An impractical devotion

Long ago I realized that I participate in a widespread form of relational abuse.  Why?  Because, like so many others, I realize that it makes life work.  We come to see it as an ordinary fact of life.  But it shames me and I can never be “okay” with it.

The abuse is relational pragmatism. Or, more to the point, it views people as useful resources: nothing more, nothing less. If we know someone who has things we want or need—tools, appliances, money—or if they have special skills we appreciate, the pragmatists tend to give them time and attention. In fact it’s proverbial that people with unique skills and resources never lack for friends.

Every sphere of life is included.  Among those hardest hit are the relationships imposed on us by life events: our in-laws or fellow employees, for instance, are part of the social contracts of life—included in the fine print of a given contract. If someone has a less-than-stellar boss who, whatever their flaws, writes the job reviews and controls promotions, they tend to be treated as good friends. These are relationships of necessity—but not of desire. Call them “pretend-friendships.” They represent steps to success that need to be endured. Often, after success comes, and they’re no longer needed, they’re no longer endured. 

Every relationship has a purpose or set of purposes. I’ll expand on that below. And among those purposes is fellowship: each of us needs at least a few relationships that are more or less unconditional. Often we find such friends in shared circumstances such as school, work, or family; or in sharing common interests, as in clubs or small groups. Call this group our “true friends.” If we ever move from one locale to another the need to find some additional true friends is crucial to feeling at home. In looking back I now see that in my college days finding true friends was as important as finding a career pathway. 

But some mishaps can occur. I remember just settling into seminary life in Chicago years ago. I was as lonely as an old-time lighthouse keeper when a young couple, each gifted with winsome smiles, invited me to dinner at their place. I melted and started opening some heart space for them. Until after the meal when they asked, “Would you mind if we share a very special opportunity with you?” It was a marketing moment I hadn’t seen coming. Let me say right away that the opportunity certainly had some merits, but that wasn’t my hope for that night. I suspected I was mainly being viewed as a potential brick in the pyramid of their success. My worst fears came true when, after I very politely declined the offer, I never saw much of them again. 

Which brings me to a comment on social contracts by which we view people as objects of a contract or elements of a social system.  With this pragmatism in play we measure each person by the benefit they bring to the system. This is the stuff that formed unions as an attempt to defend against abuses. This pragmatism is often expressed through callous choices that come with staff reductions; or by offering unlivable wages and work conditions. People, in pragmatic and utilitarian work settings are reduced to machines. The financial bottom line is absolute.

The same pragmatism has slipped into the most fundamental of all relations: marriage. How many marriages, for instance, have broken up as one spouse tells the other, “you aren’t meeting my needs.” I recall one old ballad in which the crooner bemoans such a breakup: “you don’t bring me roses anymore.” This has spread into churches, too, as today marriages are often viewed by pastors and members as contractual events with certain contractual escape clauses. In the past a man and woman, when married, were held to be indivisibly one in a divine act of irreversible ontology. Theirs was a triune union [as husband, wife, & Spirit] as sacred as God’s own triune unity.

But let us be practical now. Most of us, if we are honest, have three types of relationships: the real, the potential, and the pragmatic. What defines a real friend is one who sees us, mutually, as one of their “real” friends—sharing common concerns and values. On the other end of the scale are our mutually-pragmatic friends—those we use and who use us. At the severely broken end of the spectrum these bonds have the weight of tissues during hayfever season: of very special value for a moment or two before being discarded. 

We should ask, then, how and where sin is in play here. Is it wrong, in God’s eyes, to arrange a pragmatic exchange of goods and services with others, yet without treating those we work with as real friends? Jesus, after all, did not give himself in such broad terms to everyone. He had three in his inner circle of friends, then twelve, and a few others such as Lazarus, Mary, Martha, and so on. 

Let me invite readers to read through the Bible as a whole with this question in mind. I promise: some huge insights will come of it. Let me offer, as a teaser, some highlights from my own readings. God made us to share, strictly, in real friendships. Why? Because that is how he exists eternally—in a mutual, eternal, glorious embrace of Father and Son, by the Spirit. He then created us in this, his relational image, to embrace him and each other from the heart and by the indwelling Spirit who pours out love to and through us. 

He also designed us to be inadequate so we need each other. So there must be ongoing commitments among us to exchange goods and services. But the Bible treats these as gifts to be exchanged out of mutual devotion. While he does not ask us to try to bond with every other person in the world—he made us as very limited people—he does call for us to be fully devoted to those we do bond with: to love them as we enjoy being loved. This has remarkable benefits: it gives us a basis to trust others, and to become fully authentic ourselves. What would it be like if each of us shared deeply with a dozen or so other friends who, in turn, were equally and unconditionally devoted to our personal welfare? We might find some security. Others might want to join us. 

This fits the Scriptures. As the head of our shared body, the church, Jesus told our forbearers: “By this all men will know you are my disciples: that you love each other.” How much love and for how long? He answered, “No greater love has any man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends.”

But, I hear some of us thinking, all of this theology is nice but it’s not very practical. Each of us has our own concerns that need to be met, programs to run, people to direct, and if we wait for some distant utopia to form, nothing will get done. So it is that many Christian communities—both churches and ministries—are famously practical but not famously devoted to each other in love.

How did Jesus do? Read the gospels again and see for yourself. I think, from my reading, of the way the disciples of Jesus treated the two blind men on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem. The two were shouting and making a nuisance of themselves, so the disciples told them to shut up. I suspect the sighted disciples were anxious to get on with the trip. Jesus, however, stopped and did the healing. Or the time when the apostles just returned from a missions trip, anxious to get to the retreat center to rest and to share their stories. Jesus, on the way, saw the crowds all around them who were hungry and needy. So he interrupted the retreat and fed them. Why? Because he had compassion.

So here is the question of the day. Which type of relationship do each of us have with Christ? Real, potential, or pragmatic? Let me confess where I am too much of the time: in my utilitarian ways I treat him as my great resource in the sky.

Others do the same. Consider many prayer meetings:

“God, will you please ______ us!” [fill in: bless, refresh, stir, encourage, heal, strengthen, etc., etc.] All of which set out our own benefits as front and center. It goes on from there: “And please be with ______, and help us to ______.” God is the giver; we are the perpetual takers.

Also, I think of sermons where very little is said about God—speaking about how great, attractive, and winsome he is in his triune reality—and great chunks of time are devoted to the “application” of the text. It’s as if the whole point of Scripture is to set up behavioral modification events with our welfare (and compliance) in view.

Finally, here’s a bottom line question: does God enjoy being in a “pretend-friendship” with so many of us? Does he like a contract-relationship where he supplies eternal fire insurance and we try to pay him his weekly premiums with a visit to church and the giving of a few bucks?

And, if not, what would a “real” friendship of mutual delight be like with God? I think he might like it. After all, it’s what the Father and Son, by the Spirit, have been sharing back and forth from eternity past. Lots of mutual love and glory going back and forth. Is anyone willing to try joining in that exchange, with a further openness to share it with still others? I’d like to. And—assuming we have the Spirit—he is ever active in pouring that love out from the font of the Godhead and into our hearts (Romans 5:5).

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4 Comments

  1. R N Frost

    Let me add another thought from Luke 10.

    After I finished my Sunday writing I found myself reflecting on the great co-invitations of the Bible: to love God and our neighbors with all our being (heart first, then the other more applied soul-elements of mind and strength).

    It was the question of the pragmatist who asked Jesus “and who is my neighbor” that allowed the Lord to display the radical dimensions of “real” love and friendship.

    I mentioned, at the start of the post, that I can never approve of my own sin of pragmatism. Why? Because the parable of the good Samaritan, the story Jesus gave in response to his pragmatic questioner, closes off the option of convenience. Jesus leaves us, instead, with two radical realities of kingdom love:

    1. My neighbor is anyone with whom I share the path of life in some immediate context.

    2. The measure of real friendship is not whether the person is among my favorite-five phone list or among my Facebook friends. Instead it’s anyone on my path who needs my compassion.

  2. Val Shean

    I enjoyed delving into the ideas of relational pragmatism with you. Surely, our motivations for relational interactions are coloured and tainted by our own needs and desires, most of which are self-promoting. The unfortunate, unspoken agreement in many relationships is that we allow others to use us, as long as that use is relatively benign, fair and balanced. Tangled covenants of co-dependency can emerge, leading to confusion, frustration and possessiveness. Is consentual abuse still abuse?

    Truely, phileo and eros love certainly demand some degree of measured reciprocity, with storge love allowing for a larger margin of sacrifical grace and compassion, later to be found appended to anticipatory gratitude. Only as agape love begins to replace the initially fulfulling phileo, eros and storge, can we honestly love with a pure, undivided heart, unadulterated and unencumbered by our own self-centered, worldly desires. Release of our desires and surrender to God, opens up our hearts to be available to God’s will, without being diverted by the self-seeking yearnings of the unmortified soul.

  3. R N Frost

    Thanks Val (& it’s nice to reconnect with you here!). It’s another step to track the use of Greek terms for love and it certainly bears closer attention: thanks. Yet let me touch on a sidebar feature of your comments: reciprocity.

    You’ve put your finger on a key symmetry, that reciprocity can be both selfless and selfish.

    Let me offer a thought on it. The mutual bonds of selfishness are very unstable: they quickly turn into bondage as the pragmatist whose desire is less felt is able to manipulate the one who is more needy.

    By contrast the mutual bonds of selflessness are, by their very nature, never given over to ruling or controlling the other, only to building up, encouraging, refreshing, and so on.

    The motor of a living faith, then, is God’s own selfless love, a love that is fully reciprocal yet without being selfish. So it is that only God’s bond of love, freely offered to us in Christ and by the Spirit, sets us free from the bondage of Adam’s self-love. God’s goal is to stir a reciprocity of mutual love with him. And we then share in his impulse to offer it freely with others.

  4. Val Shean

    Hi Ron,

    Nice to find you here as well. Dorie helped connect me to your site. I’ve also enjoyed seeing how your Barnabas ministry works. It looks like a hugely beneficial ministry.

    I appreciated your additional thoughts on reciprocity and can see that the Lord has touched your heart in allowing you to experience the true unconditionality of His love. He is truely an amazing God. I thought the following statement was interesting: “The MOTOR of a living faith, then, is God’s own selfless love, a love that is fully reciprocal yet without being selfish.” I liked the idea that it is His Power and Energy, fueled by His Love, which vitalizes our faith; fully instigated by Him and offered to us. What freedom, what release, to be empowered by His love!

    Our problems come when we expect to continually feel the reciprocity of God’s love, and when we cease to feel it, we cease to trust in it. It is so sad that we turn back to grasp at the things that have bound us, doubting His love, His concern and His ability. We cling to our fragile securities and precious comforts, while setting our hope in an ephemeral mirage. Our love for God becomes contingent on His will conforming to ours.

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