Stained glass at St John the Baptist’s Anglican Church http://www.stjohnsashfield.org.au, Ashfield, New South Wales. Illustrates Jesus’ description of himself “I am the Good Shepherd” (from the Gospel of John, chapter 10, verse 11). This version of the image shows the detail of his face. The memorial window is also captioned: “To the Glory of God and in Loving Memory of William Wright. Died 6th November, 1932. Aged 70 Yrs.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
My last post was on the theological virtues as expounded in Louis Markos’ book, “On the Shoulders of Hobbits.” Of course he covered the familiar trio of faith, hope and love, but then he threw in a fourth one: friendship. That one had me scratching my head a bit. I can agree that friendship is a virtue, but a theological virtue? Then I started thinking about it.
Darn, I hate when that happens!
A little research, a little scripture reading and it started to make sense. In fact, friendship fits in perfectly with faith, hope and love. Before I go into how this all works together, let’s take a look at friendship in general, and in the eyes of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien in particular.
Anyone with a passing knowledge of Lewis or Tolkien not only knows the two were close friends, but they were also members of a group of friends who called themselves the Inklings. This group, which also included Charles Williams and Lewis’ brother Warren, would regularly gather to discuss various topics and to read some of their works in progress. Lewis thought so highly of friendship that he once wrote to his friend Arthur Greeves that “friendship is the greatest of worldly goods. Certainly to me it is the chief happiness of life. If I had a piece of advice to a young man about a place to live, I think I shd. say, ‘sacrifice almost everything to live where you can be near your friends.’ ” ( I got that quote from a marvelous book titled “The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life,” by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr., a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. If you are a Lewis fan you have to read this book.)
As for Tolkien, I don’t know if he ever wrote directly about friendship but its place in his heart is obvious by its place in his masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings. Truly the central, driving force of this epic is a series of friendships, anchored by Frodo and Sam. Of course Merry and Pippin’s bond is practically as strong and their adventures when separated from the Fellowship provide wonderful examples of why friendship can rightly be called a virtue. Then there’s the relationship between Gimli and Legolas, proving that even seeming enemies can develop strong friendships.
So what is this thing called friendship? Markos quotes Lewis describing it as “that luminous, tranquil, rational world of relationships freely chosen.” Further, many ancient people looked upon friendship as the most human of all relationships, in some cases more important than family. I’ve heard it said that friends are the family you choose. A friend is not just someone you hang out with at the mall or go to the movies with. A friend is a person you willingly cast your lot with, extend loyalty to, and stand behind with a steadfast spirit. There is a type of affection that goes with it, but it isn’t of the overtly emotional variety. Friendship is as common as an ordinary day, and as wondrous as the night sky.
Friendship is also a key theme in the Bible, though often overlooked. Many times God related to His chosen ones as friends. God refers to Abraham as “my friend” (Isaiah 41: 8). Exodus 33:11 tells us that ” the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” And Psalm 25:14 states that “The friendship of the LORD is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant.” When you stop to think about it, it’s rather amazing that God, the creator of heaven and earth, would willingly relate to humans as friends. But how can this work?
First off, we have to define what friendship means, especially in relation to God and Jesus. I hear a lot about having a “personal relationship” with Jesus these days, but exactly what do people mean by this? I have a hunch that it means different things to different people since “personal relationship” is such a vague expression. People these days like “vague” because it gives them the wiggle room to define things any way they want at their convenience. But I think Jesus had something a bit more specific in mind. As a matter of fact, he tells us exactly what kind of relationship he expects in John’s gospel: “You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15: 14,15, ESV).
Friendship is the model Jesus would have us follow. This makes perfect sense since friendship is an excellent channel for the practice of the agape type of love that is referenced so often in the New Testament. This is the love of willing sacrifice and self-giving. It involves steadfast loyalty and support even during the hard times. Especially during the hard times. And while there may be an emotional component that goes along with it, it isn’t of the butterflies-in-the-stomach variety that can vanish so quickly. Together friendship and agape love form bonds that are meant to last a long time. Maybe into eternity.
Put all this together and it seems almost obvious that friendship is truly a theological virtue. Further, it is one that is familiar to all of us. Can we use our existing friendships as models of relating to God? In many cases, yes. We can also learn by reading about great friendships, like the ones in The Lord of the Rings and other great works of literature. Examples abound all around us. We just need to look, pay attention, and practice being God’s friends.