who is needed?
There is this strange paradox embedded within the context of Christian relationships.
Here’s what I mean. The core principle we are taught from a very young age in our culture tells us that we have to find our worth, our value in the people we associate ourselves with. This begins with our relationship to our parents; we are completely dependent upon them for the basics of life: food, shelter, protection, love. As we grow and develop into little people, our parents continue to instill in us their values, worldview, passions, and way of life, whether through their conscientious investment or through their neglect of taking interest in our upbringing. As we get older, our little sphere of influence expands to include our friends, teachers, co-workers; most anyone that we spend some amount of time with. Then we come across that one person who we cherish above all others in our spouse. One needn’t look farther than the romances we uphold in pop culture as the idealized versions of what this looks like. Immediately one that comes to mind is that scene in Jerry Maguire where the hearing-impaired couple express the single line that becomes the swan song for the entire movie:
“You complete me.”
We spend our lives looking for completion. We know there is something within us that is not whole, and our lives become a journey of finding fulfillment in whatever we can to prop up our concept of “self”. This idea is obsessed over, even celebrated, in a society where finding that magical plug to define us becomes the very purpose for which we were created. Everything we do operates from that one question of, “where is my value?” We surround ourselves with acquaintances that reinforce or make more manifest the people we want to be or the people we think we are. We buy things or involve ourselves in activities that have the same purpose. I very strongly believe that we do not give ourselves enough credit for our subconscious ability to sculpt the kind of persona we desire to live up to, only to attribute our personal taste to some sort of intrinsic natural process embedded in our DNA. As if we were born to like a certain kind of music, or feel a particular way about politics, or find a specific type of woman to be the most attractive. These aesthetic standards are developed in the same way our personalities [mostly] are; they establish a kind of “golden ideal” of what we could be if we wanted to, if we were as whole as we pretended to be. This places an impasse on all our interactions with the world around us, PARTICULARLY on relationship, in which our expectations on receiving value from others dictates the worth we place in other people. To put it plainly, we are saying by our actions that I will love you until you cease to give me what I want.
The Christian Value System
The irony of this train of thought is that for the Christian, this need for identity is completely quenched in the cross. To me, the question of value that drowns us from the moment we take our first breath is satisfied by recognizing that God has buried within us a character that solely relies on His love as definition for who we really are. From the moment of salvation, that is, from the moment we acknowledge the divine in the person of Jesus, we begin this journey of realizing that character in our daily life.
What this does is it changes the dynamic of our relationships with other people, in that we must no longer look to others for validation. To seek validation IS to seek salvation, salvation from a life devoid of worth (who I am), meaning (why I am), or purpose (how I am me). Yet many of us [myself included] continue rushing around from moment to moment, person to person, trying to find that thing that God has been wanting to hand to us all this time. To do so is to say that what God has in store for each of us is not enough.
Our approach from the beginning of any post-salvation relationship should be the mentality that although I do not need you, I desire you. This view makes the Christian relationship more like two pillars holding up the same structure rather than two liquids combined in a single glass. While the pillars are complementary and intimately connected in their common purpose, they are forever separated by a space of clear definition, where one begins and the next ends. This is the place where love loses its vampiric motivations and becomes what Cornel West describes as, “a steadfast commitment to the well-being of other people.” In Christian love for brother AND neighbor, there should be no consideration of self-value found, only the desire to demonstrate the love of the Father as a byproduct of intimacy with Him. If we are defined solely by the love of God, we don’t need the affirmation of man. I can find no acknowledgement within scripture of anyone preaching or demonstrating a kind of godly love that has even a whiff of self-interest in it. There’s a hard lesson in separating ourselves from even doing “good works” in order to receive satisfaction from them. If we are living out of a place of divine, unconditional love, there should be no desire for human reward, not even positive reinforcement of behavior. Jesus himself implies this in the Gospel of Luke: “…love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:35, 36). There seems to be a preclusion to even expecting a reward from God, solely serving those whom one could not ordinarily love in worldly terms. The phrasing of this same lesson in Matthew reads similarly:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)
Perhaps perfection comes in the place of self-denial. Taking up the causes of others. Our own happiness not even factoring in to the equation of love and service. Perhaps when Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends,” he meant this as a daily sacrifice of our own self-interest, not just the one-time martyrdom we usually ascribe it to.
Here’s the truth. If we are fully realized in the person of Christ and the love of the Father, then there is zero need for affirmation from others. We are free to love without condition or expectation, if we can only accept what He is desperately wanting to make manifest in us.
I mentioned before the connection between the expectations we place on others and conditional love. There is some truth to the adage that tells us if we have no expectations, we will not be disappointed. Too often our relationships with others are tainted by the expectations we place on the other, as if they have a certain benchmark to reach before they are considered worthy of our attention or ongoing friendship. I think this is why the divorce rate in this country is so immense. In a culture where we are trained as consumers from a very early age, we are naturally prone to interact with people in the same way we do as our malls or our favorite television shows. Our enjoyment of that person is dependent upon whether or not they continue to jump though our hoops of expectation. When they cease to fulfill our needs/wants/desires, we discard them as we would a broken toy. SO we cast aside relationships, REAL people, in search of a more satiating one that meets our requirements for love and acceptance.
We do this as much with God as we do other people. In the consumerist mindset, “God” becomes the thing I use in order to attain something else. God is reduced to object; a tool or a weapon that helps us achieve our REAL goals. I can’t think of anything more blasphemous yet more common than reducing YHWH to a concept that is ours to manipulate and conform to our personal gain. And we use “God” to gain so much for ourselves. Most things we use God for are selfish elevations of our projected egos, whether through fame, value, distinction, or whatever else that we claim God has justified in our life that really elevates the self. Even our supposed religious desires can eclipse God as the apex of desire. Again in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told us to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33). God IS the goal of our seeking; nothing else comes close. He needs to be the object of our desire, the subject of our life struggle. Yet we put the cart before the horse time and time again, using God’s face as a stepping stool to some other destination. We find ourselves waiting around for “these other things” before we [think] we are ready to enter the Kingdom. God then only exists to push us into our personal kingdoms, rather than being the very substance of a kingdom we cannot comprehend. Postmodern theologian Peter Rollins put it so well: “If you seek God because you want eternal life, you’re not seeking God, you’re seeking eternal life. If you’re seeking God because your life lacks meaning, you’re searching for meaning, not necessarily this encounter with the Divine.”
We place unreasonable expectations on God that He will give us the desires of our hearts, and when He fails to satisfy us, we become angry and resentful. As if we know what is best for us. We always point to David’s suggestion that we “take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart” as a free excuse to make demands of Father, but we neglect the first part of that verse. I myself fell prey to this selfish interpretation of Psalm 37 a few years ago as I clung desperately to the notion that God would reunite me with a girl whom I had dated for some time, and had broken my heart. I spent five months in depressive denial of the fact that we were not right for each other, and I wasted a lot of that time being secretly angry at God for not fulfilling His promises to give me what I wanted. I walked a student of mine through a similar revelation once as he came to terms with the fact that he had been furious with God when things didn’t go as he had planned. He realized that his desire for control had eclipsed his faith so much so that God became the tool that helped him accomplish his personal goals, one of which was to become a “godly man”, whatever he had it in his mind that looked like. To compound the issue, the guilt he felt over being angry with God (for this is something you aren’t allowed to do, so says the modern church), this student had turned that anger upon himself as scapegoat, so that he became self-loathing in his inability to control his own destiny. He had to see that his expectations on God were defining a Being who only existed as utensil.
Saint Augustine rephrases David beautifully: “Love God and do whatever you please: for the soul trained in love to God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved.”
What the fulfilled Christian offers in relationship is not expectation, but hope. Hope reconciles our desire to see perfection in the world around us with the reality that things probably won’t turn out the way we think they should. The Christian perspective ceases demanding that others feed his/her desire for validation, and begins to ask how he/she can illuminate God’s totally justifying love for others and in others.