Perhaps someone has told you that Christianity is a relationship and not a religion. The phrase is common, but it is not clear. What does that mean? How do we relate to God? I have heard Francis Chan describe himself as a lump of clay trying to teach other lumps of clay about the potter. According to the prophets, he is right. Within this picture we are subordinate and the shape of our being is fully dependent on the large hand of God.
Then there is the writer of John who tells us we have been given the right to become children of God—heirs to the throne of heaven. Jesus told His disciples they needed to become servants. In fact, one of the most common analogies He used to describe the Kingdom of God was that of a master and His servants. However, He also told them they were no longer servants but friends. The Gospels describe the Church as a flock of sheep, and yet they also call her the bride of Christ. So again I ask, how do we relate to God? How do we understand our role within this relationship? Are we clay or are we children? Are we servants or friends? Are we sheep or the beloved bride? The answer is yes. No single earthly relationship can explain our relationship with the Divine. We need to live in all of these places.
I have seen people take these various relationships and place them into a hierarchy. So we start as clay and then work our way up. The more we know God, the more intimate the relationship becomes. I suppose there is truth to this at some level. The hope of most relationships is that they would grow deeper. But I think the idea of a sliding scale is vastly incomplete. It gives the impression we only occupy one of these roles at a time.
It feels natural to pick one way of relating to God and allow that to define us. But there is a danger in this. If I believe I am only a servant, I may never rest and therefore I will miss the presence of the Father. But if I believe I am only a son, I may harbor entitlement and never kneel to serve my brother. I am not sure, but I think this may be part of the reason the Church is always fighting. I wonder if the servants aren’t irritated with the children for neglecting the work of the Gospel. And perhaps the pieces of clay look up from their low posture of worship to accuse the friends of approaching God too casually. You get the idea. Each believes his or her method of relating to God is superior.
I am suggesting that these ideas are not opposed and that they must be understood together. I must see myself as clay under the hand of an artist or I won’t approach God with the complete reverence He deserves. But I must also see myself as a child or I won’t enter into the safety of His love to receive the gifts He offers. I must see myself as a servant or I will not serve anyone but myself. But I must also see myself as a friend of God or I won’t trust Him. I must see myself as a sheep or I may refuse to follow. But I must also see myself as the bride or I will miss the celebration.
The point is that this relationship is far more complex than we may be comfortable with. And this complexity is amplified because we must understand this relationship within the context of a community. Jesus said where two or more are gathered He is there. We are His sheep (as in plural) and collectively we are called the Bride. Furthermore, Jesus tells us whatever we do to each other, we do to Him. See, there are relationships within the larger relationship.
While all of this is complex, it is not meant to be difficult. I believe God recognized that these analogies could not bring us close enough to Him. So rather than just using analogies, He became one. Jesus is the image of the unseen God—a breathing analogy. Because of Jesus, we can see what God is like, in a language we understand. We have access to Him now. And when Jesus left, He sent a counselor. His spirit fell like fire and can translate the relationship for us now.
Having said all this, I believe there was another reason for the incarnation. As much as it helps us relate to God, something even more profound took place. In Jesus we find God eating food and sleeping on the ground. God entered through a tunnel and left through a tomb—same as us. God sat at the barren table of poverty and drank the cup of our suffering. He didn’t just come so we could relate better to Him, He came so He could relate to us.
So though we may not fully know God in our current state, we can be fully known by Him. And in this there is a mystery too complex for any of us to understand. The beautiful thing is, we don’t need to.
Erik Swenson is a freelance writer and artist living near Indianapolis with his wife, Heather, and their three children. Erik’s blog is www.erikswensonwalk.com.