What a Friend We Have in Jesus, but You Can Have Others
I’m not sure how many churches sing it today, but Joseph Schriven’s poem—set to music by Charles Crozat Converse—is still widely recognised. Even though you’ve never heard of either of those men, you know the rousing hymn: What a Friend We Have in Jesus. Reflecting on its words recently, I decided to try and reverse engineer it, exploring what it might teach us about friendship.
The question I had regarding the hymn was this: what makes Jesus such a great friend? And are those attributes and abilities exclusive to him? Put differently, do we celebrate the glorious friendship that Jesus provides, while settling for much poorer imitations among one other? Using What a Friend We Have in Jesus, let me suggest three things that make a great friend and meaningful friendships.
Recognise Our Shared Humanity
What a Friend We Have in Jesus succeeded, in part, because of its theology, particularly its Christology. The hymn celebrates God’s identification with us, with humanity, through the incarnation. As one biblical writers says, the Son shared in our flesh and blood (Hebrews 2:14), being tempted like us in every respect (Hebrews 4:15). Because of his humanity, Jesus is truly able to sympathise with our weaknesses. He understands us. He knows our condition, “our every weakness.” So the hymn urges us to bring our prayers to him. We approach him as friends. Indeed, what a friend we have in Jesus.
Does that point not apply to the other humans in our life? Yes, they might “despise, forsake thee.” True, there is no “friend so faithful” as Jesus. Yet the people around you, those who’re genuinely invested in you, committed to your wellbeing, participate completely in the weight of being human. Even if they don’t share in your specific circumstances, they share your general condition, with its countless highs and inevitable lows. So while they may not understand everything you’re experiencing, they have a good idea about most of it. This really lays the foundations for other two.
Readily Bear Each Other’s Sins
The hymn opens with these lines: “What a friend we have in Jesus, / all our sins and griefs to bear!” Amen. For Jesus is our “precious Saviour.” The only Saviour. The joke is true: without Christ, the Christian is left with Ian, and he isn’t saving anyone. Jesus—and Jesus alone—bears God’s just wrath against our sins.
However, in his Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes Christian love and community as sin bearing. Though we don’t bear the penalty for one another’s sin, we can shoulder its implications and consequences. So true Christian friendship is costly. Conversely, it doesn’t keep a relational check and balance. Christian friendship demands that we absorb one another’s failings and foibles. In friendship, we get to imitate Christ by showing mercy to those we love, offering grace instead of judgment, acceptance rather than accusations.
Risk Being Vulnerable and Weak
The second stanza exhorts us to take our “troubles” to Jesus, for as we saw above he bears both our sins and grief. Then the third stanza asks: “Are we weak and heavy laden, / cumbered with a load of care?” Honest answers only. None of us are strangers to suffering. Few of us are without troubles. And most of us regularly feel “weak” and overburdened. Take it to the Lord, in prayer. Of course. Because of Christ we can confidently draw near to the throne of grace to receive mercy and grace in our time of need (Hebrews 4:16).
Yet, he isn’t the only person we can turn to when “heavy laden” and weighed down by “troubles.” Just as friends can bear our sins, so too they exist to help carry our grief. Friendship is forged in vulnerability, to adapt a point from St Aelred’s Spiritual Friendship.
Whenever I write about friendship I realise that its painful, palpable absence is due to our inability to lean on others—even Nietzsche knew this. As Eugene Peterson writes: “In giving friendship we share strength, but in receiving it we show weakness.” But who wants to appear weak, needy, or dependant? Sure, we will occasionally make those admissions as we seek God’s help. Will we do the same with our friends? If we’re willing to, we’ll enjoy much richer, more intimate friendships.
“O What Peace We often Forfeit”
The closing lines of our hymn are wonderfully reassuring, depicting Jesus’ wide-armed embrace of all who come to him: “In his arms he’ll take and shield you; / you will find a solace there.” This alludes back to the first stanza: “O what peace we often forfeit, / O what needless pain we bear, / All because we do not carry / Everything to God in prayer.”
Jesus is the rest for our burdened, weary souls (Matthew 11:28-30). He gives “peace” and “solace.” But so can friendships, if we: (1) recognise our shared condition; (2) bear each other’s sins; and (3) allow ourselves to be weak and vulnerable.