Religion as Friendship

Exod. 33:11.---' And the Lord spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend.'

What is religion? If we go to the philosophers for a definition they answer us in many ways. To one, religion has to do primarily with the mind, with correct ideas of God and His relations with man. To another its source is in the emotions, chiefly in a feeling of awe and dependence. To still another, religion is essentially a matter of the moral will, of doing the will of God. All these conceptions are true, and each vital after its kind; but they make religion a complicated, if not a cloudy thing.

Or if, again, bewildered by the philosophers, we turn to the men and women we know and ask them what religion is, each one gives a different answer. One thinks it is what we believe, much or little, what Church we belong to, what creed we recite. To another a religious man is one who reads the Bible, says his prayers, and goes to church. While to another any one is religious who pays his debts, helps the unfortunate in their affliction, and lives a clean life. All of which is true enough, but some how it does not satisfy us. We want something simpler, less debatable, which touches alike the heart and the mind.

Does not the suggestion of the text offer us a simple, searching, satisfying definition of religion? 'God spake unto Moses face to face and as a man to his friend.' Religion is friendship with God and man. St. James says that Abraham was called 'the friend of God,' surely the most perfect of all descriptions of a religious man. To be friendly with God, and to know God as a friend---that is the sum of it. Of course, one may think of God in many other ways. Some people who do not believe in God in any way believe in Him as a formula. Just as we cannot do without the formula of gravity to account for certain facts in the physical world, so we need the formula of God to account for certain facts in the moral and spiritual order. But one cannot be friendly with a formula. The very idea of friendship implies something more intimate, a warmth and glow of personal relationship. A man to whom God is a formula may have a philosophy, but not a religion---at least not in a vivid and satisfying sense of it.

"To feel," Tenneyson once said to a friend, "that God is by my side, just as much as you are, that is the very joy of my heart."

The history of the world is made very optimistic and viewed favorably through stories of friends and friendships. Friendship is one of the greatest words in human language, and friends are man's most valuable assets. The most exalted mood of man is that in which the mystic blending of heart with heart is felt; when moving about in the shadows and loneliness of existence he suddenly comes to realize that his soul has been lost and found again in the being of another. Asked the secret of his beautiful life, Charles Kingsley replied, "I had a friend."

This is a perfect description of a friend---one with whom we can think aloud, blurting out anything in our minds without restraint or fear, knowing that if true it will be treasured, and if it is foolish it will be forgotten. How could we live without those understanding friends who love us in spite of our faults, and who believe in us even when we do not believe in ourselves? If they are easy to please they are hard to satisfy, since by their love they rebuke us and by their faith they insist that we be and do our best.

Yet the dearest human friend can come only so near to us. There is a polar privacy which no mortal can enter and which no friend tries to invade. Some souls cannot get close to their fellows. So Nature is their friend. Only God can enter utterly into any human soul---but, as St. Francis said, "He is always courteous and does not come in unless we open the door."

In my life I have been so much alone, it cannot be helped. Where is the comrade? I never had one. The absolute self is far within, and no one can reach it. God reaches it, and He only.

It is this truth that makes prayer, if we know how to use it, simple, natural, and real---the talk of a man with his Friend. The disciples once found Jesus praying, and what they saw made them beg Him to teach them how to pray, and He said: 'A certain man had a Friend. . . .' any man, the ordinary man, the least of men---'A certain man had---a Friend.' he lived and died in perfect communion with God the Friend.

It is in the life of Jesus we are shown, as nowhere else, the neighborliness and friendliness of God. By the wealth of His love, by His incredible approachableness, By His fine art of kindness, by His heroic moral loveliness, by all that He was that no words can tell, Jesus made God real and near. If we are to make humanity Christian, we must first make Christianity human, as Jesus did. It is difficult to think of God today, but we can think of what Jesus was and is, and through Him find that God is indeed our best Friend to whom we can commit our souls here, hereafter, and for ever.

'I have called you friends,' said Jesus. Yes, but it is an exalted and exacting word, making high demands of us. To be a Christian is to be a friend of Jesus, not merely to have Him as our friend. All of us want Jesus for our friend, but are we willing to be His friend? One who shares His sorrow, to whom He shows His wounds and whispers His desperate purpose, asking our utmost love and loyalty? It is the greatest adventure known among men, requiring all that a man has of faith and fortitude---yet that is what He asks, nothing else, nothing less!

And if we want to know what religion is every day, friendship tells it all. To be friendly, not simply with our friends who are friendly with us, but with all kinds of people, in the varied contacts of life---that is the root and fruit of the matter. That is what Jesus did. For three swift and gentle years he went about doing good---just being friendly, cheering the depressed, healing the sick, encouraging the lonely. One wonders why we do not do more of it. How much the world needs it. It is so easy to do, and it acts so instantaneously. It is so unfailingly remembered and returned---if not to us then to others who need it more.

In a world where we see "the altogetherness of everything," only a great religion of friendship can save us from chaos. Not religion as a huddle of sects, divided about unrealities and little realities. Such a religion is obsolete, impotent---it does not signify, and the incoming generation has repudiated it. No, what we need is religion as a creative power, giving unity and coherence to life, and lifting us to a new level of being. By the same fact, a religion of friendship must begin as a new friendship of religions, if our sect-ridden world is to be set free for a new dimension of fellowship. To put it plainly, if religion cannot save us from the hell of war and the savagery of our social order on earth, it cannot save us anywhere else; and it will be given up.

But religion will not be given up, because it is 'the life of God in the soul of man'---a life of faith, love, sacrifice, service, joy. It means that the Church is a focus of faith, a sanctuary of fellowship, a society of 'the friends of God.' It is a band of mystics; its task to make men friends of God and one another, to lift races and classes out of solitariness and selfishness into solidarity and fraternity. It means that each of us must be a friend of God, dedicated to His will, devoted to His Holy and high purpose for the good of man and the fulfillment of his life in fellowship.

Only so can our little lives find worth and meaning and be saved from futility. There comes a time when we must make friends with God, or we shall have no friend at all, not even ourselves. All of us come into this strange adventure of life through one mysterious gateway of birth. In the lashing of the storm we must cling to one Almighty Hand. In the wreck of evil we must all fly to one Eternal Pity. At last we pass out through the same Valley of Shadow into the dark---let us love one another as Jesus loved us and love God with His love.

In Christ, timothy.


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