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.