What issues are more important than how we relate to others? I would suggest there are two basic ways of relating: contract and covenant. A contract is an exchange of goods and services: this is what you will do for me and this is what I will do for you. A covenant is an exchange of persons: this is who I am to you and this is who you are to me. What we do for each other in a covenant relationship flows from the nature of the relationship and draws meaning from it. The things our beloved does for us are special because they are done out of love. It is one thing to buy cookies and eat them. It is another to eat cookies that your grandmother made just for you with her arthritic hands because she loves you so. If you hire someone to mow your lawn for $20, that is a contract. If the lawn gets mowed and nothing is broken, he gets his $20, and it doesn’t really matter if you like each other, the lawn is mowed and the money is paid. If someone says to you, “He’s just doing that for the money.” That’s okay. As long as he fulfills the contract, it isn’t a problem. On the other hand, if you give your heart to someone who you believe loves you dearly, it matter very much what you think of each other. To find out this person is only interested in your money would be devastating, a profound betrayal. The difference between contract and covenant is literally the difference between prostitution and marriage.
In a contract there is a list of the things we are required to do and the things we are required to expect. In a love relationship, love will take many forms and no one can predict what will happen. What we must do depends on what is needed and what we are able to do. In a contract, it’s about the value of the goods and services. In a love relationship, it is how much of ourselves we put into what we do for our beloved. (Which is worth more, the bunch of dandelions your grandchild collected to give to you, or the bouquet that the salesman had delivered to all his customers?) See Matthew 12:41-44.
The Scriptures repeatedly compare the relationship between God and His people to marriage. One of my favorites is Isaiah 61:
1 For Zion’s sake I will not be silent,
for Jerusalem’s sake I will not keep still,
Until her vindication shines forth like the dawn
and her salvation like a burning torch.
2 Nations shall behold your vindication,
and all kings your glory;
You shall be called by a new name
bestowed by the mouth of the Lord.
3 You shall be a glorious crown in the hand of the Lord,
a royal diadem in the hand of your God.
4 No more shall you be called “Forsaken,”
nor your land called “Desolate,”
But you shall be called “My Delight is in her,”
and your land “Espoused.”
For the Lord delights in you,
and your land shall be espoused.
5 For as a young man marries a virgin,
your Builder shall marry you;
And as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride
so shall your God rejoice in you.
All of salvation history culminates in the wedding of the Lamb and the Bride at the end of the Book of Revelation.
God calls us to a covenant of love. He does it out of pure love, for there is nothing we could ever do that could benefit Him; He’s already perfect. Unfortunately, people have tried to treat it as a contract. Psalm 50 is an extended teaching about those who think offering sacrifices is going to buy God off, and then they can act however they want. God is not interested. See also Isaiah 1:
14 Your new moons and festivals I detest;
they weigh me down, I tire of the load.
15 When you spread out your hands,
I will close my eyes to you;
Though you pray the more,
I will not listen.
Your hands are full of blood!
16 Wash yourselves clean!
Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes;
cease doing evil;
17 learn to do good.
Make justice your aim: redress the wronged,
hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow.
18 Come now, let us set things right,
says the Lord:
Though your sins be like scarlet,
they may become white as snow;
Though they be red like crimson,
they may become white as wool.
He doesn’t need anything from us. He wants us. He taught them to offer sacrifices so they could learn to give of themselves.
God is calling us to a covenant of love. If people have learned the faith as so much less than it is, how can we be surprised that people leave the faith? If they never learned in the first place why it is so precious, how it connects to the deepest part of our humanity and reframes every aspect of our lives, it won’t take much to get them to leave. Is our relationship with God more like a contract relationship or a covenant relationship?
Next: Love and baloney