God is our friend

A small child totters out of the children’s work after your church’s Sunday meeting and beams at you as you get a coffee and cast about for someone to chat to. “What did you learn today?” you absentmindedly ask while thinking about ten other things. “God wants to be my friend!” they excitedly declare while showing you something they’ve made that isn’t instantly recognisable. You nod indulgently, smile back, and wander off to find someone to talk to, thinking nothing more of it.

Perhaps a fairly normal scene on a Sunday morning, where children deliver earthshattering truths while we are more concerned for the mundanities of our lives. Because, and let’s not miss it, the child in my story preached the gospel to an adult unhearing. They did not tell a trite little kids work tale that we wish had a bit more meat on the bones, they delivered shocking truth with a gap-toothed smile. We could learn from them.

God wants to be my friend. I think it sounds hollow on the ear, not least because the culture I live has spent the last century systematically dismantling the world of meaning behind the word friend. And that was before the pandemic took a pair of shears to the friendships we had left.

In John chapter 15, Jesus delivers this shocker:

No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.

Nestled among a discourse rich with reasons for delight, Jesus tells us that he has called us friends. This text changed my life a few years back—it is right now framed on the wall behind my desk as I write—I had come to believe that most dangerous of truths, that God loves me, but found that due to a number of things that had happened to me in the past I really struggled to believe that wasn’t just something that he had to do, like your parents have to love you.

For me the realisation that God not only loves me, but likes me, with all my foibles and faults, that he enjoys my company enough to want to name me friend—those that chose to love you and prefer you, as you chose to love and prefer them—well, I’m running out of bombastic adjectives for how that made me feel. It changed my world. It continues to change my world.

Jesus says that he could have chosen to continue to call us slaves and expect us to call him master—and the New Testament does use this language of Christians at other points. Even if it makes us uncomfortable, which I would understand, we must acknowledge that God has the right to name himself our master. But, he chooses not to do so.

No longer do I call you slaves—then what? It would be reasonable to imagine that Jesus stooped towards us by saying not slave-master, but perhaps leader and follower, or teacher and disciple: relationships that are not vertical, but where God would still clearly be above us.

By naming himself our friend he doesn’t do that. The counterpart to friend is friend. To put it another way, Jesus has chosen to speak to us as equals. God treats us as equals.

To go on a short tangent, there a lesson here about friendship with others: friendship requires a levelling of all power dynamics if it is to flourish—to call someone a friend is to call them an equal. This is why it’s often difficult to become friends with your boss, the different roles pull in different directions.

I used to have a pastor who declared that pastors couldn’t have friends. Beyond thinking that’s an incredibly sad way of living, I used to think that he had to be wrong. I’ve come to realise that he was on to something, but approached it from the wrong side. It is difficult to pastor someone and be their friend, in some situations between certain people it may be impossible. My old pastor decided he therefore couldn’t have friends. I would say the solution lies in the opposite direction. Friendship is a deeper and more meaningful relationship than pastor and congregant, and it is the only relationship that will last into the age to come (Luke 16.1-9): we should prioritise friendship, which requires treating the other person as our equal.

Which is a hard thing to do, but if God does it for us, we can learn to do it for others.

A few years back I found myself in a situation where I had minimal friends. My wife and I sat around a table with another couple who found themselves in the same situation. I recall that one of us said the childlike words, “will you be our friends?” and was met with the utter delight of being told “yes!”

Imagine if you asked God to be your friend and he said yes. Well, that’s not quite what happened, because with God it’s the other way around. He takes all the initiative. He invites us to be friends with him. He sits at the table, spread with bread and wine, and makes himself vulnerable to rejection by inviting us to join with him.

He, the all-powerful God who is, the source of being, the one who cannot be moved or hurt or changed, the one who sang every atom into perfect being—the Lord Almighty—he chooses to treat us as equals. He chooses to call us friends.

That’s a truth to change the world.

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