Imagine heading over to your local grocery store. You pick up milk, bread, and eggs. You’ve got your kids in tow so you’re relieved when they don’t make too much of a scene. You head to the checkout counter. The cashier rings up your items and tells you your total. After you swipe your card and sign, she thanks you for shopping and hands you your receipt. As you walk out toward the parking lot, you look it over. That seems like a pretty normal trip to the grocer.
In the Bible, there are two basic kinds of relationship—contract relationships and covenant relationships. A for-profit business—like a grocery store or coffee shop—typifies the contract relationship. A barista at your local coffee place provides you with an Americano and you leave a few dollars in return. In a contract negotiation, an arrival at a mutually satisfactory agreement is important. Like buying a car, it’s important to settle on a price before you take it off the lot.
Contracts have obligations and conditions that require performance. The terms must be fulfilled. If I go into business with you and I break one of the terms of our contract, our business relationship is over. And even when all of the terms are kept, some contracts—like the fading ink on a receipt—only last for a specified period of time. Because the parties in a contract are consumers, I may choose to break my contract on purpose if it no longer benefits me. Tim Keller describes it this way:
In a consumer relationship (a thing-oriented relationship), it could be said that the individual’s needs are more important than the relationship.
If the grocery store down the street offers better quality produce or double coupons, I may walk away.
Now imagine a different trip to the store. This time, everyone there greets you by name, and when you head to the checkout, the manager begins to recount the history of your relationship with the store: “Donna first visited this location in 2005. She picked up puréed squash, peas, and bananas for her six-month old. We remember it like yesterday.” At this point, you’re thinking, “I know that they keep my purchase history with that Bonus Card, but this is pretty creepy.” Suddenly you see the manager is no longer reminiscing. He has his right hand raised, and he’s swearing an oath. We solemnly swear to provide you with non-GMO snack food choices and the most delectable selection of meats… Today’s shopping trip is our gift to you. We’re family. Take whatever you like.”
Covenant relationships arise out of a personal history and the desire for a deeper intimacy. In a covenant, negotiation has no place. The stronger party, that is, the party who is greater in grace, makes a proposal and gives his friendship and help as a gift. Covenant relationships aren’t even maintained by performance. If I break promises that I’ve made to my wife—like failing to love and cherish her well when she is sick—that doesn’t mean that our marriage is over. Our relationship is maintained by loyalty and unconditional love.
Sociologists tell us the marketplace has become so dominant in our society that the consumer model increasingly characterizes most relationships. It’s easy to slip into this mindset with our kids. We parent with hearts set on “getting a return on our investment.” When our kids are cute and we’re posting fun stories and pictures of family night on Instagram, we feel good. But, when the kids are screaming and pitching a fit on aisle 7, we may feel like cutting our losses.
In those moments, we must remember that kids aren’t commodities. Children are gifts (Ps. 127:3). They are not the products of our success. They weren’t given to us for our pleasure and benefit. Our responsibility is to press in daily with unconditional covenant loyalty and love. We can do this, because we have a heavenly Father who loves us, his children, in the same way. He keeps covenant with us even when we close our ears to his instruction and pitch fits about what he allows into our lives. He loved us even when we were sinners with sacrificial, covenant love (Rom. 5:8).
Father, help me remember this truth, lay down my consumer mentality, and parent with grace. Amen.
Jared Kennedy is husband to Megan and father of three girls—Rachael, Lucy, and Elisabeth. He leads SojournKids as Pastor of Families at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, KY and New Albany, IN.
Teach (and learn) more about grace with PROOF Pirates: Finding the Treasure of God’s Amazing Grace VBS Starter Kit, an all-new VBS program which Jared Kennedy co-authored with a team from Sojourn church.