When it comes to relationships, everybody wants to know where they stand.
The dread “It’s complicated” that shows up on Facebook is basically code for “confusing,” “puzzling,” “fed up,” or “I want to slap him across the face with something cold and wet.”
Every thriving, growing relationship needs some sort of definition. From our earliest days we’re all trying to label them—“besties,” “steadies,” “just friends,” “spouse.” If a relationship goes on ice, we want the official weather report. If it dies we want to see an obituary.
After joining the Army, I remember filling out an application for dog tags. Along with other info, I was asked about my religious preference. I printed “None” in the blank. A few years later, after I grew up and stopped thinking belligerence and intelligence were the same, I changed “None” to “Christian.”
But even then, it seemed awkward because I felt I was not only claiming a belief preference, but a relationship with someone. I had no idea if God felt the same about me.
It was like how my cousin had kept posters of Donnie Osmond on her wall and talked about how she was going to marry him. Even as she outlined her plans to run off with this kid who had the largest teeth of any human being I’d ever seen, it struck me as unlikely. She ranked dead zero on his radar.
Sort of like me with God.
If the All-Knowing knew me, I wondered if He liked me. I figured it fluctuated, depending on whether I had weaseled out of church again that week. Or swore a blue streak. Or told raunchy jokes.
A lot of people think this way.
Consider the story of the Israelites in the wilderness. God told them, “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians” (19:4). They’d watched as divine demolition went to work on the nation enslaving them—plagues of blood and flies and frogs, of cattle disease, lice, darkness, and death of the firstborn. Finally, the world’s greatest superpower cried “Uncle!” and opened its mangled hand.
Why all the firepower? Was this some type of raging, over-the-top sentimentality?
God did this so He could bring them “to Himself” (19:4). He wanted a relationship with them where He didn’t have to share them with Pharaoh, or Egypt’s gods, or any of the national building projects that kept sucking the life out of them. You’re coming out to the desert to be with Me, He all but told them.
Not surprisingly, the first thing on God’s mind was “covenant” (19:5)—a committed relationship with definite boundaries. This wasn’t going to be some open arrangement, where the people would wander in and out based on moods and interest levels.
God would be locked in and committed, too.
He told them, “You shall be my treasured possession among all peoples.” They would be number one. They would have priority. They would mean more to Him than anybody else on earth.
He continued: “And you shall be to me a kingdom”—an embassy, where He would rule and bless freely, reveal Himself in glory, and speak abundantly. They were to be “priests”—partners together with Him in His universal enterprise who would know how to serve Him and participate with Him in ministering to this dark world.
Finally, they would be a holy nation, set apart from the rest of the world and designated for divine purposes that the rest of humankind could only dream of.
This was God’s covenant proposal. It happened out in the wilderness without worldly fanfare. God loved a simple race of ex-slaves and basically asked them, “Will you marry me? I don’t care about your lack of education, your plainness, your status. No one else wants you, but I do.”
When the people heard it, they said, “All that the Lord has spoken, we will do” (19:8).
This “We do” was exactly what He was looking for.
God always moves toward commitment. Commitment protects a relationship from dissipation, from becoming so porous it has no meaning.
That’s why “covenant” is such a factor in Exodus. God didn’t want confusion or guessing. If the crops weren’t doing well, the people weren’t supposed to seek answers from a fertility god. They were supposed to seek Yahweh. If they lost a war, or had a drought, or suffered sickness, they weren’t supposed to launch a search for some new ritual, as though God had wandered off into another universe.
Israel’s compass was pre-set. They were covenant-bound with Yahweh.
Not everybody likes covenantal commitments. Some people see them as boxes. But there’s a lot of boxes in this world. A coffin is a box. A treasure chest is also a box. It all depends on how you look at it.
When you first began to hear about Christ, you circle for a while. The cool folks call it “checking out the claims of Christ.” You ponder the truth of the gospel, but mostly you’re occupied with wanting to know about the fate of your stuff—clothing styles, television, music, makeup, tattoos, sexuality, alcohol, hobbies.
What will become of them? We want to know if we have to somehow be weird, or switch political parties. Is church attendance every Sunday required? Must I give money?
A sinner thinks in terms of a prenuptial agreement designed to protect things. This and that is off-limits. But God thinks in terms of a covenant that protects the relationship.
He is committed from the beginning. He didn’t need to check you out, or circle you for a while. The Bible says, “God shows His love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). He was completely for us when we were losers.
I’ll never forget when finally the weight of His love and gigantic commitment wore me down. “Okay,” I thought. Okay. I’m in.”
I had understood romantic feelings, excitement, going steady, and the thrill of something new. I also understood disappointment, breaking up, not talking, disillusionment. I’d seen marriages end and vows dissolve and commitment curdle. Just like everyone else, I’ve seen betrayal.
The typical load of human cynicism we all bear makes it hard for us to believe anything better could exist. It took a long time for me to understand that with Jesus I had entered something bounded and protected, made of both velvet and iron. Like most contemporary evangelicals, I call it a relationship. Jesus Christ refers to it as “the new covenant in My blood” (Lk. 22:20).
He says, “I am with you always” (Mt. 28:20). That’s the language of covenant. And what do we say? Well, there’s no such thing as calling it quits. If a heart gets cold, it remains there until it warms again. If it dries, it waits for rain. If there’s too much rain, it waits for the sun.
It doesn’t go elsewhere. It goes deeper.