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Introduction: What Does God Want?
In her evocative poem “Primary Wonder,” Denise Levertov writes:
Days pass when I forget the mystery.
Problems insoluble and problems offering
their own ignored solutions
jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber
along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing
their colored clothes; cap and bells.
once more the quiet mystery
is present to me, the throng’s clamor
recedes: the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void: and that, O Lord,
Creator, Hallowed One, You still,
hour by hour sustain it.
It is no wonder that we often prefer the “host of diversions” and “the throng’s clamor,” as the questions that arise when they recede are daunting indeed: How is there anything at all? Why does God sustain us? And how long will it last?
In this book, I will confront another daunting question: what does God want in creating us? My stand is that what God wants is friendship.
To forestall immediate objections, let me say that I do not mean that God is lonely and therefore needs our friendship. This is a romantic and quite unorthodox notion that makes God ultimately unbelievable. No, I maintain that God—out of the abundance of divine relational life, not any need for us—desires humans into existence for the sake of friendship.
This thesis may sound strange, because it runs counter to much teaching about God. To be honest, I questioned it myself when I first began to think it through. Mind you, I have been writing about prayer as a personal relationship for many years, maintaining that God wants such a relationship with us, and I have used the analogy of a personal relationship between two people to describe the developing relationship between God and us. But the notion that God wants our friendship did not easily follow. Whenever it reared its head, I shrugged it off as a fancy not to be taken seriously. After all, I had been raised with the standard catechism answer: “God made me to know him and love him and serve him in this world and to be happy with him forever in the next.” As far as I can remember, no one ever interpreted this as implying that God wants my friendship.
But over the past few years, as my own relationship with God has deepened and I have listened to people talk about how God relates to them, I have become convinced that the best analogy for the relationship God wants with us is friendship. I began to use this kind of language in talks and articles and found that it resonated with others. I hope that you will find similar resonance and will trust your experience more fully. I can think of nothing that would please me more than to hear that you, and many others, have come to find God “better than he’s made out to be,” as my Irish mother once put it. I believe that God would also be pleased.
But in order for us to trust this experience of God as friend, we must move beyond our feelings of fear of God. The teaching that most older Christians received about God induced fear of God rather than the feelings invoked by the term friend. I still meet more people who fear God rather than feel warm and friendly toward God. Does the idea of friendship with God figure into your experience of religious teaching and worship? I suspect that it does not.
The idea, however, has an ancient heritage. It can be defended as orthodox, perhaps even as the best reading of the developing revelation of God contained in the Bible. I was encouraged to undertake this book, after a number of false starts, by reading Liz Carmichael’s Friendship: Interpreting Christian Love, a scholarly book that shows that there is an enduring tradition of identifying caritas (love or charity) with friendship, and thus defining God as friendship.
Two examples of this tradition cited by Carmichael will suffice. Aelred, the twelfth-century English Cistercian abbot of Rievaulx, developed his own variant of John’s “God is love” (1 John 4:16): “Shall I say . . . God is friendship?” A century later, Thomas Aquinas defined caritas as friendship with God. Both writers knew the text from the first letter of John in its Latin form: “Deus caritas est.”
This notion of friendship with God seems to have waxed and waned throughout history. It is possible that preachers and teachers of religion fear that embracing the idea of friendship with God may lead to effacing the mystery and awesomeness of God, and so they hesitate to talk about it. But I am convinced, as is Carmichael, that this is an idea whose time has come, and none too soon for the future of our world—as I hope will become clear as we proceed. For one thing, fear of God has closed off a closer relationship with God in many people I have met, and they seem drawn by the notion of friendship. For another, friendship with God leads to a wider and wider circle of friends as we realize that God’s desire for friendship includes all people.
As noted, much of our teaching about God has stressed fear of God. And why not? The psalmist writes: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10). But the fear of the Lord extolled in the psalm is a far cry from the fear instilled by religious teaching, which leads people to keep their distance from God. The psalms surely were not written to keep people far from God, but just as bad news sells better than good in the media, so, too, hellfire and brimstone make for more compelling teaching and preaching. But God, I believe, is shortchanged by such teaching and preaching tactics, and so are we.
The emphasis on hellfire may have salutary effects on the spiritual life in the short haul, but it can be argued that the long-haul effects leave something to be desired, especially when the threats no longer seem to hold. Witness what happened to the practice, among Roman Catholics, of the sacrament of reconciliation (called confession prior to the Second Vatican Council): as soon as Catholics learned after Vatican II that they would not go to hell as easily as they had been taught and that confession was necessary only if they had committed serious sins, they drifted away from its use in huge numbers and have not returned, in spite of much hand-wringing on the part of bishops and priests and the real benefits that can come from a healthy use of this lovely rite. If fear is the principal factor used to enforce a religious practice, the practice will end when the fear is removed, and it will be difficult indeed to bring about its renewal.
Worse still, the emphasis on hellfire and brimstone gives God a bad name. One can read the Bible as a story of the progressive revelation of God—a God of compassion. Jesus’ use of the tender word Abba—“dear Father”—for God is the culmination of this progressive revelation.
The “fear of the Lord” that is the beginning of wisdom is a healthy realization of God’s awesomeness. God is fascinating and awe-inspiring, even terrifying, as the theologian Rudolf Otto put it. But suppose for a moment that God, who is Mystery itself—awesome, terrible, and unknowable—wants our friendship. Then the beginning of wisdom might be an acceptance of God’s offer, even though accepting it proves to be daunting, challenging, and even a bit frightening.
What I hope you will find in this book is an invitation to engage in a relationship of friendship with God and in a dialogue with me. In the book, I do not provide answers so much as make suggestions and ask you to either try a suggested approach or reflect on your own experience in light of my suggestions. I hope that this will help you become a friend of God; the book will not attain my purpose if all you get out of it are ideas.
In part 1 of the book, I will first examine human friendship as the best analogy for what God wants with us, and then I will offer some exercises to help you determine if the notion of friendship fits your relationship with God or to motivate you to try such a way of relating to God. In part 2, I will provide meditations on questions and issues that I have had to confront as I have reflected on the conviction that God wants my friendship. I hope that they will be helpful to you as you confront your own questions. Finally, in part 3, I will take up the questions of where we find God and how we distinguish the influence of God’s Spirit on our experience from other influences.
As we begin this spiritual journey together, let us pray this prayer of St. Anselm of Canterbury, which he made to God as he began one of his theological works, and which I used daily as I began writing this book:
Teach me to seek you,
and reveal yourself to me as I seek;
for unless you instruct me
I cannot seek you,
and unless you reveal yourself
I cannot find you.
Let me seek you in desiring you;
let me desire you in seeking you.
Let me find you in loving you;
let me love you in finding you.
Experiencing God’s Desire for Friendship
The Meaning of Friendship
The dictionary defines a friend as “one attached to another by affection or esteem.” Classically, according to Liz Carmichael, there are three grounds for friendship:
• A common mode of being—for example, because you are human, I want to be your friend
• Attraction to a good character—for example, I want to be your friend because you are a good person
• A desire to improve oneself—for example, I want to be your friend because I want to become good like you
Carmichael goes on to say that “‘perfect friendship’ is mutual relationship combining all three grounds” and notes that the Bible adds to this classical understanding the notion that God creates human beings in God’s own image “for friendship with himself and one another.”
You may be helped in reflecting on the idea of friendship with God by thinking about your friendships with others. Who are your friends? What makes you say that they are your friends? You enjoy being with them, so you can say that one reason you call them friends is that they are likable. Another reason is that you trust them. You tell them things about yourself that you would not tell a stranger, or even an acquaintance. You know that they will not abuse what you tell them; they will not tell others the secrets you share with them or hold what you tell them against you or over your head as a threat. At the deepest level, you trust that they will remain your friends even when they know some of the less savory aspects of your past life and your character. You also trust that they will stick with you through thick and thin, through good and tough times.
I’m sure that you can spell out even more characteristics that mark your friendships. And at least some of these will also be true of the relationship God wants with you. Exploring the growth of friendship in more detail will help make this clear.
The Growth of Friendship
Let’s reflect on how you came to be friends with the men and women you have just considered. First of all, something attracted you to these friends, and something in you attracted them. We do not make friends, ordinarily, with people whom we find unattractive. Now, attractiveness comes in a variety of packages. We can be attracted by looks, by charm, by warmth, by intelligence, by wit, by character, by public stance, by courage, and so on.
Sometimes people we initially find unattractive become attractive when we see them in a different light; for instance, when a friend speaks of the person’s kindness or sterling character, or the person does something unexpected. When I entered the Jesuits, I found myself strangely at odds with one of my fellow novices. We were like oil and water. I did not like him; I was afraid of him, in fact. He did not seem any friendlier to me than I to him. Needless to say, we did not spend much time in each other’s company, except when necessary. But years later, when we were thrown together in a large community, he did a kind thing for me that was totally unexpected. My attitude toward him changed dramatically. I took the time to get to know him, and I found that I liked him and liked to be with him. We became very good friends.
Given this initial, or eventual, attraction, what happens next? You spend time with the potential friend in order to get to know him or her. At first the conversation will be rather superficial as you feel each other out. You will speak of your job, your education, your neighborhood. But as the friendship develops, you will move to deeper and deeper levels of mutual self-revelation. You will speak not only about your job, but also about what you like about your job and what you dislike. You will talk about how you get along with different family members. You will, in other words, begin to speak of matters of the heart.
Eventually, each of you will want to know your effect on the other; whether you ask openly or more covertly, you want to know if the other person likes you, enjoys your company, and wants to know you even better. If both parties want to know each other better, then this initial period of exploration can be likened to a honeymoon. The newfound friendship is engrossing, with both parties wanting to spend a lot of time together to cement the friendship.
No friendship, however, remains in the honeymoon period forever. Friendship is always in danger, because we are all bedeviled by fears and self-doubt. Questions arise: “Will Joe still want to be my friend if he knows that I cheated to get into a better college?” “What will happen if I tell Ann about the way I failed a good friend three years ago?” “Mary seems to talk a lot about her friend Jim. Does she like him more than me? And what will she think of my feelings of jealousy?” “Can I tell John about my bouts of drinking and my need to go to AA meetings?” Moreover, as the honeymoon period winds down, you may begin to notice things about your new friend that you don’t like. You get angry with her at times and notice that she seems to get upset with you. Can the friendship weather the storms of disappointment, of anger, of jealousy, of pettiness? Even more, can it weather the violent storms of real failure to understand and stand by each other? Any real friendship will have to confront these issues, as they come with the territory of being human and frail and fearful.
Friends who make it through the turbulence of the post-honeymoon period may now begin to think of making a life change or engaging in a project together. One obvious example is a couple who decides to marry and start a family. But others also come to mind. You and your friend may decide to work together on a political campaign, start a business together, plan a vacation for both of your families, or carpool to work or school. Your friendship has begun to become generative, to look beyond itself. You want to work together to make the world or some small part of it a better place.
Finally, friendship has to face the inevitability of sickness and death. One friend will go before the other into death. A friendship will deepen during times of illness, or it will regress, depending on whether the friends are willing to continue the process of self-revelation or not. It can be difficult to continue: the one who is suffering can hold back on revealing her pain and fear and anger because she does not want to burden her friend, and her friend can hold back for the same reason. When you are very sick, you can talk about little else than how you feel; it can become wearying after a while for both you and your friend. But there are rewards for continuing to share the burdens and joys of life even unto death with our friends. And, I suspect, the mourning after death is easier for those who have done so. At least the survivor can rejoice that he was trusted to experience with the friend what she went through. And if the survivor is a Christian, he may experience the presence of the friend with the risen Jesus.
Personal Friendship as an Analogy for Friendship with God
We have just explored some of the stages in the growth of friendship between two people. I will maintain throughout this book that God wants a friendship that is at least analogous with this description of a developing friendship. Once we get over the kind of fear of God engendered by early training, we enter something like a honeymoon period with God. This is followed by a period of distance when we recognize how shamefully short we have fallen of God’s hopes for us. The distance is closed when we realize that God loves us, warts and sins and all, and the friendship is solidified. We are able to be ourselves with God. Ultimately, we can become collaborators with God in God’s family business. For Christians, this stage of collaboration in the family business is called discipleship, or friendship with Jesus of Nazareth. Finally, friendship with Jesus, as all Christians know, ultimately leads to facing with him his horrible death on the cross. In the next four chapters, I will offer exercises to give you a chance to see if the notion of friendship fits your relationship with God.
Friendship with God in the Bible
As we’ve discussed, the idea of friendship with God is not always easy to accept, whether because of past religious training or fear of God or distance from God. In order to better understand God’s desire in creating the world, we can turn to the revelation of God in the Bible. I offer a few passages here that can be read as God’s invitation to friendship; in reflecting on these stories from Scripture, you may find that you experience God asking you for your friendship, as the men and women in the stories did.
What Biblical Revelation Tells Us about God
The Jewish religion distinguished itself from other religions as the Israelites realized that the God they worshipped was not a tribal god—in other words, not just their god—but the creator of the universe, the only God there is and, therefore, the God of all people. We meet this God, the awesome One, Mystery itself, in the Hebrew Bible. It took some time for the implications of this revelation to sink in for the Israelites, but those implications were momentous.
Imagine yourself in the presence of this creator God, feeling that you have been wronged by a neighbor of a different religion and wanting revenge. As you pray for such revenge and imagine how you and God might obtain retribution for the wrong committed, it dawns on you that your neighbor is also a child of God. Such a realization must have been behind a story told by a rabbi in medieval times: There is a party in heaven after the Egyptian army has been destroyed and the Israelites saved at the Sea of Reeds (Exodus 14:15–31). The heavenly host notices that God is not joining the party but is weeping. They protest: “Why are you sad? Your people have been saved. The Egyptians have been destroyed.” And God says, “The Egyptians are also my people.”
One wonders how this story was received by the oppressed Jews of the rabbi’s day. Did they react with anger? After all, in the Bible God threatens destruction on Israel’s enemies. This rabbi’s story seems to deny the truth of such threats and to crush hope that the people’s persecutors would be destroyed. In addition, God is portrayed in the Bible as doing some disturbing and even horrible things. For example, God is pictured as carrying out the killing of the firstborn of Egypt (Exodus 12:29) and later ordering an ethnic cleansing when the Israelites come into the Promised Land (Joshua 6:17, 21). This God seems to be a warrior who has friends and enemies. The people of the rabbi’s time would have considered themselves friends of God, not enemies.
But there is something in the biblical revelation of God that could have led a medieval rabbi to tell the tender story of God’s weeping over the destruction of the Egyptians. Perhaps the rabbi was moved in this direction by reflecting on the book of Jonah, in which God says to Jonah, “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left?” (4:11). The Ninevites were pagans, not Jews, and Jonah expected their destruction, becoming petulant when God accepted the Ninevites’ repentance and did not destroy them.
In the same way, I believe, there is something in the biblical revelation that can lead us to the conviction that God wants our friendship. I invite you to engage in a few prayerful exercises based on some of the biblical stories that might draw us to this conclusion.
St. Ignatius of Loyola, the sixteenth-century Spanish mystic and founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), invites those who use his Spiritual Exercises to pause before each prayer session and consider the following: “I will raise my mind and think how God our Lord is looking at me, and other such thoughts” (n. 75). Before each of the exercises here, imagine that God is looking at you, waiting for you to become aware of that look. During the course of these exercises, you may have some questions or objections. Keep them in mind. The meditations of part 2 address questions and objections. If yours are not considered there, you may find that you can discuss them with God and other believers.
The First Creation Story
In the first chapter of Genesis, creation is attributed to the one God. God speaks, and the world comes into being. Try to notice the exuberance in this story as you read: it reveals something about the creator God who calls us to friendship.
I was helped in my reading of the story by hearing Haydn’s Creation sung in the original German. I was struck by the strength and joy of God’s wish for living creatures: “Be fruitful and multiply.” In the German, the bass telling the story sang, with gusto, “Mehret euch!” Mehret is a verb formed from the adverb mehr, which means “more”; euch is the reflexive pronoun yourselves. So God tells the living creatures, and later the first man and woman, “More yourselves.” Now, this obviously is a call to propagate. But you can also hear more in the words: “Be more!” “Grow!” “Be all that you can be!” There is no hint of stinginess in this creation story, of God being careful or hedging bets. There is no sense, in other words, that God is afraid of having rivals in creativity.
As you ponder this scene, do you feel more attracted to God?
In the text, God then says: “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness. . . . So God created humankind in his image, / in the image of God he created them; / male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:26–27). Let these words sink in. God wants us human beings to exist in this world. Moreover, we are made in God’s image; we are made to be like God in this world. What does it mean to be like God? Perhaps we have a clue to the answer in what we have just noted about God’s generous creativity.
In addition, one can understand God’s command to “fill the earth and subdue it” (1:28) as a wish that human beings be God’s stewards, God’s aides, God’s co-laborers in creation. This text has been used by generations of people to justify the rape of the earth, but a more generous reading of it seems more in keeping with the tenor of biblical revelation and the notion of friendship with God. By “generous reading,” I mean recognizing that the biblical text is a human text trying to communicate something about the Mystery we call God. A generous reading realizes that the text is colored by the cultural biases and ignorance of the writer’s time and yet has something true to say about God that has meaning for our time and for all time. An ungenerous reading sees only the inconsistencies and cruelties attributed to God or takes texts literally as revelations of God without considering the human recipients of the revelations.
A Christian might read this story as intimating that God is triune, because the text has God saying, “Let us make . . . ” The Israelites, of course, did not think in terms of Trinitarian relations. But I want to note this Christian doctrine at this point, without inferring that the texts of Genesis themselves reveal God as triune, in order to indicate another way in which human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. We are relational creatures; we exist as persons only in relationship. And our first relationship, the one that constitutes us as persons, is with God. We will reflect more on the doctrine of the Trinity later in the book.
The Second Creation Story
Chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis contain a second creation tradition. It uses different imagery, but it, too, can be read as God’s invitation to friendship. The story begins with the creation of one human being, “man” (adam in the Hebrew), who is placed in the garden “to till it and keep it.” It is a garden of abundance where the man’s every desire is fulfilled, with only one exception: he cannot eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In spite of the abundance, the man is lonely, and so God creates a soul mate for him, a “woman” (issa in the Hebrew). Haydn’s Creation ends with a lovely duet in which the man and the woman celebrate their love for each other, followed by a recitative by the angel Uriel, who tells the couple that they will be happy forever, “unless unfaithful fancy tempt you to desire more than you have or know more than you should.” The final chorus is a joyous song of praise to God.
Again, if we can read this story generously, without asking it to conform to our own sensibilities, we find a lovely image that may tell us something about why God creates human beings. Play with the garden image for a while. This universe is a garden of abundance where nothing is lacking. God is generous indeed. The only prohibition is against eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, a small price to pay to live in such a wonderful place, and perhaps not a price at all, but just good sense. After all, why would anyone want to know the difference between good and evil if such knowledge could be avoided? Human beings are asked to live and toil in this garden, cooperating with God in the work of creation.
From what happens in chapter 3 after the man and woman have eaten of the forbidden tree, we can fill out the image. After a day of labor, God walks “in the garden at the time of the evening breeze” (Genesis 3:8). Imagine this scene as a regular occurrence. God and human beings, after a day of work, get together in the cool of the evening to shoot the breeze, as it were. This is an image of friendship and intimacy, of cooperation in creativity and in relaxation. Let yourself bask in this image—“inhabit it,” as the British theologian James Alison would say. Notice how you react as you do.
If you experience some uplifting of the heart, some joy, some desire for “you know not what,” as C. S. Lewis says, perhaps you are experiencing the deep desire of the human heart for friendship with God, which is the correlative of God’s desire in creating us.
The story of the fall of the first human beings, in chapter 3 of Genesis, is written to explain what went wrong with the good world God created. Unlike the stories told by cultures surrounding Israel, which tended to blame a battle between gods and demigods for the evils and violence so evident to all, this story puts the blame squarely on human beings themselves, albeit abetted by the “serpent.” It is interesting to note that the temptation that leads to the sin is the arousal of a desire for the forbidden fruit by the serpent, and that the desire is coupled with the wish to become like God. The first human beings let “unfaithful fancy tempt” them “to desire more than you have or know more than you should,” the temptation Uriel warns them against in Haydn’s Creation.
The only desire denied in the garden is the desire to know good and evil. In the Hebrew, “knowing good and evil” refers to coming to know or experience the difference between good and bad things. The only way one can do that is by tasting something bad and something good, by doing something bad and something good. This knowledge is not necessary for survival in the garden; one can get along quite well without it. But the serpent insinuates something that is foreign to God’s creative enterprise—rivalry: “God doesn’t want you to eat this fruit because God doesn’t want you to be like God.”
The lie at the heart of human sinfulness is that we can gain control of our existence by some action of our own and that God does not want us to have this power. The story of God creating human beings in God’s own likeness is contained in the first account of creation, but not in this one. However, the final editor of the book of Genesis knew the first account, because he included it in his book. Hence, he knew that human beings are already like God, because God wants this to be so; God has not set up a rivalry between God and any creature. Similarly, there is nothing human beings can do to ensure their continued existence; God is the only guarantor of that, just as God is the only creator. So instead of accepting the friendship with God that was offered, human beings chose to enter into rivalry with God. The consequences of that disastrous choice plague our world and us still.
It might be worthwhile to ponder another image prominent in this story. At the end of chapter 2 of Genesis, we read, “And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed” (2:25). However, when they had eaten of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, “the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.” In addition, when they heard God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, they “hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden” (3:7–8).
Again I invite you to play with this image, to inhabit it. Before innocence is destroyed, the man and the woman are not ashamed of their nakedness before God or each other. One could take this nakedness for more than physical nakedness; it can stand for psychic and spiritual transparency before God and each other. But once their eyes are opened, they are ashamed and go into hiding. They are no longer transparent before God and each other.
God’s call, “Where are you?” (3:9), can be read as an almost playful call of a father to a child, according to the Scripture scholar E. A. Speiser. God knows that they have been up to no good but still draws them into a personal relationship. Of course, they engage in the usual human folly of trying to put the blame on someone else. Their shame over their sin keeps them from resuming the friendship even when God wants to.
Abraham and Sarah
The next few chapters of Genesis can be read as the progressive effects of human foolishness. Cain kills Abel, humans live shorter and shorter lives, and incest and other abominations befoul the earth. Finally, in chapter 11, with the story of the tower of Babel, human beings reach the culmination of estrangement from God and one another: they can no longer communicate, because they do not speak the same language.
But God does not give up. God begins a new chapter in the long process of bringing us to an adult friendship by calling Abram and his wife, Sarai, to leave their ancestral home and found a nation whose ultimate purpose is to be a “light to the nations” (Isaiah 49:6) about who God is and what God wants.
We can read the story of the call of Abram and Sarai as one of growth in friendship. (It is interesting to note that Muslims refer to Abraham as “the friend of God.”) The development of this friendship shows itself when God changes their names to Abraham and Sarah, a sign of their changed status in God’s eyes, something like the giving of nicknames to our friends. But it shows itself even more in the way Abraham and Sarah grow in their ability to be more open and even humorous with God.
God promises that Abraham will have a son by Sarah. As time goes on, however, Sarah remains barren, so she gives Abraham her servant Hagar to bear his son, and Ishmael is born of Hagar. When God repeats the promise that Abraham will have a son by Sarah, “Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’ And Abraham said to God, ‘O that Ishmael might live in your sight!’” (Genesis 17:17–18). Abraham, in effect, is telling God to get serious—the only son Abraham will have is Ishmael. But God insists that Sarah will have a son, and as if in the spirit of Abraham’s humor, God adds, “As for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous” (17:20). In the next chapter, God repeats the promise that Sarah will bear a son, and Sarah, too, laughs. God asks Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh?” to which Sarah replies, “I did not laugh.” God replies, “Oh yes, you did laugh” (18:12–15).
Can you sense God smiling as he says this? There is a repartee in these lines that indicates an extraordinary level of intimacy.
The reciprocal nature of this intimacy shows itself in the next scene. On the way to see if things are as bad as reported in Sodom, God muses, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do . . . ? No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice” (Genesis 18:17, 19). God then tells Abraham that if things are as bad as reported in Sodom, the city and all its inhabitants will be destroyed. Abraham remonstrates with God:
Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just? (18:23–25)
Abraham has come a long way indeed in his friendship with God: he can tell God how to be God! Moreover, God gets into the spirit of the exchange and engages in wonderfully amusing haggling with Abraham, which ends with God agreeing that the city will be spared if ten righteous people are found in it.
We can read these passages as an illustration of a developing friendship between God and human beings, a friendship that shows itself in humor and in a growing transparency on both sides. By establishing this relationship, the story tells us, God continues the quest to make human beings friends of God and, I might add, of one another. But we will have more to say on that point later.
How did you react to this story? Are you more drawn to engage in a relationship of friendship with God? Do you want to have the kind of friendship that Abraham and Sarah had with God?
The Descendants of Abraham and Sarah
The rest of the book of Genesis tells the story of the descendants of Abraham and Sarah. It is a story of a developing friendship with and alienation from God. The book ends with the long saga of Joseph and his brothers, in which Joseph is betrayed by his brothers and then, remarkably, forgives them, a story that tells us something of how this people grew in their understanding of who God is and who God wants them to be. By the end of the book, however, the chosen people are in Egypt, where, as we find out at the beginning of the next book, Exodus, they soon become enslaved and oppressed. What continues to be revealed through these stories is that God is on the side of the losers and victims of this world, choosing to befriend them and make them the light of the world.
In their better moments, the Israelites remember that they were chosen to be God’s people not because they have redeeming qualities, but purely because God loves them:
It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 7:7–8)
As you let these words touch you, you might find it helpful to change the word loved in this passage to liked. The theologian James Alison points out that the word like may better capture the kind of affection God has for us and the genuine pleasure God takes in our company.
Can you think of any other story of a people’s founding that is so openly critical of the people, and even of their heroes? Virgil’s great epic poem, the Aeneid, tells the story of the founding of the Roman people as a heroic saga of a fight against great odds. The people of the United States hear the story of the heroic revolution that established the “land of the free and home of the brave.” But the story of the Israelites glorifies the wonders of God, who saved them in spite of themselves. They are depicted as ungrateful, cowardly, and fearful, wanting to go back to Egypt, where they were slaves, after God has miraculously rescued them and led them through the Red Sea.
The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” (Numbers 11:4–6)
Later, on the edge of the Promised Land, they whine and whimper when scouts tell them that though the land is indeed flowing with milk and honey, it is defended by fierce people:
Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron; the whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become booty; would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” So they said to one another, “Let us choose a captain, and go back to Egypt.” (Numbers 14:1–4)
As we read these stories sympathetically, we may recognize ourselves as brothers and sisters of these Israelites, for we know that we are not heroes either, but often whiners and losers, even after we have seen God’s wonders in our lives. Yet for some crazy reason, God chooses them and us to be the bearers of the promise for the whole world.
Only a true friendship, a genuine liking, can explain such crazy fidelity. How do you feel about God as you reflect on these readings?
The continuing story of the Israelites in the Promised Land is no better. Even their greatest king, David, is revealed as an adulterer and a murderer. His son Solomon begins wisely and develops a strong and prosperous nation but then dissipates everything in idolatry and lust. Most of the other kings lead the people astray. As a people, they are the prey of larger and mightier surrounding peoples and often enter into disastrous alliances that lead to their impoverishment and destruction. The final indignity comes when Jerusalem is captured by the Babylonians, Solomon’s great temple is razed, and many of the people, especially the artisans and the upper class, are led into exile in Babylon. It is the great disaster of the Old Testament. The Israelites must have wondered if God had given up on them. Perhaps we have experienced such a feeling.
But God did not give up on them. They were still the apple of God’s eye, the people God chose to be the light of the world. The great prophecies of the second section of the book of Isaiah (chapters 40–55) were written while the people were in exile in Babylon. They show God as continuing to care for them, watch over them, and work in order to bring them back to the Promised Land.
The second section of Isaiah begins with the words “Comfort, O comfort my people.” In chapter 43, Isaiah offers these bold statements, which must have been comfort to a people who were likely close to despair in exile:
But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
Because you are precious in my sight,
and honored, and I love you,
I give people in return for you,
nations in exchange for your life.
Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, “Give them up,”
and to the south, “Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth—
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.”
God did not abandon them after all. God still wanted their friendship and remained true to the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In these lines, God, out of faithful love, promises to bring the Israelites back home.
As you read these lines, do you hear them as directed to you? Can you imagine God saying to you, “You are precious in my eyes; I love you” even though you, too, have often failed to live up to your best hopes for yourself?
The Promised Messiah
The Israelites were released from their captivity and came back to the Promised Land. They rebuilt the temple and once again began living according to the covenant. But their fidelity to the covenant continued to fluctuate. Throughout their history of fidelity and infidelity, they reminded one another of God’s promise of a Messiah (translated into Greek as “ho Christos,” and thus into English as “the Christ”), the “anointed one” who would usher in the final age of God’s triumph, and their own.
Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew of the first century of our era, is the fulfillment of that promise. Indeed, we have come to believe that Jesus of Nazareth is God made flesh, God incarnate. As the Gospel of John says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may . . . have eternal life” (3:16). In the great prayer that John puts into Jesus’ mouth the night before he dies, Jesus talks to his Father: “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (17:1–3).
The knowledge meant is heart knowledge, the kind of knowing friends have of one another. This is the kind of knowledge God wants us to have. How do you react to such a statement? Does it attract you? Frighten you? Make you wonder if it could possibly be true?
To complete this short biblical tour, I would like to remind you of another saying of Jesus, from the Last Supper in John’s Gospel. In chapter 15, Jesus uses the image of the vine and the branches to indicate how his disciples’ lives are closely intertwined with his own. Then he says:
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. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. (John 15:12–17)
I believe that these words are meant not just for those disciples who ate with Jesus on the last evening before his death but also for all those who follow Jesus. And all human beings are included in the invitation to follow Jesus. We are all called to be “friends of God, and prophets” (Wisdom 7:27). Allow yourself to hear Jesus’ words as addressed to you.
I hope that these reflective exercises have given you a sense of how intimate God wants the relationship to be. Moreover, I hope that it is clear that the term God’s people refers to all human beings. There is only one God who creates the universe. God wants friendship with everyone.
How do you feel as you let these words wash over you? No matter what your reactions are, they can give you something to talk over with God, or with God’s Son, Jesus. Engaging in such a conversation is how friendship with God develops, a topic to which we now turn.