I was recently struck again with the first line of this old hymn. “What a Friend we have in Jesus”. How Abraham was called God’s friend. How Moses spoke with God face to face, as a man speaks with his friend. How Jesus said that He has not called us servants but friends. I started to think about the implications of our relationship with the Creator being characterised as a friendship.
A friendship is usually a relationship of equals, so how exactly is it that God, the Creator of all that is and ultimate Sovereign of the universe, can be our Friend? It boggles the mind.
I don’t make friends all that easily. It’s not that I don’t like people or that I’m unwilling, but I’m almost painfully introverted, I tend to be rather reserved around new people, and I hate the sort of small talk which forms the necessary social lubrication of new relationships. I can acknowledge the purpose and point of small talk interactions, but I ‘m not good at them. I’m much more comfortable with a rambling and erudite exchange of views on a serious issue than I am with “how about them Cowboys?”, but most people aren’t like that.
Once I manage to make friends, I’m a pretty good one, but I’m always in the “befriended” category rather than the “makes friends” category.
In short, my friendships tend to be few and deep. This may affect my perception of what the Friendship of God looks like, or it may not. I’m not really in much of a position to judge.
So what is a friend?
The childrens’ programmes my kids watch on TV often refer to the characters in their shows as “all your favourite PBS Kids friends”. I’m sorry, but if this is your idea of friendship, all your “friends” are imaginary.
Friendship involves interaction. A friend is someone you can actually have a conversation with. Curious George is an animated drawing. Chris Kratt may be a real person (at least some of the time), but he doesn’t know you exist.
Some of my Facebook “friends” are little better, and I’m fairly discerning about who I friend. It’s such a public forum that there’s little actual development of friendships. I might get to see some of your latest life events, but the rest of the time what is actually posted is cute squirrel pictures, funny stuff, trite Christiany sayings, manipulative share-a-thons (“Share this sappy quote to receive a blessing” and similar), and your weird and extreme political views. Billed as a service for keeping in touch with people, in actual use there’s little if any personal connection in most of it. Most of us think twice about blurting the details of our personal lives over such a public forum – the digital equivalent of telling the town crier.
There are exceptions of course. People I know only digitally that I nonetheless actually care about. For the most part, though, the world of digital friendship is that of a stereotypical extrovert – lots of relationships, but a lot more surface-level in most cases.
We may be missing a lot of the direct, specific interaction that makes friendship work. There’s exchange of information, but in a “voice in the market square” sort of way, not a “sitting down together and actually finding out what’s going on with one another” sort of way.
I wonder what this sort of interaction says about our relationship with God? Is our Friendship with God a surface thing? A vague connection without much specific, directed interaction? Do we actually converse with God? Listen as well as talking? Get to know Him? Pour out our hearts?
It’s a different calibre of friendship, much more in line with what Jesus was talking about. “I have not called you servants, for a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends”.
Another aspect of friendship is that I’ll do things for my friends without needing to be paid back. A good friendship isn’t a matter of reciprocal owing of favours, as if we have to keep track of the score and make sure everything balances. You, my friend, have a need, and because you’re my friend, I see what I can do. I want to help.
God describes Himself as our Friend. Run through the implications of that one.
We don’t “owe” Him when He saves us and brings us into relationship with Him, any more than we would feel that our friends “owe” us for being their friend. Only a person of planet-sized conceit does that. He wants to help us, do good for us. We’re His friends. From one perspective, yeah, there’s an indebtedness. But if we run too far with that and start trying to treat it as something we need to pay off, we’re in worlds of trouble.
He cares when we’re down, when we have troubles, when we’re stressed. If I, as a fallen and imperfect human being, care when one of my friends says they are going through a rough patch, then how much more does God care for us?
New Testament Greek, famously, has three words for love. There’s more overlap between them than we sometimes think, but there are indeed differences between agape, eros and philia. The different loves characterised by the three words have enjoyed cultural prominence at different times. Our modern world is in love with eros, romantic love. Just look at the content of our popular music. Even our worship music re-images the Divine love in romantic terms.
By contrast, the ancients loved philia a lot more. Brotherly affection – deep friendship, we might say – was considered the highest and most important form of love. The sense of this love is of a meeting of minds and hearts, a linking of souls, if you will, without the heart racing of romance or sexual desire. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. Robin Hood and Little John. Matt Murdoch and Foggy Nelson. Batman and Robin, if Robin were Batman’s equal. David and Jonathan. Every war-buddy film ever made. You’d give your life for the other guy without a moment’s hesitation, and you know he’d do the same for you. There’s nothing sexual about it; only a culture that sexualises everything would insist there has to be.
This is the sort of friendship the Bible’s talking about when it says that we are friends of God. He’s already given His life for us, and that bears the imprimatur of philia as well as of agape.