Relationships define us. Yet most of us share a common sense assumption that we exist as self-defined and self-directed individuals. This unshakeable premise grows out of a shared human experience: that we live and move on the basis of inward, personal deliberations. Even the quiet and private moment of reading just now can be seen as a display of how our individual deliberations work.
At one level, that’s fine. But the counterpoint to this is that our moments of reading-and-reflecting—and all other moments of life—are better seen as threads in our fabric of lifelong relations. Even in this moment of reading, for instance, a relational engagement is in play: my words will lead you to ask, “Does this fit with what others say about how we exist as humans?” That experience exposes the truth that any given moment of deliberation—a given “thread”—is defined by its place in our tapestry of relations.
Track with me for a moment. The Bible—a trustworthy conversation-partner as it speaks about the soul—tells us often and in many ways that we were created as responders-to-others: as lovers.
To begin, God himself exists in the eternal relational communion of Father, Son, and Spirit; and we were made in his image as male, female, and spirit people. In both cases the bond-of-being is mutual love, so that “God is love” (1 John 4:8&16); and love, then, is what defines us as in Christ’s prayer of John 17.
Sin, over against God-love and neighbor-love, is self-love (2 Timothy 3:1-5). Collectively, then, God in love calls us out of self-love to become “the body of Christ”: a Spirit-generated reality (Ephesians 4). This is more than mere metaphor—instead it represents our marital bond “in Christ” (1 Corinthians 6:15-19) that he initiates.
As such we are defined affectively: by those whom we love and hate—or like and dislike. So our deliberations consist in our stirring through “wants” and “don’t wants” shaped by our vast set of prior life encounters.
Here is where the Bible startles us. Ultimately all our relations are linked back to just one of two underlying bonds: either to God or to the fallen world. Christ expressed this simple opposition in the Sermon on the Mount: “No one can serve two masters . . .” (Matthew 6:24; see, too, John 8:42-44). Meaning, Jesus explained, is found in the joy of our sharing life with him—as part of the relational tapestry he is weaving. All our deliberations are meant to be framed by his love.
So the Bible portrays us as those made to love and to be loved. And we know the priority of love is true even apart from the Bible. Those most devoted to claims of personal freedom still conform to the prevailing values of their most-desired (or “beloved”) peer groups. All of us are bonded by shared interests and ambitions: it’s the stuff of love.
That reality touches our basic question: do we really operate with free choices as we think we do? Do we actually start from a moral neutrality in considering our wide range of life-options—so that we freely pick and choose our level of devotion to others on a case-by-case basis? Or are we actually shaped in every moment by our tapestry of prior relations: bound to do what we most “want” to do because of our self-interests?
Let’s think about the account of the Fall in Genesis 3. It answers our question by showing that a single ambition shapes all our fallen desires: all our “wants” have been birthed in an ultimate falsehood.
Adam and Eve were at first happy and comfortably naked (Genesis 2); but in embracing the Serpent’s call to “be like God” they dismissed God’s caring leadership in their lives. What then occurred? When God returned to the scene they were instantly ashamed of being naked—stunned by their felt inadequacy. Their creation-affection had dissolved into self-focused fears. Adam gave voice to his newfound alienation by blaming both God and his wife for his own sin: “It’s the woman you gave me who caused all this!”
What was behind the serpent’s lie? His ambition was to capture and then to rule human hearts by plying us with deceitful desires under the guise of freedom. He knows how to stir us by offering us self-fulfilling pleasures—both mental and sensual—that we enjoy and pursue. Given his unmatched and pervasive skills our “free” deliberations are hardly free.
Yet the enemy’s strategy has a glaring flaw: he could not un-create what God designed us to be. We were made to love God. So a deep emptiness remains as a felt need in every fallen soul. For his deceit to work, then, he needs to work feverishly to stir up new forms of self-satisfaction, pleasure, and pride.
Paul summarized this in Ephesians 2:1-3—speaking of how we all once walked as Satan’s “children of disobedience”. What, then, sets us free from such bondage? What made Paul change so that he came to see all his early life successes as “dung”?
Let’s return to Jesus and the polarity he expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. We must return to what Adam despised: the love of God revealed to us in Christ and poured out in our hearts by his Spirit. In that moment God turns the entire tapestry of our life upside-down: what our enemy meant for evil our Savior then begins to turn for the good. The eyes of our hearts are opened and we look, once again, at God as the one who loves us and calls us to be holy and blameless.
Thank God for his faithful, inviting love!