Driving up to Kevin’s house I prayed, “God, I just need the presence of a friend tonight.”
Kevin and I had been friends since our freshman year of college and for nearly 20 years now we’ve been seeing one another through the ebb and flow of life’s joy and despair.
On this particular night Kevin and I both needed mutual encouragement. Both of us were uniquely wrestling through struggles and the seeming experience of God’s absence.
Our chorus of bitching and moaning lasted for about an hour before we exhausted all words and eventually just sat together with the silence. It wasn’t long before a fresh recognition began to wash over both of us.
We were not alone.
We spoke aloud the gift that it was to be sitting there together. Like stumbling upon a burning bush, we were reminded of God’s presence through the simplicity of our friendship. Through the refreshing recognition of our friendship we re-recognized the possibility of friendship with God.
Is that ok? Is it orthodox & biblical to allow our primary image of God to be that of a friend?
Jesus seemed to think so when he transcended the servant/master language with his disciples and radically proclaimed them as his friends (John 15:15). If we could only see the expression on the face of the disciples when he said that. Wouldn't it be both radically Good News and terrifying at the same time?
It's hard to imagine what our lonely selves and surrounding culture longs for more than genuine healthy friendship?
In his book, Bread for the Journey, Henri Nouwen writes,
“Friendship is one of the greatest gifts a human being can receive. It is a bond beyond common goals, common interests, or common histories. It is a bond stronger than sexual union can create, deeper than a shared fate can solidify, and even more intimate than the bonds of marriage or community.”
The gift of friendship fulfills something so deep in the soul that it even transcends sexual encounter, financial security, and physical safety. Given that, it would seem that the experience of God as a friend would be an experience that we as concerned people of faith would be ready to offer and extend not primarily through sermons, podcasts, books, or blogs but through our actual real-life befriending.
Why does the image of God as friend seem to be so elusive and almost secretive? Why does this image take a back seat to the more common traditional model of God as King ruling over a kingdom?
Knowing what to expect.
In the Monarchial Model of God the boundaries are in place. Peasants know their role, which is why it was so hard for the Israelites to break away from the dictatorship of Pharaoh. They woke up each morning and knew it was time to make bricks. The work led to their provisions. Life was hard but the expectations and rewards were established.
Peasants are expected to keep a safe distance from the king. Intimacy isn't part of the program.
And if God is king then I'm not personally responsible to participate and co-create. The work of reconciliation, justice, redemption is ultimately God's job not mine. If the work doesn't get done then it must have been the will of the king.
The image of God as king on a throne is an image of privilege. The privileged king struggles to be merciful because his privileged position doesn't allow intimate knowing of the subjects.
One of the practical outcomes of God as privileged king is his followers try to emulate him, aspiring to work their way up into positions of privilege and authority to be like their king.
And it goes without saying that kings are exclusively male (and white).
God is not.
There's a reason for the season
Perhaps the king and kingdom image served us well in certain earlier developmental stages of our faith. We needed to know what to expect. Maybe the established structure and the black & white thinking created boundaries in our life when we needed them most. But like any image of God the image of king has its ceiling and limiting if not destructive forces.
As I watch weekly video clips of law enforcement mishandling their power and authority I can't help but wonder what would happen if the dominant cultural image of God shifted from authoritative king/law enforcer to intimate empathizing friend.
Is it any coincidence that the practical implications of imaging God as king/lawgiver/judge fits perfectly into the psychological understanding of the superego? In his book, The God We Never Knew, theologian Marcus Borg explains,
"The superego is the critical voice in our psyches, a voice that stands over us in judgment, offering praise or blame. The superego is the storehouse of oughts and shoulds within us, the cumulative product of messages received in our socialization about what we should do and how we ought to live. Most often, it is experienced as a punitive voice. Life under the superego is a life of continually trying to measure up; it is life under the law. Yet life under the superego is the most common adult way of being, the natural product of our socialization."
I wonder how many are leaving the faith altogether due to a perverted religious framework - an image of God requiring constant measuring and performance?
Static Expectations or Evolutionary Becoming
The thing about my friendship with Kevin is that over the course of 19 years our understanding and expectations of one another have expanded and evolved.
A fundamental element of friendship is that it is a process of becoming.
We've seen the necessity of allowing space for each other to grow and become a truer version of ourself.
On that summer evening as Kevin and I sat there in the difficult silence of our despair there was no pretense, performing, expectation, or measuring. What washed over us was a slow recognition of Presence.
Presence is hard to measure. Intimacy is hard to measure. But we know it when we experience it and we experience it powerfully through the dynamic and evolutionary process of friendship.
Yes, any image of God is limited, but our creativity and imagination are the most transforming gifts we as humans possess. How we image God results in practical, severe, and potentially beautiful implications.
Like any new vision, new place, or position the movement toward friendship with God can be equally terrifying and liberating at the same time. Stepping into a new image of God might feel like leaving home. But it's how we move forward into a future filled with possibility and hope.
Just as Kevin and I discovered that evening, we are not alone.
We are befriended.