).

So ask yourself a few questions: what positive things are you looking to do that you cannot do while still showing love to your current friends from time to time? Do you need more free evenings to devote to serving God in your local church? Do you need more time for Bible study? Are you looking to pour yourself into the lives of other Christians, and there just aren’t enough hours in the day to maintain your former routines? Are you finding you spend too much money on dinners with unbelievers that you’d rather be sharing with needy Christians?

All these concerns are good, real and valid … and you can start acting on them without making any sort of major announcement to anyone. Focus your energies on the things you think God wants you doing. That presents your old friends with a choice: either come along for the ride and see what you’re up to, and maybe even give this “church thing” a try themselves … or else shake their heads in dismay at your bizarre new hobby and go on about their business without you.

What I’m saying is this: don’t cut people out of your life unless you absolutely have to. Follow Christ. Follow him with no shame, no reserve and no ifs, ands or buts. Then let your unsaved friends make up their own minds whether they want to continue the relationship.


  1. • Hmm, maybe this is overcomplicating things somewhat? Does not strike me as a really big issue. Relationships don't exist without communication and nowadays most communication is actually remotely done by devices using cell and Wifi service. So, it is fairly easy, if you want to disassociate, to simply let this communication fall asleep. Lack of interest will become apparent and likely be attributed to lack of compatibility anyway without becoming a big issue and attendant negative feelings.

    1. Well, that's certainly the simple way out. Whether it's the right way out is another story ...

    2. Ok, but if I were in the business of conversion experiences by our friends and acquaintances it would be a pretty futile endeavor on my part based on responses so far over half a lifetime. So, I will pray for them but have low expectations since something nearly miraculous would have to happen and so far it has not. So, as you said, one simply carries on and leaves those worries to those in a higher pay grade.