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Truthful Relationships

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Abstract:  What is more important: truth or personal relationships? Sin creates a moral dilemma between these two values. How we resolve this dilemma will determine much about how we interact with other people. This essay is a response to the invitation to contribute to the Revolving Church Door by Dr. Tom Pittman and hopefully answers the question in essay #128 titled "What Is a Relationship?" [1]

Introduction

What guidance does Scripture provide to help Christians define a biblical basis for the purpose and practice of personal relationships? A keyword search for the word "relationship" in most translations of the Bible will result in few, if any, references. By this it might be concluded that relationships are not a particularly important focus of God's instruction to man. However, if relationships are conceived to be the process of getting along with "one another" or "each other", and a search is made of Scripture to identify the use of these two terms and their related forms, the picture changes dramatically. These terms are used dozens of times throughout the New Testament and provide significant guidance in defining a biblical philosophy of relationships. Or we can look at the word "covenant" that appears over 280 times throughout the Bible. Covenants are a kind of relationship between persons. The Bible was not written for the specific purpose of being a relationship manual or an exhaustive curriculum on interpersonal dynamics; however, it does provide clear authoritative principles that can form a solid foundation and framework for developing God-honoring personal relationships. [2]

Definition of Terms and Scope

As Dr. Pittman rightly points out in his essay, the dictionary defines relationship as "a connection between or among things." The category of "things" here discussed are persons of two ontological types: God and man. Biblical Christianity teaches that God reveals Himself as three persons (Father, Son, and Spirit), and He created man as a person in His image. This essay is focused on the three personal relationship combinations that arise between God and man:

  1. relationship between God and a human person
  2. relationship between the persons in the Godhead
  3. relationship between human persons

Many other types of relationships exist, but these are beyond the scope of this essay. Here are some examples of other types of relationships not discussed or considered in this essay:

  1. relationships between God and groups of people such as the church or a nation
  2. relationships between different groups or classes of people (sociology)
  3. relationships with other ontological living beings such as angels and demons
  4. relationships between persons and non-personal living things (plants, animals etc.)
  5. relationships with and between inanimate things (rocks, molecules, etc.)

The Moral Dilemma between Truth and Relationship

A man ambushed by his wife with the question, "Honey, do I look fat?" is immediately and painfully aware of the dilemma between truth and relationship. A similar fate awaits the man whose wife returns from the hair salon and tearfully asks: "Do you like my new hair style?"  Relational conflict is all but guaranteed if he responds truthfully with "Yes, it looks like you've put on a few pounds" or "No, I liked it a lot better before you cut it all off, and what color is that anyway?"

If a man desires a peaceful or romantic evening with his wife, he is unlikely to respond with such unvarnished truth. These marital anecdotes point to the problem of criticism which is the intersection of truthful but dis-affirming information. Three additional combinations of truth and affirmation are shown in this table of four quadrants:

  Truth     Untruth
Affirming (1) Praise (2) Flattery
Disaffirming (4) Criticism (3) Slander

 

 

 

 

Affirming truth, or (1) praise, builds mutual respect and admiration and strengthens a relationship. Honest praise, both for God and among people, is regarded as good in the Bible. An observant Christian will avoid both (2) flattery and (3) slander because they are examples of bearing false witness which is a violation of one of the Ten Commandments. These are the sin quadrants. This leaves the problem quadrant of dis-affirming truth or (4) criticism. Can relationships persist when criticism is involved? Or, is affirming truth the only option for truthful relationships?

Criticism and Hypocrisy

In his essay, Dr. Pittman provides compelling anecdotal evidence that his policy of "never criticize" works, and he argues that "...people do not have the dictionary sense of 'connection' in mind when they say 'relationship' but rather a particular quality of connection, namely one of unconditional affirmation." I agree and find this very disturbing. A limited view of personal relationships that singularly focuses on the one-dimensional quality of unconditional affirmation is unbiblical and dangerous.

If "personal relationship" means only those personal connections which affirm, doesn't this remove the important corrective power of criticism? Aren't we told in a court of law that we are to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? How is leaving out dis-affirming truth any different than telling half-truths which are a form of a lie? To be proven wrong should be celebrated since somebody’s intellect has just been elevated!

Adopting a "never criticize" policy in personal relationships does make avoiding hypocrisy easier. In Romans 2:1-4 the Apostle Paul gives a blistering warning about judging other people. A godly purpose for criticism is bringing human beings to repentance, and God alone is the true judge while we "mere men" judge hypocritically. As Jesus taught with the speck and plank example, hypocrisy is harshly condemned. In fact, throughout the Gospel accounts of Jesus, the most strident and stinging rebukes are reserved for the hypocritical Pharisees. So, with these grave warnings in mind regarding hypocrisy, what does a truthful relationship, i.e. one that incorporates constructive criticism, look like in the life of a Christian?

What is a Truthful Relationship?

Personal relationships are developed through many connection points such as communication, shared experience, mutual love and submission, affirmation, encouragement, and perhaps even a business transaction or contract. A study of the dozens of "one another" and "each other" verses in the New Testament provides a substantial list of God's guidance for interpersonal connections. However, the purpose of this essay is not to classify or categorize types of connections in personal relationships. This essay is an examination of the differences between affirmation-only relationships as defined by Dr. Pittman and fully truthful relationships which incorporate criticism. 

An affirming relationship certainly feels better emotionally and is therefore more enjoyable than the conflict created by corrective criticism. But, which relationship is more beneficial and loving: the relationship which only affirms, or the one which tells the whole truth? Taking an affirmation only approach can create a breeding ground for hypocrisy and a false sense of self-esteem as Dr. Pittman points out in his Two Cultures essay:

"...the church today teaches us "Don't criticize." If we had more people openly speaking out against wrongs, then we'd have more repentance, and people would have an honest self-esteem that comes from doing things right, instead of the modern version that hides (and thus perpetuates) all faults and allows us to feel good about being wrong."

People are connected to one another in many ways, and not all of these connections affirm. Personal relationships are frequently dysfunctional. Abusive parents need corrective criticism to overcome their poor parenting and properly love their children. A friend who is behaving badly needs corrective criticism so he can repent, and the relationship can be restored. A criminal needs corrective criticism (and perhaps a prison term) where he can be rehabilitated to live as a productive member of society. Most of the time when people talk about personal relationships, they mean relationships that are mutually affirming and which persist by mutual consent. But, when things go bad and affirmation becomes impossible, should we refuse to reveal disaffirming truth and seek separation? Or, do we risk the confrontation required for criticism with hopes of restoration? Let's examine how God handles things.

Relationship between God and Man

The Bible is a reliable inspired text that informs man about his Creation and Fall into sin. The fundamental problem of all mankind is sin. It is the barrier that prevents man's relationship with his Maker. The Bible also informs us about God's plan for Redemption and Restoration from the problem of sin [Rom 6:23]. God's corrective plan is foreshadowed in the Old Testament, explained further in the New Testament, and completed by the Atonement of Jesus Christ on the Cross. The Bible contains an incredibly cohesive narrative of the Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration of man's relationship with God including the solution for sin which is the substitutionary atonement of Jesus.  This solution for sin is applied in our individual lives through repentance and faith [Eph 2:8-9].

The restored vertical relationship between God and man is based on the truth of who God is, not anything man does. The Atonement alone restores the vertical relationship from God to man making way for eternal life. Obedience and submission to God do not redeem the relationship. Obedience and submission to God are the fruit or outworking of saving faith in the Atonement. The Atonement, a gift which brings eternal life, is received by repentance and faith alone apart from works. Eternal life is an eternal connection (i.e. relationship) with God. The second death mentioned four times in Revelation is eternal separation from God, a.k.a. hell (i.e. no relationship).

God's solution for sin depends on corrective criticism, the dis-affirming truth that man is a sinner. God's forgiveness of sin through the Atonement of Christ is contingent on man's repentance. And what is repentance if not a response to the dis-affirming truth that I am a sinner? It seems that God himself has a fully truthful view of relationship that includes dis-affirming truth. Anyone who reads the prophets of the Old Testament will quickly see that God takes truth seriously and doesn't mince words when it comes to dis-affirming truth, yet God persists in pursuing relationship with mankind to the point of sacrificing his perfect Son for our benefit.

Relationship in the Godhead

The Holy Trinity exists eternally as a community of three persons so perfectly related they are unity, one God in three persons. There is no untruth within the Godhead. However, the Cross was a mysterious point in created time where God's relationship with Himself was broken. In Matthew 27, Jesus cried out asking why God had forsaken him. The word sabachthani used by Jesus on the Cross can be translated as abandon or depart. 

Substitutionary atonement doctrine teaches that the sin of the world was placed on Jesus as expiation for God's wrath. Jesus, in his sinful condition, was forsaken by the Father. It was justice being worked out. However, can we conclude from the Cross that God values relationship more than truth and justice? The Atonement does lead to man's reconciliation with God and restoration or relationship, but is the focus here really on the relationship or on God's justice and mercy?

Interestingly, the breaking of relationship within the Godhead when Jesus was on the Cross was accompanied by the tearing of the temple curtain. Many theologians interpret this to mean that God initiated this new access to Himself from above. All three synoptic Gospels inform the reader of the temple curtain being torn. Matthew and Mark's Gospels provide the additional detail that the tear was from top to bottom. Is this event which happened at Christ's Atonement relationally significant? Can we learn something from it? 

The temple curtain was a barrier between man and the manifest presence of God in the most holy place in the Hebrew temple. Only the high priest could enter through this curtain into God's presence, and then only once a year on Yom Kippur, the Hebrew Day of Atonement. The substitutionary atonement of Jesus tore apart this barrier and restored the possibility of direct relationship between God and man. The Atonement of Jesus resolves the moral dilemma of sin allowing both truth and relationship to continue between God and man as God works out His redemptive purposes over time throughout history.

Relationship between Human Beings

When I was growing up my mother used to tell me, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." This aphorism fails in many situations. When a bully is slamming your friend into a locker, do you stand by and say nothing? When a child is being molested by a relative, do you only say nice things to the pedophile? As I grew older I realized you have to learn to pick your battles, and sometimes truth trumps nice. The question before us is understanding how Bible believers should behave when it is no longer possible to maintain an affirmation-only stance in horizontal relationships with other human beings. Should we choose truth alone and sever the relationship or should we seek a redemptive path and pursue relationship through corrective criticism?

God's use of dis-affirming truth is generally corrective, restorative, and redemptive. Although some people believe the God of the Old Testament is vengeful or even vindictive, the character of God even in the Old Testament is shown as compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in love [Ex 34:6, Neh 9:17,Ps 86:15 103:8 111:4 112:4 145:8, Joel 2:13, Jonah 4:2, etc.]. In fact, the repeated theme of the Old Testament is a God who is very patient and long-suffering in pursuing relationship with nearly incorrigible human beings. However, I do believe there is a point where God draws the line. I am not convinced as some theologians are that God will eventually restore relationship with all human beings.

Conclusion  

But, if it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone [Rom 12:18]. We should seek to live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity, diligently focusing on whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, and whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—thinking about such things [1Tim 2:2, Phil 4:8].  And, if in focusing on what is true and right there comes a time where corrective criticism is needed, we should do as God does and look for ways to offer the disaffirming truth in a way that restores, reconciles, and redeems the relationship. 

Endnotes

[1] Dr. Pittman posted a refutation of the above "Truthful Relationships" essay in his Essay #153 (For and) Against Relationshipism.

[2] This introduction is the exact form of a paragraph written by Dr. John A. Hugues on p. 245 of Think Biblically: Recovering a Christian Worldview.  In his chapter on "Why Christian Education and Not Secular Indoctrination," Dr. Hugues uses nearly the same words but his focus is on the terms "education" and "educated" not being found in the Bible while still finding hundreds of examples in Scripture for "teaching" and "learning."  This shows word count alone is a poor hermeneutic, and we must consider concepts and meaning as well.

© 2007 by Dennis Elenburg. All Rights Reserved.  Note: Initial version created in 2007. Latest Revision Date/Time displayed at the top.

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