Bryant Myers writes about four basic relationships that we have, and his way of describing them has found a lot of traction among fellow Christians. He talks about our relationship with God, with ourselves, with other people, and with the world. It’s not a totally original idea so much as a way of describing these relationships that seems really helpful and illuminating.
As with all good theology, it starts by considering God himself, who is essentially relational, a community of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. Remember Trinity Sunday two weeks ago?
And we are made in His image and likeness, which means that relationships are not something sort of added on to us, but are essential to our identity. I’ve heard it put this way: you don’t have a relationship with God, you are a relationship with God. To be with God forever is your deepest purpose; it’s what you are for.
And if you have a deep identity and purpose, there’s a way in which we can talk about your relationship with yourself. Because you don’t create yourself. The contemporary frenzy for self-definition and self-identification is devastating to the human spirit because it keeps us from accepting the identity God gives us, and tells us to substitute one we determine for ourselves. Deciding if you want to be a man or a woman is only one small symptom of this much larger wound: the wound of being out of touch with our given nature, our given identity, the image and likeness of God that gives us incredible dignity. That’s who you are. The further you get from God, the further you get from that deepest self. And then — welcome to neurosis and frustration without end.
This brings us to the third basic relationship because, of course, if you are an image and likeness of God with incredible dignity, then so are all the people sitting around you. To love your neighbor as yourself is simply to acknowledge this truth. Our creation in God’s image, our shared dignity in relationship with Him, ties us together in ways we’ll never fully understand. Anyone who says he loves God while hating his neighbor is a liar.
Fourth and finally, we are not all made to sit around staring at each other. We are part of Creation, and we have a mission, and we have a home — even if it’s a temporary one. God gave Adam and Eve instructions to care for the garden. He gave them dominion as stewards, a responsibility for Creation. Our relationship with the world includes taking care of the Earth. It also includes the work we do, the ways we spend our lives cooperating with God in this ongoing Creation.
Now I’ve brought up these four basic relationships because when we turn to the reading from Genesis, we’re going to see them so clearly — and we’re going to see how sin attacks them and wounds them, one by one.
The first and most fundamental relationship, with God: “the LORD God called to the man and asked him, ‘Where are you?’ He answered, ‘I heard you in the garden; but I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid myself.’” Adam is hiding from God. Stupid. You can’t hide from God! But, oh, do we try. Why? Because we’re afraid, because before God we are always naked, because nothing is hidden from Him, because there is no pretending and no secrets. In their innocence this wasn’t a problem; it was something to rejoice in. But in their guilt, it makes them want to hide. So much for our relationship with God.
And as goes the first relationship, with God, so goes Adam’s relationship with himself, and Eve’s with herself. Now they have shame. They feel naked and afraid. They were made in God’s own image, to be the caretakers and stewards of Creation, to cooperate as God’s partners in making the world, the crown of Creation… and here they are cowering in a bush somewhere feeling ashamed and afraid.
Just like dominos, now watch the third relationship fall. With the break in the relationships with God and self, there’s no stopping it: their relationship with each other is broken, too. "The woman whom you put here with me—she gave me fruit from the tree, and so I ate it.” There is our endlessly wearying, sickening, awful blame game. The first symptom of this wound is related to the nakedness again, as Adam and Eve, man and woman, find that they can’t trust each other the way they used to. The relationship isn’t pure and innocent; they’ve fallen from love and partnership and fruitfulness in complete unity and purity and innocence, and into this relationship has crept suspicion and embarrassment and the possibility of hurting, and selfishness, and using.
Finally, the last relationship is wounded too, as Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden. The Creation that began for them as a paradise now brings danger and hardship and pain. Adam is told he will toil and sweat for his food, Eve will cry out in childbirth, and the serpent will always be lurking at their feet.
But with all these curses and wounds, there comes a promise. God does not hesitate a single moment before setting in motion the long process of healing. He will still be their God; they will still be His people. He will not overlook the Fall and shrug it off, because these wounded relationships are not good enough for His children. Our Psalm refrain was “with the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption.” Fullness of redemption means a complete healing, and God will settle for nothing less. But a full redemption, a complete healing, is not going to be easy and it is not going to be quick. It’s the story of the Bible, and in the center of it stands a Cross.
You and I will continue, this day, to help write the chapter that is ours.
When Bryant Myers wrote about four basic relationships and how sin hurts them, he was writing about development, as in the work of lifting people out of poverty. Christians know that addressing poverty is never only about money. It’s about restoring broken relationships. Beginning with ourselves, our own conversion.
Jesus tells us this amazing thing: “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” He has come to bring us back into the very closest relationship with God, the one we were meant to have, the one we were meant to be. And in that restoration, we will find ourselves back in touch with our deepest identity, at peace with our own body and spirit, unashamed and unafraid. And we will look on each other once more as brothers and sisters, recognizing in our neighbors the image and likeness of God we have rediscovered in ourselves. We will be partners and helpmates and innocent fruitful lovers instead of being users and hurters, selfish and suspicious. And we will live again in harmony with the world that is, for now, still ours to care for.
We will not reestablish Eden. We will not make Earth a paradise by our hard work and clever plans. Jesus will do that by returning, and you can get an idea of the birth-pangs of the new Creation by reading the Book of Revelation. The fullness of redemption will not come easily. But we live already today as citizens of that Kingdom, as children of God, as brothers and sisters in Christ, and as apostles to all creation. We are not here to wait around. We have been sent. We are His witnesses. We are His hands and feet and voice.
If you want to find healing, let Jesus Christ lay His hands on your four basic relationships, starting with Himself. Start praying.Then recover, as you come to know God better, who you are, not in some pathetic self-determination, but as who He made you to be. When you know and love yourself, you can love your neighbor as yourself. And whatever you spend your life doing, whatever partnership in Creation is entrusted to you, will be rightly ordered and fruitful.
And if you want to love others, love them by seeking what is truly good for their deepest selves. Love them by working to restore these basic relationships. This summer I’m going to invite you to join in deepening and broadening St. Kateri’s work against poverty. Stay tuned for that. And may God give each of us a heart that burns to bring healing to the true poverty that afflicts our human family, to restore what is lost and bind up what is broken.