I have an Evangelical friend (I’ll call him Tom) with whom I regularly meet for coffee to engage in friendly “debate” over our differing theological views.
In one of our earlier meetings, beginning to explain the Catholic understanding of predestination against his more-or-less Calvinist view, I premised that God created man for friendship with him. I thought this was a pretty uncontroversial proposition. However, Tom disagreed; allowing only that we were created to be God’s children. Tom seemed uncomfortable with the egalitarian flavor his concept of friendship would have implied in a relationship between God and his creatures in light of his Calvinistic view of God’s sovereignty.
Tom arrayed his unassailable scripture passages declaring our relationship as children of God. But, I did not have the presence of mind to refer to Jesus’ words recorded in John 15:15. Rather, I resorted to some advice by St. Josemaria Escriva that I long ago took to heart: “The ideal attitude of parents lies more in becoming their children’s friends—friends who will be willing to share their anxieties, who will listen to their problems, who will help them in an effective and agreeable way.”
There is no dichotomy between being a parent and being a friend, I told Tom. In fact, on the contrary, the essence of being a good parent is to be a good friend. The friendship of parents to their children ought to be a reflection of the friendship of God to his children: actively seeking their good even to the point of self-sacrifice. So, I argued, God is the truest and best of friends, though we are still his children. Tom seemed to be satisfied with this approach, and we moved on to other topics.
Later, however, as I reflected on our conversation and my experience as a parent of now-adult children, I began to consider that perhaps God expects more from our friendship with him—or, stated another way: perhaps God offers us more than we think when he offers us his friendship.
St. John invites us to marvel at the love God has for us that we should truly be God’s children (1 Jn. 3:1), but he goes on to say that this childhood is not our destiny. He says that our ultimate existence has not yet been revealed, except to this extent: “when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 Jn. 3:2).
To be sure, in this life, we must aspire to become like little children (Matt. 18:3, Jn. 13:33), who are also Jesus’ friends (Jn. 15:15). And, we are to be friends with Jesus in the least of his brothers and sisters. (Matt. 25:40.) Yet, St. Peter tells us something quite startling: in Christ, God enables us and promises that we “may come to share in the divine nature…” (2 Pet. 1:4). St. Paul likewise reflects this reality when he exclaims, “I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). In our own time, St. John Paul the Great quotes St. Augustine that, by virtue of our baptism “we have not only become Christians, but Christ himself…” (Christefideles Laici, No. 17).
The whole project of the Christian life, then, is to become each day more and more identified with Jesus Christ, “growing up in every way,” until we attain full human maturity, “to the extent of the full stature of Christ” (cf. Eph. 4:13, 15). Moreover, Jesus insists that, here and now, we must strive to be perfected in love, in mercy, even as the Father is perfect and merciful (Matt. 5:48, Lk. 6:36). Christ’s mission is to show us how to be fully human—for each of us to become the human being the Father has created us to be—by taking hold of our participation in his divine nature. The gift of salvation is nothing less than the gift of this divination.
Whereas Jesus is God by nature, begotten from all eternity, we human beings are intended by God’s design to participate in his divine nature by adoption, in and through Jesus. This is no mere analogy, but a reality. This fact is so fundamental that it is set forth as the first point of the Catechism: “God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life… In his Son and through him, he invites men to become, in the Holy Spirit, his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life.”
Herein lies the dignity of every human being, Christian or not: God has made each person for eternal friendship with Him in a familial communion of ineffable intimacy (cf. Mk. 30:31-35). The personal completion—the fullness of life—inherent in the intimacy of this shared divinity is utterly beyond the capacity of our mortal comprehension (1 Cor. 29).
The Second Vatican Council teaches that Jesus’ prayer for unity (Jn. 17: 21-22) implies a likeness between “the union of the divine Persons and the union of God’s children in truth and charity,” revealing a reality “closed to human reason” (Gadium et Spes, No. 24). This likeness of man to God means that, as God is gift, so also must man become gift, if he is to achieve the fulfillment of his being. St. John Paul the Great explains it this way:
The foundation of the whole human “ethos” is rooted in the image and likeness of God which the human being bears within himself from the beginning… The model for this interpretation of the person is God himself as Trinity, as a communion of Persons. To say that man is created in the image and likeness of God means that man is called to exist “for” others, to become a gift. (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women, No. 7.)
One’s identification with God-as-gift is the essence of one’s personal fulfillment: “Being a person means striving towards self-realization … which can only be achieved ‘through a sincere gift of self ’” (ibid.).
The bitterest irony of human history is man’s obsessive, delusional pursuit of self-divinization through self-assertion and the exaltation of his own power, when it is God’s deepest longing to bestow on each person his own divinity.
Man’s perennial sin is to assert his own power by grasping for what God has already freely offered. This sin of self-assertion is the denial of God in his essence as Giver and Gift and it is likewise a denial of man in his essence—i.e., as made-in-the-image-of-God.
What God offers man from all eternity is the sincere gift of himself. He extends to man his love, which just is himself—his divine nature (1 Jn. 4:8, 16). Created in the image of God, man cannot be truly man unless, like God, he makes a sincere and total gift of himself—to God directly and to God-in-Jesus’-least-brethren (Matt. 25:40).
A person’s sincere gift of self depends in the first instance upon his acceptance of God’s gift of himself—his love. “In this is love; not that we have loved God, but that God loved us [first]…” (1 Jn. 4:10).
The appropriate posture of a person before God, therefore, is that of one-who-receives. It is a posture characterized by surrender, self-negation, and longing for communion, like Jesus, who “did not regard equality with God something to be grasped, but [who] emptied himself…” (Phil. 2:6-7).
God’s nature is to love; but it is also his nature to be loved. In a letter to her sister, St. Therese of Lisieux goes so far as to say God needs love: “There is but one thing … to love Jesus, and to save souls for Him that He may be more loved… He is in such need of love” (July 14, 1889).
Of course, in an ontological sense, God does not need us; we are wholly contingent beings. Nevertheless, in a mysterious way that we will probably never fully understand, but hopefully we will fully experience, God’s having willed our existence, we are in some sense necessary to God. It is the necessity that is borne of love.
As it is with God, so it is for us, his children: we need to be loved—we need to open ourselves up to receive love. This mutual need between God and each one of us is as radical a proposition as can be imagined. It only makes sense, if we understand God as a communion of persons and if we understand ourselves as persons also, in God’s image.
Yet, we need God’s help to do this. Some years ago a conference speaker shared this prayer: “God let me let you love me. And more: Make me to let you love me. Open me to receive your love. For then, I shall not fail to love you and to love others with you.”
Renewal in the Church and the New Evangelization depend upon each of us making real in our lives, and thereafter bearing witness to, this profound anthropological reality: We are created for a friendship of limitless intimacy with God.