Before the story we all know and love, the one that starts out “In the beginning…”—even before anything was created—there was God. And from eternity past, God has existed in relationship with himself: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The Trinity gives us a clue that in some significant way, relationships are pre-eminent. If this is true, one of the most important things we can do is understand our proper relationship to God, ourselves, and the people God puts on our path. Consider the two primary motives that drive relationships: the personal and the transactional.
Thousands of years back, the prevailing accounts of creation featured humans as the by-product of gods at war with one another, in love with one another, or as the slaves of lazy gods who needed someone to do the farming. These stories established purely transactional relationships between the gods and humanity: if people would make the right sacrifices or offer worship and tribute to these capricious deities, then the river would stay between its banks, the rains would fall in season, and the weather would cooperate in a pleasant agrarian rhythm.
We tend to take this for granted in our post-modern world, but the revelation of Yahweh (as he came to call himself) was a shocking inversion of every prior account of the origins of the universe and humanity: A God who was whole and wholly satisfied in relationship with himself, who was neither at war with other gods nor in love with them, who was not in need of human slaves to do his bidding. This God, in fact, embarked upon his creation project out of sheer delight and a desire to share the super-abundant love that he enjoyed in triune perfection. When he created man and woman, he made them “in his own image”—a phrase that was reserved exclusively for kings and queens of the day.
God made people little kings and queens of creation! This is all very personal, but the relationship was formalized over time in a series of contracts, called “covenants.” So, did the covenants transform the relationship between God and his people into a transactional one? In a sense, they are transactions, but here God is both the payee and the payor. Look at Genesis 15 and 17, and God’s contract with Abraham: God draws up the terms, he executes the deal, he makes all the promises, and Abraham is given a sign of the contract’s execution. Abraham is a participant in the process, but not because he paid any real price.
Abraham’s relationship with God was personal, and God’s relationship with Abraham’s descendants got even more personal over the generations (“I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty”). But the whole story reaches its pinnacle in what we might call the ultimate Personal Transaction. A great price is paid; a debt is cleared. Yes, the original contract—broken time and again by countless representatives of one side of the deal—is fulfilled once and for all. It’s a transaction, in a manner of speaking. But it’s done through Christ’s bodily death on the cross, broken for us and for our salvation, entirely because he (with the Father, and the Holy Spirit) delights in restoring us wholly and personally to himself, to ourselves, and to each other.
Isn’t it strange that, despite God’s consistent desire to forge a personal relationship with us, we tend to want to make it transactional? Whenever we talk of “earning God’s love,” or we consider the human tendency to offer “good works” in exchange for an improved relationship with God, we are operating in transactional mode.
Some relationships are transactional by necessity. But too often we conduct our most familiar relationships as give and take. What might it look like for us to build increasingly personal relationships?
- In purely transactional situations (the check-out counter at the grocery store, for example), how might we personalize the experience, even slightly? How might we see and honor the dignity and humanity of the clerk? Might a desire for personal relationships even influence our choices in where to shop, or which line to get in?
- In marriage, it’s hard not to keep a mental ledger: “I’ll send her on a girls’ weekend this month, so she won’t fuss when I take my hunting trip next month” but this kind of thinking is transactional. How might we adjust our posture toward one another so it reflects more self-sacrifice and mutual submission than never-ending exchanges of favors?
- Are we communicating transactional expectations to our children, either explicitly or implicitly? When I was in high school, my Dad once told me “You do, you get; you don’t do, you don’t get.” (I remember because I wrote it down and hung it on the wall above my desk!) He had just offered to take me on a ski trip if I got straight A’s. (Predictably, I earned straight A’s the following quarter. Sadly, it was the one straight-A report card of my entire life.)
- In the venn diagram of our lives, we at Caldwell intersect inside the “Caldwell Academy” circle. How do you participate in the life of the Caldwell community? Are you a member of the “family” who looks to give and serve sacrificially?
I hope and pray that in all things, we are increasingly being conformed to the image of Christ. May we seek to love and serve God and the people he puts in our path, not because we want the better part of a transaction but because we have experienced the sweetness and depth of personal relationships with him, with ourselves, and with each other.