As a part of my ministry, one of my most commonly received questions is “Well, if you believe God accepts both gays and straights and men and women as equals, if you don’t take all that stuff about the man as head of the woman as literal, are there any standards left in relationships in your mind? I mean is it just that anyone can be with anyone and treat anyone however they want? Aren’t you just tossing out God’s standards and turning life into some moral free-for-all?”
This question comes at times from really cynical people — folks who equate bigotry and prejudice with morality, who are looking for an excuse to use the Bible as a tool of discrimination, instead of the tool of liberation and freedom Jesus intends it to be (see Luke 4). Yet, it also comes from honest people, who don’t want to see others oppressed and discriminated against, yet who know that life without guidelines doesn’t work. Some of these people desperately want the freedom to be who they are but don’t want their life to be a shipwreck of one-night stands, abusive and dysfunctional families, and lack of loving supportive friendships. These people know that, if God cares for them, God has to have given them some direction into how to make relationships work.
I want to answer that question, not by giving a list of rules, but by highlighting three essential principles which God has revealed in the Scriptures, principles which are applicable to all our relationships, which will make them truly work. These principles don’t oppress or discriminate and are universally applicable. They lead to greater freedom, and help our relationships become the type that lead us to become more fully the people God created us to be, if we will apply them in all our relationships. Paul describes these three principles in 1 Corinthians 13 by saying that “these three remain: faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love.” When it comes to the question for me of, “What are the basic building blocks of a healthy, Christ-based relationship?” — whether a marriage, a life partnership, a family relationship, a friendship, or the relationships we have with church family — St. Paul’s words seem to answer this question. For centuries, Christian theologians have pointed to these three virtues of faith, hope, and love, as the building blocks of a Christian life. These, they would say, are the “theological virtues” — in other words, virtues that no-one can truly live out without in some way being touched by God.
I think that these virtues are foundational in our relationships and wanted to briefly talk about what they are and how they affect our relationships when we live them out. First, we have the virtue of “faith.” Many people misunderstand this virtue and identify it with believing a particular tenet of a creed. They think that it is having the “correct” doctrine of God, or heaven, or hell, or whatever. Others think that it is a sort of unblinking feeling or belief that something is right, with no proof. In a relationship with God, for instance, it is believing that God created the heavens and the earth, even though you can’t scientifically prove that, or it is believing God can heal so and so though there is no evidence God will. In relationships, it could be expressed as trusting this person you have such strong feelings for with your life, even though you don’t know them that well. Well, this misunderstanding of what St. Paul is talking about is something that recent Biblical scholars have corrected. You see, though it does matter what you believe since your beliefs effect the choices you make, and though at times in our relationships we do have to give others and God a chance when we have no proof they will be faithful, St. Paul isn’t really talking about your doctrinal beliefs and St. Paul certainly isn’t describing some “blind leap” of faith.
Romans 4-5 tells us that Abraham is counted as a faithful friend of God, even though he didn’t have as many facts about God’s nature as we do, since he didn’t yet have a Bible and all the history we have to shape our doctrines. Hebrews 11 describe some people who didn’t have more than an inkling of the full truth of who God is that Jesus that would later reveal as being counted “people of faith,” even though they didn’t have all their doctrines perfectly figured out.
And in John 20 we find that when St. Thomas the Apostle was uncertain about what to believe about the resurrection, Jesus gave him the evidence St. Thomas needed to have faith — and did not discount the faith St. Thomas had, based on experiencing God through Jesus for himself, even though it was based on God proving God’s self to St. Thomas. Jesus praised us for being able to have “faith” when no proof is available, but the example of St. Thomas helps show a “blind leap of faith” probably isn’t the virtue St. Paul is talking about in our relationship with God.
In a way, blind leaps of faith can lead people to disastrous places God never intended. In the Old Testament, Sampson took a blind leap of faith by trusting Delilah with the secret of his power and had his supreme strength taken away for not considering her character first. That ended in his imprisonment and death. And we have all seen the ways blind faith can be a pitfall and not a virtue in the various cults like the Branch Davidians where people unthinkingly trusted religious leaders who led them to their own demise. Well, if not a blind leap of faith and if not having all of our doctrinal beliefs perfectly in order, what is the virtue of faith St. Paul praises?
Well, scholars answering this question have turned to Romans 1, that section of Scripture which so radically transformed Martin Luther and birthed the Protestant Reformation. Here St. Paul quotes a verse in Habakkuk, from the Hebrew portion of the Holy Scriptures which most Christians call “The Old Testament,” a verse most translations render as “the righteous will live by faith.” This verse is used by St. Paul to argue that what God looks at isn’t our perfect adherence to some external standard like law-keeping, like perfect doctrinal understanding, etc., but rather at what Habakkuk is talking about when Habakkuk says “the righteous will live by faith”.
The interesting thing is that the Hebrew word Habakkuk used is better rendered “fidelity” or “faithfulness” then “faith.” And St. Paul’s Greek translation of it, pisteuo, can also be translated either as “faithfulness” or as “faith/belief.”
What most scholars will point out is that what St. Paul is talking about is what Habakkuk is talking about — not faith in the sense of blindly following some religious authority or blindly leaping ahead without considering the costs of your choices in relationships with God & others. Also not faith in the sense of believing the right facts about God. No, rather, Paul is describing faith in the sense of being faithful to God and others.
What that means in our relationship with God is that God is not so much interested in whether or not you have questions about this or that thing God asks of you. God is not as worried about whether or not you may be uncertain how to understand this or that aspect of God’s nature and plan (the Trinity, the rapture, etc). God is not interested as much in whether you “keep the rules” perfectly — honestly, who does or can? Instead, God is looking at how you respond to what you do know of God. Despite your doubts, your uncertainty, your lack of knowledge, are you faithful to God as best as you can understand God? Do you choose, even when things are tough, to stick to God, to try to follow God, to listen to God? When you fail and go away from God, are you truly sorry for it, and seek to get back in step with God?
When you look at Hebrews 11, that really is a good description of those God describes as saints. Gideon is never certain if God is really saying the things he thinks God is saying. He keeps asking for proof and, even then, seems scared he is doing the wrong thing. But when he feels God is saying something, he says “Ok, I have my doubts, but I will try to follow what God is saying, even though it’s tough.”
Sampson doesn’t live a great life. He doesn’t keep all the rules and makes some awful life choices. Yet he knows in his heart God is right and, in the end, repents and seeks to make things right in his life before God. Over the long haul, will you in your heart be faithful to my relationship, God is saying, and put it first?
How does this work in our personal relationships? Romantically, it means that a Christian romance is one of fidelity and commitment. Where you put your romantic partner before all your other romantic interests. Where you aren’t dating people behind various folks’ backs, or if you have a spouse, behind their, back. Where you aren’t being promiscuous, but truly being committed to just one person, from the bottom of your heart. And also where you are committed to do what you can to make your partnership work. Where you do what you can to meet in the middle and to compromise with your partner, so both of your needs are met.
In friendship and in the church family, that means being committed to each other. Not just giving up on the relationship when the person is difficult and you get a snag. It means working hard to work through issues and to meet in the middle on friendships and in our life together. It means not giving up on each other and truly valuing our friendship. What does St. Paul mean by hope? Well, hope is a uniquely theological virtue. I learned how to understand hope by reading the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When people told him his fight for civil rights was crazy, because look at how entrenched bigotry is, Dr. King would say, I believe there is a force for good at work in this world, that God will not let things stay the way they are, that truth crucified and buried though it may be, and justice though squelched, will rise again and be victorious, because I believe that our victory doesn’t depend on us, but on God. It may look there is not human way we will be victorious over Jim Crow laws, King said, but remember God makes a way where there is no way. Hope is found by putting God into the equation. How does Hope work in your relationship with others? Well, let’s face it that in our life partnerships, even after we have made that commitment to have and to hold, to love and to cherish, til death do us part, whether at a courthouse, before a priest, or just between each other in the privacy of our homes, sometimes we wonder… even now?
Let’s face it, sometimes, the differences seem to great, or the finances too tight. We think, there is no way I can try again to work things out with him or her. There is no way they will understand me, there is no way we can come to agreement on the finances … let me throw in the towel. Well, humanly speaking, that may be the case, but as Christians we have to let Jesus God’s Son, God our Creator, and the Holy Spirit be in the middle of all of our relationships. And that means remembering that God will make a way when there is no way humanly speaking.
That means that sometimes we have to take a chance again and believe God can resolve issues, that God can make clear to our spouses and partners what we cannot, and that God can help guide us to how to solve the financial, the relational, the emotional, and other issues that we don’t see a solution to. It means, as long as God says to still do so, we try again in our partnership with our spouse, even when — if we did not believe God could make a way where there is no way — we would give up.
This applies, too, to our other relationships. It means we sometimes need to let God be in the middle of friendships, family relationships, and church family member, and say “OK, I don’t see any way we can work things out, I don’t see any way I can understand them, they can understand me, but I will try again, because I know it is what God wants.” So you believe and trust that God can make a way and try again, in the face of uncertainty, to be a friend, to be a loving brother or sister in Christ, to work to build God’s kingdom in your own way, even though it doesn’t seem you can.
Now that doesn’t mean you always stay in unhealthy relationships. There are times when the marriage will still dissolve and your now ex will be so hateful they are no longer even a healthy person to be around. If you are in an abusive marriage, you do not need to stay in a situation where you are in danger physically and emotionally to please God. Abuse breaks the marriage vows. There are times that you have to distance yourself from others who are abusive in your friendships and in the church. Where is hope in those places? It is instead of saying “F@#& You, Screw You,” saying “I will not let bitterness grow in my heart, and I will give you over to God’s care, knowing God can some day let us be friends again.” It is realizing God can bring reconciliation in God’s way, even if it be on the last day of a person’s life — or when you two meet again in heaven, seeing things from God’s perspective, the unsafe action can be abandoned by one or both of you, through God’s work.
Hope is realizing in all your relationships that God can make a way you do not see, a way where without God there is no way, and that means you cannot give up on a person and let hatred and bitterness enter your heart for them, even though at times the healthy and godly thing to do may be to say “until God does this impossible thing, I cannot be with you, because it makes me so angry or hurt I am tempted to become a person I know God does not want me to be, when I am around you.”
I think in the particular communities we focus on in our ministry — folks who are sexual minorities or disabled, and those close to them — that hope also comes into play in our relationships with God. After all, don’t many of us hear the message that somehow we are junk and that God will not accept us? That somehow it is wrong that we are disabled, or gay, or transgender, or have a friend or family member who is? That somehow we are to blame for this, and maybe God’s love will fail us?
I think taking a chance with God again, when we have heard these words, is also a form of the Christian virtue of hope. I think it is a way in which we give God another chance, letting ourselves believe that maybe that was not what God was really saying and that maybe these were other people misrepresenting God. We are choosing to hope again, to give God a second chance, in our lives. In that way, we choose hope in our walk with God.
Finally, love or in the King James’ version charity is an often misunderstood Christian virtue in relationships. I say often misunderstood because so often love is associated with a warm feeling. At the beginning of a romantic relationship we say “I have fallen in love.” At church we talk about “feeling God’s love.” We talk about “homes of love” with families … we ask our friends, “Where’s the love, man?” In all of these we are talking about emotions, warm fuzzies. Yet in the end, relationships built on warm fuzzies often fall apart. The warmth cools or gets too hot. The fuzzies cause rug burn. Partnerships end, marriages dissolve, because folks don’t “feel that spark” anymore. Friendships where folks don’t “feel the love, man,” anymore may end in brawls. Families & churches that should be “safe havens of love” often shoot their wounded, so to speak, when they don’t act the way the family or church thinks they should.
It is helpful to pay attention to the Greek roots used in the New Testament for love. C. S. Lewis did a classic work, The Four Loves, which deals with this virtue. In it he pointed out four different types of love used in the Greek of the New Testament — stoikia, eros, phileo, and agape. The first three are feelings, the last a choice. The first three cover most of the sort of relationships we have in life, the fourth is the goal of these relationships. Stoikia is the love in a family, especially of parents to children and vice-verse. This is glorified as the greatest love, but often is not. Often it is a feeling of seeing one’s own reflection and having someone to impose one’s own dreams upon. Too often when a child is found to not fit a parent’s image by being gay, trangendered, or disabled, or by living out dreams that are not their parent’s, parents no longer have or express these warm feelings toward their children. The love is broken and lost because it is never infused properly with agape love.
Eros, likewise is erotic love. One falls into this, when one finds that person or those people who reflect most clearly one’s desire. The one who is beautiful, funny, and fun in the way that makes one’s heart skip a beat. At times this feeling of attraction and desire to have and to hold, to become one with this ideal person is mistaken for true love. Our movies do a great job of that. In fact, though, unless strengthened by the choice of agape, this love can, like stoikia, become a controlling and selfish love, aimed at getting one’s own sexual, emotional, and other needs met at another’s expense. Hence all the abusive and controlling types of sexuality we see in the world.
Phileo is the sort of love friends share. The deep feeling from shared experiences, shared values, shared time and shared stories. It’s being a buddy, a friend, a brother or sister of choice to someone. We all know friends who would easily lay down their lives for us and us them, or at least that’s what we say. Yet, again, unless infused with agape, friendships can easily dissolve and deteriorate. We have all seen it in our lives – the “best friend” who steals our girl or guy, or gets jealous and spreads a nasty rumor. Who abruptly, when our values change (or we express those values in new ways) or our choices of hobby, etc., change, chooses to have nothing to do with us anymore. Who suddenly couldn’t care the least about us — or, worse yet, who chooses to become our arch-rival. Just like any other “feeling love”, these feelings, unless invested with agape love, can easily become indifference or the worst form of hate.
The key dimension in all of our relationship is what St. Paul describes here, agape love. Agape love is what he describes beautifully as being one that keeps no record of wrongs, one that forgives all things, one that is not rude or self-seeking. Read the whole of 1 Corinthians 13 and see what it is about. This is a self-giving love, which is a choice to put another’s needs before your own in a relationship. To not just seek to get from them, but also to give. To seek to meet their own needs before your own in your marriage, friendship, family, or church relationships. To seek to cherish their stories and thoughts as much or more than your own. To seek to value their dreams and plans, their goals and gifts, as much or more than your own.
This is the love Jesus talked about on the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus said to love each other as Jesus loved us — a self-giving, forgiving, sacrificial love. God love the world so much God gave God’s only Son that whosever believes in God might not perish but have everlasting life … God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world through Jesus might be saved — John 3. That is agape love. Jesus said we would know the people that were Jesus’ true followers in this world because their lives and relationships would reflect that love.
I honestly believe that love of this type is greater than faith or hope because it includes faithfulness and hope and because no one, whether they identify as a believer or not, can exercise it without God’s help. And that people, regardless of their religious identity, who express it even in small ways, are, whether they realize it or not, being touched by, guided by, and used by God.
As St. John tells us in 1 John 2:9-10 that “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his or her brother is still in the darkness. Whoever loves his or her brother or sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in him or her to make him or her stumble.” To live out these three virtues in our relationships — and chiefly to live out this self-giving agape love, is the key to becoming the people God has called us to be in all of our relationships. So my challenge is that each of us look at our various relationships and ask, Am I being faithful to the people involved? Am I giving them another go and not giving up on them? Am I being self-giving or selfish in how I relate to them?
Ask yourself, Am I doing that in my relationship with God?
Ask yourself, How is God faithful to me, how does God give me a second or third or fourth chance, how does God give of God’s self to me selflessly, and what does it teach me?
Rev. Micah Royal serves as Pastor of Life’s Journey UCC in Burlington, N.C. Having earned his Master of Divinity in Pastoral Care and Counseling from Campbell Divinity School, he has served in ordained ministry in various contexts throughout the Carolinas and southern California, including on the board of the Eastern NC Association of the United Church of Christ.