… I want you to think: “covenant!”. That was the take home lesson of the first session of our “crash-course on the covenants” last week.
Believe it or not, you won’t find the phrase “relationship with God” anywhere in your Bible! But what you do find is talk of a covenant between you and God. King David could say: “[God] has made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and secure” (2 Sam 23:5). Every time you sit at the Lord’s Table, Jesus wants the fact that you’re in a “covenant” with him to be ringing in your ears (1 Cor 11:25).
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with talking about our “relationship with God”. When we’re explaining Jesus to the man on the street, “relationship” is going to be a clearer expression than “covenant”! But I think there’s real value in training ourselves to mentally switch the word “relationship” with the word “covenant”.
Because the word “relationship” is vague. It describes any kind of connection between two people, usually of an emotional variety. If I say “I’m in a relationship” it could mean anything from being married and about to celebrate my Golden Wedding anniversary, with my children and grandchildren surrounding me, to a brief fling that will last under a month. Relationships today are inherently flexible and customised. A “relationship” is something private between two people, in which they have to work out what “works” for them, and no one else can tell them.
Unfortunately, I think that’s how we, as Christians, can instinctively relate to God. We try and work out what makes us feel “connected” to God (worship songs? Going for walks in nature? Spending time in Bible studies? Take your pick!). But that’s not what a “relationship with God” means in the Bible. The Bible actually has a name for that kind of customised “relationship with God”. It’s called “idolatry”! God didn’t call the Israelites to connect to him in any way that worked, but in the light of his covenant (Deut 4:13-19).
You see, a “covenant” is a particular kind of relationship. It’s a legal relationship, with penalties and perks. An example would be marriage as opposed to cohabitation. To marry someone formally restricts and constrains you. You have to fit into its constraints. You lose your options. Marriage isn’t a customised relationship (well, it wasn’t until 2013, or arguably 1969!).
This is how God relates to all humanity – through covenants. He relates to all of humanity through his covenant with Adam, which we’ve broken; and he relates to a sub-group of humans – a very large group – through his covenant with Christ, which Christ has kept (Rom 5:18-19; 1 Cor 15:21-22). So, in a very real sense, everyone “has a relationship with God”. The question is: what kind? It’s either a very bad, messy one in Adam, with awful consequences, or it’s perfect relationship, with a glorious future in Christ.
So, from now on, every time you hear the phrase “a relationship with God”, think “covenant!”. I think that “switch” will train us to relate to God in healthy ways. That little mental habit will help us to stop reducing intimacy and communion with the living God to a privatised, customised spirituality. It’s within the objective, visible and public covenant God’s made with us in Christ that your relationship with God will really thrive.