Relationships change us, for better or for worse. When Paul says that we should not be deceived, that “bad company ruins good morals” and that “a little leaven leavens the whole lump”, he does so as an affirmation of what the whole Bible teaches about humanity, that is the natural, shaping power of relationships in our lives..
We were made to be shaped by relationship. This is not a bad thing. It is the way we were made. Bad company corrupts us and a little bad “yeast” affects many because sin piggybacks on good things God has made and distorts them. We were made to be shaped by relationship – ultimately by our relationship with God. In right relationship to him we bear his image, mirroring his character which we know and experience in that relationship. We were made to be shaped, in what we do, what we think, in what we love, by our relationship with God. This is how we are formed into true humans. Righteousness, in heart, mind, and hands, occurs in the context of relationship because it is a reflection of what we are in intimate relationship with. This is why reconciliation with God apart from the gospel is impossible.
If it were not for the gospel – the good news that we are reconciled to God by grace alone through faith alone in the person and work of Jesus alone- we would be incapable of producing the righteous behavior needed to bring us into relationship with God because it is the relationship which creates the behavior.In John’s gospel, Jesus testifies that his character is directly related to his union – perfect relationship – with the Father.He is not from God because of what he does, he does what he does because he is from the Father. All his actions, indeed his very will, are a direct reflection of his relationship with the Father. In the gospel message, we are reconciled to God in Christ, through his perfect obedience and flawless bearing of the imago dei imputed to us and through our sin and impurity which keeps us from right relationship with God, being imputed to Christ and dealt with on the cross. Thus being reconciled to God we are then changed in relationship with God by the Spirit through whom we experience true, personal communion with God. Put in the context of modern psychology, the answer to the “nature versus nurture” debate in the gospel is “yes” to both. In Christ we receive a new nature, and with it our status as God’s children, thereby being established in a new context for nurture – the family of God under the care and promise of our heavenly Father who has sworn our translation into the likeness of Jesus. The new nature is the ground of our transformation and provides the new context for our nurture into the image of Jesus. In Scripture this transformative relationship is referred to in many ways, such as “abiding in the vine”or in Romans 8, transformation is the result of God living in us by the Spirit, which is the source of our relationship, or “sonship”. This all works to the end that just as the life of Jesus showed his relationship with the Father, so will ours. But all of this is of divine grace, for there would be no transforming relationship if we were not first brought into that relationship through the Spirit’s application of the cross-work of the Son and his perfect “imaging” of the Father.
What we learn in Ephesians is that in Christ we are not only brought into a unified relationship with God, but also with others who are united with Christ.This is crucial, because we see there that transformation is intended to occur only in the context of relationship, certainly with God, but also with others who also know God.When one considers a biblical anthropology, this should not be surprising. Man and woman in Genesis 2, the founding seed of all human relationship, uniquely bore the divine image in community; an image that was broken when man’s relationship with God was fractured – an image which is seen in its fullness with the perfect fulfillment of “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”Once man fell into rebellion, he was then unable to bear the image of God as an individual due to his alienation from God, which necessarily then led to a breakdown of that image in community. Which of course then we see immediately in the disunity of competing wills as self-actualization became man’s chief goal, this is exemplified in the self-serving excuses of Adam and Eve and then in the jealous rage of their son, Cain and on and on through the biblical narrative.We still were made for relationship and shaped by relationship, but it was now twisted, distorted, and ultimately destructive instead of constructive.Our craving for unity and intimacy is evidence of this, but without relationship with God all dreams of unity are a vapor. We see this futility expressed today as a type of counterfeit unity among humanity is only achieved through placation, domination, or an ever-increasing affirmation of individual autonomy, which history has shown cannot be sustained but always devolves into an ugly cycle of anarchy supplanted by tyranny.
But by being reconciled to God, a new kind of horizontal relationship is created – or rather, recreated, which changes us. A community made up of individuals who being in relationship with God through the gospel of Jesus are changed so that the image of the triune God begins to be reflected in community. In fact, being in relationship with God as an individual shapes us so that we seek and create community and we feel incomplete, incapable of being what we were made to be, without that community. For instance, we experience self-giving love from God in all his kindness and good gifts to us which he gives not of necessity to himself but as a free gift – a reflection of that love in creation requires a theatre for mimicking that love, such that there is no such thing as love for God without it being expressed in love for others which reflects the love we know in relationship with God!
The end result of being in relationship with the God who is Trinity, is that we move toward being one as a community, just as the Father and Son and Spirit are one, while maintaining our distinction as persons.This inevitably molds and sharpens us, it changes us in relationship because you cannot come together to a place of shared goals, share authority, and shared love without each individual being changed to form a unique whole.
Of course the human relationship that is created by our relationship with God is what forms the church. The church is both the necessary result of our relationship with God and the context where our relationship with God ultimately becomes visible and can actually be vouched for as genuine. And it is this horizontal relationship then that by its very nature serves the end goal of a growing intimacy with God that changes us.
We are programmed to reflect what we are in relationship with.The dark side of this in a fallen word is that “bad company corrupts good morals” – examples of which abound in Scripture and human history, so much so that this is generally embraced as a truism across cultures. The reality is that we cannot help but be shaped by relationship – be that with friends, family, society, or our broader cultural context. But this should not cause us who have the Bible to be hopeless. Instead, we see being changed by relationship as something beautiful, wonderful, something that makes us truly human, when our fundamental relationship is that of a son or daughter of God through Christ by the Spirit; a relationship with a God that can be known, that can be observed in history, and that through knowing shapes how we think, what we value – in the end, who we are, not merely as individuals, but as individuals made for relationship with others. Embracing this has incredible implications on marriage and friendship, on our life in the church. In the west we largely believe that good relationships are those that accept us for who we are, but the Bible gives us a vision of relationships that serve to form us into who we are meant to be. And becoming what we are meant to be is something that can only occur in relationship. We were made for this.
(1 Corinthians 15:33; 5:6 ESV)
John 8:34-41; Romans 8:12-17; 1 John 3:1-10
One of the key ways that the image of God is reflected in community is when community us united with a common foundation and common goal, such as we see Christ having with his Father in John’s gospel.
A good example would be Babel in Genesis 11:1-9
John 17:20-23; Ephesians 4:1-3.12-16
I will try to flush out the biblical mechanics of that in a later post
Friedrich Nietzsche famously observed “the herd mentality” in humanity, however, as we might expect from a nihilist, he doesn’t see this as having any redemptive root, but is the result of human boredom with self, laziness, and indolence. Without a biblical worldview, like the preacher in Ecclesiastes, we might be tempted to also see our natures so easily shaped by our relationship to others as dark and undesirable, especially when time and again we run as a blind heard to our ruin.