Come Follow Me: What is a friend?

Jesus: You are my friend, but only if you do what I tell you.

“Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.” (John 15:14)

If we look at this verse from the Come Follow Me reading this week, and examine it by itself, it might make us think we are looking at the promises of a disingenuous person.  In fact, I remember when my daughter was younger, she had a “conditional” friend, who would only want to be with her if my daughter agreed to do what she wanted.  I remember talking to my heartbroken child, explaining that this other little girl was not being a good friend… she was being manipulative.

Of course, when our Master Jesus Christ (a man who loves less conditionally than any other) says it, we have to think deeper about what is meant.  What is a “friend”?  Why is this conditional?  There are several different perspectives about our relationship with Christ that can help us obtain a better understanding of what Jesus was saying.

First, consider the Milgram experiment.  This experiment was a psychological test in which the subject was told to administer shocks to a “learner” by an authority figure.  The participant was progressively instructed to press a button giving worse and worse electric shocks, ultimately resulting in the apparent death of the learner.  In truth, no actual electric shocks were given… they were only simulated.  Reactions of the person receiving the shocks were acted.

In spite of this, subjects were recorded as displaying signs of stress and questioning the authority figure.  Additionally, a large percentage of participants continued pressing the “shock” buttons after being assured by the authority figure, in spite of their discomfort.

Though there have been various interpretations of the experiment, there is an important comparison that can be drawn between this scenario and our relationship with Jesus Christ.  In fact, it was the weight of our sins and misdeeds that caused him to tremble because of pain, to bleed from every pore, and to plead with our Father for some other way. (D&C 19:18)

Metaphorically speaking, Jesus is being shocked, tormented, and tortured, and we are pushing the button to make it happen.

In this context, when Jesus says “ye are my friends if ye do whatsoever I command you,” it could be taken as, “I want to be your friend, but I really want you to stop pushing the button.”

In other words, the condition he places on friendship is that we treat him as an actual friend… that we realize the pain that our bad choices have directly caused him to endure… and that we use every means in our power to avoid tormenting him.  In this context, the very idea that he still seeks friendship with us, knowing we are responsible for his suffering, is notable.

Second, consider the context that Jesus provides in the surrounding verses.  “This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you.  Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.  Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.  Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.

Specifically, he is talking to his apostles, who considered themselves his servants, and the path of discipleship they began as servants has an end in a closer relationship.  In other words, if they continue on the path they started, (the “covenant path” as President Nelson has called it), the destination at the end is not something that looks like eternal servitude… but something that looks more like friendship.

Even before the end, because of his love for his apostles, he sacrificed himself so they would escape.  John records these events shortly after the heart-wrenching betrayal of Judas Iscariot:

“Then asked he them again, Whom seek ye?  And they said, Jesus of Nazareth.  Jesus answered, I have told you that I am he: if therefore ye seek me, let these go their way: That the saying might be fulfilled, which he spake, Of them which thou gavest me have I lost none.” (John 18:7-9)

Ultimately, this relationship extends to each of us who continue on the covenant path.  If we continue on it… if we do as he commanded… then the sacrifice he made when he laid down his life applies to us.  In spite of our guilt, a miraculous and cleansing forgiveness can be ours if we do our very best to follow him.  In other words, we can be his friends, for whom he laid down his life if we do what he has commanded us.

Finally, a context of humility can help us understand the passage.  Jesus told a parable describing this point:

“When thou art bidden of any man to a wedding, sit not down in the highest room; lest a more honorable man than thou be bidden of him;  And he that bade thee and him come and say to thee, Give this man place; and thou begin with shame to take the lowest room.  But when thou art bidden, go and sit down in the lowest room; that when he that bade thee cometh, he may say unto thee, Friend, go up higher: then shalt thou have worship in the presence of them that sit at meat with thee.  For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” (Luke 14:8-11, emphasis added)

Many well-intentioned people, having experienced the sweetness of Christ’s forgiveness, have called Jesus their friend.  Of course, I don’t know the full details of how Jesus feels about any other people… certainly not enough to give any sort of reprimand… but I do know something about my own relationship with Jesus. 

I would never presume to call him my friend.

He is my Master.  He is my King.  But he is so far above me, and I have done enough idiotic things in my life that, between the two of us, I would never dare be the one to claim we are friends.  My place is in the lowest room.

I do intend to live my life a bit better, every day striving to walk the covenant path, every day holding closer to the iron rod, and every day trying to do whatsoever he commands me, that perhaps one day he will call me “friend.”

While it may good to be wary of most people who place strict conditions on friendship… there is no one like Jesus.

I pray each of us will increase our humility before him, will seek to better understand him and his teachings, and will stop “pressing the button” that Christ may say to us, “Ye are my friends.”

Supplemental Reading:

Come, Follow Me – For Individuals and Families: New Testament 2019: June 3-9.

Make Our Lord and Master Your Friend” -Elder Harold B. Lee, October 1968

What is a Friend?” – Elder Marvin J. Ashton, October 1972

Abide in My Love” – Elder D. Todd Christofferson, October 2016

Brett Jensen manages The Ward Preacher. You can follow him on Twitter @wardpreacher.

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