How I relate to God is important to how I image God. And my image of God affects how I relate to God. Do I see God primarily as omnipotent and even domineering, making me feel very tiny? If so, I’m probably not going to relate to God the same way I would to a close friend or lover. But if I see God as a friend or partner, I’m going to relate more personally—even intimately—with God.
It is often pointed out that St Ignatius said that we can speak to God as one friend speaks to another. This is true, but Ignatius goes deeper. In the Spiritual Exercises he writes, “The colloquy (conversational prayer) is made by speaking exactly as one friend speaks to another, or as a servant speaks to a master, now asking him for a favor, now blaming himself for some misdeed, now making known his affairs to him, and seeking advice in them” (SpEx, 54). The servant-master relationship Ignatius names here is not often mentioned. But we can see that Ignatius is at least open to different kinds of relationship metaphors, different images of God. He can understand that all of us relate to God in different ways, at different points in our life, and with different needs. After all, God meets us where we are and relates to us uniquely.
Still, Ignatius’ focus in his statement is really on a relationship based on intimacy, the kind of intimacy you might find in a deep friendship. Some may recoil at the idea of speaking to God as a friend, as if that is an inappropriate way to relate to the Creator. I have found many Christians preoccupied with the worry that they are “offending” God. They walk on eggshells with God, which is veiled as reverence. But being offended is generally a response of the ego, of our false selves. God does not have a “false self”. God’s response to our sin and failure is not offence, but mercy, compassion, and love – a desire for a deeper relationship! Let’s be more concerned about the depth of our love-relationship with God than worrying about “offending” God. I don’t approach my relationship with my wife by starting my day telling myself not to offend her (imagine the quality of our relationship if that was my constant focus). I start my day by committing my love to her. Sometimes we worry more about God’s well-being than our own well-being in God. God will be fine.
So Ignatius’ vision of friendship with God is grounded in a commitment of love. After all, speaking to someone like a friend shouldn’t imply disrespect. We can maintain reverence while seeing God as a friend. There’s a certain awe and reverence we might have in the presence of a close friend, a gratitude for their friendship, for being loved by them. And even the servant-master relationship Ignatius speaks of is reframed. Ignatius presents in the Exercises the image of co-labouring with Christ, working side-by-side with him for the kingdom. There’s a sense of mutual respect and care. Let’s examine Ignatius’ image of the God-human relationship and the four elements he sees in this relationship:
The colloquy is made by speaking exactly as one friend speaks to another, or as a servant speaks to a master, now asking him for a favor, now blaming himself for some misdeed, now making known his affairs to him, and seeking advice in them.
Ignatius speaks of a relationship of reliance, reconciliation, transparency, and advice-giving — whether you image your relationship with God as a friendship or as master and servant. It is a relationship that’s not about walking on eggshells but one of openness, humility, honesty, and care for one another, like any genuine friendship. There’s a deep mutual sharing of love. The better word is companionship. Companions share things with one another. They listen and care about the thoughts and hopes and dreams of the other. Companions share in their joys and struggles together. Ignatius writes, “Consider the office of consoler that Christ our Lord exercises, and compare it with the way in which friends are wont to console each other.” No wonder Ignatius called his new religious order the Companions of Jesus.
We have to get away from watered down contemporary ideas of friendship when we speak about the kind of friendship Ignatius imagines us having with God. C.S. Lewis says, “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” Friendship is just something we need as human beings. It is a kind of relationship that adds value and meaning to life. So why is it hard for many of us to live into that kind of relationship with God?
Much has to do with the images of God presented to us by our parents, church, and popular culture. Just search the word “God” on Google Images and you’ll see what I mean. These images can be helpful or unhelpful, but the problem is that they perpetuate. They are hard to escape and they work their way into our personal prayer and even the language of our liturgies. Yet when we examine scripture we discover a myriad of images and ways to relate to God. We also see how humanity’s relating to God has shifted over time from one of deep intimacy (Genesis 1, Song of Songs), to one of mystery and guidance (Wisdom, Sirach, some Psalms), to one of fear and trembling (see some of the historical books), back to one of intimacy manifested in Jesus.
Many of us have gotten stuck in the fear and trembling phase—the afraid-to-offend phase. Yet we can look to Ignatius holding the two images of friend and master together, honouring their wisdom and helpfulness, while at the same time keeping us focused on a mutual indwelling love, not fear and trembling. Because when we speak about any good relationship, it should never include fear and trembling. Good friendships are ones of deep companionship, love, and care.
Listen to the podcast version of this post…