James enjoys being with Avery. On Friday James’ family came to dinner at my place and Avery was invited too. I hadn’t met her until now but I knew of her through my visits with his family in Poland. There had been many mentions of Avery during my visits and part of the talk by his sisters was about the ways James had changed since he and Avery started a special friendship.
Was I surprised? No. Change comes by way of our friendships. We enjoy friends and want to please them. That, in turn, shapes our own character. It’s that simple: each of us is formed as a sum of our relationships. We live at the intersection of family, friends, school and/or work colleagues, and in the moments of contest or connection with others that make up a given day.
Relationships, in fact, are among the most powerful forces for change in life. From birth onward the quality of a mother’s care, the father’s devotion, and the family bonds form a healthy life for a child. It isn’t something we notice or work at. James, for instance, didn’t decide to change in light of his growing friendship. It just happens in the natural exchange of words and thoughts—a heart-to-heart process that spills outward into smiles, notes, Skype conversations, and a host of natural behaviors.
That’s key. We were made as responders. God exists in an eternal communion of initiative and response as the One who is Father, Son, and Spirit. Then Adam was made in God’s image as a relational being meant to enjoy communion with God, his source, and with his wife as his beloved partner. So we love God because he first loved us and we love each other as a natural outflow of our union with God.
I mention James, Avery, Adam, Eve, and others in the same breathe not because I’m pressing my young friends towards wedlock. That may or may not come along in time: we’ll wait and see. The real point I’d like to underline is that we exist as relational beings more than as physical beings. The two go together in the sense that we’re always embodied, but the real measure of our humanity is our set of relationships.
We can speak of our immaterial or nonphysical personhood in a number of ways but for those of us who are Christians we may want to look more closely at 1 Corinthians 2:11 in this connection. There Paul sets out a parallel between God’s inner being—his Spirit—and our inner being or spirit. In God’s case the Spirit is more than God’s disposition or his collective sensitivities. It’s his distinct partner and communicator—in theological terms he is the third person of the Godhead.
The Spirit “comprehends the thoughts of God” and we, in turn, each have our own spirit who “knows [our] thoughts”. The point Paul then makes to the Corinthians is that they now have the Spirit of God rather than the “spirit of the world” and are able to live in a Spirit-to-spirit communion that the natural world can’t grasp.
Let me go back to James and Avery again. If we think of their deeper persons—their individual spirits in the terms Paul used—they have a spiritual communion of some sort. And if both are united with Christ’s Spirit through new birth—as Paul presumes to be the case for all authentic Christians—then their communion is also Spiritual.
What, then, does a Spirit-to-spirit communion produce in us? If Avery’s friendship has changed James in ways that even his sisters have noticed, how will our own bond with Christ’s Spirit, especially as he pours out God’s love in our hearts (Romans 5:5), impact us. If we’re made to be responsive to his love, will that love start to change us?
The reason I ask is because I keep running into a strange sort of spirituality that calls for us to work on our own transformation. We’re called on to adopt certain spiritual disciplines and to engage in a number of approved spiritual practices. In other words we’re called to adopt certain behaviors that may not be very spontaneous or heartfelt.
The lesson I learn from James, on the other hand, is that the most spontaneous and heartfelt changes come from meeting someone we find lovely.
So that leads us to the next question. Is our spirituality a strange set of unnatural behaviors meant to fulfill the spiritual duties we’re directed to follow? Or is Christ attractive to us in our Spirit-to-spirit communion? Do we look for times and places to be with him? Do we treasure the Bible that opens his heart to us? Does our time with him cause us to change—whether or not we notice the change ourselves?
It seems to me that Paul has the latter in mind, not the former, when he spoke of real spirituality to the Corinthians. And on Friday evening James showed me what that looks like in human terms.