How do relationships begin? There is naturally not just one way, one place or one word needed to start a relationship. But is there a common process by which friendship is built from nothing to the point that neither party can imagine life without the other? Some friendships begin in childhood, their origins hazy with time, while others start late in life; but some factors, it seems, are essential to every friendship.
There must be some attentiveness to one’s setting to even start a relationship. As a boy, dedicated to the Temple in Bethel, Samuel heard the voice of God, but he could not identify it. He thought it was the voice of Eli, the priest to whom his mother Hannah had entrusted him. When he first heard God’s voice calling him out to him—“Samuel! Samuel!”—he ran to Eli saying, “Here I am!” Samuel mistook God’s voice for the voice of Eli two more times. Why did Samuel make this mistake?
It is simple: “Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.” Attentiveness is essential, but an introduction was needed. Eli, who already had a friendship with God, “perceived that the Lord was calling the boy” after the third time and tells Samuel that when God calls to him again he should say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” When God called on Samuel a fourth time, he knew he was speaking to God.
Attentive listening is essential to begin any friendship, but an introduction is often necessary, especially to God, whose voice can be mistaken, ignored or overlooked in a world that values distraction and cacophony over patient listening. An introduction, however, is not enough if there is no openness to begin and maintain a relationship.
We are told that as Samuel grew up, “the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.” We see this same openness to build a relationship with two of John the Baptist’s disciples. John introduced his disciples to Jesus, saying, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” John’s disciples take this introduction as an opportunity to follow after Jesus.
When Jesus saw them following, he asked them a direct question, “What are you looking for?” Their response tells us they were looking for a friend, for they asked Jesus where he was staying. Jesus offered them an open invitation: “Come and see.” They accepted the invitation and “remained with him that day.” It is time together that creates friendship.
And friendship begets friendship. We see this with Andrew, who was one of John’s two disciples. After getting to know Jesus, he returned to tell his brother Simon, proclaiming, “We have found the Messiah.” Andrew, who now knew Jesus, needed to share this friendship with his brother. And when Andrew brought Simon to Jesus, Jesus gave him the name Cephas, Aramaic for “rock.” Jesus, of course, had intimate knowledge of Simon, for friends give nicknames based on their knowledge of who a person is. Nicknames speak of the love and intimacy that is at the heart of friendship.
Attentiveness, openness, time and knowledge of each other create and sustain friendships. Paul warns against deceitful intimacy, like that with prostitutes in Corinth, which are based on the use of people. Paul focuses on the harm such false “friendships” create for the individual Christian and for the body of Christ.
Today we know that such relationships often involve the degradation and even enslavement of those involved in the sex trade, just as they did in Paul’s day, when most prostitutes were slaves. No real intimacy or friendship can emerge from the abuse of children, women or men in such relationships. Human relationships, like our relationship with God, must be based on attentiveness to the other and love freely offered.
There is no substitute in friendship for time; the more time we spend in conversation with God, the more deeply we know God. And the more God’s love animates us, the more we are able to offer ourselves to others around us with love. True love makes us unable to accept any other sort of relationship, because to know someone deeply is to see God in them and to wish for them the true freedom that comes from being a friend of God.