Indeed, the Old Testament account in the book of Hosea conveys the central theme of the covenant relationship between God and the children of Israel. The cycle is as follows: The children of Israel turn away from God and get into all kinds of difficulty. God pursues them with a love that will not let them go, offering reconciliation and restitution when they respond. And then comes the incredible blessing of being in relationship with the Almighty God, who mothers like a hen and leads with cords of human kindness. The children of Israel reap the satisfaction of basking in the intimate presence and profound connection with their loving God.
The life of Jesus is the supreme expression of unconditional love. It is noteworthy that Jesus tells the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15) in response to the Pharisees’ and the scribes’ criticism of his sitting with sinners. Just as the father in the story welcomes his wayward son home with open arms, Jesus demonstrates unconditional love to a people who have rejected his Father. The unconditional nature of God’s love is perhaps most clearly expressed in 1 John 4:19, “We love because he first loved us,” and 1 John 4:10–13, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.” Here is the promise of the mutual indwelling of God’s unconditional love in us as we dwell in God’s love through the sacrifice of Christ and the presence of the Spirit. And as we have received that unconditional love represented in the unity of the Godhead, we offer that unconditional love to others as God’s image bearers.
Having discussed the unconditional quality of God’s covenant commitments, we now turn to a related consideration—the issue of reciprocity. Whereas the unconditional nature of covenant love is unquestionable, in a familial context the concept of covenant can be used to refer to both unilateral and bilateral relationships. Figure 2 depicts the different types of commitment found in family relationships.
Any covenantal relationship is based on an unconditional commitment. However, covenantal relationships can be either unilateral (one-way) or bilateral (two-way). We have labeled a unilateral unconditional relationship an initial covenant and a bilateral unconditional relationship a mature covenant. All biblical references to the covenant God initiates are examples of initial covenants. It would be erroneous to think of an unconditional unilateral relationship as partial, dependent, or even immature because, from the individual’s perspective, a personal covenant without restrictions is given. From a relational perspective, unilateral unconditional commitment entails the attractive possibility of someday becoming a two-way street. The desire of God in each initiated covenant is that the unconditional commitment will eventually be reciprocal and mutual—that one day, humanity will be able to ultimately consummate and fulfill the covenant stipulations.
When a child is born, the parents make an unconditional commitment of love to that child. The infant or young child is unable to make such a commitment in return. However, as the child matures, the relationship that began as an initial (unilateral) covenant can develop into a mature (bilateral) relationship. True reciprocity occurs as parents themselves age and become socially, emotionally, and physically more dependent on their adult child. Here, in a mature bilateral commitment, reciprocal and unconditional love is especially rewarding.
Our ideal for marital and mature parent-child relationships is an unconditional bilateral commitment. As shown in figure 2, there are two
types of conditional family relationships. One type we call the modern open arrangement, which is symptomatic of a society in which people are hesitant to make commitments that do not inherently offer benefits. A typical example is a person who begins a marriage with the unspoken understanding that as long as his or her needs are being met, all is well, but as soon as those needs are no longer met, the relationship will end. When both spouses adopt this conditional stance, the marriage amounts to a contract, a quid pro quo arrangement. In modern open arrangements, the couple believes they have fulfilled the marital contract when they get from the relationship a little more than they give to the relationship. That is, modern open arrangements are viewed as successful if one gives slightly less than one receives.
In reality, much of the daily routine in family life is carried out according to informal contractual agreements. When we advocate relationships based on covenant, we must recognize the importance of mutuality, fairness, and reciprocal processes that lead to interdependence. Yet there are extraordinary dimensions of loving unconditionally, such as sacrificing oneself for the other and going the second mile even when things aren’t equal. It is a matter of being willing to be unselfish rather than thinking only of self (selfish) or only of others (selfless), as Stephen Post (1994) defines the terms. Any mature relationship based on contract alone will forgo the incredible acts of love that far exceed any contract made by two individuals and ultimately reflect the fulfillment of God’s covenant in the saving work of Christ on the cross.
Grace: To Forgive and Be Forgiven By its very nature, covenant is grace—unmerited favor. From a human perspective, the unconditional love of God makes no sense except as it is offered in grace. Grace is truly a relational word. One is called to share in a gracious relationship with God. Due to God’s unshakable covenant, grace is extended. God condescends to the creature and the creature is elevated (see Ps. 8).
John Rogerson (1996) takes the understanding of grace as a natural extension of covenant love and applies it to family life. He cites Old Testament texts suggesting that God desires the establishment of structures of grace to strengthen family life. These structures of grace are defined as “social arrangement[s] designed to mitigate hardship and misfortune, and
grounded in God’s mercy.” The following example is from Exodus 22:25– 27: “If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them. If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; for it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate.” From his analysis of Old Testament teachings about the family, Rogerson concludes, “What is really important is that theologically-driven efforts were made to counteract the forces that undermined the family” (41).
Family relationships, as designed by God, are meant to be lived out in an atmosphere of grace, not law. Family life based on contract leads to an atmosphere of law and is a discredit to Christianity. Law keeps a tally of credits and debits. Family members take an account of how much they give and how much they receive from the family. Fairness in this sense is based on balancing this ledger (Boszormenyi-Nagy and Krasner 1986; Boszormenyi- Nagy and Spark 1984). On the contrary, family life based on covenant leads to an atmosphere of grace and forgiveness. There must be a willingness to forgive if right relationships are going to develop in family life (Borrowdale 1996). Just as the meaning and joy of being a Christian would be deadened if we conceived of our relationship with God in terms of law and not grace, so would meaning and joy be constrained in family relationships. On both the individual and the family level, law leads to legalism, whereas grace offers freedom. In an atmosphere of grace, family members learn to act responsibly out of love and consideration for one another.
The incarnation is the supreme act of God’s grace to humankind. Christ came in human form to reconcile the world to God. This act of divine love and forgiveness is the basis for human love and forgiveness. Forgiveness bridges grace offered horizontally and vertically (Shults and Sandage 2003), meaning that Christians are able to extend grace, mercy, and forgiveness as they have received them. We can forgive others as we have been forgiven, and the love of God within makes it possible for us to love others in the same unconditional way.
One may ask if there is any place for law in family relationships. Are we to believe that when grace is present in the family there is no need for law at all? Our answer must be the same as that given by the apostle Paul: “For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone
who believes” (Rom. 10:4). It is not that the law itself is bad, for it points the way to God. But because humans are limited and fallen, we can never fulfill the law. Christ is the end of the law because he is the perfect fulfillment of the law. We are righteous by faith alone! No one can keep the law perfectly. We are free from the law because of Christ’s perfection and righteousness, which leads to our salvation.
The same can be said concerning family relationships. Through Scripture we can know something of God’s ideal for family relationships, but none of us can expect to measure up perfectly to that ideal. In a family based on law, the members demand perfection of one another. Rules and regulations are rigidly set to govern relationships. This kind of pressure for flawlessness adds guilt to the failure that is inevitable in such a situation.
The application of the concept of grace in family relationships is a challenge when we are working out family structures, roles, and rules. Although the covenant of grace rules out law as a basis for family relationships, family members living in grace accept structure, forms, patterns, order, and responsibility in relationships. In reality, much of the daily routine of family life must be performed according to agreed-upon rules, regularity, and order. Grace means having consistently applied, developmentally appropriate rules and expectations for each family member. Grace is also the ability to be reflective about those rules and make changes as necessary. Grace does not repress needs or limit lives, but offers order and regularity so that family members’ needs are met and their lives enhanced.
Empowerment: To Serve and Be Served The most common and conventional definition of power is the ability to influence another person. In such a definition, the emphasis is placed on one’s ability to influence and not the actual exercise of the authority. Most research on the use of power in the family has focused on a person’s attempt to influence or control the behavior of another. An underlying assumption in such analyses is that people using power try to decrease rather than increase the power of those they are trying to influence. They tend to use power in a way that assures the maintenance of their own more powerful position. In this sense of power, a suitable synonym may be control.
Empowerment, however, is a biblical model for the use of power that is completely contrary to its common use in the family or in society at large. Empowerment can be defined as the attempt to establish power in another person. Empowerment does not necessarily involve yielding to the wishes of another person or ceding one’s own power to someone else. Rather, empowerment is the active, intentional process of helping another person to become empowered. The person who is empowered has been equipped, strengthened, built up, matured, and has gained skill because of the encouraging support of the other. Empowerment flows out of the covenant between partners because covenant relationships seek the best of the other. Empowerment as an offshoot of the covenant encourages the other to develop into the person God intends. Empowerment facilitates the development of authentic, Christlike individuals.
In a nutshell, empowerment is the process of helping another person recognize his or her potential and then reach that potential through one’s encouragement and guidance. It involves coming alongside a person to affirm their gifts and build their confidence to become all that they can be. Sometimes the empowerer must be willing to step back and allow the one being empowered to learn through experience and not through overdependence. An empowerer respects the uniqueness of each person and equips that person according to his or her individual ways of learning. Empowerment never involves control, coercion, or force. Rather, it is a respectful, reciprocal process that takes place between people in mutually enhancing ways.
A great example of this in the Scriptures is the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15. In this familiar story, a wealthy father has two sons. The younger son asks for his share of the family estate before the father passes away. The father assents to this request, and the younger son takes his money and moves to a faraway country. In the meantime, the older son remains steadfast at his father’s side, engaged in the family business. After his inheritance runs out and he is forced to perform tasks unthinkable for an Israelite, the younger son returns home. The father welcomes him with open arms, throwing a lavish party. The older son, who was working out in the fields, did not know his younger brother had returned. The older son confronts his father when he finds out the party was for the younger son—the one that wished his father was dead! Empowerment, as the lens for this story, indicates that the father empowers the younger son by giving him the inheritance. He allows him to
make a decision as an adult and experience the consequences of that decision. Luke even records the younger son’s development while feeding the pigs: “He came to his senses” (Luke 15:17 NIV).