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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Christian Relationships

I'm always amazed how many people think the Bible is some pie-in-the-sky, out of touch with reality book about "spiritual things."

By "spiritual things" people generally mean things unconnected to the realities of daily life. Real things are mortgages, parenting, car repairs, traffic, and medical problems. Spiritual things have something to do with a vague sense that we are not alone in the universe, the uneasy feeling in the pit of your stomach when your baby is getting baptized, a pasty-faced priest pronouncing the benediction at the graveside, or a talk that moved your heart at a youth rally you went to in seventh grade because there was this really cute girl ...

Those who think the Bible is a spiritual book, in that sense, have obviously not read it very deeply. Those who have read the Bible carefully and still find it offensive understand that it is a thoroughly practical book. The Bible is offensive precisely because of its practicality.

Take the whole arena of relationships. As a culture we like to have a little easy relationship advice. It gives us something to work on when we're feeling really ambitious, but more often the dribble of advice we catch on Dr. Phil or Oprah makes us feel better without our having to do much at all. We get the watered down relationship advice of the talk show set when what we really need is a strong dose of biblical reality. (By the way, look around you ... how do you think we're doing basing our relationships on talk show advice?)

The Bible is eminently practical about relationships. The first thing the Bible recognizes is that left to ourselves, we cannot relate well to others. If I am the authority over my own existence, my selfishness will be at the root of every move I make, every word I speak. By definition I cannot get outside myself.

From the beginning of the Bible to its end, it recognizes that humans need to know that we are created by God and owe him our ultimate allegiance. The New Testament makes it even more pointed when it comes to describing love -- "In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and gave his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins" (See 1 John 4). Love -- and all relationships come down to love -- starts not with us but with God. We begin not with ourselves, but with God. Specifically we begin with what God has done for us in Jesus, in what theologians call his incarnation, life, death, and resurrection. Jesus is where relationships start, because Jesus is where a relationship with God starts. All other relationships flow out of a connection with God, or they simply fold back into themselves and become self-oriented and self-referencing. The great disease, philosophically speaking, of our time is humanism -- the assumption that humans are the measure of all things. Taken a step further, this means that the self is the measure of all things. Descartes summed this up carefully in his Latin phrase, cogito, ergo sum -- I think, therefore I am.

But the Bible takes a different view and says that I am because God has willed me to be. In fact, my existence is a shadow, an imitation, an image of God's own existence. This is the God who introduced himself to Moses by saying his name was "I AM." If my existence is a fact because God wills it, then I should get to know this God, to seek his will, to understand his desire for my existence. Jesus is the key to this. In Jesus we understand the beauty of creation, the alienation of sin, the brokenness of depravity, and our need to be made whole, to be restored to relationship with God. We also glimpse, through this same lens of Jesus and a Christ-centered reading of the Bible, that what Jesus has done for us not only makes us right with God, but it makes possible real relationship with other people.

So marriage, parenting, friendship, employment, public service -- all are transformed by what Jesus has done for us. Much of the New Testament lays out the specifics of how these various roles are to be lived out now that Jesus has atoned for our sin and conquered death through his resurrection. The details are immensely practical.

If you're looking for relationship advice, leave the television off. Do the work of digging into your Bible. Read for the practical details, the practical how-to-love the Bible lays out so well. Nearly every book of the New Testament is chock full of this stuff. If you're wondering about marriage, check out 1 Peter 3 or Ephesians 5. If you want to know how to live with non-believers, 1 Peter is your book. Romans 12 is one of the best all-around relationship guides there is -- but notice in verse 1 the "therefore" -- Paul is referring you back to the first 11 chapters of his letter in which he lays out what it means to have a relationship with Jesus first. Then he says, "Therefore ..." and starts in on the practical implications for human relationships. Keep reading through chapters 13 (how to relate to government) and 14 (how believers can handle disagreements about touchy matters).

I'd keep listing specific passages but you get the idea. Warning, though -- you may find that you have a lot in common with Mark Twain, who said, "It's not the parts of the Bible I don't understand that bother me -- it is the parts I do!"

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