As we go through life we have different sorts of relationships with people. We are social creatures so these things are inevitable. From the very simple to the very complex, we have that need not to be alone in this world, and I can say confidently that we were never made to be alone. The first sort of relationship we are born into is family, people with whom we share a common origin and heritage. As we grow we encounter another form of relationship which is just as ubiquitous but is often harder to define. This association is friendship.
We all have friends but what we mean by “friend” is hard to say. In the Church we discuss various sorts of relationships between parents, spouses, colleagues, church members etc. In my experience friendship is often neglected. Many a times when we do talk about them, especially in our music it’s about backstabbers and pretenders. When it’s about the “real”, in pop culture they are the ones that do not encourage the best in us. If the Church does not have a handle on what true friendship is like, how do we show the world which is swayed by so many perverse influences, what associations they should form?
Unlike family which is defined by fixed relationships friendship is more fluid. The word “friend” is multivalent. It could be just another way to refer to stranger, someone you are associated with or something even deeper. Other times there are people who you think are friends but they don’t see you in the same way. Even among those who we are close to one another, we tend to be closer to some more than others. Navigating friendships can be tricky but we do need to figure it out. It is not out of some partisan desire but because friends play a pivotal role in shaping who we are. Fortunately, the Bible has quite a bit to say on this matter.
The scriptures recognise the fundamental importance of friendship. According to them, we were made from the beginning to have relationships, the first being with our maker. In the scriptural narrative the first friend mankind had was his maker. God made man in his image. This means humans were created as God’s representatives and partners in fulfilling his agenda in creation. This was not a stale business partnership but one marked by true love and affection from the Creator. David in reflecting on this unique relationship said,
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? – Psalm 8:3-4 ESV
The psalmist used the language of a man visiting his friend to describe the relationship between God and humanity. He was undoubtedly thinking about Genesis 2 and 3 where God gave man a garden paradise, visiting his creation in the delightful Eden breeze, rich with the scents of nature’s fruity perfumes. Even though he is Lord, he did not impose his will on man but made him capable of responding to the care and affection he showed him. Humans were to show absolute commitment to him who was unwaveringly faithful and over abundantly generous to them. This would then form the pattern on which all human relationships would follow. When humans sinned they broke this fundamental relationship, which included friendship. As the Genesis narrative shows the repercussions were deep and devastating which we see to this day. Reconciliation between God and his image bearers would therefore mean the restoration of true friendship and the rescue of every other relationship. The biblical narrative can be summed up as the story of redemption which began immediately in earnest in Genesis 3. Though the consequences were grave God did not abandon humanity.
Now the story of the patriarchs, Abraham and his descendants, is at the core of the book of Genesis. It provides the themes by which we interpret the entire book. Looking back at the opening chapters of the book there is some similar language and recurring themes. God’s partnership with humanity parallels his commitment to Abraham. In other words Genesis 1-3 uses covenantal language and imagery to describe the relationship between God and man. God’s partnership with mankind was viewed in terms of a covenant. The covenant made with Abraham was the decisive move in the redemption of mankind back into relationship with God. This was a covenant between friends.
But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend… – Isaiah 41:8 ESV
The friendship between God and Abraham looms large, casting a shadow over the entire biblical narrative. Even though there are important specifics, it was a lasting alliance. The entire biblical understanding of friendship is shaped by the God-man dynamic, represented and exemplified in the Abrahamic covenant. Basically we are to understand friendship as a sacred commitment to be faithful to one another as God and Abraham were faithful to each other. When you look at the Abrahamic covenant it was an alliance. The commitment was not only to Abraham but to all his descendants. Likewise all the offspring of Abraham were required to be faithful to God. As far as the Bible is concerned, friendship at its deepest and most meaningful, encompasses the entirety of the person, who they are and what they represent, for the present and the future, spanning generations. It is a full relationship. The Book of Proverbs sums it up this way,
Do not forsake your friend and your father’s friend… – Proverbs 27:10 ESV
As wisdom literature it is unsurprising that Proverbs has a few things to say on friendship. Like proverbs today, they offer important observations and commentary on the most important things in life to people. This makes the book very relatable and familiar since humans have had largely the same concerns for millennia. Beyond the literary pleasures of reading ancient aphorisms and gaining insight into another culture not your own, there are important reasons why Proverbs stands out and demands our attention regarding this particular topic.
When you look at the initial chapters, the reasoning that guides and shapes the sayings found in the book is the Torah. In Deuteronomy Moses told the Israelites that the Law was to be their wisdom so they would be examples to the nations.
See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ – Deuteronomy 4:5-6 ESV
Proverbs starts off with some parents instructing their son. This is an allusion, among many other references, to the Torah. For instance in Deuteronomy 6 Moses instructs the people to teach their sons the Law, passing it on from generation to generation. Then later on it personifies the Wisdom of God, which is incidentally gained by being obedient to the Torah. Divine wisdom is a matriarchal figure who cares for and guides all those who are faithful to the covenant. Torah and Wisdom, the letter and the spirit of the Law of God, was to be their rule for life. This meant the covenant relationship found in the Torah was to inform all their relationships. They had a practical theology for life including a covenant shaped understanding of friendship. It wasn’t that they had specific rules about it but continued in the spirit of the great story of God’s friendship with Abraham his faithful servant.
Of course the relationship between the Lord God and Abraham was not your typical one. God wasn’t simply someone the grand patriarch liked to hang out with. They had shared interests but not something like a hobby. It was the restoration of humanity and through that the redemption of the entire creation. This great covenant had implications for all human relations.
Jesus of Nazareth as a faithful Jew had this great covenant narrative alive in his blood. Moreover he was the one God had commissioned to fulfil these promises to his people Israel. As the righteous servant of God it was quite odd that he was derided as the friend of tax collectors and sinners. Now it was common for Jesus to attend wonderful parties with all sorts of people including questionable figures and be found with the downtrodden and marginalized. Jesus usually responded to these allegations of frivolity with parables. When we study them they usually had the theme of forgiveness and restoration like the famous parable of the prodigal son. What was he trying to point out? In the Prophets the redemption of Israel was often portrayed as a massive feast held by God for all the lost children of Israel, celebrating his faithfulness to his promise to never leave or forsake them. Jesus did not participate in those events because he was a party animal or had a penchant for liquor. He was enacting God’s joyous, free, gracious and overflowing welcome for all, both the reputable and the not so reputable. If God’s kingdom had arrived, as he proclaimed through his words and actions, then heaven had invaded earth in festive joy and praise. God’s great jubilee had begun.
The example of Jesus Christ is a true challenge. He just did not say to sinners repent and leave it at that. He welcomed them with open arms as their friend, transforming them through love, both in word and in deed, not by pontificating about hollow moral theories. (In the light of this example it says a lot about our formulaic, body count, type of evangelism. We want to get it done and over with quickly so we can leave the person and leave the rest to the Holy Spirit to “work on their hearts.” Ironically, we are the ones through whom the Holy Spirit acts as his co-workers.)
Jesus was a friend to sinners because this was who the covenant God was. He did not abandon the wayward offspring of his friend but continued loving them no matter the circumstance. One could say God was acting only this way out of his obligation to Abraham. However, we must remember Abraham took over the role of Adam and was therefore a representative humanity. Therefore, Israel’s mission was not to herself but to the world. Also in the Prophets the return of the disobedient children of Israel also signalled the restoration of the entire disobedient world, just as James in Acts and Paul in Romans explained (Acts 15:13-18; Romans 11.)
Jesus gave us the ultimate example of friendship when he said,
Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. – John 15:13 ESV
He said this to his disciples in anticipation of the cross. He later called them friends and not just servants because he had revealed his most intimate plan, to give his life for them on the cross (John 15:15.) This is reminiscent of God not wanting to hide anything from his servant and friend Abraham. In this case the seed of Abraham took the judgment on himself. With Jesus participating in the covenant relationship, embodying Israel and acting on their behalf, it wasn’t by accident that he chose 12 disciples. They were representative of the 12 tribes of the newly reconstituted Israel in the Messiah Jesus. Revealing his plan to his friends and providing the sacrifice for their restoration has major covenantal overtones, ultimately culminating in the cross.
A covenant shaped understanding of friendship is a thread that runs through all of scripture. Being a friend of God means being faithful to him. How can we then be committed to God if we aren’t committed to his people? I have observed so much petty bickering, politicking, self-centredness, and individualism in the Church. I am very much aware I have contributed my fair share to this morass. The amount of mistrust and lack of friendship among Christians is actually symptomatic of our lack of fidelity to God himself. We say we love him but our hearts are not committed to his family. The challenge of the Gospel is not to passively wait and let someone prove their concern for us. It is for us to actively be that friend. God in Christ died for us while we were still his enemies. We are to be open to another person in the same way the Messiah surrendered himself to the cruelty of the cross to bring us into relationship with God, a prodigal kind of love. A covenantal understanding of friendship that takes its final form in the cross.
Even as I write these things I am struck by the immeasurable loftiness of the standard and how far off I am. Without sorting our internal relationship problems, we will not seem like a viable option to a broken world that is already at odds with itself. Our obligation to the world is to have the welcoming love that heals and transforms. As a community, we all have a role to play in the ongoing saga of divine friendship. As individuals we may not be able to solve huge societal or ecclesiastical differences but we can at least extend a sincere hand of friendship to our family in Christ, irrespective of their denomination or background. It is my prayer that we will rediscover the meaning of true fellowship and friendship in the Church.