“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.
Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
[Your Father in heaven] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.
It’s an all too familiar scene among teenagers and young adults. One person who deeply desires a close, romantic relationship with someone else can be inclined to read the friendliness and kindness of someone as a sign of a desire to date. I recall a couple of instances in my own past where my kindness towards a female was interpreted as indicative of a desire to pursue a further, romantic relationship. I have always been a person who wanted to be kind to others, so when my kindness was taken as intention for something more that was followed up by violations of my boundaries, I began to show signs of frustration, defensiveness, and even anger towards them. One time I remember the other person seeing visible anger on my face after I perceived one of these violations and the began to feel like I hated them. Trying to be sympathetic with them at a later point in time, I tried to tell them that I didn’t hate them and that I offered a compliment in kindness towards them, telling them that they were very intelligent. This spawned a whole new round of problematic behaviors, thinking I was complimenting them because I wanted to date them that eventually lead to my having to increasingly distance myself from that person. I had even been accused of doing that myself a time or two, but I understood that kindness did not equate to romantic interest.
Now in telling this story, my intention is not to berate people who struggle with recognizing the difference between kindness and romantic interest. That is a common struggle that many people can have, as we each have different mental maps and expectations of what friendliness versus romantic attraction looks like so that miscommunication can occur frequently. Figure that out is a natural part of the life of the teenager and the young adult. Where the problem occurs is when people are inflexibly bound to the assumption that kindness must be an indication of a deep, intimate relationship or the desire for it. When our sense of other relationships to other people is too tied up to what we want, romantic or non-romantic, and not enough to understand and listen to what another person wants and is seeking, there is the risk of presumption and boundary violations in that relationship.
I bring this up, then, to serve as analogy for how we understand our relationship to God. There is a sharp prediction among Christians to confuse the kindness of God with friendship with God. There is a relatively popular contemporary worship song call “Friend of God” that goes as follows:
I am a friend of God
I am a friend of God
I am a friend of God
He calls me friend
Who am I that You are mindful of me
That You hear me, when I call
Is it true that you are thinking of me
How You love me
I am a friend of God
I am a friend of God
I am a friend of God
He calls me friend
What a privilege it is
God almighty Lord of Glory
You have called me friend
Now, in what I am saying, I am not judging the relationship of the original creators of this song to God. I simply don’t know it. Yet, I want you to pay attention to what the song suggests as evidence of their friendship with God: “You are mindful of me,” “You hear me when I call” and “you are thinking of me.” It is almost as if the fact that God pays attention to you in a positive way is a sign of friendship.
This is perhaps due to the way that friendship has been treated superficially as simply those people who are nice to you. Yet, the ancient understanding of friendship was more than simply those who were kind to you. Friendship was a much rarer thing, where two people loved each other as if they were themselves. Attentiveness to another person could be demonstrated in the act of hospitality towards another person, but this was not necessarily indication that one must treat that person in a deep intimate way, even if it did initiate the expectations of reciprocity in the future. To be friends was to be with someone who you share much in common in a deep, abiding way. So, I would put forward that this song may at times be like the love-sick suitor: prone to see God’s benevolence and kindness as a sign of a deeper relationship.
The standard for friendship with God is much higher in the Bible. James describes Abraham as a friend of God not because he simply believed in God, but because He honored and feared God to the point of being willing to offer his son Isaac. When Jesus tell His disciples they are friends, he calls them friends because they will follow His command to love each other the way He loves them in sacrificed His life for them. Becoming friends with God is something that is much more exclusive that it is sometimes made out to be. To be a friend of God, one must deny themselves so that they will be someone who seeks after God’s will, and then in so doing they will be a friend of God.
Yet, friendship with God is not like the way that friendship can sometimes work in the world. The world has a sharp predilection to love those who love them, to ONLY be concerned for the welfare of one’s friends. When that becomes the case, then it is often true that attentiveness and concern for a person is tied to being considered a friend. I can recall an instance in my life where I received scarce attention from someone who could help me in my time of need, but we didn’t see eye-to-eye with each other even though I held no grudge towards him and tried to treat him benevolently. When this becomes our experience of the world, it may very well feel like God’s benevolence is that God is a friend to you. To that end, I don’t want to judge those who may overreach on how they see their relationship with God when they feel so deprived of love and affection to the point that they often feel unloved, if not unlovable. The problem here is not simply a matter of word usage.
My concern, however, is for those who are on the reverse side of the equation: those who only show concern and attention to those who they consider friends. These are the people who treat kindness and attentiveness as a scarce resource that they only give to the extent that other people can be seen as bringing them the reward, honor, and blessing they feel worthy of. In their own world, they live according to the principle: I will only pay attention to those who I consider my friends, those who love me the way I want to be loved. When this is the world one lives in, then it can be very easy to presumptuously consider signs of God’s kindness as a sign of God’s approval and close relationship, because that is the way one lives oneself.
The apostle Paul warns some Jews of a very similar, presumptuous mentality in his letter to the Romans 2.3-5. It was a common belief among some Jews that their status as Israelites gave them a special, privileged relationship to God, as expressed in Wisdom of Solomon 15.1-2:
But you, our God, are kind and true,
patient, and ruling all things in mercy.
For even if we sin we are yours, knowing your power;
but we will not sin, because we know that you acknowledge us as yours.
The logic of this statement essentially goes as follows: whether we sin against you or not, we have a special relationship with God. Nothing one can do can threaten this relationship, it is entirely, unrevokably secure. Yet, Paul suggests that such persons misunderstand the nature of God’s kindness, not recognizing that God is kind to them to bring them to repentance, while warning them they are actually at the risk of getting on God’s bad side if they do not cease from doing the evil things they judge other people for doing. God is benevolent towards them, but it isn’t a sign of a special relationship. When Jesus talks about God’s bring sun and rain on the good and righteous and the evil and unrighteous alike, the implication assumption is that the heavenly Father is kind to those who act in opposition to him.
Now, Paul isn’t trying to warn people “One sin and you are out” or “You keep messing up and God will reject you.” God is not a God who has a short fuse, nor is He one to refuses those who seek Him in repentance and acknowledge their own sins. Rather, the point for Paul is to tell people you don’t have as cozy of a relationship with God as you might think you do when you live in sin that you condemn in others. In doing this, Paul seeks to call people to recognize how their sins are setting them against God and to come to be reconciled to God through the blood of Jesus. It isn’t intended to provoke terror (the exact opposite) so much as a push against the presumption can lead to the casting away of fear of God that Proverbs talks about. While we should not be frightened by God as perfect love casts out all such terrorizing fear that God is right on the cusp of rejecting and judging you, the right type of fear of God is in awe of His greatness and power that makes us hesitant at the thought of ignoring and resisting this God. In short, Paul may be seen as trying to say “Don’t take God’s kindness for granted.”
Friendship with God goes much deeper than God’s benevolence to us. Friendship becomes a case where God works in a much deeper, more demonstrably personal way with those who have set to genuinely honor God above everything else in this world in the specific way that God calls us to do so. For instance, Jesus says He will send them the Spirit of truth in a way that goes much deeper than their present relation to the Spirit because they love Jesus and keep His commandments (John 15.15-17). God draws much closer to His friends, teaching them and guiding them in a way that others do not receive because they listen and do as God instructs. It doesn’t come by paying mere honor to God, as if doing anything we label “giving glory to God” will lead God to draw near to us. The ones who God will accept as a friend are those who seek to pay careful attention to God’s instruction and have a heart that wants to diligent follow it. True, deep friendship is not based upon mere attentiveness and concern for another, but upon a deeper, abiding, careful, searching concern. As we show that deep, abiding concern for God’s word, God will deepen His abiding concern for us.
Why? In part it is because it is God’s friends who warmly welcome and receive God’s instruction, including when God may speak a hard word to them because of some sin in the life (cf. Prov. 27.6). A person who is resistant to God may often refuse the word of God, so why would God seek to teach them in a closer, deeper, more intimate manner. A friend of God is not necessarily sinless, but they will receive God’s instruction and not presume their special relationship to God will always remain if they disregard their integrity and commitment to God’s purposes. Yet, there is another reason. Those who genuinely and wholeheartedly set their whole lives towards the good that God wants for the world are the people God will put in places whether their goodness and kindness can be a rich blessing to other people. God leads and honors His friends that go beyond benevolence because He is a benevolent God who wants to bless the world through His friends.
God is a kind, benevolent God, but it has been the common tendency of Christians in the past few decades to suggest that our relationship with God is much closer than it really is. From assuming we are friends with God to thinking that everyone is a child of God, there is often a positive intention behind this: to get people to recognize that God does love them and does want their well-being. Yet, such positive intends can lead people to take God for granted, as if God will receive them and not judge them when they impenitently ignore and disregard God’s guidance and word that is meant to lead us in true, good, righteous way of shalom.