“He taught me, keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”
Michael Corleone attributed this advice to his father, Don Vito Andolini Corleone, better known as the Godfather. Where the Don picked up the wisdom is debated. It could have originated with Sun Tzu, but perhaps it was Machiavelli in, “The Prince.”
Whoever made the statement, it was advice I instinctually employed long before I heard it or read it. A true enemy is a formidable foe—powerful enough, strong enough, guarded enough, shrewd enough that you can’t neutralize him, let alone eliminate him. Better to keep him close so you can keep an eye on what he’s doing. Only then do you stand a chance.
Thus espionage, human intelligence, spies, infiltration, and operatives. And it was this wisdom that prompted Abraham Lincoln to populate his presidential administration with both his trusted and his enemies, a “team of rivals” as Doris Kearns Goodwin termed it.
I have enjoyed good friendships. Still do, in fact. My friends tend to be robust, complex individuals that intrigue me, draw me in, and include me. I hold them close and value their loyalty almost beyond any other quality. I love them, and my love for them is powerful. But for me, love is secondary to friendship. In the Christian world, we are supposed to love. Love is in us and is mandated by God as indicative of who we are and whose we are. If we fail to love, the Gospel is impeded. Love is important, but it is less than voluntary if we are going to be obedient to our faith’s convictions.
I’m happy to be loved, and I value it, but I’m proud to be a friend.
By comparison, friendship is not mandated. I can love you, but that doesn’t mean you are my friend. I can love you, but that doesn’t mean you are trustworthy or loyal. I can love you, but that doesn’t mean I will drop what I’m doing to come alongside you. Or, you me. I can love you and not know you, speak your language, or have laid eyes on you.
Love is essential. Maslow placed it only after safety—food, water, and shelter—in his hierarchy of human needs. To be essential, it must be present in abundance, and it is. Love is everywhere.
I’m happy to be loved, and I value it, but I’m proud to be a friend. I work hard to be a good friend, and I recognize and appreciate the overtures of my friends to demonstrate their friendship to me. If I had to choose, I would rather be your friend than be loved by you. Of course, I could make the argument that if you are truly my friend, then you truly love me.
Enemies. I’ve had a few, but few that bothered me. In the first place, I don’t live the kind of life that creates enemies. The Godfather had enemies. I have critics, but critics are not enemies.
A true enemy is someone who troubles you, who you feel threatened by—someone who can cause you harm or do you in if you let your guard down or get caught by surprise. An enemy is someone who keeps you thinking and wondering and laboring to stay a step ahead. They keep you up at night, make you vigilant. They are dangerous. An enemy dilutes hubris with the humility of knowing you are not invincible. If you have an enemy, you keep them close because to do otherwise is to be unnecessarily at risk.
Critics are worth knowing, but they are neither friends nor enemies. There is only upside to having a critic. In fact, without the controversy of a critic, an idea hasn’t become important. I keep an eye on my critics. But, it is a lazy eye.
My enemies, I watch like a hawk. An unwatched enemy is an untenable risk that cannot—must not—be tolerated. An enemy will take you down if given the chance. The risk is too great to not keep your enemy close.
And thus it is that I came to know God.
I’ve had no other enemy that approached God’s power to do me grievous harm. I’ve had no other enemy that sought me as diligently as God, stalked me as He did, compromised my options, and who would not suffer me a moment’s respite. I’ve had no other enemy that held such an advantage over me. Not even the lawyer who regularly argued before the United States Supreme Court and came after me, trying to trap me, hinted at the wherewithal to trap me like God did. I’ve had no other enemy with the potential of God to do me eternal, irreparable damage.
I knew there was no winning by going to the mattresses against God. So, I didn’t try.
Six decades into this life and I’ve encountered no enemy apart from God that eroded my confidence. To date, I’ve had no enemy for whom I could not construct a snare that would ease my worry and enable me to relax my guard. Save one. The singular enemy I’ve monitored most closely and found to be the most wild, unprincipled, unpredictable, dangerous, and most formidable is God.
I knew I couldn’t escape Him. In fact, I knew it with such conviction that I never attempted to deny Him. Denial was a fool’s errand, it seemed to me. Why would I trek through life denying God’s presence, intelligence, or power? Why would I ever go into the deep woods and not watch for snakes? That would be foolish, an unacceptable risk. The irregularity of life mandates I keep a close eye on God’s whereabouts.
I knew I couldn’t out maneuver Him, or out think Him, or amass sufficient power to meet Him head on. I knew there was no winning by going to the mattresses against God. So, I didn’t try.
Nor did I leave God alone. I avoided confrontation, but I regularly attempted to discover and understand what He was doing. I traveled frequently to His areas of influence and with rabid determination figured out the angle He was working to achieve His objectives. I dreaded it, but respectfully engaged with Him when He came to my side of the universe. To do otherwise was an unacceptable risk. I’d learned the hard way to keep my eye on Him and vowed as a young boy to never lose track of where God was, what He was doing, what He wanted, or how He might go about getting what He desired.
I’m not averse to danger so long as it is defined. I’m not afraid of snakes. I just want to know where they are. And I don’t mind having an enemy, provided I know and understand them.
As his tanks are defeating Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps in the desert of North Africa, General Patton exults with satisfaction, “Rommel, you magnificent b*#!*^d, I read your book.”
Let me be PERFECTLY clear: I never took God’s name in vain as Patton did Rommel’s, but I did read His book. Religiously. Daily. Fervently.
Moses prays, “If I have found favor in your sight, let me know your ways, that I may know you” (Ex. 33:13). David reports in Psalm 103 that God answered Moses’ prayer (v. 7). There seemed to me a lot of wisdom in Moses’ prayer, so I emulated and prayed the same prayer.
I didn’t pray in utter indifference to a kernel of care I felt for God and what’s important to Him, but neither did I pray with any trust beyond a strong suspicion that God was a dangerous deity. If I hoped to escape this life with only my fair share of unhappiness and not the additional that would be mine if I was negligent, I needed to know God and understand His ways.
Any trite theology, I dispensed with summarily.
I knew I couldn’t avoid God. I knew I had to engage Him and the reasoning I adopted was simple: If I conduct myself in an exemplary manner, which I possess the skills to achieve, then when my Adversary (God) approaches—or interferes, disturbs me, chastises, hounds, disciplines, upbraids, or otherwise messes with—me, I can state my defense: “I’ve done nothing to warrant your interference.” That way, the message and my position are clear: “You have no justification beyond bullying to interfere with me.” It was an elegant tactic, rational, reasonable, and within my reach.
Shaming God for not being true to His stated character was the only chance I had of defending myself. If He opted to be unreasonable or too demanding, He would pay for it with His integrity. All that was required was for me to understand God well enough to know and anticipate His ways of thinking and operating.
So, I studied God. I learned His ways: how He does what He does, how He thinks, where He goes when and why, and what motivates Him. I monitored when He behaved consistently and when He didn’t. I watched to see how He distributed His anger, how he managed His grace, and how He irrationally dispensed mercy. I contemplated the scope of His forgiveness. I journaled which portions of His book He seemed most interested in referencing when He and I were together—and then I tried to discern why. I searched for correlations and dogged discrepancies until they made sense. I read what others wrote about God. The insights that fit what I knew of Him, I retained. The assertions that seemed to enlighten, I considered. The misstatements I tossed out like gnawed-on bones. Any trite theology, I dispensed with summarily. The stakes were much too high.
And shrewdly and carefully my Adversary hemmed me in. As I was doing with Him, He kept me close. Inch by wary, untrusting, unrelenting inch the Great Angler (as Jack Lewis called him) played me closer to the net of His heart until sufficient time and experience passed that He became my friend.
My doubts about Him became the benefit of the doubt. My predispositions were fired, hammered, and forged into convictions about His true self. My distrust became trust. My guardedness transformed into defensiveness on His behalf. My distance was dispelled to produce a loyalty akin to family. His ways, I adopted as mine. Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery. If I can mimic in representative fashion who He is, then perhaps—just perhaps, I pray—I can offer a compelling advocacy of Him whom I so earnestly sought to keep at bay.
Of course, even while I kept Him close as my enemy, He loved me. But then, love is what He is. How could He do anything else and remain true to Himself? And yes, I loved Him in return. I’m a Christian, after all. Love is mandatory for those who take our faith seriously.
Love is large. By any measure from country music to Christian, it is expansive. In fact, love is so profound—or it can be—that its breadth and depth and height leave too much space for a meaningful, trusted relationship to be assumed as a given. One can love from a distance.
God has behaved like desperate men behave.
So from the same mind that tried to manage God-my-enemy comes now a statement of my heart that is committed to friendship. It is the best I have to offer, especially to One who doesn’t need anything else I have. While keeping a close eye on Him, I discovered His heart is unimpeachable. This didn’t make Him safe or predictable, but His loyalty made friendship distinct and reliable.
I’m bothered that I treated Him like an enemy. This presumes to some extent that He was also bothered, that He was somewhat lonely without me when He had given everything to possess me. I have no way of knowing how He felt while I was managing Him, viewing Him suspect, and hedging my life against Him. But what harm is there in bringing my unfettered, unencumbered, and unedited friendship to Him now? He sought me when I was not worth having, and when the ship was going down under me, He graciously and gladly opened His arms to receive me, the one looking at Him askance. Treating me as though I was the pearl of great price in His book, He gave everything to have me.
Looking from my earth-bound perspective, when it comes to me, God has behaved like desperate men behave. Was God lonely while I was marginalizing our relationship?
I don’t know. But if He was, even for a moment or a fleeting thought, I hate that. It bothers me. Was God desperate to have me? I don’t know that either, but there is enough indication of this being the case that my heart wants very badly to reach up to His outstretched hand.
I’m under no illusion. Any mortal pledge I make to the divine is weak. I’m under no delusion. God is the only one who is faithful. I have no misconception of my proven value. But God thought me worth rescuing, redeeming, blessing, and befriending. He came close of His own volition.
There is nothing to say and nothing to repay and nothing to do that approaches a proper response. To attempt remuneration would be insulting and any effort He has declared would be offensive. But just because God has everything, and doesn’t need a thing, doesn’t mean He devalues gratitude from one who knows Him. Never mind how I came to know Him. I’m still bothered that I hedged against Him, but He and I are friends now and we’ve discussed it.
Friends. GK Chesterton noted that even a sparrow has a friend with whom to roam. The image won’t escape me, and watching sparrows is one of my pleasures.
I know something of my friend who used to be my enemy. I held Him closely enough for such a long time that I understand a bit about His ways, where He’s going, and what He’s thinking while He’s doing what He does and going where He goes. In His roaming He made Himself my friend and friends is what we have become.