John Bunyan’s classic book The Pilgrim’s Progress has plenty to teach us about friendship.
The pilgrim Christian sets out towards the Celestial City alone, for his family refuses to follow him. After a particularly difficult part of his journey, he comes across a palace where many other believers live. He spends a few days enjoying their fellowship.
As Christian is getting ready to leave the palace, Bunyan gives us this poem:
“Whilst Christian is among his godly friends,
Their golden mouths make him sufficient mends
For all his griefs, and when they let him go,
He’s clad with northern Steel from top to toe.”1
What can we learn about friendship from these verses?
1. Companionship eases our suffering
All throughout the New Testament, the apostle Paul gives dozens of “one another” commands to the churches. For example:
- Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2)
- Love one another with brotherly affection. (Romans 12:10)
- Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. (1 Thessalonians 5:11)
We are meant to constantly encourage and comfort our fellow believers. Sometimes we get this wrong—like Job’s friends did after his disasters. But the pilgrim Christian was greatly refreshed by time with his new friends.
Before he leaves, they tell Christian that another pilgrim, named Faithful, is not too far ahead. The pair travel together and strengthen each other through suffering and persecution. His griefs, as the poem says, were mended by quality friendships.
I know this from experience. Often I’ve come to church or Bible study with a heavy heart of grief or anxiety, only to leave a few hours later with my burden eased. Simply being with friends who pray with you, and speak comforting words from the Bible, makes a tremendous difference.
2. Friends stir up our faith
Clearly we’re meant to be in community, loving and serving one another. So it’s natural that we’ll make treasured memories together. But as precious as these moments are, our friendships should be marked by something more.
The poem mentions Christian’s friends cladding him in armor. In the narrative they take him to an armory and give him all he needs for the journey ahead. The author is drawing upon the passage in Ephesians which describes the armor of God:
“Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.” (Ephesians 6:13-18a, emphasis mine)
Later in the story Christian meets a murderous beast (representing Satan), and barely manages to fight him off using these weapons. Likewise, God generously provides us with armor to protect us from sin and temptation.
I’m sure you’ve experienced seasons of suffering where you barely had the strength to pray or read the Bible yourself. We need our Christian friends in these times of despair. Paul wrote his letter to the Ephesian church as a whole, not to a single believer. Our perseverance is a communal project, so we must help each other to put on this armor when we don’t have the strength to do it ourselves.
So let’s strive to be the kind of friends who speak truth and correction, intercede in prayer, and assure each other of the certainty of forgiveness through Jesus.
3. Friendship equips us to do gospel work
Many of my favourite memories from the past few years have been with church friends. We’ve had board game nights after the service that extended late into the evening. We’ve sat around a fire, roasting marshmallows and singing worship songs. And every week we share our lives over supper and cups of tea at Bible study.
These moments are comfortable and cozy—but this shouldn’t be what our whole life looks like.
We’re disobeying Jesus if we huddle in a safe bubble and shut out the world. Before he ascended to heaven, Jesus commanded his followers:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19–20a)
We have a job to do. Friendship with other believers should spur us on in this task, not replace it. The poem mentions when, not if they let him go. Christian still had a long journey ahead before he reached the Celestial City. We have families to raise, jobs to work, neighbours to evangelise, and ministry to do; all of which require we leave our church halls.
But there’s also a harder kind of letting go. At some point in your life, you’ll face a painful goodbye as people leave for the sake of the kingdom. If they go to the other side of the world, you may only ever see them a handful of times again.
Paul models the heartbreaking joy of friendship when he farewells the Ephesian elders, whom he had worked among for a few years.
“And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. And there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, being sorrowful most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again. And they accompanied him to the ship.” (Acts 20:36–28)
I know I’ve sinned by idolizing friendships, pursuing comfort, and forgetting our true purpose. We must keep friendships in the right place: strengthening, rather than restricting, each other.
Let’s make sure that our time together is so rich that we’re equipped to go out. I hope that when somebody in my life leaves, they’ve been strengthened by our friendship—not going empty-handed, but clad in armor from top to toe.