By Linda Rex
What if you found yourself in the midst of a committed relationship in which no matter how hard you tried, you could never get it right? What if you were the one who was unfaithful, unloving, and insensitive? What if you found yourself too often breaking the other person’s heart rather than sharing your own heart in humility and gratitude?
If we were honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that at some point in our relationships, most probably more often than we realize, we are this way. We find ourselves saying hurtful things, being unfaithful in our thinking and/or behavior, and showing our loved one disrespect by the things we say and do. We may or may not care about the effect of our behavior upon them, depending upon the state of our own heart and our relationship with them and God.
We may find ourselves despairing of ever being other than what we are, of never experiencing the blessings of a life in loving relationship with another human being, or even with God.
The story of the Old Testament tells us how God, even while knowing what the outcome would be, entered into a relationship with human beings, calling them his own, and giving them life in relationship with himself. He gave them a way of life which would enable them to experience his grace and grow in their knowledge and understanding of him and his ways of being.
In spite of all of God’s efforts to love his people and to be gracious towards them, his covenant people more often than not were unfaithful and unloving toward him. They ignored his clear revelation of what life in the presence of God looks like, and chose to establish their own rules for living. They depended upon other people, themselves, and the things of the earth rather than relying upon God for everything. God’s most loving efforts were met with resistance, rejection, and disrespect.
And yet, God did not dissolve the relationship. He relentlessly pursued his beloved children. Yes, he allowed them to experience the consequences of their unloving behavior, but he never made it a condition to his relationship with them. He is a covenant God, who keeps his covenant relationships while at the same time being free to dissolve them if he wishes to.
He sent prophets who warned them of the consequences of continuing their unfaithful, unloving behavior. Jeremiah acknowledged their inability to fulfill their covenant commitment to their God apart from his gracious intervention. He called for God, The Hope of Israel, to intervene: “Heal me, O Lord, and I will be healed; save me and I will be saved, for You are my praise.” (Jer. 17: 14 NASB)
In the midst of the darkest days of Israel’s history, they heard no prophetic word from God and were exiled far from their homeland. They knew they deserved the desolation of their temple and being removed from the land they loved: “But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me, and the Lord has forgotten me.’” But God said to them, “Can a woman forget her nursing child and have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you. Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands; your walls are continually before Me.” (Isa. 49:14-16)
God’s word to his covenant people through the prophet Isaiah gave them hope. The prophet wrote of a messiah who would come to deliver his people from oppression and to usher in the new age of the Spirit, when “all flesh will know that I, the Lord, am your Savior and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.” (Isa. 49:26b)
And it was not enough for God to redeem his people and restore his relationship with them. He went on beyond and included all humanity in the prophetic word of hope. The prophet Isaiah spoke of God’s Suffering Servant who would come and restore his people and through them, all humanity: “And now says the Lord, who formed Me from the womb to be His Servant, to bring Jacob back to Him, so that Israel might be gathered to Him (For I am honored in the sight of the Lord, and My God is My strength), He says, “It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make You a light of the nations… Break forth, shout joyfully together, you waste places of Jerusalem; for the Lord has comforted His people, He has redeemed Jerusalem. The Lord has bared His holy arm in the sight of all the nations, that all the ends of the earth may see the salvation of our God.” (Isa. 49:5-6, 52:9-10 NASB)
Today we can look back on the events which took place following these prophetic messages. We know the amazing way God kept his word of hope which he gave to his people in the gift of his Son Jesus Christ. We can recognize God’s faithfulness and compassion, and understand we are included in God’s redemptive work.
Because of what God has done and is doing for us through his Son, and how he is working today in and with us by his Spirit, we can have hope in the midst of our own difficult circumstances. We may find ourselves in dark places, but we can know Jesus is present with us in the midst of them by his Spirit. We know Abba is carrying us, faithfully loving us and working for our redemption and salvation.
And this gives us hope within our own broken relationships. We turn to Christ, to Abba, and by the Spirit gain the grace to live in ways with one another which are a reflection of the divine life and love. We find in Christ by the Spirit the ability to say no to that which is unhealthy and evil, and yes to that which is wholesome and healing. It is Christ dwelling within us by his Spirit who brings us into his own faithful, loving relationship with his Abba, and enables us to participate with him in it. And this overflows into our own human relationships as the Spirit flows between and amongst us all.
And so, the apostle Peter calls us to “fix [our] hope completely on the grace to be brought to [us] at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 1:13 NASB) We are to hope in Jesus Christ—in the God of hope, who is our blessed hope in every situation and circumstance, because he is gracious, loving, and faithful.
Thank you, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for sending us your Son, and giving us your Spirit. Thank you that you are The God of Hope who rescues us from sin, evil, and death, and you meet us in the midst of every relationship by your Spirit so we may live together in oneness, in a recognition of and respect for our uniqueness and our equality. Grant us the grace again, to trust you in every circumstance, and when things grow dark and dreary, please shine your bright rays of hope in and through your Son Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Now may our Lord Jesus Christ Himself and God our Father, who has loved us and given us eternal comfort and good hope by grace, comfort and strengthen your hearts in every good work and word.” 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17 NASB
by Linda Rex
One of the most difficult aspects of living in covenant relationship with another human being is coming to grips with the need for unconditional love and grace. Since most of our lives we work and live within the idea of making and keeping contracts, much of our culture is based upon this type of economic and social structure. So when we come to our relationship with God, as well as the covenant of marriage, it is easy to fall back upon this type of thinking and being.
This morning I was listening to Dr. James Torrance ask the question, “Is our God the Triune God of grace or is he a contract God?” His purpose for asking that question was to help his listeners consider the difference between a covenant and a contract. Most of us clearly understand what a contract is—an agreement between two people which can be broken if one or the other does not perform completely the requirements of the contract.
When we mistakenly assume that the covenant God made with Israel and humanity is actually a contract, then what happens is that we put the terms of the agreement in the wrong order: law, consequences, grace. But if we understand that God’s covenant is one of love and grace, and is unconditional, then we understand that the proper order is: grace, law, consequences.
In other words, a covenant looks entirely different from a contract. Torrance uses the example of a marriage covenant to describe the difference. If we think a marriage agreement is a contract (if you do this, then I will do that), then whenever one or the other members of the relationship fail to meet the other’s expectations, then the relationship is broken, and each person can walk away from the relationship at any time. There isn’t really anything to bind two people together if marriage is treated like a contract. You and I both know that at some point in any relationship, someone is going to fail to meet the other person’s expectations. It’s a given, because we’re human.
But in a covenant, unconditional love and grace come first. The commitment to the other supersedes all other considerations in the relationship. Two people agree to love one another no matter what may happen in life, no matter what they each might do. Then there is an understanding that whatever they may do or say to one another will have consequences for the relationship. But the binding of the two people together by unconditional love and grace keeps the relationship intact even when there is a failure at some point to meet the other person’s expectations.
This is what God did with Israel and what he did, in fact, with all humanity. God determined that he was going to draw human beings into relationship with himself. We as human beings have so often broken our part of that covenant just as Israel broke their part of their covenant with God over and over. But God has always been faithful to what he promised. He loved us prior to us loving him. He forgave us prior to us even knowing we needed forgiven. His love and grace are unconditional. This is true covenant.
This is where relationships get tough. Are we willing to forgive the unforgiveable? Are we willing to go the extra mile? Are we willing to keep loving someone who is all prickles and thorns?
You see, God loved Israel unconditionally. Over and over, he forgave his people all of their unfaithfulness to him. Were there consequences to Israel’s breaking of the covenant relationship? Yes—they experienced slavery, oppression and devastation. Even though God allowed them to experience the full consequences of their unfaithfulness to him, he, in time, laid down his life for his people, as well as for all humanity.
God’s love and grace were and are prior to any law. Law describes what a healthy happy relationship looks like and what the consequences are when people don’t live in ways that coincide with a healthy happy relationship. God’s love and grace were present and available even when Israel failed to keep their side of the covenant and experienced the consequences of it. God’s love and grace are also present and available to each of us, in spite of our failures to live faithfully and lovingly in relationship with our God.
Yes, God often allows human beings to experience the pain and devastation that comes with living in ways that break that relationship. And that is where we need to rethink how we handle our covenant relationships. It is easy to believe that in a marriage, if one person loves the other no matter what, then they have to accept whatever behavior the other person does even if it is harmful or involves infidelity or substance abuse. But we need to rethink that.
We are called to love one another unconditionally within the marriage covenant. If a person within the relationship is an addict and is causing destruction to the relationship and to themselves, is it truly loving to allow them to continue in that destructive behavior? No. So they need to experience the consequences of their behavior, but in such a way that the covenant relationship remains intact if at all possible. Love calls the broken person to healing and wholeness and provides a safe place for them to begin to get help. Love does not leave them in their brokenness and enable them to continue their self-destruction. This is when love has to be tough.
When a person is unfaithful in a relationship, there is so much pain involved. The gut level response is to bail out of the relationship. But if indeed unconditional love and grace come first in the covenant—then there must be room, if both parties are willing, to forgive and to rebuild the relationship on a new foundation of grace. When Israel was unfaithful to God, we see the language of divorce in Hosea—yet God did not divorce Israel. Instead, he came in the person of Jesus, laid down his life, and died in her place. Wow! Most of us never get to that place of self-sacrifice and forgiveness in our relationships!
To truly love and forgive is to lay down one’s life for the other so that they can be and become all they were created to be as image-bearers of God. The Triune God of grace teaches us what covenant love looks like—and calls us to live in that relationship with him and with one another. Consequences have their place in covenant relationships. Pain and sin will happen. But unconditional love and grace trumps it all.
God of grace and love, thank you for your faithfulness and compassion. Grow in us the capacity to love and forgive as you do. Teach us what it means to live in covenant love as you do with us. Through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“I will establish My covenant between Me and you [Abraham] and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you.” Genesis 17:7 NASB