I’m normally suspicious anytime someone tells me that there are “just two kinds of” anything in this world. I find that reality rarely lends itself to such neat and tidy categories. At no time is this suspicion more likely to be true than when we are talking about relationships. There are all kinds of relationships in this world. Probably about as many different kinds as there are people who have them.
Now, having said that, I’m going to break my own rule. I’m going to look at two different kinds of relationships that people can have with one another: conditional and unconditional.
Conditional relationships are based on something outside the people involved. Something is usually expected of each person involved in the relationship. For example, if you were a boss with an employee who didn’t do the job right and repeatedly showed up to work late with a consistently bad attitude, you probably wouldn’t be inclined to say, “Golly, I bet you’re a nice person with a good heart. This relationship means so much to me, I just can’t fire you!” Would you do that? Of course not. That would be ridiculous. In employer-employee relationships, there are certain expectations that have to be met in order for the relationship to continue. It’s conditional.
But, on the other hand, imagine that your teenage son or daughter comes to you after a bad breakup. “Mom & Dad, so-and-so dumped me and I’m really down about it. Is there something wrong with me? Could anyone ever love me for who I am?” In that moment, no parent in his/her right mind would say, “Golly, I’d really love to be here for you right now, but I am just not impressed with your report card from last semester. Why don’t you bring that C in Chemistry up to a B? Then we’ll talk about who can love you.” Would you do that to your child? No, that would be equally ridiculous (not to mention heartless). Your love for your child is unconditional. There is nothing that child did to earn your love and there is nothing that child can do to lose your love. It’s not based on anything.
We need both kinds of relationships in this world. They’re both good. But it’s really important that we not confuse these two kinds of relationships with one another. A friendly boss is still your boss at the end of the day. That’s just how life works. Likewise, you parents have to help your kids grow up to be healthy and successful people, but that’s still your child at the end of the day (and no bad grade will ever change that fact). We can’t treat our conditional relationships like unconditional relationships. We can’t treat our unconditional relationships like conditional relationships.
Our consumer-oriented culture only knows how to deal with one kind of relationship: the conditional one. Everything comes down to some kind of quid pro quo contract. Most of us believe that unconditional relationships exist, but we don’t have any way understanding or categorizing them in our heads. Our society’s economic style of thinking doesn’t give us the kind of conceptual tools we need to form a mental picture of what unconditional love looks like. The results of this kind of relational confusion are obviously disastrous when we start “keeping score” with our partners or our kids. It starts a never-ending competition where no one wins and everyone loses. The very essence of the relationship gets lost because we’re not thinking of it as the right kind of relationship.
The same thing can happen with our spirituality. A lot of folks in our society tend to look at their personal relationship with God as a kind of quid pro quo contract (i.e. a conditional relationship). They think they can offer God moral obedience, dogmatic belief, or church attendance in exchange for the benefit of answered prayers or an afterlife in heaven. Almost everyone has prayed a prayer like this at some point: “Dear God, help me pass my math test and I’ll promise to stop swearing for a month.” On the one hand, these prayers are great because people are reaching out to connect with God in moments of stress and crisis, which is exactly what we should be doing. On the other hand, they turn our relationship with God into something it’s not: a conditional contract.
We end up with a God who looks more like Santa Claus than Jesus: “he’s making a list, checking it twice, he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.” This kind of God brings us toys in exchange for good behavior. That’s not a very healthy idea of God for us to believe in. We’ll end up fearful of God, nervously glancing over our shoulder, wondering if we measure up to the standard or if we’ll be sent to hell with coal in our stocking.
Another problem with this way of thinking is that it makes the success of our spiritual lives dependent on the success of our material lives. What happens when we pray for a miracle and don’t get the one we wanted? I’ve known many sincere believers who have prayed fervently for the recovery of a loved one from a serious illness, only to watch that person die. “Dear God, heal my wife of cancer and I promise to quit smoking and go to church more often.” What happens to that person’s faith if his/her wife dies anyway? It’s sad to think about, but it happens in the real world. I’ve seen it. Our faith is what we depend on to carry us through these horrible tragedies, so we had better make sure it won’t collapse under the weight of unanswered prayers.
There is a story of a time when Jesus’ disciples missed an opportunity to learn what real faith is all about. This is comforting to me, by the way: knowing that Jesus’ disciples missed the point more often than they got it. It gives me hope for myself. In fact, that’s why I like to read the Bible: it’s the only book I can read and find people more messed up than I am. If God never gives up on them, then I can trust that God will never give up on me.
Anyway, this particular story takes place as Jesus and his disciples were crossing a lake in a boat one day. A bad storm snuck up on them and things were looking pretty grim. They were sure that this was it. All their hard work and sacrifice as disciples was about to go to waste: sucked beneath the mighty waves of the Sea of Galilee. And just where is Jesus while of this is going on, where is the one in whom they had put so much faith? He was taking a nap!
Have you ever felt like that in a moment of crisis? “God, where were you when I got that diagnosis? God, where were you when my loved one died? God, where were you when I got laid off from my job?” I can relate to those disciples in the boat because, sometimes (in my life, anyway), it really feels like God is asleep on the job. I have sometimes asked the very same question that the disciples asked Jesus, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Do you not care? That’s the question that bothers us so much in times like that. Does God not care about me? Do I not matter in the grand scheme of things? Does God not exist? Am I all alone in a meaningless world? These are hard questions. In fact, these are the hardest questions a person can ever ask. They are the ultimate questions that give voice to the deepest fears in our hearts.
In this story, the disciples do finally get the miraculous solution they were looking for. Jesus wakes up and calms the storm with his divine power. The hero saves the day. But, after all is said and done, Jesus asks the disciples, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
Have you still no faith? Obviously, the disciples had some kind of faith because they knew exactly who to call when the situation got really hairy. They prayed for a miracle and they got it, but they still missed the point. The point is not the miraculous rescue from the storm. That was simply a convenient arrangement of circumstances based on a conditional relationship with God. The point of this story is that God is with us. Jesus, asleep in the stern, is the main image we readers supposed to take away from this story.
God’s presence with you in the storms of life is unconditional. There is no circumstance that God can’t handle. There is no minimum faith requirement for getting “Jesus” into your “boat”. Before, during, and after the storms of life, God is there, holding us all together in the arms of unconditional love. There’s nothing you can do to make God love you any more; there’s nothing you can do to make God love you any less. God loves you and there is nothing you can do about it.
Sometimes, when you face the storms of life, you get the outcome you’re looking for. Sometimes, God calms the storm. But then there are other times, when things don’t work out like we planned, prayed, or hoped. In those moments, God calms you. Whatever the outcome of your circumstances, the important thing to remember is that you are not alone, you matter, God is real, and God does care about you.
Faith, in these circumstances, means trusting in that love and embodying it in the way that we live our lives, so that we, through our love, can become living reminders of God’s love to each other. Where is God when someone you love is going through life’s storms? God is in you. That inner impulse you feel to pay your respects, send a card, bring a casserole, or lend a hand? That’s God. On a larger scale, that still, small voice in your heart that makes you want to speak out against injustice whenever you see God’s children, your brothers and sisters, being treated unfairly? That’s God too.
Whenever you listen to that inner voice and act on it, you are living a faith-filled life. I would even say that you are living a godly life, a spirit-filled life. And, best of all, when you live like that: you are making it easier for someone out there to trust that we are not alone in the storms of life, that we matter, that God is real, and that God cares about us. And that’s what faith is all about.