Denn der Herr ist freundlich–the doctrine of friendship

For CH

It’s summer, the perfect time to indulge one’s middlebrow entertainment preferences. I’ve been listening to a lot of Mendelssohn.

I really love Mendelssohn’s small choral works, and I’ve been especially taken with his two settings of Psalm 100. In particular, the line which we have in the KJV as “for the Lord is good” is something M. lingers over, especially in Opus 69. In German, the text is “denn der Herr ist freundlich,” which is richer than “good”, and raises a lot of questions for me. “Freundlich” could sort of mean “kindly,” which would fit with other references to the Lord’s “lovingkindness” and “compassion,” but there’s really no escaping the root “Freund”–friend.

What could it possibly mean for the Lord to be “friendly” to his children? And how ought human beings to respond to proferred divine friendship? Mormons may be uniquely positioned among Christians to entertain the idea that God could regard human beings as friends: we reject the notion of original sin as a gulf dividing us endlessly from God, and we believe that, as God’s “work and glory” is “to bring about the immortality and eternal life of man,” we are to be not just passive recipients of (future) glory, but active participants in the saving work of God. The Kingdom of God is, to Mormons, not to be installed fully created at the Second Coming, but to be at least partially created by human endeavor. This is one place where, pace Stephen Robinson, the divide between Mormons and most of the rest of the Christian world is very wide indeed.

Still, it’s certainly not a notion that is uniquely Mormon–many of the loveliest statements of the idea that I know come from Protestant hymns like this one, especially in the context of Christ’s suffering and death. Our hymn #185 makes a similar reference, only with the powerful conceit of speaking in the Savior’s voice, in one of a few lines in the hymnal that reliably reduce me to tears: “I have loved thee as thy friend, with a love that cannot end.” This conception of Christ as friend is grounded, of course, in His words at the Last Supper: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” My favorite example of Christ as friend, though, is on a smaller, more comprehensible scale, not in Gethsemane, but in Bethany, when he weeps with his friends Mary and Martha: “When Jesus therefore saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews also weeping with her, he groaned in the spirit, and was troubled. …Jesus wept. Then said the Jews, Behold how he loved him!” Indeed, and how he loved Lazarus’ sisters and friends, and wept with them in their pain, even though he understood how little death really meant. Lazarus’ death was to him a small thing, but his friends’ sadness was not.

The Old Testament also has (at least) one reference to friendship between God and man, in Exodus 33, verse 11: “And the Lord spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend.” For me, though, the fullest illustration of the possibility of friendship comes in the Doctrine and Covenants. Reading through the D&C in roughly chronological order (1), one gets a glimpse of God and Joseph working together, with God clearly way ahead and Joseph muddling along behind, but slowly, in the pursuit of a shared ambition, Joseph seems to “get” God better; their communication seems to flow more freely (and to revolve less frequently around small practical details). Near the end of Joseph’s life, Joseph’s recording of God’s voice starts to sound more like the God we know from scripture–in the later revelations the scriptural metaphors and the exalted pitch of the language become more consistent and seem somehow to belong to Joseph more fully. (2) To me, this mirrors the progression of many earthly friendships–we begin working together, maybe quite unequally yoked at first, but then start to work well, and to understand each other and finish each other’s sentences and not need to confer about every small detail. We adopt the language patterns of friends we admire and spend time with. And the God of the Doctrine and Covenants is so marvelously engaged with Joseph and the apostles–there are verses where we almost hear the exasperated sighs, so many places where God says “ok, I’m forgiving you all your sins again; now can we get on with it?!” And, of course, so many verses of such tenderness, of God wanting to be close, wanting to love, to touch, to be both parent and friend (like an earthly parent looking forward to the day when those teenagers will be as grown up as think they are, and ready to be friends with their parents on a more equal footing).

It seems to me that Joseph would naturally speak to God “as a man speaketh to his friend”, because he craved friendship, and valued it so deeply, and because he viewed the “sociality” of heaven as similar in kind to the best of human relations. Throughout his life, he taught that “Friendship is one of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism'” (_Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 316). In his rejection of creedal requirements for joining the Saints, Joseph also made friendship one of the primary functional mechanisms for the church; in his occasional tirades against apostates, we read not primarily disagreement with false ideas, but hurt and anger and disappointment at the betrayal of friendship. Both within and without the Church, he preached that friendship was the means by which people would be converted. To the Relief Society: “Nothing is so much calculated to lead people to forsake sin as to take them by the hand, and watch over them with tenderness. When persons manifest the least kindness and love to me, O what power it has over my mind… Sisters of the society, shall there be strife among you? I will not have it. You must repent, and get the love of God” (TotPJS, 240).

This love of God was always, for Joseph, something that expanded, rather than contracted, one’s affections–the effect was always liberalizing. Despite having been told, and clearly believing, that the creeds of other churches were an “abomination” to God, Joseph maintained that friendliness is God’s posture towards all human beings, and ought to be ours, as well. “Friendship,” he said, “is like Brother Turley in his blacksmith shop welding iron to iron; it unites the human family with its happy influence.” And, “We believe in the Great Elohim who sits enthroned in yonder heavens. So do the Presbyterians. If a skilful mechanic, in taking a welding heat, uses borax, alum, etc., and succeeds in welding together iron or steel more perfectly than any other mechanic, is he not deserving of praise? And if by the principles of truth I succeed in uniting men of all denominations in the bonds of love, shall I not have attained a good object?” (TotPJS 313, 316)

Friendship, like most principles of the gospel, was not an abstract or theoretical construct for Joseph. He believed in it as a real, practical force in the world. Brigham Young recorded that Joseph said to Jedediah M. Grant, suffering from a stomach ailment, “If I could always be with you I could cure you.” (JD III, 12, cited in Truman Madsen, _Four Essays on Love_). And, as with other principles of the gospel, Joseph taught that the power of friendship extended beyond mortality. Benjamin Johnson recalled that “…the Prophet taught us that Dominion & powr in the great Future would be Comensurate with the no. of “Wives Childin & Friends” that we inheret here and that our great mission to earth was to Organize a Neculi [nucleus] of Heaven to take with us…” (cited in Compton, _In Sacred Loneliness_, 10.) Indeed, heaven for Joseph was defined by the presence of friends: “…let me be resurrected with the Saints, whether I ascend to heaven or descend to hell, or go to any other place. And if we go to hell, we will turn the devils out of doors and make a heaven of it.” (TotPJS, 316). Joseph’s vision of the continuity of friendship between this life and the next was such that he believed Saints ought to be buried near their fellows. My very favorite (3) of his sermons extolling friendship was preached at the funeral of Lorenzo Barnes. He said “When I heard of the death of our beloved Brother Barnes, it would not have affected me so much, if I had the opportunity of burying him in the land of Zion. …I have said, Father, I desire to die here among the Saints. But if this is not Thy will, and I go hence and die, wilt Thou find some kind friend to bring my body back, and gather up my friends who have fallen in foreign lands, and bring them up hither, that we may all lie together. …And may we contemplate these things so? Yes, if we learn how to live and how to die. When we lie down we contemplate how we may rise in the morning; and it is pleasing for friends to lie down together, locked in the arms of love, to sleep and wake in each other’s embrace and renew their conversation.” (TotPJS, 295)

We often speak of the non-familial sealings that happened in the early days of the restoration of the Temple rites as mistakes that were made in the process of discovering what the sealing powers were really about. It may be so. But I am not convinced. I wonder if those early Saints, living together as a small and persecuted band, understood something about the sealing powers that we have lost sight of in our peripatetic age, when the (relatively) huge number of Saints means that we move around as national and personal economies dictate, casual in our trust that we will find new friends among the Saints wherever we go. Perhaps we will yet learn that the powers that bind us to one another through earth and heaven are broader and more magnificent than we have supposed, that the cords of love that tie us to our friends are not less holy or less eternal than those that connect us to our kin.

(1) It is a worthwhile exercise to read the Doctrine and Covenants in one (or a few) big gulps, over the course of a weekend or so, to get the sweep of the narrative, and to “hear” Joseph growing into his prophetic voice. By the time you get to Section 88, you won’t want to bother stopping to eat, and past Section 109, you’ll end up staying up all night because it’s just too good to put down. Really.

(2) For example, compare the context of the use of the image of the church rising “clear as the moon, and fair as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners” in Section 5, and in Section 109–in Section 5, it kind of comes out of nowhere, and then the section lurches rather abruptly back into discussion of three witnesses, whereas in Section 109, the verses leading up to “clear as the moon…” prepare for the climax, and the metaphor is extended and expanded in the following verses with a novel combination of several images from Isaiah that don’t occur together anywhere else, but are beautiful and aptly fitted together in Joseph’s prayer.

(3) Actually, it’s a close race for “favorite” status–this is pretty great, too: “…those who have not been enclosed in the walls of prison without cause or provocation, can have but little idea how sweet the voice of a friend is; one token of friendship from any source whatever awakens and calls into action every sympathetic feeling; it brings up in an instant everything that is passed; it seizes the present with the avidity of lightning; it grasps after the future with the fierceness of a tiger; it moves the mind backward and forward, from one thing to another, until finally all enmity, malice and hatred, and past differences, misunderstandings and mismanagements are slain victorious at the feet of hope…” (TotPJS, 134).


  1. Mark IV says:

    Outstanding, Kristine.

    It is good to be reminded that our founding prophet conceived of apostacy not as doctrinal heresy but as a betrayal of loyalty and friendship. And your point about the early sealings in Nauvoo makes a lot of sense, especially if we think of sealings as logical extensions of our baptismal covenants.

    I can remember the exact moment I got a testimony of Joseph Smith, Jr. It was at the MTC, and I was sitting outside in the sun and the breeze, and I could smell the fried chicken that the cafeteria was preparing for lunch. I was supposed to be memorizing the past tense of irregular German verbs, but was instead reading a letter from my Mom. She had enclosed a clipping from a talk that made reference to the betrayal and reconciliation of W.W. Phelps with Joseph Smith. I read:

    “Come dear brother, for the war is past;
    and friends at first are friends again at last.”

    At that moment, I realized that he was a great and inspired man.

    Here’s my favorite statement about friendship from a contemporary Mormon:

    I don’t want to drive up to the pearly gates in a shiny sports car, wearing beautifully, tailored clothes, my hair expertly coiffed, and with long, perfectly manicured fingernails. I want to drive up in a station wagon that has mud on the wheels from taking kids to scout camp. I want to be there with grass stains on my shoes from mowing Sister Schenck’s lawn. I want to be there with a smudge of peanut butter on my shirt from making sandwiches for a sick neighbor’s children. I want to be there with a little dirt under my fingernails from helping to weed someone’s garden. I want to be there with children’s sticky kisses on my cheeks and tears of a friend on my shoulder. I want the Lord to know I was really here and that I really lived.

    Marjorie Pay Hinckley

  2. Wow Kristine. This is amazing. I’m disappointed that Mendelsohn is middlebrow. I thought I was going for a bit more when I listened to him.

    I’ve always thought of God as a friend. That our relationship was friendly-like, sometimes more friendly than parental. It becomes problematic when things get unfriendly. When there is extreme, seemingly meaningless pain and distress that it is safer to believe in a removed God than a friend because why would a friend do such a thing?

    I think you are right on with Joseph. Believe whatever you want but if you’re not friendly you’re in trouble.

    I’d love for a sealing of friends together. I have a great family and friends that I hope to have with me, socializing in heaven.

  3. Kristine, this is simply wonderful. The sociality of the restoration’s concepts of Zion and heaven are incredibly powerful and you have captured the sentiment well without drifting in to the Elder-Brotherisms of feel good religion.

  4. Mark IV says:

    And yes, one or the other of us doesn’t know what middlebrow means. When I aspire to middlebrowness, it means I need to reduce the amount of time I spend watching Beavis and Butthead reruns.

  5. Great way to follow a theme through various scriptures and teachings of Joseph Smith. I agree with your interpretation of the importance of this issue for Joseph Smith — I hadn’t looked at it in this way before. Your insight into the D&C and the way one can observe Joseph Smith’s own friendship with God maturing through it was especially uplifting.

  6. Steve Evans says:

    Completely wonderful, Kris. One of the things I find most wonderful (and alternatively, frightening) about our religion is this amazing sealing power that can bind all of us together.

    Let me ask regarding Joseph’s friendship with God — is this something you think capable of replication? What is the secret to that relationship?

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Simply wonderful, Kristine.

    Freundlich is an interesting take on the Psalm, which in Hebrew has simply tob, which has various connotations (such as pleasant, agreeable), but fundamentally means simply “good.”

    I think you are right on in your estimation of the importance of concepts of friendship and sociality were to Joseph, and your hint near the end that we must fully understand his passion for such to even begin to comprehend some of his teachings and practices (including the sealings you mention).

    These concepts are so important in our tradition that we have actually turned friendship and fellowship into verbs (despite the occasionally unfortunate application of those neologisms).

  8. Kristine says:

    Kevin, I’m generally opposed to turning perfectly good nouns into verbs, but I see your point :)

    Steve, I’m not sure if it’s replicable. I suspect the answer is at least “not yet” for most of us, and it seems like there must be something different about the quality of God’s friendship with a prophet than with the rest of us slobs. Or maybe it’s a difference of degree, rather than kind…

    Mark, thanks for posting the quote from Sister Hinckley. As it happens, that paragraph is my taped-above-the-sink-to-be-memorized-while-washing-dishes quotation of the moment. Great minds… ;)

  9. Thank you, Kristine. The post was beautifully constructed and profound.

    Frankly, I think the Church blossoms in direct proportion to how well regular members and local leaders understand the concept of friendship – since I think that is the essence of what Jesus taught and lived. Yes, He taught ideals that often were even stricter than the original 10 Commandments, but He also put His arms around anyone who would open up to them – living among His friends.

    I have been struck by the statement “lay down his life for his friends.” I understand the obvious implications of death, but He didn’t say “die”. He said, “lay down his life”. I read the Gospels, and I see someone who literally lived for others – literally laying down His own life at His side and focusing on improving the lives of others. That, IMHO, is true friendship – something that JS got.

  10. Wow, Kristine- This is an amazing piece of writing and thought. I’m personally struck by your observations in D&C, and how lovely they are…

    Along with Amri, I thought I was doing pretty well with Mendelssohn!

  11. Kristine says:

    I was kidding about Mendelssohn. But really serious music snobs argue sometimes about whether he is great or merely popular. (I believe the word one uses to show that one is Really, Really Superior when discussing Mendelssohn is “pedestrian.”) My music snob credentials are pretty suspect anyway, because my tastes run so heavily to Romanticism. (Not to mention my embarrassing fondness for ABBA).

  12. Your excellent post reminds me of a favorite song my parents like to sing:

    My God and I go in the field together;
    We walk and talk as good friends should and do;
    We clasp our hands, our voices ring with laughter;
    My God and I walk through the meadow’s hue.
    We clasp our hands, our voices ring with laughter;
    My God and I walk through the meadow’s hue.

    He tells me of the years that went before me
    When heavenly plans were made for me to be;
    When all was but a dream of dim reflection;
    To come to life, earth’s verdant glory see.
    When all was but a dream of dim reflection;
    To come to life, earth’s verdant glory see.

    My God and I will go for aye together,
    We’ll walk and talk just as good friends do;
    This earth will pass, and with it common trifles,
    But God and I will go unendingly.
    This earth will pass, and with it common trifles,
    But God and I will go unendingly.

  13. I think this may be my favorite post that I have ever read. Just awesome. Thank you.

    (Not to mention my embarrassing fondness for ABBA).

    No one should ever be embarrassed about ABBA.
    Air Supply on the other hand…

  14. TotPJS, 316 is a loose dramatization of Smith’s diary which doesn’t add the fun notion of turning hell into heaven. Agree strongly with your post overall.
    Thanks, K

  15. Kristine says:

    Sam, Stapley and I had a brief behind-the-scenes exchange in which he (sweetly, of course) excoriated me for quoting TotPJS. I am at least dimly aware of its many problems, but it’s the book where I know where things are on the page :) My history snob credentials are, I fear, even less sound than the music ones.

  16. Kristine,
    Your essay is, as always, beautiful and insightful. I was talking with my wife the other day about that powerful passage from Mark and the immediately following verse (where we are told that we are friends to Christ if we keep his commandments). I don’t take that verse to say that we must keep the commandments to earn Christ’s friendship, but rather that those who love Christ will seek his will.

  17. Norbert says:

    Really, really excellent. So much to think about and apply. It adds a new dimension to think of myself not only as God’s child, but also God’s friend.

%d bloggers like this: