Not the TV show.
When I think, “Over my entire life, how have I encountered God most often,” the answer is easy and obvious: through my friends.
God has blessed me in many ways. I’m the first to tell you that I’m messed up and have some glaring weaknesses (I hope I’m the first to tell you). I also have some unusual strengths.
We can easily take for granted the things that come along with our strengths. That’s a danger. One sign of being gifted in a particular area is that you think “Oh, it’s no big deal, that’s just what I do.” Other people, who don’t have that gift, often can see it for what it is better than you can. I always feel this way about fine artists. I get a little nauseous thinking about playing Pictionary. I mean, I’m happy to guess. Therefore, watching people put a pencil or charcoal to a paper and bringing an image to love astounds me. It feels supernatural.
I’m relational. Of course, as I said in a recent post, everybody is somebody’s weirdo and I am definitely an acquired taste, but overall I have always had many friendships. I confess I take my friendships too much for granted. This is not to say I neglect to express my appreciation for my friends to my friends. I’m pretty good about that (I hope).
The truth is, friends are gifts from God. I don’t care if that’s clichéd, it’s a truth we probably can’t repeat to ourselves often enough–even when our friends are blowing it. Their support and encouragement and consistency in our lives represent God’s very presence with us.
First, in almost any deep, long-term friendship, there have been moments of grace, perhaps whole seasons of grace. I’ve said or done really stupid, hard-to-forgive things and my friends have forgiven me. Our internal argument is always, “You wouldn’t really like me if you only knew…”* But our friends know. Our friends might know better than we do. They see us in all our ugliness and darkness and don’t bail. We know God’s love when we grasp, deep in our gut, that God does not bail. Friends show us how that works.
Friends aren’t in it for what they can get out of it. At least, mine aren’t. I’m not rich or powerful or even all that funny (I mean, I
certainly think I am, but my kids
keep trying to convince me
otherwise). I’m high maintenance, I’m kind of a pain in the ass, I have major ups and downs. Sometimes I’m great about being in touch and other times I disappear. Far from bringing lots of perks and bennies to the table, I just bring myself and I’m likely to swipe your chocolate or eat the last cookie. Maybe the last three.
God doesn’t love us “because…” anything. God loves us. Period. God doesn’t hang around for our connections or because we’re going to do such an amazing job of following him. God isn’t in this for what he can get out of us. God is simply committed to us. For who we are and because of who he is.
Someone–I thought Anne Lamott but now I can’t find the quote–said,
“Everything I know of God I’ve experienced through people.”**
Of course there is plenty of information we can read about God. But I suspect “knowing,” in this sense, comes through interaction. Perhaps this is intimacy instead of head knowledge. Knowing God and knowing about God are different. I think we can know about God without believing at all. If we know God, then believing is included in the package: “But wait! You also get…” Because yes, I believe in the God I know.
How much are we shaped in our beliefs by our interactions with other people? The folks who straight-up reject God’s existence because of their terrible experience with Christians (or, in fairness, not-Christians who say they are Christians) are the most obvious example. But is this not true of all of us, to some degree? Don’t we all take our impressions of people, especially the ones who influence us most, and read that into our understanding of God?
Anyone who says, “No, Mike, we don’t do that. God is God, people are people,” probably has never worked with a young adult who has a hard time seeing God as Father–or in any way trustworthy–because his or her father was abusive.
The Bible states that marriage is a picture of God’s love. Wives and husband, in marriage, provide an image of how God might love us. This suggests not only do we learn of God through other people but God designs relationships this way. We are communal beings and we know God in community. We are Christ’s body together, as Paul wrote, and we need one another, not least for what we show one another about God.
At this point it might sound like I’m making an argument for “behave more godly because people see you and take that as what God is like.” I’m not. I’m talking about the friends with whom God has blessed me. The paradox is that by trying harder to behave more godly, most of the time we go in the wrong direction. Being more godly, living in and demonstrating God’s love to the world, doesn’t happen through “white-knuckling it,” as the folks in recovery describe it, through just sucking it up and gutting out a little more kindness and gentleness and patience and peace. At least, it doesn’t for me. I am more kind and loving when I spend time with God, when I soak in the truth about who God is and how God feels about me, when I am keeping the pipeline between God’s spirit and mine as close to fully open as possible. Jesus describes it as “abiding” in him, like a vine abides in a branch. Keeping connected and always receiving from the source of our life and goodness is pretty different from trying harder.
I am blessed because I have had so many true friends of all ages in my life. Hundreds. I’ve seen God through all of them.
Then I also have a handful or two of those friends who, over the course of many years and decades, have shown me that God is patient and kind and gentle and encouraging and truthful and does not give up on us. Ever. I think the best way to understand God’s character through people is to remember the “if they…then God” formula: If they love me like this, then God, who is perfect, must love me so much more; if they are willing to put up with my foibles and endure my personality flaws and sinful tendencies, then God who suffered for me because of my sins must truly love me unconditionally.
I’m Irish and German and have lost my temper in some truly ugly ways. My friends still love me. I’ve gone off on ridiculous tangents, been arrogant and prideful and judgmental, and also (what I would consider) unbearably insecure and needy. I’ve also hit some deep lows. My friends help keep me grounded, bring me down off my high horse, talk me down off my ledges, and communicate clearly that they love me just as much through it all.
In my grief and rage at God, I questioned everything. I blatantly declared I was rejecting God because God had betrayed and abandoned me. Many people didn’t know what to do with me. Some avoided me. My true friends didn’t rebuke, scold, lecture or–this is huge–reject me. A few tried to talk sense to me, but mostly they just listened, asked questions, and prayed.
That meant when a friend told me that God had not abandoned me, that as angry as I was and as much as I was cursing God and asking to die, God was still near and absorbing all this abuse, I could see it–because so had my friends, in their imperfect way. If they could put up with all that bull, maybe God would, also? Maybe God could even more so?
I hope you have friends like these. I hope you invest your time and energy, I hope you invest yourself, in the friendships God has given you. I know they screw up sometimes. Mine do, too. So do I.
But I would not know God as I do if my friends didn’t love me as they do. If it weren’t for them, I’m not entirely sure I would still know God at all.
[Please note: photos were from what I had available on FB and do not represent a preference or ranking of my friends. I probably don’t even like some of those people. 😉]
* If you’ve never thought that, I can’t conceive of having the self-confidence you have.
**If you know or figure out who said this, tell me!