One of the root ideas of friendship in Hebrew is to be “part of a flock”, like a group of sheep or birds. Those in the flock are your companions. You go where they go, if not physically then emotionally. You gather and consult with your flock. They counsel you, encourage you, confide in you and you in them.
The best kind of flock is the one who treats friendship like a covenant, a promise that can’t be broken. Like Ruth and Naomi or Jonathan and David, these friendships transcend differences and circumstances to simply love and be loyal (Ruth 1:16-17, I Samuel 18:3).
I recently spent several days with a group of friends who have known one another for more than half our lives. We interrupted the daily grind and had husbands hold court at home to reconnect, reflect and replenish our souls. We crossed state lines and laughed until we cried, cried until we laughed, and met one another exactly where we were in that moment.
It was life giving.
This flock of friends has seen one another through jobs, moves, marriages and divorce, miscarriages and infertility, depression and devastation. We have gathered together faithfully, albeit imperfectly, for 22 years to keep the covenant of our friendship. Many of these friends have prayed for me and I for them.
We have seen one another mess up and be forgiven. We've watched each other grow up and live forgiven.
It has been lifesaving.
Like sheep in a flock, we are safer and stronger together.
God used the concept of a flock for friendship because we are a lot like sheep. Sheep are highly social, dependent animals with very little ability to defend themselves. Sheep even need to keep visual contact with other sheep, especially when transitioning, to help avoid excess stress. The sheep’s natural herding instinct is to band together for safety.
God designed sheep that way, and He designed us that way too.
A sheep by itself is vulnerable to attack. Wolves and coyotes threaten to pounce on a sheep when left alone. Likewise, the Enemy loves to isolate us and stir up insecurities, doubts and addictions, all in an effort to destroy us. We must do life together.
Even if a sheep is not directly bitten or survives an assault, it may die from panic or from injuries sustained. Sometimes the aftershock of a trial can be more devastating than the trial itself.
Just like sheep, we need a faithful flock. And just like sheep, we need a faithful shepherd.
“I am the good shepherd,” said Jesus. "The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).
Jesus is the ultimate Friend who shepherds us through all seasons of life (John 15:15). One of the ways He guides and guards us is through His people, flesh becoming His Word. He places friends in our lives to be His hands and feet and to tend to the very flock to which they belong.
The Shepherd's staff to save us
Do you sometimes feel like you’re suffocating from life’s duties and disasters, barely keeping your head above the proverbial deep water?
The long metal pole that is used to save drowning victims is called a shepherd’s crook. It can be used as a handle for the victim to grab, or as a device to wrap around the victim in the event that she is unable to hold onto it herself. The drowning person - while being rescued -will often be thrashing and panicking, so when the rescuer pulls them out of water he uses his dominant hand – his whole strength – to complete the rescue mission.
Jesus does this for us, even while we struggle against Him, and we are called to do this for others.
Sometimes the shepherd’s crook that Jesus uses to save us from a situation or to keep us traveling safely with His flock is a friend. They walk beside us and flank us with love. They encourage us and cheer us on. They extend a hand of compassion or lend an ear of understanding when we feel like we are drowning.
Sometimes all we need is to know someone cares, that we are not alone but part of a flock.
Attributes of a faithful flock
True friends won’t lead you astray. True friends will stick closer than a brother or sister. They won’t kick you out of the flock even if you wander. A funny thing about sheep is that their tracks are never straight. Part of being in a flock is knowing that and loving each other anyway.
True friends won’t turn their backs on you when you get tangled in some briars. They will just gently nudge you back to the Good Shepherd by acting like Him.
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
Gathering together is rarely convenient. It’s rarely without challenges or compromises. It will not be perfect. It will require interrupting routine but it is necessary based on how God designed us to exist. If we let it, it can be life changing, one gathering at a time.
Even if you don’t have life-long friends, press in to where you are now. The day-to-day friends are important too, especially as we transition to new places and try new things. Like sheep, our stress levels go down when we can see others in our periphery and don’t feel alone.
Find a flock that is seeking the Shepherd’s voice so that you can help one another follow Him and abide in Jesus together. It's the safest place to be.