My mother adored flowers. The outside of our house was surrounded with all kinds of flowers that bloomed at different times during the summer. As a child, there was one particular flower bed, full of peonies, that always caught my early summer attention. Peonies are tall flowers topped with big, round buds that burst into even bigger blooms. Something very curious always happened when the peonies were in their bud stage: the ants would crawl all over them like they were on some miniature amusement park ride; it looked to me like great fun.
Since this happened every year, I assumed the ants were in some symbiotic relationship with the peonies. I marveled at God’s design in linking the ants to flowers. My imagination ran along the lines that they helped pollinate the peony buds like bees do with fruit trees. However, years later, after curiosity led me to do a little research, I learned that the ants are only attracted to the sweet resin seeping out of the buds. That’s it. The little gangster ants are only taking from the peonies and not giving anything in return. In fact, the peony buds will bloom regardless of the ants.
Ants on the peonies are like some “friends” we have in our lives. We may think that they care about us and want to be with us, but in fact, they only want something from us. We describe these kind of friends as “fair weather friends” or better yet as “takers and not givers.” A “taker friend” can leave us feeling used, and basically unlikable for who we are as a person. They cause us to check the caller ID on our phone, to switch aisles at the store when we see them, or ignore their Facebook friend request. Being used by a “taker friend” can even turn us away from others causing us to be distrustful of people in general and thus ruining future friendships.
But lay that image of a “taker friend” alongside of the friendship we might have with a loving parent or grandparent. In my case it would be my dad. Of course, as with any parent-child relationship, the close bond with my dad was formed by him being a giver and me being a taker. But after many years of this one-sided relationship in which he gave himself and helped me so unselfishly, a change took place when he became elderly; I relished opportunities to help him and honor him by giving my love to him.
By his initiative alone, he remakes our hearts to love him and others unselfishly.
This transition from being a taker to becoming a giver was created by my dad’s unselfish love for me. His love had shaped my heart into a willing instrument of joyful service to him. And in much the same way, God, by sending us Jesus Christ to live, die, and rise for us, shapes our hearts by his unconditional love and friendship. By his initiative alone, he remakes our hearts to love him and others unselfishly. As St. John put it: “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
In truth, when it comes to our relationships with God, we are all takers and not givers. Incurvatus in se is the Latin phrase used by Luther to describe us as “curved inward on ourselves,” and we humans with our fallen natures are really good at bending everything toward ourselves, and I mean everything, even God and his good gifts. We just can’t seem to help ourselves as St. Paul confessed,
For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing (Rom 7:18-19).
So as we navigate our way through this fallen world collecting fallen friends, we should always remember that true friendship is found in God, who despite our curved-in-on-ourselves natures, befriended us. It’s remarkable that unlike us, when we give ourselves in friendship to someone and then are hurt when we are taken advantage of, God knew well in advance what he was getting into with us. Instead of being guarded, distrustful, and holding back from us because of our selfish proclivities, he lavishly bestowed the privilege of his friendship upon us as expressed in these simple beautiful words of Jesus: “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15:16a).
It’s comforting to hear Jesus tell us that our friendship with him is by his choice, giving us the incredible security that his affection for us will not change.
It’s comforting to hear Jesus tell us that our friendship with him is by his choice, giving us the incredible security that his affection for us will not change. Whereas we expect human friendship to consist of a mutual choice and trust, with give and take being balanced, God’s friendship with us is blessedly lopsided. We can be thankful that Jesus owned the charge made against him that he was “a friend of sinners” (Matt 11:19). As a crowd gathering popular rabbi, healer, miracle worker, and Son of God; he never seemed to expect much from people, giving himself to the outcasts of society, beggars, prostitutes, and anyone else who could offer him absolutely nothing.
His kindness, friendship, and sacrifice have changed everything about our understanding of friendship. Scarred as we might be by “taker friends,” one look at the cross will dispel any trust issues we might project onto God from our fallen-world experiences. He has proven himself as a true friend of all us sinners bent inward as we are by our natural selfishness. St. Paul puts the capstone on this thought,
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5:6-8).
And, since we have been befriended and loved so unconditionally by God, we are released from holding back friendship from others. We need not expect human friendships to match or displace God’s love and acceptance of us for who we really are. He cannot love us anymore or any less than what he has already demonstrated to us on the cross; it’s undisputed and it’s more than enough! Disappointments with human friends will only take us deeper into God’s love, for in Christ, he is a friend like no other!