So what makes a friend a friend? And when I speak of friends, I am not thinking of those we might casually refer to in that way, but those with whom you have a close and enduring bond — a bond that is strengthened, not weakened by trials and difficulties and with whom love is the only right word to describe the affection that you have for one another. When I was a teenager and in my early twenties, I used to describe this kind of friend as one who you would trust with your car, your girlfriend, and your credit card. Now that I am older, I would describe such a person as the kind of person that I am content simply being with in life together…you know, the kind of person that it doesn’t really matter if you are doing something in particular, but simply being together is enough. It is the kind of person with whom you can disagree and it doesn’t really matter because your relationship is not established on points of common opinion, but instead is built on life together.
It is the kind of relationship that Sherlock Holmes is portrayed as having with John Watson; the mysteries that Doyle wrote about simply provided the backdrop; what made the stories was the relationship between these two men — these two friends. While this is the kind of friendship we ought to have with our spouses, it is often not limited to our spouses. It is the kind of friendship we ought to have with our families, though families often fall short and it is typically not limited to family relationships. And, this is the relationship we ought to strive for with other Christians, though such relationships are often had outside of the church. And, it is a relationship that typically is built over time, while going through the ups and especially through the downs of life together. If our lives are described as part of the tapestry of history, these friends would be the strands that not only are intertwined with our own but also whose color so blends with ours that at a glance, the two threads almost appear to be one.
I have been doing my devotions of late in the scripture passages that deal with the life of Abraham. And what strikes me as remarkable is that despite the messiness of his life and despite his failures and sins, Abraham is not only called the father of the faithful (Romans 4:11-12,16; Galatians 3:7), but Abraham is also called “Friend of God” (Isaiah 41:8; James 2:23). Scripture tells us that God spoke to Moses face to face as one speaks with a friend (Exodus 33:11; Deuteronomy 34:10) and Jesus says to his disciples at the last supper, “I have called you friends” (John 15:15), but it is Abraham that history has marked off as the one having such a relationship with God that he is called “friend of God.”
So, what marked Abraham’s relationship in this way? Certainly this was God’s design, but what can we learn about this friendship that can be applied to our relationships with each other and to our relationship with God? The first thing that we should note is that while God was always faithful on “his end” of the friendship, Abraham was not. Yet, Abraham’s failures did not compromise the friendship he had with God. We should secondly note that their friendship was not defined by the destination or by the promise. Abraham spent nearly his entire relationship with God as a wanderer in the land of Canaan and Egypt. He knew that God had promised him the land, but he also knew that it would be distant ancestors that would actually inherit the promise after spending more than 400 years in Egypt (Genesis 15:13-14). Abraham would die long before the promise was fulfilled. In fact, Abraham received the initial call from God to leave the land of Ur prior to receiving the promise that God would make his descendants a great nation (Acts 7:2-4). It would only be in connection with the call to leave Haran after his father’s death, that the covenantal promise was given (Genesis 12:1-3). We might suggest that the friendship was strengthened by the covenant and promise of God, but clearly it did not begin with these things.
If I were to speculate, I think that it would also be safe to say that Abraham’s relationship was also not based on common likes and dislikes or on common experiences. Certainly Abraham disliked many of the things that God dislikes and it is true that God enters into our experiences as we are in relationship with him, but this still seems to be a superficial place to ground our understanding of this very special friendship. There is no questions that these things, whether experiences or the covenant, were part of the maturing of this friendship (at least on Abraham’s side), but they do not seem to be the essence of the relationship.
I would suggest that the essence of the friendship that Abraham had with God was not in knowing where they were going or how they would get there, but in knowing that they were going in that direction together. And I think that this principle applies to our friendships with other humans as well. We began not by asking about Abraham’s relationship with God, but with the question of what makes a friend a friend — or, what distinguishes the deep and genuine friendships from the casual (and often superficial) friendships that we have. The answer is that those deep friendships are built not so much upon what we do, but upon doing it together — even when we are not doing anything in particular.
God could have taken Abraham on a trek that extended across the breadth of Africa or into the mountains of Tibet and it would not have mattered so long as they were making the trip together. Sherlock Holmes, apart from John Watson, was depressed and bored with life, even to the extent of experimenting with mainlining cocaine to free him from his boredom. It was Watson who kept Holmes grounded, focused, and (in most cases) clean from his drug use. It was nothing Watson did, it was Watson’s mere presence. Husbands and wives often do many romantic things as they are building their relationship, but ultimately there comes a point (because life otherwise gets in the way and struggles arise), where they are forced to realize that what really matters is not so much those romantic episodes, but that they are living life together, facing trials together, hurting together, and loving together.
Moses said to God that what made God’s people distinct from all of the other nations of the earth was his presence with them (Exodus 33:16). That indeed is true of the church in a corporate sense and of Christians in a personal sense, but that is also true of friendship as well. What makes your friendship with me genuine friendship is your presence with me and vice-versa. The deepest friendships are marked by presence — a presence that is needed, desired, and even yearned for — and as a result of that common presence, our stories become so intertwined together that from a distance they almost seem to be one and inseparable.