But I have called you friends . . . (John 15:15)
The Philanthropos Theos, is, as is often referenced in Orthodox worship, the Man-Befriending-God. This notion of an Almighty God who desires our friendship is a scandal and not one easily overcome. We prefer to believe that God exists. Friendship however entails something more.
There is perhaps no more poignant part of the Gospels than the leave-taking of Jesus from his friends in John 13-17. “Have I been with you so long and still you do not know me Philip?” “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” “If you loved me, you would have rejoiced because I am going to the Father.” “I will no longer talk much with you, because the ruler of this world is coming.” “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.” “No longer do I call you servants, but I have called you friends.” “So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”
In preparation for Holy Communion, the Orthodox pray several prayers. Among them are prayers which promote this same scandal. After praying the marvel of God’s grace in repentance, we go on to exclaim
And–O marvel for the Angels
And for human understanding–
Thou hast converse with them often
As with friends most true and trusted
And we pray also: “All who had been brought to Thee by repentance hast thou established in the choir of Thy friends.” But lest somehow we miss this marvel, we are instructed also to pray (it helps immensely that it is in poetry)
Yet again, I know this also:
Neither greatness of transgressions,
Nor enormity in sinning,
Can surpass my God and Savior’s
Great long-suffering and mercy
And exceeding love for mankind.
Exceeding. Exceeding. Scandal. Does an Almighty God do this sort of thing? Does an Almighty God befriend tax collectors and sinners?
Pop culture in America has degraded friendship into a deformed and distorted ugliness unworthy of the word itself. It is a verb now signifying nothing more than a click of a mouse and someone who will cheer you on while you commit suicide. Demonic.
Because the word is degraded in our culture, when we hear the Gospel that Jesus is a friend of tax collectors and sinners, it passes us by amid the cacophony of a million voices. And passing us by, it does not lodge in our heart, it does not fill the spaces nor does it calm the wild want within us.
We are made for friendship, which is to say we are made for communion. But communion requires touch and contact. We must eat Flesh and drink Blood. It is too much, demanding an openness and vulnerability our world mocks and exploits, and therefore precisely what we fear to give. But we are drawn to it all the same, insatiable for it in our need, the gaping void ready to receive the infinite fullness.
The human ingenuity for avoiding God’s friendship is as varied and unique as each individual: pride, self-loathing, debased desires, selfishness–the infernal list goes on. But truly, for some of us it may simply be the habit, ingrained in us by years of deep repetition, of earning the love we desire. The habit becomes a second nature, and, in some ways more bitter than any addiction, feels impossible to overcome. Add in the scars of woundedness, infidelities, abuse, and it is no wonder that in the chaos of our suffering we may come to feel that performing for love will give us a measure of control in receiving that love. It is but the exchange of terms to place this paradigm on God.
So what is to be done? Perhaps, in some ways, the only thing that can be done: let God move closer. This may, I’m afraid, involve loss and heartache. We may be filling the void with everything else but what we truly desire. And God is not so unloving as to take these away that he may fill that space in our hearts that fits him alone.
But not always. And here is the mystery of such a grace: he may call us to his divine love through the loves he gives to us. Our hearts may already be so battered by a graceless world and the hard consequences of our sins and those done to us, that we must experience some healing before we can know the Healer. Or, rather, that he will give us to know himself as Healer through the healing loves he brings to us.
He is a God of infinite ingenuity. He can as easily call us through the rain as through the sunshine: “Welcome, my friends.”