The God of Our Relationships

August 10, 2016

by Vern Poythress

How extensively do we meet with relationships? We meet them in all of our social life—family, business, education, economy, law, art, sports. Our relationships with animals, plants, and nonliving things are subpersonal. But even in these relationships, we also have a relationship to God, who gives and ordains the animals, plants, and nonliving things to which we relate. Our relationship with God is inescapable.

Attributes of Lordship

Let us remember the three attributes or perspectives on lordship: authority, control, and presence.

God is the Lord. As an attribute of his lordship, he has authority over all his relationships to human beings and over all our relationships to one another. His authority extends even to those things that human beings may never notice: a single cell in a muscle fiber in a finger moving to grasp a jigsaw piece. God’s authority specifies what is right and wrong in relationships. He requires the father to serve as wise guide for the son, and the son to respect the father.

Second, God controls the relationships. He controls everything in every human relationship and institution and artifact and culture throughout the world. His control is what imparts power to our human control and gives significance and meaning to our human significances.

Third, God is present in his wisdom and truth in the midst of human meanings, purposes, and attempts at control. He confronts us not only with his goodness and his name, but also with his holiness and his requirement of truthfulness and moral responsibility on our part. Personal relationships are not something that we are to be involved in as we please, independent of all moral standards. If people tried consistently to abandon moral standards with respect to relationships, no one could be trusted, and social life would be full of failures as well as treacheries. God makes the social world generally livable. But in a fallen world, there may indeed sometimes be anarchic situations and evil groups where human destruction rises to horrible heights. Short of completely reforming and purifying people as God will do in the consummation, he rules over a world that still contains treacheries in human relationships.

Acting in Relationships

Within this world we have the privilege of acting and reflecting on our relationships. In our actions, in our creativity, we draw out and make manifest meanings that God has already ordained. We depend on meanings all the time—the meanings in the episodes and the meanings in our motives and the meanings in the effects on others.

To abolish God’s presence would be to abolish relationships themselves.

At every point in relationships we depend on God, even when we are not aware of it. Our duty to God is not to become perfectly aware of everything, which would be impossible anyway. Our duty is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, and our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:37–40). Love, not knowledge, is our prime duty. But how shall people be changed when they have rebelled against God and turned in hatred against him? We must not pretend that we are not sick with sin and rebellion. We must come to Christ, the source of our redemption, and live from his authority, control, and presence.

We must live in his truth (John 14:6), being sanctified by his word (John 17:17). We must walk in his truth, and speak the truth (2 John 4; 3 John 3–4; Eph. 4:25). We may express our gratitude to God for our relationships, not only by praising him when we think of their marvels, but also by serving him even when we are not thinking of those marvels.

Situations with Non-Christians
We may also grow in our appreciation of the struggle that non-Christians have. They live in God’s world, and according to Romans 1:18–25 they know God in his eternal power and divine nature (1:20). God is present to them in their every breath and every interaction in human relationships. And that is not pleasant, because they do not want him there.

Non-Christians cannot get God’s presence out of their relationships. That is something different from the question of whether they can cease consciously to think about God. Clearly they can. But to abolish God’s presence would be to abolish relationships themselves, including every significance of every smile, every sign, every episode, every step, every jigsaw piece.

Some people have tried to do so. Eastern forms of meditation often involve the practice of emptying the mind and trying to bring thought to an end. The goal is to be one with the universe or to experience union with “the All,” that is, with a god who is conceived pantheistically. Allegedly, such a union dissolves the restlessness of the human mind in order to advance toward the goal of final peace. The Buddhists want nirvana, which is the dissolution of the mind and the person and all human relationships into the cosmic “All.”

Yes, the mind is restless. The mind involved in human relationships is restless. “Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in You.” What we need is a renewed relationship with God—fellowship with God and reconciliation with God, not nirvana. The paradox of Eastern mysticism is that it seeks by heroic mental, spiritual, and bodily efforts to arrive at a god, when all along God, the true God, is already there. He is there right in the structures of persons and their relationships. “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

You do not have to cease to think, and you do not have to empty out meaning to get there. God is already there with persons in their fullness, in their relationships. Fill your mind with him, rather than emptying it. In fact, emptying it is retreat from God into one more idolatry, where a person pretends that the self is identical with the One, identical with a god. Non-Christians do not see how to receive God, this God who is closer than thought itself. In fact, no one on his own initiative does. We are rebels. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” ( John 6:44). God must give light, through his Son (John 8:12; 9:5). And then, when God casts off the darkness and fog in our minds, we may begin to understand how much God was present to us all along, in our relationships as well as other ways. He was present even while we rebelled, hated, and fled.

This piece is adapted from Vern Poythress, Redeeming Sociology: A God-Centered Approach (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2011), 255–275. Used with permission of the publisher.

Vern Poythress

Dr. Poythress (PhD, Harvard; DTh, Stellenbosch) is professor of New Testament interpretation at WTS.

Next Post...

The Gospel Among the Roma

August 09, 2016

by David Garner