The Bible doesn’t just use language of relationship, it actually does speak of relationship. This may be a subtle difference, but it is important. God isn’t just pretending to enter into relationship with us any more than He is just pretending to be in relationship within the Godhead. It’s not a matter of Him “dumbing down” the reality to something we can grasp, even though the reality of God’s love is surely beyond our ability to ever fully grasp.
On Sunday I preached a sermon entitled “Got Religion?” at a baptismal service. I spoke from James – probably the most “religious” book of the New Testament. James is apparently full of duty and expectation that is placed upon the follower of Christ. It gives a definition of true religion. It is like the Sermon on the Mount in epistle form. Yet the sermon showed that even the book of James isn’t primarily about duty, but about relationship with God.
How relationship and duty intersect are so important. To listen to some people, while Christianity “uses” the language of relationship, the core issue is really duty.
Then as soon as there is a sniff of a challenge in the air, the response is a swift restatement of the necessity of duty in the Christian life, as if to question that emphasis is to insist there are no duties at all.
The issue here is that of primary emphasis and driving motivation. It is not about the mutual exclusivity of duty and relational delight, nor am I suggesting that healthy relationships are built on feelings alone.
Let me think out loud in terms of marriage (since that is God’s illustration of choice). My wife is expecting any day now and when labour begins, I will be there. Is that a duty? Sort of, but that seems like a strange term to use. It certainly isn’t a term I would use in describing it to my wife – “I’m here because it is the right thing to do!” Somehow the language of duty seems to be a sure path to numbness in a relationship. But when our relationship is healthy, then we feel, we’re not numb.
I suppose I could list many duties involved in being a husband. But my wife would be encouraged to see me struggling to list the things I do under that label.
I wonder if we might be setting Christians up for difficulty when we talk of the Christian life primarily in terms of duties? That is, duty is about externals, and even if they are a good idea, the danger is that if we emphasize externals we create dutiful but numb believers. Sadly I fear that too many Christians could be described as dutiful but numb. Maybe our relationship with God isn’t simply two obedience steps away from thriving.
I was listening to an audiobook recently that made a simple, yet profound observation. When people met Jesus, they began to feel. As I listened to the testimony at the baptism on Sunday, I saw evidence of the same.