Through Thick and Thin: Friends and Friendship in God’s Grand Plan

Editor’s note: This is a companion piece to the article “Seven Summits Worth Climbing in Church History: William Carey” by Jason G. Duesing, vice president for strategic initiatives at Southwestern Seminary.

In one of my favorite parts of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien provides a commentary on friendship:

‘Yes, sir!’ said Sam. ‘Begging your pardon, sir! But I mean no wrong to you, Mr. Frodo, nor to Mr. Gandalf for that matter. He has some sense, mind you; and when you said go alone, he said no! take someone as you can trust.

‘But it does not seem that I can trust anyone,’ said Frodo.

Sam looked at him unhappily. ‘It all depends on what you want,’ put in Merry. ‘You can trust us to stick to you through thick and thin — to the bitter end. And you can trust us to keep any secret of yours — closer than you keep it yourself. But you cannot trust us to let you face your trouble alone, and go off without a word. We are your friends, Frodo. Anyway: there it is. We know most of what Gandalf has told you. We know a good deal about the Ring. We are horribly afraid — but we are coming with you; or following you like hounds.’ [1]

As I was researching and writing my recent article on William Carey, I was reminded of the significant role that friendship played in the the launch of the modern missions movement. In an odd way, Tolkien’s conversation among Hobbits could very well have been like the talk of Andrew Fuller to Carey as they crafted their plan to take the gospel to the world:

“It all depends on what you want,’ said Fuller to Carey. ‘You can trust us to stick to you through thick and thin — to the bitter end.”

The idea of friendship is an important one in the Christian life and throughout church history who are the friends of a significant figure often have made all the difference.

Michael A. G. Haykin has spent a good deal of time exploring and encouraging others to explore the theme of friendship in history especially as it relates to these group of eighteenth century Baptists. In his fine article, “With a Little Help from My Friends,” Haykin describes specifically the friendship of pastors John Ryland, Jr. and Fuller—two of the key leaders of the Baptist Missionary Society that supported and “held the rope” for the Serampore Trio (Carey, Marshman, and Ward) on the field.

Haykin writes:

Ryland and Fuller first met in 1778 when both of them were young men and were wrestling with a number of extremely important theological issues. Within a year they became the closest of friends. After Fuller moved to Kettering in 1782 the two of them had frequent opportunities to talk, to pray, and to spend time together, since Northampton and Kettering are only thirteen miles apart. Their friendship would remain unbroken for the next thirty-seven years, till Fuller’s death in 1815.

The story of the unbroken friendship of all these men brings to mind:

(Ecclesiastes 4:12, ESV): And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

(Proverbs 18:24, ESV): A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.

To be sure there are times when God sets us apart and alone for his sanctifying purposes, but today I am reminded and thankful for the frequent grace he provides through the regular and faithful presence of friends—near and far—and how, often, it is his plan to use the friends in an individual’s life as the primary means to accomplish great things for his glory.

The presence and power of friendship is good and right as it is what the Lord Jesus modeled for us and still provides for us. He is the one who, when we were separated and far from him due to our sin, brought us near at the price of his own blood (Eph 2:12-13). He loved us, laid down his life, and called us friends (John 15:13-15).

[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, Chapter 5, “A Conspiracy Unmasked,” in The Fellowship of the Ring.