In the book, “Family: A Christian Perspective on the Contemporary Home“, by Jack and Judith Balswick, I read an insightful description of the pathway to intimacy in marriage (or any relationship for that matter). It wasn’t so much the mechanics that caused me to pause and ponder, but the starting point.
So often we see relationships as things that must be mutually worked at and mechanically scrutinized. This isn’t untrue, but Balswick suggests that the cause of many dysfunctional relationships, which are epidemic in our culture, or even areas of dysfunction within decent relationships is not what we are or are not putting into them. Simply, the issue is probably at the beginning not in the middle. No one, with any sense, has a runny nose and assumes that the sum total of the problem is isolated to their nostrils. Some virus or allergy is the likely culprit and the leaking beak is merely a symptom. In much the same way many dysfunctions are merely symptoms of a larger, more foundational issue.
Because of our self-centered culture, the “I-better-get-what-I-can-while-I-can” mindset is a pervasive thing. It is easy to begin to see marriage or friendship or even parenthood as a contractual agreement. I put in this much, they put in this much, and we have a good working relationship. If that status quo changes then we will have a problem. If the change seems to be permanent, then we will likely dissolve the contract because one end of the bargain is not being upheld. While this may be good business practice, it’s an atrocious basis for a healthy relationship. The problem with this contractual model is that it is based on mutual benefit and profitability. Now, again, that’s not a problem for two corporations or organizations, their reason for existence is profitability. But, to be clear, relationships aren’t about profit, they are about investment. Even that idea of investment is misleading because it is still seeing marriage or friendship in terms of business, but we aren’t talking about businesses we are talking about lives.
What Balswick suggests is that we need to move from a contract model to a covenant model in understanding what actually begins a healthy relationship:
The central point of covenant is that it is an unconditional commitment, demonstrated supremely by God to the creation. Although the concept of covenant has a rich heritage in Christian theology, the biblical meaning has been eroded by the modern notion that commitment is not more than a contract.
Balswick goes on to describe the covenants that God made with Noah and Abraham in the book of Genesis, and then says,
What can we learn from these two accounts of God’s establishing a covenant with Noah and Abraham? First, we see that God is not offering either of them any choice in the matter…Second, God’s offer is in no way contractual; that is, it is not based on Noah or Abraham keeping their end of the bargain.
There are more reasons than just those, but those first two points were epiphanous in my mind.
God’s covenant with those two Patriarchs, and with us, is an unconditional commitment to love. Because of the unconditional nature of a covenant, verses a contract, there is automatically the product of freedom, and freedom is the only seedbed where love can truly exist. If we never create a safe place for our relationships to both succeed and fail, then we will never see them mature. I didn’t make an agreement with my wife, prior to our marriage, that as long as she would keep a list of demands I would offer her my love and affection. I loved her before I asked her to marry me, in fact it was my love for her that compelled me to propose, not the promise of a cooked meal every night, offspring at my discretion, and silence during all Magnum P.I. reruns.
Essentially the idea behind covenant is found when we look at our spouse, our friend, or our child and say, “No matter what you do I will love you, not because you will deserve it all the time but because you are under no obligation to earn my love.” When we approach each other knowing that we are allowed to have bad days and we are allowed to have rough patches and we are allowed even to treat each other unfairly without the fear of them walking away forever – in that kind of environment we will see relational maturity.
I know that this doesn’t deal with every situation specifically. I understand that some people are “users” and some people will take and take and take. But, what I would suggest is that those kinds of people represent the very dysfunction that is bred from conditional relationships in their past. They will be distrusting and committed to self-preservation until they are loved in a way that doesn’t allow them to hit the self-destruct button and eject. I say this because I look at the cross and see a Man that knew me and my own tendencies to “use Him” and abuse His unconditional love and still He stood under the condemnation that should have been mine. With every lash of the whip that mutilated His flesh He extended one more assurance to me that He wanted me no matter how much it cost Him. And in the end, when He indeed could have preserved His own life, He chose instead to look at all of us – we who were/are selfish, foolish, afraid, disrespectful, and unappreciative – and make the covenant declaration with His life that every prodigal that will run away from home will always find that they have a home to return to. Just before this He actually said that He was establishing a “new covenant”, and He symbolically broke bread and poured wine to let us know that His brokenness was forever to be our reminder.
What my wife needs to know is this: there is nothing that she will ever do that will make me abandon her or stop willfully giving my heart to her. What my kids need to know is this: they can never abuse me, cut me, or ignore me enough to thwart the love that I have for them in my heart. What my friends need to know is this: our relationship is not based on what I get out of it, it is based on the fact that I am committed to walking with you for the rest of my life, however that may shake out. I say all of these things not quite as selflessly as it might first seem. Balswick, near the end of the section on covenant offers this explanation for the reason covenant is given:
The desire of God in each initiated covenant is that the unconditional commitment will eventually be reciprocal and mutual.
The covenant love I offer is not an attempt by me to become a rescuer to others, or a white knight sweeping in to save the day. The idea of covenant is, for me, based on the fact that I can see no other way to find the kind of relationship that I desire other than offering it myself. I know that I need this as well and so I offer it first, at the peril of my own safety. But the truth is that I’ve already been the recipient of these kinds of commitments in my life and they all, in time, have compelled me to reciprocate the dedication.
It’s always to early to quit.
– Norman Vincent Peale