There is a popular old Protestant hymn by Charles Crozat Converse that readers may have heard: “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” The hymn dates from 1868, but the words were borrowed from an 1855 poem called “Pray Without Ceasing” by an Irish member of the Plymouth Brethren, Joseph M. Scriven. Converse’s hymn is something of a classic in the Protestant Anglosphere.
That an Irishman’s poem set to music by a Yankee lawyer has been recorded by Steven Curtis Chapman and Ricky Skaggs, Mahalia Jackson, Alabama, Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson, and many more shows that the sentiments found therein speak to the souls of a denominationally, culturally, and geographically “ecumenical” collective of American Protestants.
But is Jesus really our “Friend”? He is Christ the King, the Head of the Mystical Body, our Redeemer, our Savior, the Eternal and Incarnate Wisdom, the Almighty Lord God, One of the Holy Trinity. How can I call him “Friend”? Isn’t that a bit too familiar — too chummy — considering Our Lord Jesus Christ’s Divine Majesty?
To grasp the truth of the matter, we must consider both the nature of friendship (something that is woefully misunderstood by contemporary men) and what it is that Jesus came to accomplish in His earthly mission, namely, man’s elevation into supernatural grace.
To put the nature of friendship very simply, true friendship is a love based upon mutual good will or benevolence; true friendship wishes the good for the other and does not see him as merely the source of pleasure or utility.
Jesus Christ came down to us to establish just that kind of relationship between God and man. But to establish it requires two things — both of which were accomplished by Our Lord: God’s “condescension” (his coming down to our level) in the Incarnation, and man’s divinization by grace. It is as if the Holy Roman Emperor were to stoop down to a poor little child and say, without losing his sacral dignity, “I want to be your friend,” and proceeds to make the tattered little street urchin a privileged member of the imperial household. It is like that, only much more extreme in the chasm it bridges.
Jesus first called His Disciples “friends” in His discourse after the Last Supper, when He had given them Himself in Holy Communion — that most intimate and elevated act of theandric friendship. But in that same discourse, He tells them of friendship’s demands: “You are my friends, if you do the things that I command you” (John 15:14).
What follows below this paragraph is an excerpt from the book, Grace, Actual and Habitual, by Rt. Rev. Msgr. Joseph Pohle, Ph.D., D.D., adapted and edited by Arthur Preuss. The Monsignor says very much in relatively few lines. For more on the subject of friendship, I refer readers to a paper I wrote concerning Saint Augustine’s ideas thereon, “Friends Forever: St. Augustine, Friendship, and Catholic Evangelism,” as well as an earlier Ad Rem on male friendship and its demise: “The Love of Masculinity.”
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Closely connected with the beauty which sanctifying grace confers [which he has just discussed in the book -BAM], is the supernatural friendship it establishes between God and the soul. True beauty elicits love and benevolence. By nature man is merely a servant of God; in fact, since the fall, he is His enemy. Sanctifying grace transforms this hostile relation into genuine friendship. By grace, says the Council of Trent, “a man of unjust becomes just, and of an enemy a friend.” And again: “Having been thus justified and made the friends and domestics of God.” God loves the just man as His intimate friend and enables and impels him, by means of habitual grace and habitual charity, to reciprocate that love with all his heart. Here we have the two constituent elements of friendship. The Bible frequently speaks of friendship existing between God and the just. Cfr. Wisd. VII, 14: “They [the just] become the friends of God.” John XV, 14, sq.: I will not now call you servants, … but I have called you friends.” This friendship is sometimes compared to a mystic marriage. Cfr. Matth. IX, 15: “And Jesus said to them: Can the children of the bridegroom mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them?” Apoc. XIX, 7: “The marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath prepared herself.”
Friendship (φιλία), according to Aristotle, is “the conscious love of benevolence of two persons for each other.” Hence, to constitute friendship, there must be (1) two or more distinct persons; (2) pure love of benevolence (amor benevolentiae, not concupiscientiae [love of benevolence, not love of concupiscence -BAM]), because only unselfish love can truly unite hearts; (3) mutual consciousness of affection, because without a consciousness of the existing relation on both sides, there would be merely one-sided benevolence, not friendship. It follows that true friendship is based on virtue and that a relation not based on virtue can be called friendship in a qualified or metaphorical sense only (amicitia utilis, delectabilis [useful or pleasurable friendship -BAM]).
From what we have said it is easy to deduce the essential characteristics of true friendship. They are: (1) benevolence [which is wishing good to the other -BAM]; (2) love consciously entertained by both parties; (3) a mutual exchange of goods or community of life; (4) equality of rank or station. The first condition is based on the fact that a true friend will not seek his own interest, but that of his friend. It is to be noted, however, that one’s joy at the presence or prosperity of a friend must not be inspired by selfishness or sensual desire, for in that case there would be no true friendship. The second condition is based on the necessity of friendship being mutual love, for friendship is not a one-sided affection, nor does it spend itself in mutual admiration. The third condition is necessary for the reason that love, if it is to be more than “Platonic,” must result in acts of benevolence and good will. Of the fourth condition St. Jerome says: “Friendship finds men equal or makes them equal.”
All these conditions are found in the friendship with which Almighty God deigns to honor those who are in the state of sanctifying grace.
(1) That God loves the just man with a love of pure benevolence and eagerly seeks his companionship, is proved by the mysteries of the Incarnation and the Holy Eucharist. Cfr. Prov. VIII, 31: “And my delight [is] to be with the children of men.”
(2) The just man is enabled to return God’s love by the habit of theological charity, which is inseparably bound up with and spontaneously flows from sanctifying grace. God’s consciousness of this mutual love is, of course, based on certain knowledge, whereas man can have a merely probably conjecture. This, however, suffices to establish a true friendship, as the example of human friends shows.
(3) There is also community of life and property between God and man when the latter is in the state of sanctifying grace; for not only is he indebted to God for his very nature and all natural favors which he enjoys, but likewise and especially for the supernatural blessings bestowed upon him. On his own part, it is true, he cannot give his Benefactor anything in return which that Benefactor does not already possess; but the just man is ever eager to further God’s external glorification, agreeable to the first petition of the Our Father: Hallowed be Thy name.” God has furthermore given him a kind of substitute of operative charity in the love of his neighbor, which has precisely the same formal object as the love of God. Cfr. I John III, 17: “He that hath the substance of this world, and shall see his brother in need, and shall shut up his bowels from him: how doth the charity of God abide in him?”
(4) There can be no real equality between God and the human soul, but God in His infinite goodness, elevating the soul to a higher plane and allowing it to participate in His own nature, makes possible an amicitia excellentiae s. eminentiae [the friendship of excellence or of eminence -BAM], which is sufficient to constitute a true relation of friendship. Without this elevation of the soul by grace there could be no friendship between God and man.