Made for Others

The American Dream: the life independent, a world in which a strong individual needs no one, always pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps. It’s a dream wherein we are all masters of our fates, dependent on no external entity to get things done — indeed, often doing things despite (and in spite of) others. The Man got you down? Don’t need the government. Marriage fall apart? Don’t need committed relationships.

In fact, it rather sounds like the ideal individual under this schema is one who needs no relationships whatsoever. I’m not limiting “relationship” to the romantic domain; we all have other relationships of different natures, after all (or at least we should). But this archetypical “do it on my own” person feels no need for them; they would only be burdensome.

I confess I once fell for that particular lie. I felt I needed nothing and no one outside of myself. It took a significant amount of crashing-and-burning — or, if you prefer, humbling — to make me see the error of my ways. Even now, however, that misguided principle tries to rear its ugly head on occasion. My inner misanthrope rouses from his slumber, declares people are, on the whole, horrible, and attempts to coerce me into abandoning this whole social-relational enterprise. That voice never wins, though. I am a person who needs people, who isn’t a fan of going home each day to an empty apartment or being alone at the church office for hours on end. I have a social/emotional/spiritual/mental need for the company of other human beings, no matter what Teenage Chris thought.

And so do you. Why?

Let me tell you about a garden.

When God created the first humans, He made them in His own image (Gen. 1:26-27). These humans were settled in a garden and told to tend the earth, having authority over all other living creatures (v. 26). Of course, our first parents fell, and Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve would never regain the perfection of Eden. (But that’s a different story.)

There’s a plethora of ways to interpret what exactly it is to be made in the image of God. And no, one of them is not our own form of upright, fairly-hairless mammal-ness. Our intelligence and ability to reason, however, are called the “rational image” of God. Our position of authority above the rest of the created order and our task as stewards of same reflect God’s sovereignty and care for His creation; this is the political image of the imago Dei. We, like God, exercise free will and thus bear the volitional image. Our sense of right and wrong derives from God as well, so we talk about the moral image. Others speak of other images: the creative, the spiritual, the communicative, etc. But the facet of the imago Dei I want to focus on is the relational image.

Like the others, the relational image is rooted in the nature of God. As Christian (at least orthodox Christians), we believe God exists as the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The idea of the Trinity isn’t the most understandable thing in the world, I admit, and I don’t have space in this post to give it a proper treatment, but suffice it to say (for the moment) God exists as three Persons yet one God; to expand my earlier statement, God is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. How can this be without saying we believe in three separate gods? Because the Trinitarian God exists as a relationship between the three Persons. Each is in a direct relationship with the other two, making a single entity we call God.

Now that we’re all confused, let me say this: because God is a relationship, we are created for relationships. Gregariousness and community are coded into our DNA. We’re designed to relate both to God and to other people; it’s just who we are. That’s why being alone is a punishment for our worst criminals; that’s why we get lonely; that’s why we seek friendships, have families, join community organizations and clubs. All so we can cease being solitary and unite with other human beings. It’s how God made us to be. Yes, this causes us to seek a relationship with God (and it most definitely should), but it also keeps us functioning as a society — and as individual human beings. To deny ourselves relationships is to deny part of what makes us human — part of what it means to bear the image of God.

That’s one beef I have with our current (and emerging) society: we don’t pursue real relationships. We believe social media friends are as good as the real thing. When we do have real friendships, they tend to be shallow and self-serving. “I’ll hang out with you,” we say, “when it’s convenient for me and only if I’ll get something out of it.” We don’t know how to be selfless, present, or selflessly present in our relationships. Then there’s the problem of society’s warped views of men and women which cause some to be suspicious of any close relationships between members of the same sex as well as between members of the opposite sex. Intimacy in relationships somehow became equated with sex and sexuality, and we are the poorer for it.

And don’t get me started on what passes for dating these days.

In exchanging real relationships for pseudo-relationality, we widen an Other-shaped hole into a yawning chasm which will admit any one of a number of substitutes. Technology seems to be the substitute of choice at the moment, followed closely by “no strings attached” sex. But others of us compensate (or self-medicate) in different ways: Netflix binges, alcohol, anything involves an adrenaline rush, travel, books, cars, food, etc. We throw ourselves into these because no one else is around and we’re not putting forth the effort to find someone. Don’t mishear me, though: hobbies are critical, and so is time by ourselves (doubly so for my fellow introverts). But we can’t fully replace our relationships with other people with relationships to stuff. Stuff will never feel anything towards us.

At the end of the day, the way we’re wired relationally underscores a very important truth grounded in creation itself: “it is not good for man [sic] to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). Adam’s solitude was, in fact, the first thing in the Bible God declares “not good” after the goodness of the rest of creation. So we must love other people, pursue them, be in genuine, authentic relationships with them. Anything less is not good.

A Trinitarian Perspective on the Family

Any discussion of the theology of the family must begin with and proceed from a Trinitarian perspective. The pre-existent Trinity exemplifies the family system, consisting as the godhead does of three persons united as one by unconditional love. Human beings, created in the image of this triune God, possess inherently a relational aspect. The relationship between the creation and the Creator, as typified by covenants, extends into the relationships between members of a family – and, indeed, to those between states. Finally, it should be recognized that the family is the primary social unit, making it the crucible of Christian discipleship and the first means of fulfilling the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20.

First, the Trinity models agape, true unilateral, unconditional love. Even though the godhead is comprised of the three persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the three form a cohesive unity (Deuteronomy 6:4). This bond evidences itself in the way all three persons have equal status within the Trinity, regardless of their respective roles. For example, the Son is obedient to the Father not out of a filial obsequiousness based in a sense of inferiority, but rather because the Son loves the Father irrespective of any external factor. Unconditional love provides the conduit for the relationships between each of the three persons. It is insufficient, however, to say that the three become one because of loving relationships; it is necessary to say that the Three-in-One is love itself, and the innate nature of that love is what provides for the relationality of the Trinity.

This relational nature is evidenced in humanity being created in the imago Dei. Even though many debate the exact meaning of being made in the image of God, perhaps the strongest contender is that humans are designed for relationships. Just as the Trinity exists in a state of relationship, so, too, must people be in a relationship. Since human beings are born of a mother and conceived by a father, it logically follows that even procreation is designed to create new life in the context of a relationship: the family. God then establishes His own relationship with the family and the individual by means of covenant. This covenant, for Christians, is the means by which redemption and reconciliation is achieved: imperfect people relate to a perfect God through a covenant achieved initially by the atonement of Christ and that is lived by ascribing to the rules and relationship mandated by God.

Covenant plays a large role in family dynamics. A covenant grounded in unconditional love is, in the West, the basis for Christian marriage. The two spouses covenant together to create a new family while vowing to remain faithful to each other to the exclusion of all other possible partners, and the vows are durable throughout any negative life events. The covenant provides a basis for the governing of the relationship. It may be extended to delineating roles and navigating other potential sources of conflicts such as money, in-laws, sex, and time management. As long as the covenant conditions are fulfilled, all will run smoothly. Thus the covenant relationship between God and humanity serves as a model for other relational covenants such as those between family and state or family and church.

This foundational relational – and foundationally human – social system functions as the first means of disciple-making. As children are born into a family, they enter a covenant community of unconditional love geared for a relationship. It is necessary for the family to teach those children their religious beliefs in order to aid them in attaining a relationship with the Trinitarian God. The earthly, nuclear family of the child is under special obligation to see to it that the child receives instruction in the faith. Discipleship begins in the home when parents begin the indoctrination of their children. It is true that the church plays a critical role in disciple-making, and children receive age-appropriate discipleship instruction from the church through various programs such as Sunday school and youth programs. If these lessons are not reinforced in the home, however, it is possible (and perhaps even likely) that church teachings will fall by the wayside. Children learn by observation; if the parents do not exhibit a behavior in the home, then their children are less likely to exhibit it themselves. The family who displays Christian virtues and the unconditional love of the Trinity will raise children of similar beliefs and behaviors.

This has implications on how families view the social order. The family as basic social unit also comprises the basic Christian unit. Indeed, the family serves as a ready metaphor for the Church: all believers are brothers and sisters and share a common Father, God Almighty, the creator of heaven and earth. Ideally, this relationship between Christians is patterned after the pre-Fall intent of Creation: a world free of conflict that is defined by healthy sexuality, mutual empowerment, and Trinitarian relationship. All of these aspects were damaged by the Fall. Human sexuality has been twisted to become, in popular opinion, little more than a means of personal gratification; families are marked by power plays made by parents and children alike; and love is always contingent upon what someone can do for someone else. The role of the family, in both the church and the world, is to model the pre-Fall creational intent in order to remind society and the community of believers of the Trinity’s plan for the world.

The doctrine of the Trinity, then, has many implications for the family in society. Its model of relationship and unconditional love serves as the first example of how families are to conduct themselves. It also speaks to how family life should be grounded in covenant and how parenting is also a means of disciple-making. The Trinity shows us the pre-Fall intent of Creation, and this state is the true objective of the contemporary church in society, accomplished by espousing the values and relationality of the creational intent.

Frequently Asked Questions #2: “Can I do ___?”

Another question I routinely get asked is one everyone — myself included — has asked on numerous occasions: “Can I do ____?” This inevitably seems to lead to self-justification and nuancing of exactly what we were asking. “Oh, I didn’t mean that. Everyone does that . . . right? So what I really meant to ask was if I can do <minutely modified version of original action>. So, can I?”

Entire books have been written on this sort of thing, and most of them are directed at teenagers and young adults, it seems to me. Most people who grew up in church or around other Christians know you’re not supposed to have sex before you’re married, but that seemingly simple rule had caused gallons of ink to be spilled in attempts to pin down what exactly it does and doesn’t mean. If standard vaginal intercourse is right out, what about other specific intimate acts? And what happens after marriage? Does that give the married couple free reign to do anything they please, regardless of violence, humiliation, or other considerations?

“Can I do ____?” is an entire industry. The problem, of course, is it’s the wrong question to ask (or at least it is nine times out of ten, in my opinion). And we all know how perfectly useless it is to know the right answer to the wrong question. (I personally thank Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness for getting that message through to me.) When we make our religion a series of “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots,” we turn it into a legal code. Legalism, the name we give to this sort of behavior, has always been a serious problem for Christianity, but it seems to have really blossomed over the last century or so. Certain theological movements and denominations can be worse for this than others, and it creates a bit of tension between Christians. (“They believe you can do X, but I think you can’t. I believe we can do Y, but they don’t.” You get the idea.) Denominations have undergone complete schisms because of this attitude. Legalism takes a religion based upon love and holiness and turns it into a set of rules. Then people who live by the rules without having a personal relationship with the risen Lord think they’re still okay soul-wise. It’s a serious problem.

I do want to be perfectly clear, however, about what I’m saying here. I’m not advocating for some sort of antinomianism or hedonistic/humanistic Christianity where anything goes. We do have rules, and we do advocate people follow them. The Bible makes this explicitly clear. The problem arises when the rules become the main thing. Jesus is the main thing. A relationship with God, personal holiness, saving faith — these are the main thing. The main thing is not legalism.

Similarly, I’m not jumping on the “Christianity isn’t a religion; it’s a relationship” bandwagon so popular among evangelicals today. It’s rubbish. A religion is a means of thinking about divinity and the interaction between humanity and deity. Christianity is definitely a religion, and Jesus Christ very much founded a religion when he and the Holy Spirit established the Church. The Christian religion has done amazing things as a religion, and it’s done horrific things as a religion. Regardless, it’s still a religion. Now, I understand what these guys are saying. They’re decrying the empty rituals, the hollow rites, the mindless adherence to church protocol which can come out of a religion being followed just because it’s a religion. I get that, and I’m on board with you 100%. Going through the motions — a form of legalism, if you will — won’t cut it, either, no matter how many times you flawlessly recite the creed, genuflect in front of the crucifix, or pray the Lord’s Prayer. All of these things must be done out of faith stemming from one’s relationship with God lest they be futile human actions. When infused with faith, all the trappings of religion come alive. So when I say the “Can I do ____?” question is the wrong one because it’s legalism vs. relationship, I’m not throwing out ritual, rite, ceremony, or anything else, even though they can become empty legalism themselves (as can about anything else).

With that said, legalism is still the wrong way to look at our faith. We don’t need to base our entire view of our religion on a yes/no dichotomy. Instead, we base it on our experience with Jesus Christ. As we grow in faith, love, and holiness, we draw closer to God. We more readily discern His will, and we’re more sensitive to the internal promptings — the “still, small voice” — of the Holy Spirit who dwells within each believer. In turn, this closeness comes out in the way we act. Instead of trying to walk a fine legal line, God shows us in our very thought processes and gut instincts what we should and should not do. God didn’t give us a thousand-paragraph legal code with two additional volumes just for footnotes (although I’m sure some people would argue the 613 commands in the Mosaic Law can come pretty close at times). What God did give us was a comforter, an encourager, and a moral guide. The Holy Spirit directs our steps the same way Scripture acts as “a light unto [our] path.” As we live in this grace-filled relationship, we occasionally stumble and cross a line, but mercy and healing follow as we ask them from a loving God.

The next time you’re tempted to turn a matter of faith or behavior into a “Can I do ____?” situation, stop for a moment. Pay attention to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Set aside a legalistic mindset and embrace a relationship with the God of grace and love. Then act in a way which is biblical, is consistent with the will of God, and is respectful/loving of yourself and your fellow human beings. Above all, realize it’s probably the wrong question to ask anyway. The right question is, “Will this help or hinder my relationship with God?”

The right answer to the right question is something always worth knowing.