This is a paper I wrote this semester on St Ignatius of Loyola’s idea of Divine Friendship. I am sharing this as an attempt to share what’s been on my heart this semester.
I hope you enjoy it. Feel free to comment below.
Peace to you,
St. Ignatius of Loyola believed that God invites humans, his cognizant, loving, bipedal creation, into friendship with him. This is a wonderful gospel theology; that the creator of the universe, the creator of all that moves and breathes on this earth, wants to be friends with us. Jesus provides this invitation when he says he no longer names us as servants, but calls us his friends (Jn. 15:15). Ignatius wants believers to respond to God’s divine friendship invitation with ours hearts out of to love God. Despite God wanting friendship with us, we construct barriers against His friendship resulting in a disordered belief that friendship with the divine is not possible. It is critical that we recognize these barriers and leverage divine friendship as a cornerstone of our ministries and our personal relationships with God because it is a powerful reality that sinks into the depths of human’s need to be loved and known.
What is Friendship with God?
Ignatian spirituality suggests that the concept of human-to-human friendship is the baseline metaphor for the friendship God wants with humans. Liz Carmichael provides three tenants for a successful friendship: “a common mode of being, attraction to good character, or a desire to improve oneself.” All human friendships start in one of these tenants. As human friendship grows, it progresses through resistance as both humans work out whether they want to continue the relationship. We can assume that each of these tenants taps into “deep somethings” in the heart of humans for our longings to be desired, loved, and known. At some point in our lives “most of us become aware of a friendship-shaped hole.” One can see why God provided fellow companions for humans (Gn. 2:18) to fill these longings inside of us. As a few examples in Scripture, we see models of human friendship in David and Jonathan and in Naomi and Ruth. In each story, the two humans love each other as they love their own souls (1 Sm. 18:3) and they accept each other’s people as their own (Ru. 1:16–18).
Yet, like in the garden, the “deep somethings” became broken, so God wants to reestablish that brokenness through friendship with us. Jesus’s thrice forgiveness of Peter (Jn. 21:15–19) is truly Christ restoring friendship and mutuality though Peter has not proven himself to Jesus. We see the deep love that an empathetic and tearful Jesus has for Mary, Martha, and Lazarus when Lazarus dies despite knowing that Lazarus will live. With this baseline concept of friendship with the divine, we discern perfect friendship with God is part of our calling as humans; we are designed for friendship with Him despite our brokenness and that desire for companionship is given by God.
The metaphor of human friendship and implementation in Scripture takes us to a certain point in knowing about God. But knowing about God only gets us so far; we have to come to know God. William Barry and James Martin discern that human-divine and human-human friendship succeed when they include six components: “(1) spending time together, (2) learning about the other, (3) being honest and transparent, (4) learning to be a good listener, (5) allowing for changing and maturing views of the other, and (6) learning how to enjoy being silent together.” Thus, in order to truly know God, we must be willing to approach him as more than a human friend. “This personal sense of knowing comes primarily through our experience of prayer” and asking God to be our friend.
Friendship with God sounds wonderful and peaceful, yet, like any human friendship, if God gets too close to our hearts it can induce fear and we can run away from God. We become afraid that He will expose the deepest darkness (Ps. 139:11) inside of us and it will create shame or guilt. We may develop a disdain for Him resulting from hurtful church experiences as a child or a misinterpretation of a literal understanding of Scripture. The believer may come to faith purely motivated by avoiding the threat of hell rather than by the invitation of divine friendship. Or the believer has an misdirected or idolatrous love described as “a love wrongly directed to people and things, a choice to love something that we put in place of God.” Others may think that their sin is too big for God or they feel abandoned by God because of suffering in their lives and in the world. Many Christians know God in their mind by reading Scripture, but do not spend time with God, so they truly do not know God though they read a lot about him. “Spiritual but not religious” moderns forsake religion because religion “means abiding by the arcane rules and hidebound dogmas” so friendship with God appears ludicrous because it is constricted by traditional regulations. All of these barriers are the result of fear of the divine and total exposure or encounter with him.
Yet, perhaps the fear we feel is sensing him getting “too close” to our hearts and seeing us too well. Perhaps these barriers operate more as indicators that God is drawing nearer; closer than our skin. And, as Ignatian spirituality suggests, perhaps pressing into that fear and working past the resistance is exactly how God is communicating with us and drawing us into a perfect friendship with him.
Process of Friendship
It is critical that believers
consider God’s desire for friendship and his desire to communicate with us as a primary method of how God calls us to interact with him and our reason for existence. We should embrace a gentle and grace-filled look from God and open our palms in receptivity of his love. But where does one start in a healthy, loved-infused friendship with God despite our well-constructed barriers to His invitation?
In human relationships, both people must learn to let go of fear and be vulnerable throughout the relationship; the same is true in walking into relationship with God. Many times when humans encounter the divine (such as angelic visitation, God’s words through a human messenger or God himself) the human is fearful and the divine must tell the human not to be afraid. Yet God does not ask us to fear nor does he want us to live in terror of him.
We do not live in a split world where a deistic God stands apart from his creation. Instead, God and the world overlap and interlock. He walks in the garden with creation (Gn. 3:8) and deeply cares about the outcome of his creatures. Christianity is a faith of joy and perfect love with God, not of panic and dread (1 Jn. 4:18). Yet we come back to fear-derived questions such as “does God still want my friendship after all my sins and offenses? Does God still love our human world, given the mess we humans have made of it?” God does want us to be his friend despite us turning away from him again and again.
Along similar threads, we also ask why God created us and “what is life all about?” We know that it was not for God’s own sake that he created humanity. Dallas Willard suggested “God wasn’t lonely by themselves.” Ignatian suggested “a depiction of the Creator as a superabundant giver. He gives gifts that call forth a response on our part, a free choice to return ourselves to him in grateful thanks and love. It is a vision that only a heart can respond to.” Thus, Ignatius believed that God created us as His divine heart response to us for friendship.
Our deep heart responses to these questions are undeniable. We have deep movements inside of us where we feel intensely paradoxical emotions during an experience such as happiness and sadness or comfort and confusion; somehow we feel both emotions at the same time. Moments such as holding an infant unrelated to oneself and feeling a rush of love, crying during a dazzling beach sunset and feeling immense joy, and gaining a sense of peace at a funeral of a loved one. We wonder why we can simultaneously identify these meaningful connections and also feel lonely, pain, or sad about lack of friendships or community. Somehow we sense these feelings are unequal to the cause and that the experience does not incite such an intense emotional response. Even still, the soul has a sense of expansion and is able to be more generous in love despite oppositional feelings. Abraham Maslow defines these moments as “peak experiences” and they may result in a changed outlook on life or a new sense of peace. Something about these peak experiences gives us a sense that there is more to our existence than human relationship.
Ignatian spirituality states these seemingly unexplainable paradoxical emotions and meaningful connections are God’s way of communicating with us as He invites each of us into friendship with Him. It is his way of breaking into our hectic lives so that we see Him and can get a glimpse of perfect love. Jesus invited his future disciples to “come and see” when they ask him where he is going (Jn. 1:39) so that through communication and interaction with him they can be eternally transformed (Jn. 17:4). God calls Abraham his friend (Is. 41:8) and names him the one he has chosen (v. 9) an as intentional invitation to Abraham to friendship and love.
Fear is by far the greatest impedance I have seen in ministry and, admittedly, I see this in myself when I feel God is picking too close to my soul so I run away from Him in fear. Thus, to release fear and receive His invitation of friendship, we must encourage others, including fellow pastors and the pastor we see in the mirror (ourselves!), believers, or non-believers, to remind us to first learn to see God’s love, learn to receive it, and learn to trust him. By using the word “learning” instead of “trying” we can give others and ourselves grace when we walk away from his invitation and then come back to Him.
To start learning how to receive God’s love, we can look at two questions that God tenderly and gently asks us that from the Old and New Testaments. These questions are “where are you?” (Gn. 3:9) and “what do you want?” (Jn. 1:38) By seeing God as gently, compassionately, and lovingly asking these questions, we learn to trust that he will reveal his friendship to us and we can shed the false identities that accompany these questions. These are excellent questions for us to use in ministry as a springboard for receiving His pure and trustworthy love.
To increase awareness and receptivity of God’s love Ignatian spirituality encourages the believer to use various imaginative exercises. For example, when the believer prays, she could have a mental image of God looking down at her before she starts praying as if He was waiting for her the whole time. This way, she can “see His love and interest in you.” This type of imaginative exercise actualizes God’s words from Isaiah 43:1-3 as “you are precious . . . / and I love you.” For Christians who are fearfully reluctant about this exercise, a good place to start is to give God one’s fear by writing out a letter to Him of those fears and asking God to reveal how divine friendship is embodied. Putting words to one’s fear removes its power by bringing it out to the light and reminding us of the solidarity that Christ has with us. “When you face your fear in the knowledge that you are loved, accepted and forgiven by God in Jesus Christ, the fears’ power over you diminishes. Acknowledging your fears can open your life to the miracle of God’s loving care. Exodus was written by the biblical authors so that “they would know in their bones how much God loved them; thus, they would learn to rely on God in the here and now and to call on God to remember the covenant God made with them at Sinai.”
The vacillation of fear and trust of God is a lifetime journey and will not be remolded in a day; rather, it is a process that takes time. But it is a starting point in divine friendship. After one can acknowledge that fear is present yet unwanted, she can receive and experience God’s love and friendship. She can gift her fear a “loving look” without judgment or condemnation, recognize when it is present, and give it to God. After the bricks of fear start coming down and are replaced by bricks of trust forming the foundation of friendship with God, interaction with God becomes deeper. This is the start of interaction with God, which leads to true transformation.
For human friendship to grow, there must be some form of consistent interaction and communication. With divine friendship, this manifests as prayer. Notably, many believers struggle with public and personal prayer. Perhaps they grew up in a church where prayer was liturgical and felt impersonal or other believers praying aloud intimidate them. Even seminary students struggle with prayer as seen when our group was hesitant to volunteer to pray before meals on the retreat. It is easy to forget that God meets us alone when we pray and in groups when we pray. When one prays, it is not an informational exchange because God already knows what we are going to say. Rather, it is a heart-language exchange, like a father who knows why his daughter is crying but just wants to be with her through her pain. It is as simple as a conversation with a human because “whatever makes for good friendship makes for good prayer.” Ignatian spirituality suggests that we enter into colloquy, or “little conversations,” with God.
As we learn trust and communicate more with God, we can excitedly anticipate intimacy toward God because interaction creates transformation. Abraham and Sarah’s story indicates growing transparency as even the human trait of humor develops between them and God indicating closer intimacy with Him. We start wanting more and more with him and everything else starts to diminish in comparison. “We want this Mystery more than we want anything or anyone else. . . . A long life, health, riches – these all pale in comparison to the Mystery we desire.” We can start to see and pray for God’s will, like Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane (Lk. 22:42), as we become more mature in wanting his will. We can see the dream that God has for us and for the world. And we can leave fear far behind.
Part of this growth includes the believer wanting to share in Christ’s passion and death. We learn that Jesus’ friendship means “we experience both an attraction to Jesus and his way of being human and resistance.” We may experience resistance and suffering in what God is asking us to do for him and deep emotions of pain may surface. But on the other side of resistance there lives hope. The result of pressing through the resistance is sharing the joy of the resurrected Jesus and the depth of that joy. “God is the goal. So is offering ourselves to God.” In addition, we learn to be compassionate toward those who suffer by pushing through our own suffering and inviting Christ into it. “We sometimes sense God beckoning us to reach out to other who struggle in similar ways. Is God asking us to use our suffering to bring healing and blessing to those around us?” We learn that God wants more than just obedience; he wants a willingness to go beyond and do more” like in the Parable of the unworthy servant (Lk. 17:7-10). Most importantly, this hope provides a sense of satisfaction because “you know in your bones that Jesus is risen and that you are one with him and will share in his resurrection.”
Divine friendship leads to abandonment of fear in favor of trust with God, trusting in the will of God for others and ourselves, and sharing suffering with those who suffer. It is a deep, soul-filling gift to have rich friendship with God filling a place in our hearts that no human could ever fill. Ultimately, Ignatius suggested God’s communication culminates in an image of “the Creator as a superabundant giver. He gives gifts that call forth a response on our part, a free choice to return ourselves to him in grateful thanks and love.” We are transformed by interaction with God. Through friendship with God, we learn to embrace and embody the tenets of The Suspice prayer, that the love and grace of God are enough for us for all of eternity.
Barry, William. A Friendship Like No Other. Chicago: LoyolaPress, 2008.
Fleming, David. What Is Ignatian Spirituality? Chicago: LoyolaPress, 2008.
Hudson, Trevor. Beyond Loneliness: The Gift of God’s Friendship. Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2016.
Hudson, Trevor. 2017. “Hearts on Fire: Exploring Christian Formation and Soul Care Through an Ignatian Lens.” Lecture, Franciscan Retreat Center, Colorado Springs, January 9–13.
Martin, James. The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life. New York City: HarperCollins Publishers, 2010.