Summary: God, who has given himself to us wholeheartedly in the person of Jesus Christ, is the most faithful, gracious, loving friend and heart’s companion we could ever desire.
As with so many of the great hymns of our faith, there’s an inspirational backstory to the popular gospel song, “What A Friend We Have In Jesus.” The author of these verses was an Irishman named Joseph Scriven, who found God’s deep, faithful friendship in the midst of intense emotional pain.
After graduating from the University of Dublin, Scriven became engaged to marry. But on the eve of their wedding his bride-to-be was thrown from her horse while crossing a bridge. Scriven, who was waiting for her on the other side of the river, could only watch helplessly as she drowned. It would be hard to imagine a more heartbreaking experience. And yet, it was through his traumatic loss that Joseph Scriven found God’s mercy and salvation.
Scriven left Ireland for Canada soon thereafter, where he found work as a personal tutor. Ten years later, he fell in love and became engaged for a second time--but once more tragedy struck. His fiancee caught a chill while swimming, which developed into tuberculosis. She died after a three-year illness. They were never married.
Late one night, suffering from profound grief and loneliness, Scriven begged God for comfort, promising to serve him faithfully if he would heal his heart. God answered his prayer, and Scriven felt his burden miraculously lifted. He wrote the first two stanzas of a poem that evening to express his joy. He later also sent those verses to his mother back in Ireland to encourage her during an illness.
In the remaining years of his life, Scriven devoted himself to helping others in need, including by giving away his clothing and possessions. When one family lost their cow, a vital source of their income, although Scriven had no money, he gave them his watch to sell. He also became known for acts of kindness like cutting firewood for widows and helping the sick and elderly.
Later in his life, Scriven went home to visit his family and friends in Ireland. Yet, because he had once been quite well-off but was now returning as a poor man in shabby clothes, he was snubbed and rejected by his former friends. God’s healing of the pain of their rejection became another part of his testimony, and the inspiration for a third verse: “Do thy friends despise, forsake thee? Take it to the Lord in prayer. In his arms he’ll take and shield thee; thou wilt find a solace there.”
During his final illness, a friend came across this three-stanza poem and asked Scriven if he had written it. “The Lord and I did it between us,” he answered. By this time, his life had become an inspiring witness to the intimate relationship he’d found with God. And the words of his poem have been a blessing to the church ever since, reminding us of a deep, faithful friendship unlike any other.
God has provided us with vital bonds of love in the form of two complementary sets of relationships: families and friendships. Families give us life and nurture, and they shape us in profound ways. But friendships can be equally crucial to our well-being, by providing experiences our families can’t. They each have their rightful place and purpose in God’s design for our lives.
Even in Jesus’ earthly life there was a time when his family seemed not to have understood him or his mission. John tells us that “his own brothers didn’t believe in him” (Jn. 7:5). And yet, he could still draw strength and support from his friendships. Foremost, of course, was the company of his apostles, and especially his inner circle of Peter, James and John. But Jesus seems also to have had very close friendships with Mary Magdalene, and with the family of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. And presumably there were any number of other relationships within the entourage of faithful disciples who traveled with him. Jesus no doubt needed and valued his friendships. He was fully human, and our social connections are a vital part of what that means.
Someone has described a friend as “someone who knows you very well and loves you anyway.” That’s a great definition of a quality that lies at the heart of the best friendships. And if that kind of forbearance is true of our closest human relationships, consider God’s infinitely more gracious friendship. Scriven wrote that “Jesus knows our every weakness.” God knows us far better than we know ourselves, including every secret sin and dark corner of our hearts. And yet, he still embraces us with a kind, compassionate love, generous and full of grace.
The word “lovingkindness” describes this quality of God’s grace and mercy with beautiful simplicity. We’re saved by the kindness that is the essence of God’s love: a pure love that doesn’t need to be earned or deserved, and the only love that can save us. Without it, we’d be hopelessly lost in our sin and selfishness--which is exactly how God found us at the time of our salvation. We’re saved only by the miracle of grace, not only at the hour of our conversion, but in every moment since. There’s nothing we can do that would make God love us any more than he already does, or any less. It’s all about grace.