“We are Destined to be Friends with God”
During a recent trip to Ireland, I had the opportunity to stay at Glendalough Sanctuary, a spiritual retreat center founded by the Rev. Michael Rodgers, a Catholic priest and missionary. One morning, at the close of Centering Prayer, he quietly remarked that the good he was able to do in the world came out of the overflow of “something good” that happened to him. That insight struck me as a gospel truth: it goes to the heart of the question of how to respond to the life we are given, what it means to receive goodness personally, pass it along, and enhance it in this world. I want to go deeper into this dynamic by focusing here on an essential but neglected conduit of doing good—the divine power of friendship in its many forms.
As a hospital chaplain, one type of spiritual distress I encounter in patients is their difficulty accepting the choices they have made in life. Often they have made enemies of themselves.
I write from the perspective of a chaplain, practical theologian, and Taiwanese-American millennial. I am also a relational introvert—whose commitment to friendships has made my life abundant. As a Christian I strive to embody this core value: to befriend is to encompass faith, hope, and love. It is a way to live out my faith in our capacity for goodness, the hope of becoming a better person, and love for our neighbor. Even more, a Christian approach, situated at the intersection of ethics and theology, dramatically opens the meaning of friendship—to friendship with God, friendship with oneself, with one’s past, and with one’s future.
Friendship with Oneself
As a hospital chaplain, one type of spiritual distress I encounter in patients is their difficulty accepting the choices they have made in life. Often they have made enemies of themselves, a relationship with self that is fraught with guilt, shame, and regret. I remember being at the bedside of a cancer patient whose greatest concern was not his physical discomfort, but rather the fact that he had not spent as much time with his children as he could have. Now that he was dying, he had to live acutely with his choices. He was unable to befriend, or forgive, himself.
“If we are people of character we must be our ‘own best friend and should have the greatest affection for [ourselves],’” writes theologian Stanley Hauerwas ’65 B.D., ’68 Ph.D. with co-author Charles Pinches in Christians Among the Virtues. “If we are not capable of being our own best friend, we lack the constancy we need to have a happy life, extended, as it must be, over time.”
When I do not deal with the emotions that threaten or complicate my sense of self, I may end up expressing those emotions indirectly, or “sideways.” Having not fully embraced myself, I show up before others as a less authentic version of myself, needing to prove, please, and pretend. I believe that most of the conflict in our world stems from individual neglect of raw human emotions that need to be met and tended to. Grief unacknowledged can easily turn into anger, or violence, when individuals express their unacknowledged needs “sideways.”
Friendship with the Past
Friendship with oneself entails making friends with our past. Questions I have asked myself—for which there are no right or wrong answers—include: am I constantly looking backwards with nostalgia, seeing the past as the “good ol’ days”? Or, quite the opposite, do I see the past as something to escape? Can I forgive a younger version of myself for the choices she made? Do I see God in my past?
Hauerwas urges that we accept our sense of self not just through a personal narrative, but also in the life of community: “… the self is not something we create, but is a gift. Thus, we become who we are through the embodiment of the story in the communities into which we are born.” The act of receiving my storied self as a gift requires trust in God’s guidance all along. It requires me to both celebrate my joys and grieve my losses, and to see my story as part of a larger narrative, in light of the communities to which I have belonged.
Friendship with Our Present
Friendship with our present means accepting what is and bearing witness to whatever is unfolding. As a chaplain, I want to provide a non-anxious presence for those I serve, embracing the helplessness and not-knowing of the outcome, and exhibiting a willingness to stay in the now with the patient and hold space for what is to come. One of the names for Jesus—Emmanuel, “God with us”—exemplifies and makes possible a ministry of presence.
Jesus’ style of ministry reflects what psychologist Carl Rogers calls “unconditional positive regard.” Jesus’ nonjudgmental and listening posture reminds me of what Internal Family Systems has taught me about accepting all “parts” of myself, recognizing that there are no “bad parts.” Rather, each part has a story behind it, and functions with good intentions for protecting my well-being: my task in the present is to make friends with all parts of myself, the way God is present to and accepts them.
Friendship with the Future
Friendship with our future means trusting God to continue being with us, just as God accompanies us now: the future holds promise, and hope for the future is what helps me remain faithful in the present. Making friends with my future gives me the patience to wait for its arrival, like allowing fruit to ripen to be enjoyed in due time.
For many, though, the future holds a fear of the unknown. Western Christianity has a triumphalist bent, and the need to couch the future as victorious and certain can put undue pressure upon us and increase our sense of loneliness and anticipatory grief, if we feel we lack the resources to face the unknown. We wonder: Who will hold me in times of sorrow? Who will be with me to share my times of joy? The prospect of the future feels brighter when I feel a sense of companionship with the unfolding of time itself.
Friendship with God
Making friends with oneself points us towards the need to rely on One beyond our own limitations and needs. In their book, Hauerwas and Pinches take up Aquinas’ view that “we are destined to be friends with God.” This is the foundation for all other forms of friendship. The Hebrew Scriptures provide examples of individuals who are considered to be friends of God: Abraham, David, and Job, just to name a few. A common theme that runs through their lives was how they dared to name their raw emotions—fears, joys, desolations, and gratitude—to God, and allowed God into the rough experiences of their emotional lives, their relational struggles, and crises of faith.
As a chaplain, I have often found that service to God comes easier than friendship with God. The “doing” portion of ministry and the “earning” of approval sometimes allow me to escape deeper feelings that I am too ashamed to acknowledge, even to God in the privacy of spiritual reflection. And yet, to be destined for friendship with God means that friendship comes before service. Jesus said to his disciples near the end of his earthly ministry, “I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15).
Friendship with Others
Friendship, as we have seen, can be strengthened by a deep faith in God’s presence in our lives, a presence which gives us the courage to face all our emotions and experiences as sacred and acceptable. What negatively triggers me in the words or actions of another person becomes a learning opportunity to examine what fears or griefs I am attempting to avoid in myself. Indeed, “a friend is a sort of mirror to the self.” Friends help us become aware of our blind spots, to see perspectives beyond our own. Sometimes, the ways I disagree with friends’ opinions confirms and solidifies where I stand.
Friendships may be seasonal, contributing to our formation and transformation in particular junctures—such as seminary. YDS provided me with international and intergenerational friendships that came into being because each of us had chosen to be in seminary at that particular time. Many of those friendships formed out of a class called “Ministry and the Disinherited,” where the course material gave us an opportunity to engage deeply across life experience, culture, and denominational identities.
Sometimes, friendships endure beyond shared circumstances, blossoming into lifelong chosen family. I am grateful to have retained friends from seminary with whom I still share my sorrows and joys, whose weddings and ordinations I have attended, and with whom I have collaborated on social justice causes. My aforementioned “Disinherited” friends hosted a Zoom vigil in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, half a decade after our graduation from YDS. We had stayed in touch simply because it brought us joy, and our joint ministry was birthed organically from this foundation of friendship. Out of what we had received from one another—support and solidarity—we desired to share with others.
“Through friendship we are initiated into activities befitting virtue as we learn to be faithful to ourselves through being faithful to another,” Hauerwas and Pinches write in their book, which was birthed out of a friendship between Duke professor Hauerwas and his student-turned-friend. “Virtue … begins and ends in friendship”; indeed, “friendship itself is an activity by which we acquire the kind of steadfastness necessary for being true friends.” I think of the unique friendship between Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Antonin Scalia, both known for their steadfast commitment to deeply divergent interpretations of the Constitution. Clearly, the blessing of friendship—the “something good that has happened to me”—enhances public service, answers the loneliness of contemporary life, and is essential to softening our rampant divisions.
Finally, as it is found in Scripture, friendship does not come without conflict or separation, yet it is regarded as a theological force for doing good and keeping faith with God. The story of Esther is a dramatic example. Esther rose to prominence in the king’s court and ultimately used her place of privilege to do good for God’s people. She did so by trusting in God’s friendship and befriending herself, in what must have been an isolating environment, away from her family and her people. Esther was strengthened by friendships with her cousin Mordecai and the palace eunuch Hegai, both of whom helped her remain resilient. Esther’s advocacy for God’s people would not have been possible had she not made friends with her past—her Jewish heritage—and her present position—both the privilege of being in the king’s court, as well as the tenuousness of being Jewish—and her future—one that was unknown to her but undoubtedly in God’s hands. Esther may have been the heroine of the story, but she did not act alone.
If Esther could learn to befriend God, herself, and others in such dire circumstances, then perhaps we who live in times just as troubled might also think about friendship as a divine force for spreading good, as stated in Esther 4:14: “for such a time as this.”
Natasha Huang ’16 M.A.R. is a chaplain in Southern California. A graduate of USC (double major in violin and East Asian languages and cultures), she earned a Ph.D. at Claremont School of Theology.
1. I define relational introvert as someone who needs time alone to recharge, but who nevertheless values and invests in relationships, recognizing the need for connection.
2. Hauerwas and Pinches, Christians Among the Virtues: Theological Conversations with Ancient and Modern Ethics (Notre Dame, 1997), p. 39.
3. Hauerwas, “Character, Narrative, and Growth in the Christian Life,” The Hauerwas Reader, edited by Michael Cartwright and John Berkman (Duke University Press, 2001), p. 250.
4. Christians Among the Virtues, p. xi.
5. Christians Among the Virtues, p. 39.
6. Among the books we read for class were: Mary Clark Moschella, Ethnography as a Pastoral Practice: An Introduction (Pilgrim Press, 2008); Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Continuum, 30th Anniversary Edition, 2003); Shelly Rambo, Spirit and Trauma (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010); and Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Beacon Press, 1976).
7. Christians Among the Virtues, p. 38.