The Rules to Relationships

A husband cheats on his wife. A friend gossips about a friend. A parent abuses a child. Trust is betrayed and families crumble; communities dissolve. When we hear (or are involved) in stories like these they sadden us, because we intuitively know that every relationship requires certain moral commitment, and violating these commitment destroys lives.

For instance, when I share a close friend’s secret in an act of gossip it’s called betrayal because I’ve violated a moral commitment of friendship: keeping secrets secret. Or, when a parent physically abuses a child, she betrays her relationship by breaking her moral responsibility to protect her child.

This is not to say that all relationships require the same moral dimensions. Intimate relationships warrant stricter moral components. For instance, I would feel hurt if a close friend stopped returning my calls, while I would not feel very hurt if a mere acquaintance failed to do so. Why? The deeper relationship requires a deeper moral commitment to faithfulness.

Moreover, different relationships demand different moral codes. I am not betrayed when my friend seeks the benefits of friendship (camaraderie, shared experiences) with other people. I would, however, be deeply hurt if my wife sought the benefits of marriage (emotional and sexual intimacy) with another man. Friendship does not require a moral commitment to exclusivity, while marriage does.

When we consider this we ought to ask, “Why are relationships inherently moral in nature?” Perhaps moral commitment, or “the law” within every relationship functions to protect and upkeep it.

It’s been philosophically popular in the past to deny the role of “the law” in relationships. Philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre encouraged people to seek sexual intimacy outside of their marriages. He found  sexual intimacy with only one partner to be a straightjacket. Not surprisingly, most philosophers like Sartre sought out mistresses, but could not bear it when their wives sought out new lovers. Their hearts were pricked with injustice at the thought of their wives violating the moral dimensions (or the inherent laws) of marriage.

Today, many of us (although we may not condone adultery) have inherited our philosophical past and tend to deny and ignore the moral component of relational life. Our radical individualism, leads us to shirk any moral responsibility to friends, spouses, etc unless it’s self-chosen. We think we make up the rules, and only need follow whatever we invent.

Michael Williams writes,

“We moderns seem to have developed the strange habit of thinking of relationships in amoral categories. Thus we argue about whether our public officials should be held to moral standards or whether business should be conducted in an ethical manner. It is as if morality were optional, something we do on top of or added to other endeavors or enterprises. We think of morality as a dimension of life, and social relationship that is separable from the rest of life, a voluntary and often intrusive one.”

In particular, we’re most frustrated when God says that our relationship with him only functions rightly within the context of certain laws. For instance, his demand that we only worship him. Or his demand that we shall not break his design for human life by lying, stealing, murdering, and so on.

If you’re like me your heart wonders, “What right does God have to tell me what to do?” Or you say nothing, as you quietly disobey. I forget that God’s laws aren’t arbitrary buzz kills. I forget they’re in place for the most wonderful reason imaginable: he wants a relationship with us, and all relationships are protected and upkept by moral commitments.

God wants the relationship with us. He wants the most intimate relationship with us. He wants to be “my” God. And he wants me to be “his” too. From his desire for deep relationship, he demands what all relationships demand: moral commitment. The ten commandments are a great act of love on God’s behalf; they’re part of him seeking relationship with us. Perhaps that’s why God’s law does not use only legal language, but also love language: “You shall be my treasured possession” (Ex. 19:5).

Maybe we would view obedience as a great joy if we remembered that obedience is the vehicle to deeper, more committed relationship with God. I’m not saying that we can earn a relationship through obedience. No, Christ is the only way to the father. I am saying that our experience of deep relationship with him (in Christ) is directly connected with our own obedience.

So, will we look on obedience as joy today?

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