During a recent conversation with one of our elders about the differences between the way my generation worships and the way the younger folk worship, he made a comment that younger people are more experiential and relational in their faith. I was certainly in agreement about the experiential part. It is one of my concerns for the Church that many are basing their faith more on fleeting emotional experiences than on a strong trust in the character of God.
However, I realized that my own way of interpreting the Gospel and its applications in the world is deeply relational. It is just how Christianity makes sense to me. There are all kinds of relationships in life. As a human being I must, most importantly, have a relationship with God ~ but also with humanity in the broad sense, with my neighborhood, with the Church, with my family, with the earth itself, and, finally, with myself. As a believer, all of these relationships need to be filtered through the knowledge of Jesus Christ and the principle of grace.
If I look at the positive “fruit of the spirit” listed in Galatians 5:18-26 (love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control) I see that these are all characteristics which have to do with relationships. The “works of the flesh” listed in the same passage also have to do with examples of negative relationships with others or toward myself.
Why do we evangelicals care whether or not others find salvation if it isn’t because our mutual humanity binds us together in relationship? In our associations with other believers we are told to “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ”.
(Gal. 6:2) What is this about if not about relationship?
All this tells me that the pattern of faith that I used to believe (one based on rule-keeping and trying to earn points with God by being perfect) was skewed. I now believe that living out my faith is all about demonstrating the love of God in relationship.
As time goes by in my relationship to God I am learning challenging lessons about submission and dependence and humility. He is shaping my character a little at a time so that not only will I eventually be more like His Son, but also so that I can be in more effective relationships with those around me.
The broadest of these is our relationship with the environment. We all have a fundamental relationship with the earth ~ for our own safety and protection if for no other reasons. In the beginning God gave man dominion over the earth; He expects us to be good stewards. We are not to destroy the environment by excessive use of fossil fuels or to allow species of His created animals to go extinct because of greed or indifference. We must be responsible not only to ourselves, but also to the generations of the future.
I am also in relationship with my neighbors both nearby and in the wider world. I am to demonstrate the principles of grace, kindness, and service to those with whom I come in contact. These characteristics provide a witness to the love, mercy, and grace of God toward all of us. I don’t mean for a minute that just being kind and doing good is all there is to being a Christian. Along with the good works, we need to be open about our faith. The work of a Christian is to know Christ and to make Him known. We don’t need to bang folks on the head, but we should be prepared to discuss the basis for our good works in an appropriate way when asked. My message of words and works should lead others toward seeing Christ. He is the real message. It is not my role to force others to believe; I am just to be a messenger, and then it is between the other person and God whether or not a relationship will develop. Our evangelizing efforts are not to be patronizing or condemnatory, but in the spirit of one poor beggar telling another beggar where to find food.
As to my relationship with the Church, I need to be watchful. There are many wolves in sheep’s clothing about in the Church today. In my opinion, the Church currently has a vital need for believers to ground themselves firmly in the scriptures, and to accept their authority. Otherwise, “Christianity” is just as rudderless as the current idea in society that truth is what you want it to be, and that your truth and mine may differ. On the contrary, truth is truth. Relativism is not even remotely Christian and has no place in the understanding of those who call themselves followers of Christ. Christ said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; no man comes to the Father but by Me.” (John 14:6) There are no alternative routes to salvation. Scripture must be the foundational truth of faith. We can’t pick and choose which passages to believe; we either accept all of it, or none of it has authority. We must have an obedient relationship to the Word of God.
Being a faithful Christian may be hard. In our relationships with each other, Christ calls us to love our enemies and to pray and do good for those who would harm us. He tells us that if we are slapped on one cheek, we are silently to offer the other. He stood silently before Pilate, even though He was being wrongly accused. He didn’t call for an uprising from His followers. His was not a message of politics, hostility, confrontation, and violence. We are not to demand our rights, but have an attitude of humble servanthood. This message does not play well among many of today’s church people, but Christ called us to a radical departure from the wisdom of the world. Are we His faithful followers in all circumstances, or only when it is compatible with our preferences?
I am to love my neighbor as myself. That means when they are hungry, I share my food. When they are hurting, I try to comfort. I care about them, and not just in order to manipulate them into becoming believers. I am to care because we are all human and made in the image of God. It is important that I never develop a sense of “Us” and “Others”. Paul writes to the Romans, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”. (Romans 3:23) We are all in this thing called life together, and that means even those with whom we strongly disagree or who even may be my enemy. If we call ourselves Christian, the concept of hatred toward any others has no place in our thinking. Our example is to be Christ, Who loved us even when we were still His enemy. If we are going to see and act with the mind of Christ, there is no room for self-righteousness and contempt toward others.
I am to love my family and do my best to bring up my children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. I am to take a position of willing service and support toward those closest to me. Family relationships are often the most difficult because we care so deeply for one another, and are more sensitive to the often complicated interactions between parent and child, brothers and sisters, and extended family. Here is where we often must draw upon the strength of God to keep our tempers, not imagine slights, and not allow petty jealousies to put walls between us. Here is really where our devotion to God must enable us to love one another as He has loved us, in spite of everything.
I am a strong introvert. In my relationship with myself I find I must work hard not to be too condemnatory and critical. I need to keep reminding myself that I, too, am made in the image of God, and that by the price Christ paid at Calvary, He has demonstrated the worth God imputes to me. Others, more self-confident, might need to remind themselves that they are mere mortals, not small gods. Each of us needs to submit to the authority and sovereignty of God according to our own personalities. Even in our relationship with ourselves we need to show grace, mercy and love. Christ has suffered a great deal in order to reconcile me to the Father. I can’t be ungrateful and deny the purpose of that gift.
There is the kind of faith that devises many rules and uses these to wall itself off from others, and there is the kind of faith which acts as salt and light in the world by breaking walls down. Love is not exclusive, but inclusive. By building the right kind of relationships we demonstrate His love throughout the world.