Friendship with God: Meaning and mystery

As adult children befriend their parents, so, too, can mature children of God become friends with God.

Writer Brent van Staalduinen speaks for many when he describes his struggle in relation to the claim “Jesus is my friend” (July 14, 2014 Christian Courier). Until recently Van Staalduinen’s struggle paralleled my own, and in some ways it still does, since I find the claim audacious. Mostly, though, van Staalduinen prompts me to offer a response rooted primarily in the book A Friendship Like No Other, by Jesuit spiritual director William A. Barry. Barry claims that friendship is “the best analogy for the relationship God wants with us” (xv). The double claim implied in Barry’s title – that God does call us friends and yet the mystery of God makes that friendship unique – that double claim convinces me that struggling to practice friendship with Jesus brings reward that is more than worth the effort. In fact, no friendship is more rewarding than friendship with Jesus and with God because the mystery of God makes friendship with God an ever-expanding joy.

In his suspicion regarding talk about friendship with God, Van Staalduinen places himself in good company – the company of C.S. Lewis, for example. While giving an exalted description of human friendships in The Four Loves, Lewis states that “Life – natural life – has no better gift to give” than friendship (105). For that very reason, Lewis finds the term dangerous in relation to God and speculates that perhaps this danger explains why the Scriptures rarely use friendship as an image for our relationship with God. According to Lewis, true friendship is so spiritual and sublime that “we might mistake the symbol for the thing symbolised” (124). In other words, we might think friendship with God exalts us into some sort of equality with God. Better to emphasize the humbler metaphors of God as Father or God as Husband rather than God as Friend, concludes Lewis, because they are less likely to incite the illusion of pride in our relationship with God. Finally, though, Lewis admits that Jesus does call us friends, and therefore Jesus is the unseen Host in the friendships he arranges for us. By these gracious gifts of friendship, Jesus does relate to us as a hidden Friend.

Healthy humility?
From a different angle, Lewis Smedes both resists and then finally accepts the reality of friendship with God. In his memoir My God and I, Smedes includes a chapter called “God and I, Almost Friends” [emphasis mine]. Speaking out of his confessional heritage, Smedes emphasizes the otherness of God and states, “If there is anything we Calvinists understand, it is that God is too high and too holy for us to cozy up to as a pal” (161). With theological consistency Smedes applies the same circumspection in his approach to Jesus. When a friend asked Smedes what he would do if he saw Jesus coming down the street, Smedes replied, “I would either fall on my face or run and hide” (162). Smedes also indicates that his healthy theological humility regarding friendship with God is somewhat distorted by an unhealthy psychological burden of self-contempt. Smedes wonders how God could find anything to admire in him since Smedes can find nothing admirable in himself. Yet Smedes recognizes that the gospel tells us that Jesus calls his followers his friends, and therefore self-contempt cannot be the whole truth or the final truth for any disciple of our Lord. Therefore, with the help of good human friends, Smedes slowly finds admirable qualities in himself and, by grace, hobbles “on shaky legs into a friendship with God” (165).

Intimacy as in Eden
What Smedes hobbles toward, William Barry embraces in A Friendship Like No Other, which carries the sub-title Experiencing God’s Amazing Embrace. Barry knows that for many people, friendship with God plays little if any role in their understanding or worship of God. He also recognizes that serious people rightly reject trivial notions of friendship with God. Despite this, he states that “I have become convinced that the best analogy for the relationship God wants with us is friendship” (xv). Barry bases on this claim not only on the John 15 passage, in which Jesus calls his followers his friends, but also on a survey of the Bible as a whole. For example, the portrait of God in the Eden story indicates that God enjoys getting together with human beings in the cool of the evening after a hard day of work (Gen. 3:8). “This is an image of friendship and intimacy, of cooperation in creativity and in relaxation” (15), writes Barry. Then he urges his readers to “inhabit” that image to see if it elicits feelings of friendship with God. Barry also points out that when we see how adult children can become friends with their parents, we can see also how mature children of God can become friends with God. This insight regarding adult children connects the rare biblical image of being God’s friend with the pervasive biblical image of being God’s children. In these and many other ways, Barry makes an excellent case for friendship with God as a fitting and fruitful analogy for our relationship with God.

Biblically-imaginative dialogue
The strength of Barry’s case for friendship with God lies not only in the teachings of his book but even more in the exercises he suggests. Calling on his Jesuit training as a spiritual director, Barry regularly urges his readers to pause after reading a biblical passage and to open their minds to how God’s Word can carry an overture of God’s friendship. For example, Barry directs his readers to the gospel scene in which a man runs to Jesus, kneels, and asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17). Filled with love for the man, Jesus instructs him to sell what he owns, give the money to the poor and then follow Jesus. Disconcertingly for many readers, the gospel reports that, when the man heard this, “he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions” (10:23).

Most people I know find Jesus shocking sometimes, and we too can feel grieved by Jesus. Like Smedes, we can feel tempted to run and hide from Perfection calling us to perfection. Yet Barry urges us to recognize Jesus as a friend, even when he dismays us with difficulty. Barry also encourages us not to fear Jesus but instead to engage him in a dialogue based on biblical imagination. For example, Barry imagines the man in the story [or the reader of the story] saying to Jesus, “I cannot give away my wealth, but I wish that I could. Help me” (65).

So, dear Christian Courier reader, do you think Jesus would engage in such dialogue with you as a Friend? Do you think Jesus helps you in your weakness and extends forgiveness to your fears? If so, you have a friend in Jesus. As a friend, Jesus does not answer all our questions or solve all our problems. Jesus is not our imaginary friend. Instead, Jesus brings us joy in our struggles and mystery in all our relationships. Jesus is truly a Friend like no other, and when we know Jesus as a Friend we know God as a Friend. 

  • Joel E. Kok has served as pastor of Willowdale Christian Reformed Church in Toronto, Ont. since January 2010. Prior to Willowdale, Joel served churches in Michigan, Iowa and Pennsylvania. Joel graduated from Calvin College & Calvin Seminary; he also earned a Ph.D. in the History of Christianity from Duke University. Joel is married to Tricia (Timmer) Kok, and they have three children.

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