Friends with Benefits

by Wm. Curtis Holtzen

God desires a special form of partnership with us; namely, a friendship.

I am captivated by the idea of divine partnership mainly because there are so many kinds of partners. We have business partners, life partners, romantic partners, silent partners, sparing partners, senior partners, conversation partners, dance partners, . . . even partners in crime! Perhaps anyone of these could be an apt metaphor for our partnership with God. What is important about a partnership, whether with God or not, is that it can accomplish what it is formed to do. But this all depends on the kind of partnership formed.

There are certainly many factors that determine whether a partnership can be successful, but I would argue that one—if not the most important—is whether we can trust our partner. Trust is key. This is why, in cases where there is doubt about a partner’s trustworthiness, we often rely on the legal system in the form of contracts to insure it. Further, while all partnerships need trust, there is no relationship that thrives on trust more than friendship. The bond of trust between friends is unlike any other kind of partnership. Therefore, I suggest that the highest form of partnership with God is friendship with God. And as you will see, this is a friendship with real benefits.

In my experience, people can be uncomfortable with the notion that the relationship we can have with God is one of mutual friendship. They are fine with talking about humans as servants of God, or even in partnership with God (junior partners of course!), but the idea of friendship with the divine pushes the bounds. Even when friendship with God is considered, it is that God is our friend. Even the song, What a Friend We Have in Jesus suggests that Jesus is our friend, the one we can trust and rely on, but not that we are Jesus’ friend. To understand the radical nature of our partnership with the Triune God, however, we need to understand not only that God is our friend but also that we can be God’s friend.

Some might think it is unbecoming of God to befriend us—that only persons of equal prominence can be friends. While this might be typical of most friendships, nothing suggests persons of high status cannot be friends with those of a lower status. It is perhaps unusual, but not unheard of. No doubt God is supreme and we are not, but there is nonetheless a relationship that is more intimate than merely master and servant. While we are not equals in the relationship, God and humans can still be friends in a very real sense.

A love between friends is a special union, one greater than the legal vows of a marriage or the bond of blood between family. Friends are those who have a relationship marked by a mutual attraction (they like each other), freedom (not bound by vow, contract, or blood), and trust (they can rely on the other). I am not saying that lovers and family members cannot have a relationship marked by attraction, freedom, and trust; they can and should. I am only saying that when they do, their relationship is even greater than what is defined by convention. While my daughter was young, I did not seek her friendship, I sought to be her parent (a kind one of course). But as she grew into an adult, our relationship developed and grew as well. Today she is not only my daughter but my friend.

The first benefit of considering our partnership with God in terms of friendship is that it is biblical. Jesus says to his disciples, “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” (John 15:15). This is an act of trust; an act reserved for friends. It was unnecessary to make information known to servants or slaves, since their job is to offer blind obedience. But Jesus entrusts these disciples with the will and plans of the Father. Likewise, James declares that Abraham was called the “friend of God” (James 2:22-23). Why? Because Abraham was trusting and trustworthy, freely committed to God. But is friendship with God limited to disciples and patriarchs? Hardly.

An important motif in the ministry of Jesus is the table meal. He was known as one who regularly ate with sinners and tax gatherers (Matt 9:11). Furthermore, Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God as a banquet (Luke 14:15-24). Add to that, the only miracle recorded in all four gospels is the feeding of the multitudes. Jesus closes his ministry with a meal with his friends. The shared meal is central to ministry and message of Jesus.

Jesus’ invitations to eat with him were requests for these persons to be companions with Jesus, literally, “ones who share bread.” To share a meal was—and is—a sacred practice. In most cultures we eat with loved ones, and to invite others to a share a meal is an invitation to friendship. Typically, it is only the outcast, the forgotten, who eats alone. In Jesus, all have been invited to eat; all have been invited to be companions.

Some may read these table invitations and meals as Jesus loving his enemies, but that is not quite accurate. The message is not simply that Jesus loves his enemies; the message is that Jesus seeks to befriend those who are seen as enemies, by others or themselves. The invitation is even more radical—it is not simply that Jesus seeks to be our friend; it is that Jesus, Emmanuel, invites us to be his friend. Jesus knocks, asks us to open the door. Why? So that he may come in and we may eat together . . . as friends (Rev 3:20).

A second, and perhaps most important, benefit of understanding God as a friend is that it marks the relationship not only as having mutual love, but also mutual trust. A family will still be a family, even if the trust is not equally mutual. A marriage can continue even when one spouse battles to trust the other. These are clearly not ideal or healthy situations, but they do not destroy what defines the relationship. Friendships, however, cannot survive without mutual trust, for mutual trust defines them.

By trust, I mean the willful giving to someone the freedom to care for something you value in the way they believe is best. It is one thing to expect someone to treat something the way you ask, but trust can be thicker than that. If I trust you in the fullest sense, then I trust your judgments, your reasoning, your thoughtfulness, not just your obedience. This is the kind of trust between friends; for one to rely on the other to do what is right with the friendship.

The Parable of the Talents (Matt 25:14-30) makes most sense in light of this notion of trust. The good and faithful servants risked the money because they knew the master trusted them by giving them power over his wealth. The wicked servant hid the money because he did not trust—nor did he understand that he was trusted by—the master. Had he understood the master’s offer as an act of trust, perhaps an invitation to friendship, that story would have ended differently.

It might surprise some to think of God trusting humans. But if we are to understand partnership between God and humans, we have to think about it in terms of mutual trust. No one partners with those they cannot trust and no one desires friendship with those who are untrustworthy or disloyal. Trust is commonly found outside of friendships, but friendship is not possible without trust—it lives and breathes on trust. Since God desires our friendship, this may be why God desires our trustworthiness.

We typically enter partnerships to accomplish some job, mission, or task. We seek those who are skilled in some particular way to help guarantee that the desired end will be achieved. Such partnerships have a goal, and when the goal is achieved, the partnership dissolves. These partnerships are instrumentally valuable. Friendships, by contrast, are partnerships that have an inherent value. The good is not merely what the friendship produces, but the friendship itself. Friendships have no end goal; the goal is for the friendship not to end. As long as the relationship has attraction, freedom, and trust, the relationship will be a friendship.

I have had jobs that were relatively easy and paid well, but they were jobs without real friendships. I have also had strenuous low-paying jobs in which I worked with close friends. Between the two, I would choose the latter every time. C. S. Lewis once said that friendship is basically unnecessary for life, but that it adds value to a life. I would suggest that understanding God as our friend is unnecessary for you to partner with God, but I would also argue that it gives value to our partnership with God.

Question: What are some of the other benefits that come from understanding our relationship with God as a friendship?

Wm. Curtis Holtzen is Professor of Philosophy & Theology at Hope International University. He earned his D.Th. at the University of South Africa. Holtzen is the author of The God Who Trusts: A Relational Theology of Divine Faith, Hope, and Love (2019). He also reviews ice cream on Instagram under the name EatTheWholePint.

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.

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