I was a child when I remember first hearing the concept of having a “friendship with God.” It provided a welcome relief from the burden of legalism my young perception of religion had pressed on me. But looking back, I now see that this new paradigm also brought a problem. My reference point for “friendship” was rooted in adolescent relationships, which were all focused on what made ME feel good. Thus, while thinking of my connection with God as a friend made Christianity more attractive, it also skewed my image of Him as I viewed our relationship through the fuzzy lens of what’s-in-it-for-me.
Friendships, in my adolescent mind, were supposed to boost MY self-esteem. They were supposed to make ME feel more valuable and less lonely. I was supposed to feel happier, more attractive and always affirmed in MY likes, dislikes and behavior. With the perfect friend at MY side, I imagined MY social awkwardness would disappear; MY shyness around girls would evaporate; I would get more compliments and affirmation. And I would have someone to help ME with MY homework to get straight A’s. The friendship motif was brilliant! Who wouldn’t want one with God?
A Different Kind of Friendship
Initially, I felt hopeful. I had found the secret to the good Christian life: walking through this world with God as my buddy. However, as time went on, I began to experience frustration and disappointment. God didn’t show up as a friend in all the ways I expected. I didn’t always feel happy, and I felt even more socially awkward. Loneliness still haunted me and guilt and shame nipped at my heels. My relationship with God eventually cooled as I began to see Him as not knowing how real friends were supposed to act. He needed to learn a thing or two about how to be there for me when I needed Him.
It was quite a few years later that the truth dawned on me. I had never looked into or thought about God’s understanding of “friendship.” Was it possible that His perspective was different than mine? Was He actually friends with people in the Bible? And if so, were there ground rules? How did they work?
I discovered that there were actually only two biblical characters referred to as a God’s friends—Abraham (Isaiah 41:8; James 2:23) and Moses (Exodus 33:11). God did some pretty cool things for them (friends do that). But I also saw that God laid some expectations on them as well (friends do that too). A friendship with God was a two-way street, receiving and giving (while trusting)—something my immature grade-school understanding had failed to comprehend.
A Confidante for the Sake of Others
God gave Abraham promises, and Abraham believed Him. Such a trust appears to have been the basis of their friendship. But Abraham wasn’t in it just for himself. The story found in Genesis 18 is a great example.
Abraham hosted God and a couple of angels for dinner. Afterwards, as the divine guests were leaving, God expressed His expectations that His relationship with Abraham was meant to be more than just a “feel-good” connection. There was some work to be done. As God described what He was about to do to the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, He tacitly invited Abraham’s input. The man jumped into the conversation, brazenly reminding God what righteous judgment should look like. Rather than being annoyed at Abraham’s lecture, God patiently listened (like a friend). The Almighty even agreed to every one of Abraham’s requests for mercy to be shown to the cities’ inhabitants. Abraham then trusted God to do what’s right (like a friend).
In the end, God’s mercy was expressed by three people being saved out of Sodom. Perhaps no one would have been rescued if Abraham had not believed he had a real friendship with God and boldly interceded on the people’s behalf.
God had invited His friend Abraham into His counsel, expecting the man to speak up for the innocent ones in the cities. This friendship wasn’t meant to be just for Abraham’s benefit. God expects His friends to leverage their relationship with Him for those who are lost. He wants more friends.
A Close Friend Still Obeys
Moses is another example of sharing intimate connection with the Almighty. He and God got so close, the face of the man would glow for days after their meetings—talking face-to-face. Yet in the end, some of Moses’ unacceptable personal conduct (uncontrollable anger) caused God to deny him entrance into the Promised Land. Friendships have standards of respect.
A friend of God is given many opportunities for intimate moments. But within and because of the intimacy, honor is expected. He honors His friends with grace; His friends honor Him with obedience. In fact, there seems to be even higher expectations for the behavior of God’s friends. The better one knows Him, the more He anticipates that person to mimic His own divine attitude and perspective in all areas of life.
Friendship Can Be Painful
And then there is Abraham’s grandson, Jacob. Although the Bible does not explicitly call him God’s friend, Jacob was given the same promises as his grandfather. He and God interacted intimately.
One strange story illustrates the friendship between God and Jacob (Genesis 32:22-32). We’re told that one night during a very stressful season of Jacob’s life, he got into a wrestling match. Initially, the opponent was said to be “a man.” But by the end of the story we’re told it was God Himself that Jacob struggled with, interacting with Him face-to-face, seeking a divine blessing. Jacob’s friendship with God was not a smooth, feel-good affiliation. In fact, at the end of the all-night wrestling match, God dislocated Jacob’s hip so that the man had a limp the rest of his life. What kind of friend does that?
Jacob’s story illustrates once again that a friendship with God is ultimately an invitation to come close to our Creator and learn to care about what He cares about and become more like Him. That’s the blessing—intimacy that changes us into different people, God’s children. Jacob was given the blessing of a new name. He went from Jacob (the Deceiver) to Israel (the one who wrestles with God) because He dared to believe God was good regardless the discomfort.
Whereas we often are attracted to friendship for selfish, make-me-feel-better reasons, God offers us friendship with Him to draw us close enough to make us more like Himself. And that is often not a painless procedure. But it is true friendship because it’s for our best.
To Become More Like Him
Jesus told His followers, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15, NIV).
Jesus came to make a way for each of us to have an intimate friendship with God, knowing His ways and His heart. He promised to never leave us or forsake us. The biblical pattern for friendship with God, however, is choosing to get close to Him so we can be more like Him in His holiness and sacrificial love for others—learning to care for what He cares about—not merely so we can have a smooth life. That’s God’s idea for friendship. Perhaps in the process we will experience some good feelings. But that’s not the purpose.
I don’t want to be stuck in a childish one-way friendship with God. My reasons for pursuing Him as a friend must be more about adapting to His ways rather than expecting Him to adapt to mine. If God is truly my friend, I cannot remain the same. A friendship with God opens the door for a life-giving connection that transforms the way I see and interact with the world.
He just expects me to do it HIS way.