In last week’s blog, we wrestled with our tendency to elevate servanthood to Jesus over friendship with Jesus. Many of the titles we assign to our relationship with God, such as Lord, Master, Father, Teacher, and King, all describe a vertical relationship where God is above us, in which the lesser of the two parties (us) must serve the greater. While these metaphors are certainly true and needed, if they were the only way we understood our relationship with God, the result would be a bond based on obligated service robbed of intimacy. Author Brian Edgar puts it this way:
“To think in this way [a Christianity solely based on service] is to reverse the actual trend of Jesus’ thought and to guarantee the development of a works-related and duty-oriented view of discipleship, rather than one permitted by the grace and love of friendship.”
– Brian Edgar, God Is Friendship
This is why legalistic faith happens. To solely view ourselves as servants to the King is guaranteed to bring about a works-based faith that will suck the life out of us because it’s all based on obligated service. It’s about how well you do the assigned tasks given to you by your boss. It’s following laws because its your civic duty. That’s how the Pharisees imagined their relationship with God went. And we all know how much Jesus approved of that, right?
A strictly Lord-servant relationship is not the kind of relationship God has in mind for us to have with him. This is why we need friendship thrown into the myriad of ways we try to comprehend relating with the God who goes beyond our comprehension. If we believe in the Gospel, then we believe God humbled himself and came to this earth as one of us—as Jesus. And he did not consider his divine nature as something to be grasped. The Father had given Christ complete authority and power over all things. If life were about doing all the right things and making us serve him, then he would’ve came to this earth and whipped everyone into shape to do just that.
But instead, he chose to live among us. To become like us. To befriend us—even the worst of sinners—because he knew how we were made. He knew that we are wired for connection. He knew that we are designed for community. He knew that we are at our best when we’re embraced by others. So he came to do just that. And by living a holy, perfect life, he took the punishment that was reserved for us by—listen to this—laying his life down for his friends.
His friends includes you and me, you know.
There is no greater love than this, than one who lays his life down for his friends. And if the fullest expression of that love is found in the sacrifice of Jesus’ life, then the Gospel is entirely about the Lord befriending us, and us befriending the Lord, for eternity.
That, my friends, is grace. The Gospel is literally the most gracious thing he could ever do for us. And get this: God is still far greater than we could ever imagine. But those titles we use to describe him—Lord, King, Master, Teacher—are no longer used to distance us or intimidate us or drive us to a life of service. Instead, these these titles we assign to God further reveal the magnitude of his grace in allowing us to be his friends. The void that separates who God is and who we are is filled with the grace found in his friendship.
When we take Jesus’ word for what it is, that we are no longer servants, but friends, and we see God as a gracious God who gets on our level and bridges the gap, then the primary language for our relationship with God is not Lord-servant, King-civilian, or Master-apprentice, but friend-friend. Friendship moves from being the last term we would use to describe our relationship with God to the primary term.
This changes everything.
Jesus told us that the power that binds these friendships is self-sacrificing love. Remember? Greater love has no one than this: that he lay down his life for his friends. Our friendship with God is bounded by this great love of laying down one’s life for her friends. It’s a love that’s based on emptying oneself for the other, on sacrificing their desires for the other person—it’s a love that’s based on… serving.
But that doesn’t make any sense. Jesus just told us that we’re no longer servants. We’re not servants, but we’re still told to serve him? What do we do with this?
At the end of the day, our friendship with Jesus still boils down to service… but it’s a different kind of service. Jesus so heavily emphasized service during their three years of ministry together because he needed to rid them of any power complexes that may have existed in their minds. In other words, it was to rid the disciples of their pride in preparation for becoming friends with God that climaxes in John 15. Brian Edgar says that according to the Gospel, “Greatness is to be interpreted in light of servanthood, and servanthood is to be interpreted in light of friendship.” So Jesus’ emphasis on servanthood ultimately leads us to friendship with him.
This reveals a huge truth: The best friendships are defined by mutual service to each other, not because they have to, but because they want to. They want to do whatever is best for the other person, so much so, that they are willing to lay down their desires—even their own lives—because they love the other person that much. It’s a mutual service done out of love, not obligation.
The implications of this with our friendship with Christ cannot be missed. Our friendship with Jesus is not one sided. It is not defined by what we do for him, or what he does for us. It’s defined by our mutual love for each other. It’s defined by our willingness to reciprocate the love and service that he extends to us to the greatest capacity our humanity is able to put forward. We serve him because we want to, and it is out of our friendship with him that motivates us to do what he asks of us, just as he serves us because he wants to—as long as it’s all asked according to his name and will, right?.
So the role of service within our relationship with God doesn’t change. But what does change is the motivation behind our service. Friend-friend service is drastically different from the master-servant service. A quick look at this comparison between the two provided from Brian Edgar’s book, God Is Friendship, proves this to be the case:
Servant-Master Relationship // Friend-Friend Relationship
Does what the master wants // Does what the friend wants
Acts out of duty // Acts out of friendship
Obedience is the central virtue // Friendship and love are central virtues
Does not really know the master // Knows the friend intimately
A relationship defined by doing // A relationship defined by being
Servanthood is a requirement // Friendship is a gift of grace
Work oriented // Relationship oriented
Hierarchical in form // Egalitarian in form
Do you see what happens? Our relationship with God as a friend-friend frees us from works-based faith, legalism, the pressure of having it all together, and it unleashes us to be fully loved by God, to fully love God, and to pursue him because we want to; because we get to. Our service to God is no longer an obligation that we dread. It’s an opportunity that we enjoy.
• • •
This is what it means to befriend the Lord. As St. Aelred says, spiritual friendship becomes the richest experience we can have on this earth when we first understand friendship’s fullest potential when we have it with Jesus first and foremost. Friendship with Christ, then, becomes the template for the potential all our other friendship can have. And that radically changes everything about what it means to be friends.