JOPLIN, Mo. —
Any relationship worth its salt is worth attention. If we do not attend to a worthwhile relationship, it will lose its worthiness. This includes our relationship with God.
There are at least two kinds of relationships with which we have some degree of experience:
- A contract is a legal, binding relationship, lasting for the duration of the stated terms. Whenever you have two or more parties, terms of agreement and signatures, you have a contract. A building contractor enters into a contractual relationship with you to build your house to certain specifications and in a certain time.
- A covenant relationship is also a binding relationship, lasting for as long as the parties involved so desire. Marriage, for example, is considered covenantal rather than contractual.
The essential difference between the contract and the covenant is that a contract emphasizes what each party will do, whereas a covenant emphasizes what each party will be.
Significant differences exist between the two, with important implications at play. Most important is that in a contractual relationship, the trust is placed in the contract itself.
Are all bases covered? Is every "I" dotted and each "T" crossed? Has everything been spelled out clearly and precisely? If the answer is yes, one can hope to relax.
In a covenant relationship, the trust is placed in the other party, not in the promise or the agreement. The binding power is the care and love each person has for the other. Vows are declared, but are not legal.
Scripture teaches that the relationship between God and me is covenantal in nature. The Old Testament prophet Hosea (2:16) has God saying to Israel, "You will call me 'my husband' and no longer will you call me 'my baal' (my master)." Jesus spoke to the disciples: "I do not call you servants any longer; but friends" (John 15:15). These thoughts are steeped in the sentiment of covenant rather than contract.
Covenant relationships are built upon mutual love. Because love is offered and never imposed or demanded, freedom is a key element within the covenant.
This includes our covenant relationship with God. This means we are free to choose or to reject God. God does not impose his love upon us by demanding our love; the choice is ours.
Not only are we free, but God is free to choose us, which he did via creation. The Hebrew people carefully protected the idea of God's freedom. In the dedicatory prayer for the temple, three verbs were used to protect God's freedom. God could dwell in the temple, God might not dwell in the temple, and God could come and go. The Israelites refused to impose their expectation upon God.
We would do well to be as conscious of God's freedom as were the Hebrew believers. Consider, for example, the idea of claiming a promise made by God -- God has promised and we hold him accountable.
The question is not God's steadfastness. The question is the attitude that we would presume to hold God accountable; claiming the promise is contractual in nature and not at all like a covenant.
How can we be covenantal about God's promises, rather than contractual? We do so by being more concerned about God's freedom than we are about God's promise.
Perhaps an adaptation of the dedicatory prayer mentioned above would be appropriate: God can make a promise, God can change a promise and God can do what he wants.
What can possibly be wrong with that prayer?
Craig Tally is the senior minister of First Community Church in Joplin. His column appears bi-weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.