Marriage changes you. Look at a couple who has walked through decades together. They take on something of each other’s strengths. They instinctively compensate for each other’s weaknesses. It’s not change that happens merely on the surface, a rearranging of habits or mannerisms; it’s a deeper, almost indefinable change. Married people really become different people. Marriage is a transforming relationship.
But here’s the rub: it’s impossible to duplicate the result (deep personal change) without the cause (being joined in relationship to another person). That’s not to say people don’t change unless they’re married – if you’re single and reading this, please don’t hear anything of that sort. The way the marriage relationship produces change is only a sign of a more profound mystery: that the deepest, most lasting changes happen in relationship. Ultimately, what wedding vows and wedding rings point to is the transformation that occurs when men and women, married or single, are joined in a covenant relationship to the living, redeeming God.
Think about it. The universe is relational to its core. “In the beginning, God created” – not a solitary, lonely “god” who needed something from his creation, but the infinitely joyful and loving triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God in three persons. Behind everything that exists is the mutual love and relationship shared by the Godhead. The cosmos is not cold, barren, sterile; it is more like a love poem than a math problem. All things, from black holes to blue jays, exist in relationship to God. And into this relational world, God spoke one kind of being that would stand in a unique, intimate relationship with him: “Let us make man in our image.” After Genesis 3, the whole story of redemption in Jesus Christ is about God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit acting together to recover that relationship with us, God’s rebellious image-bearers.
Now here’s the implication for the Christian life: true, biblical change is always relational at its core. It’s impossible to become the kind of person God intends us to be without walking in relationship with him. And that means all the hallmarks of wise human relationships find their analogy in our covenant relationship with God. Honesty. Communication (prayer). Love – especially, in this case, the receiving of love. Trials, suffering, even temptations to sin are not interruptions to “the good life” – they are experiences that we walk through in relationship with our Father, processing them, talking to him about them, if necessary grieving and groaning through them, in his presence. In a word, what the Bible calls faith.
Contrast that with some of the ways we often think about the change process. There’s the “godliness-by-getting-rid-of…” mentality which makes change all about progressively cutting off parts of us that need cutting off. There’s a truth there, to be sure – but the kind of change that only takes place by “Stop doing that!” is a sterile kind of Christian life. Then there’s the “just remember…” view: “Just remember God loves you.” “Just remember you’re justified.” “Just remember you’ve got the Holy Spirit.” Yes, all those are true. But remembering is a solitary activity, something that takes place entirely in your head. This view makes the arena for change only inside of you.
By contrast, in Scripture faith always moves us outside ourselves to grasp the love of the Father, the grace of Jesus, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Sanctification is not a technique to manage life – “Read your Bible and pray regularly and you won’t have these anger issues” – but a relationship to lean into in the midst of life. This doesn’t mean that we just “let go and let God.” No, true faith always lays ahold of God and then moves outward in love – specific, concrete actions in the real world. This is the “faith working through love” dynamic of Galatians 5:6. And faith certainly “puts off” all sorts of things associated with our flesh. But it does this in relationship with God.
This idea of a relational process of change isn’t necessarily intuitive or easy to grasp. Next week we’ll look at how the Psalms show us this type of relationship, and explore what this looks like in the life of a man we’ll call “Jack.”