Christians are required to love Muslims

Christians are required to love Muslims.

And with those six words, I’m probably starting a riot among my friends on social media. Especially the Americans.

Yes, 9/11 happened. Yes, the perpetrators called themselves Muslims. Yes, a large number of Muslim or Muslim-majority nations of the world actively persecute their national Christians in one form or another. Yes, Iran’s leadership consider America (and by extension the West in general) to be their enemies. Yes, all of that.

Even so, Christians are required to love Muslims. What part of “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” did you think was optional? Did you think the parable of the Good Samaritan was told the way it was because Samaritans were really great people who loved the Jews?

Unlike most of the people spewing anti-Islamic rhetoric into my Facebook news feed, I’ve actually lived overseas in a Muslim-majority nation. I’ve been in a mosque. I’ve had Muslim friends. I wouldn’t consider myself an expert as such, but I can talk about what I’ve seen and experienced.

The country in question was in no way without its problems, but the people were almost without exception courteous and hospitable to this Western Christian in their midst. Hospitable to a fault, actually; the local tradition basically considered guests to be an expression of Divine trust and favour. You can be trusted to take care of guests properly.

I was there when 9/11 happened. I saw it through television reports in a majority-Muslim country.

No-one celebrated. The news coverage wasn’t “see how the Great Satan has fallen”; it was shocked disbelief that anyone could be evil enough to do such a thing.

Over the next couple of months, the streets around the US embassy filled with flowers for blocks in every direction.

My American wife (only she wasn’t yet my wife at the time) only had to let it out that she was an American for the sympathy to pour out.

-We are so sorry.

-Did you lose anyone?

-Are your family ok?

-We hope you find the evil people who did this.

-We are with you.

-We are all Americans today.

They weren’t doing this because someone told them to. They weren’t doing it because they were rebelling against some kind of Islamic tyranny. They were doing it because they were decent human beings and it’s what you do.

I’ve seen the clip that always gets played when people want to tell me the Muslim world was celebrating at 9/11. And I mean “the clip”; I’ve only seen just the one. It was somewhere in the Middle East, not where I was. And what I noticed about the clip was not that people were celebrating and dancing, but how few in number they seemed to be and who exactly it was that was celebrating.

What I saw was a group of no more than 50, and probably around 20, composed entirely of little old ladies and children. People who, not to put too fine a point on it, probably didn’t know any better. And only ever that one clip, which has somehow entered the American public consciousness as “the Muslim world were all partying in the streets”.

Well, I never saw them doing that, anyway.

Every time I make a comment about Christians needing to show love and respect to Muslims, I get a barrage of comments telling me how “they hate us”, “they want to kill us”, “they hate Israel”, “you hate your wife and daughters”, etc. I’ve seen people posting ignorant memes that “Muslims have contributed nothing at all to world civilisation”.

Enough.

Yes, there are Muslim fanatics that hate America and/or Christians. Tell me there aren’t Americans and Christians that hate them. And we have far less excuse, because their religion does not command them to love their enemies. Ours does. In my experience, most of them just want to get on with their lives and don’t hate Americans at all.

But they can read, and they can see, and they can hear. They hear our claims that Christians love everyone, and they can see America emplacing entry bans on people from Muslim countries. They’ve also heard our claims that “America is a Christian country”, which reinforce their pre-existing beliefs shaped by the fact that places like Iran and Saudi Arabia really are Muslim countries in terms of the national and legal structures of the state being Muslim. That’s the way they tend to interpret our claims of Christian countryhood; they think that there’s no difference between the actions of the USA as a nation and the actions of the Christian church.

Many of them get frustrated by the church’s apparent blinkered support for the State of Israel. This is a thorny issue replete with biases and half-truths and unclarity on all sides including mine, and I don’t want to say a lot about it right here, but the fact is that many Muslims think we believe that the State of Israel can do no wrong, ever.

That’s all I’m going to say on the matter. Note that I didn’t say that was an accurate belief, just that that’s what they think.

I’m not even going to dignify “you hate your wife and daughters” with a proper response. It’s a deliberately contrary-minded, ignorant comment that equates loving Muslims with support for the fanatics’ agenda. I’m a Christian and I love my sisters and brothers in Christ, but that does not mean I support the perverted agenda of every cultist who’s ever claimed to represent the True Church.

And “Muslims have contributed nothing to world civilisation” is, if possible, even more ignorant. In the period of the Crusades, the Muslim world were far more advanced than the Christian nations, particularly in science, astronomy, mathematics and medicine. While the Christians were struggling to do simple arithmetic using the unwieldy Roman numerals, the Arabs had a place-notation that we still use today in modified form. It’s not for no reason that we call them “Arabic numerals”. Muslim astronomers like Avicenna (ibn Sina, to use the proper form of his name) made observations of the heavens that wouldn’t be equalled in Europe for hundreds of years. And well into the 1600s every European court had its Arab or Moorish (ie black North African Muslim) physician, because the Christians were dangerous incompetents more interested in bleeding you than healing you. Most of what Western Christian and post-Christian scientists have discovered about science builds off of work done by Islamic scholars in the Middle Ages.

But even if they were just as ignorant and stupid as we are, still we would be required to love them.

It is, after all, one of the commands of Christ. How can we claim to be obedient servants of the Lord Jesus if we obey everything except the bits we don’t like? If we love only those who love us, how are we better than demon-worshipping pagans?

We’re commanded to love our enemies. There’s no listed exception clause that says “but if they hate your country then you don’t have to”. There’s no exemption for people that don’t believe that Jesus is the Son of God; in fact, the focus is specifically on those who do not believe. The ones who were persecuting and spitefully abusing when Jesus said those words were pagan Romans, many of whom thought the Jews were too troublesome to live, and the Christian sect of Judaism was even worse.

If we are going to call ourselves His followers, we do not get to pick and choose who we love.

We don’t have to support the agenda of the radicals. We don’t have to decide that they’re right in what they believe. But we do have to love them.

This begins with being respectful. Being friendly. Taking the time to get to know the alien and stranger in our midst, about whom even the Old Testament Law was quite firm: “do not despise an alien, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt”. Find out what help they need. Act like a good neighbour. It’s not rocket science.

They aren’t robotic avatars of The Islamic Threat, or whatever you think is driving them. They’re just people, like you and me. They have kids that they want a better life for, they have sports fandoms and hobby interests, they mistrust the secularising influences around them just like many Christians do. God made Selim just like He made Simon, in His image and likeness. God loves Aisha just as He loves Alice. Muslims really aren’t that different from you and I. Just people whom God loves and wants to come to a better and deeper knowledge of Him, made in His image just like me.

And Jesus commands us to love them. Hadn’t we better be about it?

Husbandry

Though I say so myself, I have a pretty good marriage relationship.

We’ve never had what we consider a fight. Plenty of disagreements, but no fights (fights get personal. We don’t do that). We love one another. We genuinely value each other in our different talents and giftedness and personalities. Evidently we’re doing something right.

Not that you’d guess it if you listened to some Christian teachers talking about submission and then did a comparison, because our relationship doesn’t look a lot like the hierarchical arrangement which is so often touted as the Christian ideal.

Nearly every time it comes up, you hear someone saying that “trying to have 50/50 control leads inevitably to fighting”, and that only with a proper marital hierarchy can there be harmony. Along with “your kids will become homosexuals if you don’t dominate your wife”, this seems to be the main threat used to try to force a hierarchical pattern onto Christian marriages: “exercise husbandly authority or your wife will fight you constantly”.

Speaking from experience, I assure you that this is not the case. When people ask me “but who’s ultimately in charge?” I have to sort of look at them blankly. “When there’s a disagreement, who makes the final decision?” they insist, and I reply “we both do”. We discuss it until we can agree. Or at least find a compromise we can both live with. God is in charge; we both serve Him.

Needless to say, I baffle a lot of these people. They seem to think that the way we do it shouldn’t work. But it does.

For me, one of the major secrets of our success is that we both fully realise that we are on the same side.

A lot of the marital-hierarchy folks seem to be assuming a level of competition and struggle between husband and wife that I think is deeply unhelpful. A healthy marriage is not a competition; it’s a relationship of mutual support and encouragement in which you prefer one another and build one another up. Get that part right and you’re making a nonsense of the whole hierarchy thing even if you believe you have one. If you constantly fight over control, you probably both need to stop assuming that marriage is a game with one winner and one loser. It isn’t. Either you both win, or you both lose.

I’m going to deliberately invert the threat-type statement I referred to earlier, just to make a point. From what I’ve seen, trying to have a positional hierarchy in your marriage relationship leads inevitably to resentment and fighting, or one person’s desires and needs being sidelined by the dominant partner. The only times it works is when the people involved do not live as if they have a hierarchy even when they say that they do.

I said last time, talking about submission, that the proper context of Ephesians 5:22 is Ephesians 5:21, and that the two form a single sentence in Greek. But what I want to focus on this time is the role and responsibility of a husband.

The Scriptural command to husbands is “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her to make her holy…”

This takes the whole question of who is in control or who has the authority and consigns it to the junkpile. Nowhere are husbands told to make sure that their wives submit to them with proper respect (though that seems to be the essence of some people’s mentality about the question). God did not make us men to be His enforcers or judges in our families. We are told simply to love our wives and give ourselves up for them.

Even people that believe in a Divinely-ordained positional hierarchy in marriage recognise this; it’s the one thing that can make a stated marital hierarchy work.

The question of who’s in charge and who has the authority is quite simply the wrong lens through which to view the matter. Particularly if you are a husband. You do not get to concern yourself with whether your wife is “submitting” properly; your responsibility is to love her as Christ loved the church.

What does this mean in practice?

Well, what did Christ’s love and giving Himself up for us look like? What did it achieve? What resulted from it?

Jesus died to save us. He gave up His life for our freedom from sin; God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God. More, He intercedes for us before the Throne, by His Spirit He refines us so that we become like Him, doing the will of God fully in our lives.

Now obviously a husband doesn’t lay down his life to save his wife from sin in the same way, but there are lessons here. It is the role of a husband to give up himself in order to bring his wife to the place she is meant to be in the Lord. It is his job to serve her just as Christ washed the disciples’ feet, to encourage and support her in her God-given ministry and to do all in his power to see to it that she is able to fulfill the call of God on her life.

Even our English word “husband” carries this sort of meaning. Though it is almost exclusively used nowadays as a noun meaning a male spouse, in the Middle Ages the word meant a farmer. Someone engaged in the work of cultivation. (The English town of “Husbands Bosworth” preserves a last remnant of this meaning; it refers to “Town on Bosworth field where the husbandmen, ie farmers, live”, as opposed to the nearby “Market Bosworth” which is “Town on Bosworth field where the farmers come to market”. Anyway, moving on…)

Husbandry, then, in the modern sense of the word husband, is the art of cultivating your wife. Raising her up, doing what you can to ensure that she is fruitful in her ministry and life, cherishing and preferring her in the Lord. Being her advocate when needed, taking care of her, developing her.

No farmer expects his farm to support him without his doing any work; on the contrary, farming is hard work. Marriage is also, in one sense. It’s hard to give yourself up. But in another sense, it really isn’t hard at all. How hard can it be to give yourself up for the one person in the universe after God that you value above all others? How hard is it to prefer the one you prefer? How hard is it to love the one you love?

Someone will look at all this and see a lot of work for little gain. While that’s about my perspective on farming – a life I have very little interest in actually living – it really isn’t like that. As I said before, a healthy marriage is not a competition, and me making sure that my wife wins does not mean that I lose; it means that we win. We’re in this together, husband and wife. We’re on the same team, not racing against each other.

A wife who knows that she is cherished, loved, valued, respected, listened-to, a true partner not a subordinate – who wouldn’t want a wife like that? I have a suspicion that this is how Proverbs 31 Women are made.

I have no need to overrule and exercise the sort of positional authority I mistrust and fear in my marriage relationship. I trust my wife’s judgment; I know that she’s on my side and that even when she might not make quite the same decision that I would have, that she’s taking my preferences and desires into account just as I do hers when we have to make decisions by ourselves. We’ll usually try to talk it over and come to a mutually-agreed-on decision, but when it comes to it, we trust each other to make a decision that’s good for both of us as far as that lies in our power.

You may disagree, but this doesn’t feel like any kind of authority-based relationship. She’s not my subordinate and I’m not hers. We’re in this together. We try to have a system of 100/0/0 control, in which God is in charge and we both follow together.

Some people would probably say I wear my headship too lightly. I disagree with this assessment, but you have to understand that I consider headship to be a position of service, just as any other position of Christian leadership. As it is written: So Jesus declared, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in authority over them call themselves benefactors. But you shall not be like them. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who leads like the one who serves(Lk 22:25-26).

Proper Christian leadership is the opposite of hierarchical dominance. Why should husbandly headship be any different?

So I don’t buy the argument that trying to have a relationship of mutuality is setting yourself up for failure as a Christian spouse. In my experience it is not so; let’s leave the dominance games to the buffalo and the veiled threats to the pagans, shall we?

“And Peter”

“I’m going fishing,” Peter announces.

This isn’t some hobbyist speaking. It’s not the “think I’ll go and drop a line in the water” of someone that fishes for pleasure. It’s a step backwards, away from what Christ had called him to. An admission of failure. I’m no longer fit to be His disciple. I denied Him, not once, but three times. Even if He’s alive, He can’t possibly still want me.

Might as well go back to fishing. It’s all I know. It’s been an interesting three years, but it’s over.

“We’ll come with you”, say the others. Whether this is their own throwing-in of the towel, or a reluctance to let Peter go off by himself at a time like this, or a simple unwillingness to entirely forsake the camaraderie of those three years is anybody’s guess, but go they do.

They fish all night, but catch nothing. Three years is a long time, but Peter’s a grown man. He’s spent how many countless hours upon that lake, man and boy, learning his trade from his father before becoming a fisherman in his own right. That sort of ingrained skill doesn’t evaporate overnight, not even in three years.

Maybe God is against him. After all, he did deny His Son. At any rate, not one solitary fish.

At the close of the night, someone shouts from the beach.

“Friends, haven’t you caught anything?”

It might trigger a twinge of memory, but you put it out of your mind. That life is over. At any rate, it’s not an unusual question.

“Throw your nets on the other side of the boat,” the stranger calls, after the disciples’ negative response.

Now this is familiar territory. But there’s only one way to test it: Do what the stranger says.

What have they got to lose?

At once, their nets are bursting. They can’t hold all the fish.

There’s no doubt at all, and Peter knows it. Jesus is deliberately taking Him right back to the beginning, when he was an outcast fisherman, rejected by all the rabbis as unfit to be a disciple. One of the many whom the teachers of the Law of the Lord had put aside.

Now as then, Jesus breaks through all that. Others may find Peter too hardheaded, too impetuous, too indisciplined. Peter himself may find himself unfit. None of it matters. There’s only One opinion that counts, and it’s borne by the One standing on the beach.

Leaving the others behind in the boat, in his own impetuous way Peter plunges into the water as soon as he can stagger to shore.

When the others join them, Jesus has the grill all ready, with enough fish already cooking that the haul is superfluous. Breakfast is served: fresh fish a la Son of Man.

Some way through the breakfast, Jesus pulls Peter aside. “Do you love Me?”

“Yes, Lord, I love You,”

“Feed my sheep”.

The question repeats, then repeats again. By the third time, Peter is distinctly uncomfortable.

“Lord, You know all things”. You know how I failed You, how I let You down. You’re proving it right now. But You know that I do love You.

And the threefold declaration comes with a calling, not to be a fisher of men but a shepherd of the flock, and with a promise.

“You know, Peter, that when you were younger, you dressed yourself and went where you wanted. But when you’re old, someone else will dress you, and stretch out your hands, and lead you where you don’t want to go”. Yes, Peter, your death will be like Mine: hands outstretched. And this time, Peter, you won’t fail. You won’t deny Me; you’ll remain faithful, for My Spirit will be in you.

Christ is risen…

Work Out Your Salvation

One of my friends mentioned this verse again last Sunday. It’s Philippians 2:12: “Therefore, just as you have always obeyed – not only in my presence but now much more in my absence – continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you both to will and to work for His good pleasure”.

I remember being a little confused the first time I came across this verse: “what’s that doing in the Bible? I didn’t think we believed in salvation by works!”. Of course, that’s not what it’s saying. The command is to work out your salvation, not to work for it. Salvation is already achieved by the death and resurrection of Jesus, and gained by faith, not works. But the fact that we are being saved should have consequences. If we are followers of Jesus, that ought to find expression in a life lived in accordance with His character, and that’s where “work out your salvation” comes in.

The context of the verse is immediately following the famous passage in Philippians 2 about Christ’s humility and exaltation, and the point of that passage is that we ought to have the same mindset, not exalting ourselves over one another in selfishness or conceit, but considering one another as better than ourselves. Being united in the Spirit, with one goal and purpose, looking to each other’s interests. Being humble.

And out of this beautiful expression of Christ’s example of humility and reminder of His current exaltation above every name that can be given, we are instructed to work out our salvation.

There are several related aspects to this instruction. The whole verse makes it clear that working out your salvation is connected with obedience. But obedience to what? A surface reading of the verse might imply that Paul is instructing them to keep on obeying what he, Paul, had told them when he was present even now he was absent. However, this doesn’t really fit the wider context of Christ’s humility and obedience. His was obedience to His Father, an obedience of love, not of fear, that resulted in salvation for us all. Paul deliberately and unequivocally sets up Jesus as our Example in this; our obedience, like His, is not to a human teacher, not even the Apostle Paul, but to God the Father.

But we do have to obey. It isn’t an optional extra. The Gospel is “Jesus is Lord, what are you going to do about it?” at least as much as it’s “Come to Jesus and be set free from all the crap and junk in your life”. His commands, that we are required to obey, are not onerous or harsh or death-bringing, but simply to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourself. Who wouldn’t want to obey that?

The second aspect is that working out our salvation is a process. We don’t usually get there all in one jump, though if the Lord chooses to do a great work all at one time it is to be gratefully received, not rejected because it doesn’t fit our happy pattern. It’s an ongoing process: “continue to work out your salvation”. What “loving God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength” looks like today may involve different challenges than I was facing yesterday. What “loving my neighbour as myself” will look like tomorrow may involve anything from having the courage to call a friend out on their double-mindedness to giving financially to someone in need to forgiving someone who hurt me. It’s all the same obedience, but the outworking is different in different situations of life.

Related to this (and this is what struck me on Sunday) the command is to “work out your salvation”. Not someone else’s. There are things which, because of my particular personal character weaknesses, I cannot do without them becoming sin. I’m not meaning the things which are universally condemned in Scripture like making created things into gods or practicing witchcraft or committing adultery, but the greyer areas. Matters of individual conscience, like the drinking of alcohol, participation in things like gambling and lotteries, whether or not you tithe strictly, most of the rules we place around the whole procedure of dating, how we discipline our children, and so on and so forth.

If your conscience bugs you about something, then for you it is sin. I personally could not carry a gun without it violating my conscience, because by carrying it I am saying that I am prepared to use it, even to kill with it if necessary, and I don’t believe I have the right to take the members of Christ (ie my own body) in my own authority and use them to take the life of another person for whom He gave His. For me, it is sin.

But I have several friends who not only actively hunt, but have concealed carry licences. Evidently, for them, it isn’t.

The danger is for me to try to absolutise my own conscience’s foibles. Because carrying a gun is sin for me, because it violates my conscience, it must be sin all the time for everybody, and it ought to violate your conscience as well.

We’ve all seen the lists of sins that have been preached against in times past. It’s sinful for a woman to wear trousers. It’s sinful for a man to have long hair. It’s sinful to drink a glass of wine with your meal. It’s sinful to dance, play bingo, smoke or chew tobacco, fail to give at least an exact 10% of your income to the church, etc. And it’s probably sinful to expose your kids to the “evil secular humanistic public school system”, to vote for a Democrat or to fail to place your hand on your heart during the singing of The Star-Spangled Banner. And this is just a random sampling of the list. We can all add to it from our own experiences.

But the point is that I’m supposed to be working out my salvation, not yours. If your conscience allows you to carry a firearm, that’s between you and the Lord and nothing I need to get miffed about. I can challenge you, if that’s appropriate, because you might not have considered all the implications of what you’re doing, but if at the end of the day your conscience is unfazed by what sets mine to jangling, it’s none of my business. As Paul said in Romans 14: “Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own Master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for God is able to make him stand”.

I don’t get to hold you hostage to the dictates of my conscience. But at the same time, it’s not loving you as myself to parade my participation in things that violate your conscience right in front of you, lest you are encouraged to join in in defiance of what you believe to be right.

It’s not that right and wrong are situational or relative. There’s one moral law: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. But how the one moral law plays out in the individual complexities of our lives’ is not always going to look quite the same. The one thing that unifies its diversity of expression is that it’s all supposed to look like Jesus.

The Extra Mile

Because of a situation that I’m not going to discuss on a public forum like this, I’ve been thinking about Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5 and 6 about going the extra mile.

“If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other cheek also. If someone takes your cloak, give them your shirt also. And if someone forces you to walk with them one mile, walk with them two miles.”

“Love your enemies; pray for those who persecute you; do good to those who spitefully use you.”

It’s easy to do good to someone you like. It’s no chore to walk two miles (present obesity and general unfitness crisis excepted) with someone you get on with. It’s a simple thing to pray blessing on your friends and those who agree with you.

But Jesus was talking to a conquered people. There were Roman soldiers out there that took advantage of their position as conquerors and overlords, and that wasn’t even considered particularly wrong. It was just the way it was; the conquered serve the conqueror.

When Jesus talks about someone striking you on the cheek, He’s talking about what we’d nowadays call unjustified police brutality. He’s talking about thugs with swords and armour taking out their frustrations on other people that had nothing to do with it.

When He talks about someone taking your cloak, He’s talking about the conquerors’ ongoing plunder of the conquered. He’s talking about extortion.

When He talks about someone forcing you to go one mile with them, He’s talking forced marches while being made to carry some soldier’s gear.

When He talks about loving enemies and praying for the persecutors, it has an agenda. It has names and faces, and it’s not pleasant.

We often tend to look at the Romans’ amazing works of architecture and engineering – the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the outflow channel for the baths at Bath (that still works over 2000 years later) – and forget that their other area of expertise was conquering.

Their soldiers were tough, disciplined, drilled until they bled, and encouraged to be brutal to subject peoples. The Pax Romana may have created an absence of major wars, but the essence of it was focused thuggery: Do not fight, or we will kill you.

The penalty for rebelling against Roman rule was unrelenting: they would slaughter rebel populations if necessary, down to the last woman and child. And the people who had to carry out the sentence were the soldiers. And among the soldiers, the ultimate sentence against a unit that refused to obey orders was called decimation: they would line up the men and count off by tens, and every tenth man was killed, whether or not he personally had anything to do with the trouble, whether or not he was a good soldier. It tended to encourage obedience.

Today, it’s easy as citizens of a free nation to miss the point, or at least, to have it made only weakly.

Loving your enemies is never easy, but at least we generally feel ourselves stronger than our enemies. It’s quite a different matter when they have all the power.

Going the extra mile means going out of your way to do nice things for the boss that you hate. It means doing good to the employer that blames you for their own problems. It means showing grace to the scheming no-goodnik that took credit for what you did and then bad-mouthed you to your superiors.

It’s not pleasant. It’s not easy. Now as then, there’s an agenda with names and faces.

It may mean going and doing something nice for a Muslim. It may mean doing good to that racist good-for-nothing, that nasty piece of work, that unpleasant character.

It isn’t easy, as I’m finding out again. But Jesus never promised an easy road; He just promised to walk with us on it.

Collision with Immanence

It occurs to me that an awful lot of my recent posts are focused on God’s transcendence. His awesome power and supreme majesty. His greatness and might. His sovereignty.

It’s all completely true; God is sovereign and majestic and great and all-powerful. But it’s only half the story.

The God of the Bible is immanent as well as transcendent. He’s close to us as well as beyond us. It seems to me to be past time I wrote something focusing on that side of the Divine being.

To focus exclusively on God’s immanence is to bring Him down to our level. God is one of us. We take the Biblical idea that Jesus was a man just like us and run with it to almost get the idea that God is therefore just like us in all ways. Someone we can “fall in love” with. Someone we can safely disobey. Someone with faults and foibles and incomplete knowledge.

But to focus exclusively on His transcendence is to fall into the opposite error. God is so great and majestic that He is completely unlike us; He’s like an unstoppable force of nature, concerned with His will being done rather than with our troubles and struggles. Or even if He’s concerned, it’s in the distant way we might be concerned about a mouse or a bug.

When we say that God is Sovereign and all-powerful, this is not what we mean.

Transcendence has to be balanced by immanence if we are to have a truly Biblical view of the Almighty. He’s the One who spoke stars and galaxies into being, who tells gravity which way Down is and who really does know the precise mass and position of every subatomic particle. But He’s also the One who walks with Noah, who lets Himself be talked down by Abraham, who calls Himself “Father”.

I often think we go overboard on the whole “closeness/intimacy” thing, but this, too, is a Biblical truth.

Jesus is Immanuel, God With Us. And even before His coming, the psalmist said that God was “near to all who call on Him”.

I don’t know of another religion that has this idea. Buddhism treats the whole idea of Deity as irrelevant. Hinduism has its transcendent Brahman, so completely Other that even the attribution of personality is considered an anthropomorphism. In Islam God is great, first and foremost. I’ve lived and worked in Muslim countries, and in my experience the idea that God can be close is firstly nonsensical and secondly frightening.

But God reveals Himself as close to us. Sovereign of the universe, and yet He calls Abraham, a mere human, His friend.

His immanence is naturally associated with His love and compassion. Indeed, if He weren’t loving and compassionate, the idea of the All-Powerful and All-Holy drawing near would truly be a thing of terror.

The essence of this revelation of immanence is God’s self-revelation as Father.

Some of us haven’t had a human father that we’ve known. For others of us, the idea of father is wreathed in pain. We didn’t have good relationships with our dads, and the idea of God as Father is tainted by that human expectation that He will be like our earthly male parents.

But like any archetype, the idea of fatherhood is defined by its ideal, not its failures. The idea is one of a protective and caring closeness, a sense of family and identity, a concern and involvement combined with strength. It’s difficult to put into words, but we recognise a good dad when we see one.

God’s Fatherhood is a little like that. Or more accurately, that sort of fatherhood is a little like God’s.

He’s near as well as great and mighty. Father as well as Sovereign.

I think perhaps that I would do well to remember this.

What a Friend we have in Jesus

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.