Love Him, and keep Him for thy Friend, who, when all go away, will not forsake thee, nor suffer thee to perish at the last. - THOMAS A KEMPIS.
Hush, I pray you! What if this friend happen to be--God! - BROWNING.
The Higher Friendship
Life is an education in love. There are grades and steps in it, occasions of varying opportunity for the discipline of love. It comes to us at many points, trying us at different levels, that it may get entrance somehow, and so make our lives not altogether a failure. When we give up our selfishness and isolation, even in the most rudimentary degree, a beginning is made with us that is designed to carry us far, if we but follow the leading of our hearts. There is an ideal toward which all our experience points. If it were not so, life would be a hopeless enigma, and the world a meaningless farce. There must be a spiritual function intended, a design to build up strong and true moral character, to develop sweet and holy life, otherwise history is a despair, and experience a hopeless riddle. All truly great human life has been lived with a spiritual outlook, and on a high level. Men have felt instinctively that there is no justification for all the pain, and strife, and failure, and sorrow of the world, if these do not serve a higher purpose than mere existence. Even our tenderest relationships need some more authoritative warrant than is to be found in themselves, even in the joy and hope they bring. That joy cannot be meant as an empty lure to keep life on the earth.
And spiritual man has also discovered that the very breakdown of human ties leads out to a larger and more permanent love. It is sooner or later found that the most perfect love cannot utterly satisfy the heart of man. All our human intercourse, blessed and helpful as it may be, must be necessarily fragmentary and partial. A man must discover that there is an infinite in him, which only the infinite can match and supply. It is no disparagement of human friendship to admit this. It remains a blessed fact that it is possible to meet devotion, which makes us both humble and proud; humble at the sight of its noble sacrifice, proud with a glad pride at its wondrous beauty. Man is capable of the highest heights of love. But man can never take the place of God, and without God life is shorn of its glory and divested of its meaning.
So the human heart has ever craved for a relationship, deeper and more lasting than any possible among men, undisturbed by change, unmenaced by death, unbroken by fear, unclouded by doubt. The limitations and losses of earthly friendship are meant to drive us to the higher friendship. Life is an education in love, but the education is not complete till we learn the love of the eternal. Ordinary friendship has done its work when the limits of friendship are reached, when through the discipline of love we are led into a larger love, when a door is opened out to a higher life. The sickness of heart which is the lot of all, the loneliness which not even the voice of a friend can dispel, the grief which seems to stop the pulse of life itself, find their final meaning in this compulsion toward the divine. We are sometimes driven out not knowing whither we go, not knowing the purpose of it; only knowing through sheer necessity that here we have no abiding city, or home, or life, or love; and seeking a city, a home, a life, a love, that hath foundations.
We have some training in the love of friends, as if only to prove to us that without love we cannot live. All our intimacies are but broken lights of the love of God. They are methods of preparation for the great communion. In so far even that our earthly friendships are helps to life, it is because they are shot through with the spiritual, and they prepare us by their very deficiencies for something more permanent. There have been implanted in man an instinct, and a need, which make him discontented, till he find content in God. If at any time we are forced to cease from man, whose breath is in his nostrils, it is that we may reach out to the infinite Father, unchanging, the same yesterday, to-day, and forever. This is the clamant, imperious need of man.
The solitude of life in its ultimate issue is because we were made for a higher companionship. It is just in the innermost sanctuary, shut to every other visitant, that God meets us. We are driven to God by the needs of the heart. If the existence of God was due to a purely intellectual necessity; if we believed in Him only because our reason gave warrant for the faith; it would not matter much whether He really is, and whether we really can know Him. But when the instincts of our nature, and the necessities of the heart-life demand God, we are forced to believe. In moments of deep feeling, when all pretence is silenced, a man may be still able to question the existence of God, but he does not question his own need of God. Man, to remain man, must believe in the possibility of this relationship with the divine. There is a love which passeth the love of women, passeth the love of comrades, passeth all earthly love, the love of God to the weary, starved heart of man.
To believe in this great fact does not detract from human friendship, but really gives it worth and glory. It is because of this, that all love has a place in the life of man. All our worships, and friendships, and loves, come from God, and are but reflections of the divine tenderness. All that is beautiful, and lovely and pure, and of good repute, finds its appropriate setting in God; for it was made by God. He made it for Himself. He made man with instincts, and aspirations, and heart-hunger, and divine unrest, that He might give them full satisfaction in Himself. He claims everything, but He gives everything. Our human relationships are sanctified and glorified by the spiritual union. He gives us back our kinships, and friendships, with a new light on them, an added tenderness, transfiguring our common ties and intimacies, flooding them with a supernal joy. We part from men to meet with God, that we may be able to meet men again on a higher platform. But the love of God is the end and design of all other loves. If the flowers and leaves fade, it is that the time of ripe fruit is at hand. If these adornments are taken from the tree of life, it is to make room for the supreme fruitage. Without the love of God all other love would be but deception, luring men on to the awful disillusionment. We were born for the love of God; if we do not find it, it were better for us if we had never been born. We may have tasted of all the joys the world can offer, have known success and the gains of success, been blessed with the sweetest friendships and the fiercest loves; but if we have not found this the chief end of life, we have missed our chance, and can only have at the last a desolated life.
But if through the joy or through the sorrow of life, through love or the want of it, through the gaining of friends or the loss of them, we have been led to dower our lives with the friendship of God, we are possessed of the incorruptible, and undefiled, and that passeth not away. The man who has it has attained the secret cheaply, though it had to be purchased with his heart's blood, with the loss of his dream of blessedness. When the fabric of life crumbled to its native dust, and he rose out of its wreck, the vision of the eternal love came with the thrill of a great revelation. It was the entrance into the mystery, and the wonder of it awed him, and the joy of it inspired him, and he awakened to the fact that never again could he be alone to all eternity.
Communion with God is the great fact of life. All our forms of worship, all our ceremonies and symbols of religion, find their meaning here. There is, it is true, an ethic of religion, certain moral teachings valuable for life: there are truths of religion to be laid hold of by the reason: there are the consolations of religion to comfort the heart: but the root of all religion is this mystical union, a communion with the Unseen, a friendship with God open to man. Religion is not an acceptance of a creed, or a burden of commandments, but a personal secret of the soul, to be attained each man for himself. It is the experience of the nearness of God, the mysterious contact with the divine, and the consciousness that we stand in a special individual relationship with Him. The first state of exaltation, when the knowledge burst upon the soul, cannot, of course, last; but its effect remains in inward peace, and outward impulse toward nobler life.
Men of all ages have known this close relationship. The possibility of it is the glory of life: the fact of it is the romance of history, and the true reading of history. All devout men that have ever lived have lived in the light of this communion. All religious experience has had this in common, that somehow the soul is so possessed by God, that doubt of His existence ceases; and the task of life becomes to keep step with Him, so that there may be correspondence between the outer and the inner conditions of life. Men have known this communion in such a degree that they have been called pre-eminently the Friends of God, but something of the experience which underlies the term is true of the pious of all generations.
To us, in our place in history, communion with God comes through Jesus Christ. It is an ineffable mystery, but it is still a fact of experience. Only through Jesus do we know God, His interest in us, His desire for us, His purpose with us. He not only shows us in His own example the blessedness of a life in fellowship with the Father, but He makes it possible for us. United to Jesus, we know ourselves united to God. The power of Jesus is not limited to the historical impression made by His life. It entered the world as history; it lives in the world as spiritual fact to-day. Luther's experience is the experience of all believers, "To me it is not simply an old story of an event that happened once; for it is a gift, a bestowing, that endures forever." We offer Christ the submission of our hearts, and the obedience of our lives; and He offers us His abiding presence. We take Him as our Master; and He takes us as His friends. "I call you no longer servants," He said to His disciples, "but I have called you friends." The servant knoweth not what his Master doeth, his only duty is to obey; a friend is admitted to confidence, and though he may do the same thing as a servant, he does not do it any longer unreasoningly, but, having been taken into counsel, he knows why he is doing it. This was Christ's method with His disciples, not to apportion to each his task, but to show them His great purpose for the world, and to ask for their service and devotion to carry it out.
The distinction is not that a servant pleases his master, and a friend pleases himself. It is that our Lord takes us up into a relationship of love with Himself, and we go out into life inspired with His spirit to work His work. It begins with the self-surrender of love; and love, not fear nor favor, becomes the motive. To feel thus the touch of God on our lives changes the world. Its fruits are joy, and peace, and confidence that all the events of life are suffused, not only with meaning, but with a meaning of love. The higher friendship brings a satisfaction of the heart, and a joy commensurate to the love. Its reward is itself, the sweet, enthralling relationship, not any adventitious gain it promises, either in the present, or for the future. Even if there were no physical, or moral, rewards and punishments in the world, we would still love and serve Christ for His own sake. The soul that is bound by this personal attachment to Jesus has a life in the eternal, which transfigures the life in time with a great joy.
We can see at once that to be the friend of God will mean peace also. It has brought peace over the troubled lives of all His friends throughout the ages. Every man who enters into the covenant, knows the world to be a spiritual arena, in which the love of God manifests itself. He walks no longer on a sodden earth and under a gray sky; for he knows that, though all men misunderstand him, he is understood, and followed with loving sympathy, in heaven. It was this confidence in God as a real and near friend, which gave to Abraham's life such distinction, and the calm repose which made his character so impressive. Strong in the sense of God's friendship, he lived above the world, prodigal of present possessions, because sure of the future, waiting securely in the hope of the great salvation. He walked with God in sweet unaffected piety, and serene faith, letting his character ripen in the sunshine, and living out his life as unto God not unto men. To know the love of God does not mean the impoverishing of our lives, by robbing them of their other sweet relations. Rather, it means the enriching of these, by revealing their true beauty and purpose. Sometimes we are brought nearer God through our friends, if not through their influence or the joy of their love, then through the discipline which comes from their very limitations and from their loss. But oftener the experience has been that, through our union with the Friend of friends, we are led into richer and fuller intercourse with our fellows. The nearer we get to the centre of the circle, the nearer we get to each other. To be joined together in Christ is the only permanent union, deeper than the tie of blood, higher than the bond of kin, closer than the most sacred earthly relationship. Spiritual kinship is the great nexus to unite men. "Who are My brethren?" asked Jesus, and for answer pointed to His disciples, and added, "Whosoever shall do the will of My Father in heaven the same is My mother and sister and brother."
We ought to make more of our Christian friendships, the communion of the saints, the fellowship of believers. "They that feared God spake often one with another," said the prophet Malachi in one of the darkest hours of the church. What mutual comfort, and renewed hope, they would get from, and give to, each other! Faith can be increased, and love stimulated, and enthusiasm revived by intercourse. The supreme friendship with Christ therefore will not take from us any of our treasured intimacies, unless they are evil. It will increase the number of them, and the true force of them. It will link us on to all who love the same Lord in sincerity and truth. It will open our heart to the world of men that Jesus loved and gave His life to save.
This friendship with the Lord knows no fear of loss; neither life, nor death, nor things present, nor things to come can separate us. It is joy and strength in the present, and it lights up the future with a great hope. We are not much concerned about speculations regarding the future; for we know that we are in the hands of our Lover. All that we care to assert of the future is, that Christ will in an ever fuller degree be the environment of all Christian souls, and the effect of that constant environment will fulfil the aspiration of the apostle, "We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is." Communion produces likeness. This even now is the test of our friendship with the Lord. Are we assimilating His mind, His way of looking at things, His judgments, His spirit? Is the Christ-conscience being developed in us? Have we an increasing interest in the things which interest Him, an increasing love of the things that He loves, an increasing desire to serve the purposes He has at heart? "Ye are My friends if ye do whatsoever I command you," is the test by which we can try ourselves.
Fellowship with Him, being much in His company, thinking of Him, seeking to please Him, will produce likeness, and bring us together on more intimate terms. For, as love leads to the desire for fuller fellowship; so fellowship leads to a deeper love. Even if sometimes we almost doubt whether we are really in this blessed covenant of friendship, our policy is to go on loving Him, serving Him, striving to please Him; and we will yet receive the assurance, which will bring peace; He will not disappoint us at the last. It is worth all the care and effort we can give, to have and to keep Him for our friend who will be a lasting possession, whose life enters into the very fibre of our life, and whose love makes us certain of God.
We ought to use our faith in this friendship to bless our lives. To have an earthly friend, whom we trust and reverence, can be to us a source of strength, keeping us from evil, making us ashamed of evil. The dearer the friend and the more spiritual the friendship, the keener will be this feeling, and the more needful does it seem to keep the garments clean. It must reach its height of intensity and of moral effectiveness in the case of friendship with God. There can be no motive on earth so powerful. If we could only have such a friendship, we see at once what an influence it might have over our life. We can appreciate more than the joy, and peace, and comfort of it; we can feel the power of it. To know ourselves ever before a living, loving Presence, having a constant sense of Christ abiding in us, taking Him with us into the marketplace, into our business and our pleasure, to have Him as our familiar friend in joy and sorrow, in gain and loss, in success and failure, must, in accordance with all psychological law, be a source of strength, lifting life to a higher level of thought, and feeling, and action. Supposing it were true and possible, it would naturally be the strongest force in the world, the most effective motive that could be devised: it would affect the whole moral outlook, and make some things easy now deemed impossible, and make some things impossible now to our shame too easy. Supposing this covenant with God were true, and we knew ourselves to have such a Lover of our soul, it would, as a matter of course, give us deeper and more serious views of human life, and yet take away from us the burden and the unrest of life.
Unless history be a lie, and experience a delusion, it is true. The world is vocal with a chorus of witness to the truth of it. From all sorts and conditions of men comes the testimony to its reality--from the old, who look forward to this Friend to make their bed in dying; from the young, who know His aid in the fiery furnace of temptation; from the strong, in the burden of the day and the dust of the battle, who know the rest of His love even in the sore labor; from the weak, who are mastered by His gracious pity, and inspired by His power to suffer and to bear. Christ's work on earth was to make the friendship of God possible to all. It seems too good to be true, too wondrous a condescension on His part, but its reality has been tested, and attested, by generations of believers. This covenant of friendship is open to us, to be ours in life, and in death, and past the gates of death.
The human means of communication is prayer, though we limit it sadly. Prayer is not an act of worship merely, the bending of the knee on set occasions, and offering petitions in need. It is an attitude of soul, opening the life on the Godward side, and keeping free communication with the world of spirit. And so, it is possible to pray always, and to keep our friendship ever green and sweet: and God comes back upon the life, as dew upon the thirsty ground. There is an interchange of feeling, a responsiveness of love, a thrill of mutual friendship.
You must love Him, ere to you He shall seem worthy of your love.
The great appeal of the Christian faith is to Christian experience. Loving Christ is its own justification, as every loving heart knows. Life evidences itself: the existence of light is its own proof. The power of Christ on the heart needs no other argument than itself. Men only doubt when the life has died out, and the light has waned, and flickered, and spent itself. It is when there is no sign of the spirit in our midst, no token of forces beyond the normal and the usual, that we can deny the spirit. It is when faith is not in evidence that we can dispute faith. It is when love is dead that we can question love. The Christian faith is not a creed, but a life; not a proposition, but a passion. Love is its own witness to the soul that loves: communion is its own attestation to the spirit that lives in the fellowship. The man who lives with Jesus knows Him to be a Lover that cleaves closer than a brother, a Friend that loveth at all times, and a Brother born for adversity.
It does not follow that there is an end of the question, so far as we are concerned, if we say that we at least do not know that friendship, and cannot love Him. Some even say it with a wistful longing, "Oh, that I knew where I might find Him." It is true that love cannot be forced, that it cannot be made to order, that we cannot love because we ought, or even because we want. But we can bring ourselves into the presence of the lovable. We can enter into Friendship through the door of Discipleship; we can learn love through service; and the day will come to us also when the Master's word will be true, "I call you no longer servant, but I call you friend." His love will take possession of us, till all else seems as hatred in comparison. "All lovers blush when ye stand beside Christ," says Samuel Rutherford; "woe unto all love but the love of Christ. Shame forevermore be upon all glory but the glory of Christ; hunger forevermore be upon all heaven but Christ. I cry death, death be upon all manner of life but the life of Christ."
To be called friends by our Master, to know Him as the Lover of our souls, to give Him entrance to our hearts, is to learn the meaning of living, and to experience the ecstasy of living. The Higher Friendship is bestowed without money and without price, and is open to every heart responsive to God's great love.
'T is only heaven that is given away, 'T is God alone may be had for the asking.