Tuesday, January 28, 2014

How The Gospel Radically Affects Our Relationships

Photo Credit: Gerry Balding
The men's small group Bible study that I'm a part of through our church is nearing the end of our time in Tim Keller's Galatians study. Pastor Keller has the ability to help the biblical text come alive in a way that speaks right to the heart. I also think his understanding of what the gospel (good news of Jesus) represents is unparalleled.

Look at what he has to say about how a true understanding of the gospel will affect how we view ourselves and our relationships with others:
"The gospel creates a whole new self-image (Galatians 5:26, 6:3-5) which is not based on comparisons with others. Only the gospel makes us neither self-confident nor self-disdaining, but both bold and humble. Because of the gospel, we neither earn our worth through approval from people nor through power over people, so we are neither overdependent on others, nor afraid of commitment and vulnerability. That works itself out in relationships with everyone. 
The gospel is the only thing that addresses conceit, the vain-glory. To the degree I am still functionally earning my worth through performance (i.e. to the degree I am still functioning in works-righteousness), to that degree I will be either operating out of superiority or inferiority. Why? Because if I am saved by my works, then I can either be confident but not humble (if I am living up) or humble but not confident (if I am not living up). In other words, apart from the gospel, I will be forced to be superior or inferior or to swing back and forth or to be one way with some people and another way with others. 
I am continually caught between these two ways, because of the nature of my self-image. But the gospel creates a new self-image, as we have seen previously. It humbles me before anyone, telling me I am a sinner saved only by grace. But it emboldens me before anyone, telling me I am loved and honored by the only eyes in the universe that really count. So the gospel gives a boldness and a humility that do not eat each other up, but can increase together. 
We have seen previously that there are two equal and opposite errors that oppose the gospel: “legalism” and “antinomianism” which we can call here “moralism” and “hedonism." How does the gospel provide a “third way” in relationships?  
Moralism often makes relationships into a blame-game. Why? The moralist is very consciously trying to earn salvation through performance, and that includes relationships. Moralists must maintain a self-image of being “a good person.” Now some moralists do so by laying the blame on others, by being very judgmental and by always insisting that they are in the right. There is a lack of teachability, humble admission of error or listening. But moralists can also play the blame-game by laying the blame on themselves. Moralists can “earn their salvation” and convince ourselves we are worthy persons through being very willing to help others. This kind of self-salvation superficially makes the moralist look very open to listen, very humble, very teachable. 
But this can be co-dependency, a form of self-salvation through severely needing people’s approval or through needing people to need you (i.e. saving yourself by saving others). So moralism works through either blaming others or blaming yourself. Either way, it makes relationships torturous.  
On the other hand, hedonism reduces relationships to a negotiated partnership for mutual benefit. Hedonism says: “A relationship is fine as long as both people are helping each other reach their goals.” But as soon as a relationship entails major sacrifice, the hedonist labels it dysfunctional and bails out. (There are dysfunctional relationships but only when the sacrifice is being done out of needy selfishness and not out of fullness of love.) So, for the hedonist, you only relate to another as long as it is not costing you anything. So the choice (without the gospel) is to selfishly use others or to selfishly let yourself be used by others. But the gospel leads us to do neither. We do sacrifice and commit, but not out of a need to convince ourselves or others we are acceptable. So we can love the person enough to confront, yet stay with the person when it does not benefit us... 
Outside the gospel we are either confident (if achieving) or humble (if failing), but in the gospel our new self-image produces a bold humility that changes all relationships. Without the gospel, your self-image is based upon living up to some standards — whether yours or someone’s imposed upon you. If you live up to those standards, you will be confident but not humble. If you don't live up to them, you will be humble but not confident. Only in the gospel can you be both enormously bold and utterly sensitive and humble, for you are both perfect and a sinner! Paul shows us that this new, unique self-image changes all relationships. “Don’t be conceited — provoking or envying each other.” (Gal.5:26). 
Because we are humbled by the gospel, we don’t “provoke” or approach anyone with a sense of superiority. Because we are powerfully loved in the gospel, we don’t “envy” or approach anyone with a sense of inferiority. The gospel keeps us from being either codependent on, or independent of, people. Both approaches are essentially selfish ways to earn our value through relationships. Now we do not need to have people serve our needs nor to serve theirs. So we are free to sacrifice and commit, but also to love the person enough to confront."
This gospel is the good news that "we are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.” (Tim Keller)