An understandable response to a loving God is to seek to do things which we think will demonstrate our gratitude for being included in His family. To be able to tick off achievements and successes on a list makes us feel good and comforts us that we are indeed children of God because such “transactions” re-assure us of our position in Christ.
The strengths and dynamics of our interpersonal relationships are frequently based on the depth and nature of the exchanges we experience. These exchanges can be connected to almost anything: requirements of the work place, the give and take of the home, the mutual support and protection of the front five in a rugby team. Common to all such exchanges is the expectation of contributions from others ie they are transactional. Parenthood, in contrast, illustrates exchanges where activities occur without expectation from the other side. A mother or father’s provision for their infant child is unconditional and committed, not expecting anything in return. Such relationships are transformational-driven by hearts and minds, strengthening bonds between both parents and children where one party does not expect anything in return and the other party does not know to expect anything in return.
The author of Hebrews (11:6) informs us that to please God, believing faith and persistent seeking are paramount. Despite knowing this we are easily drawn into trying to strengthen our spiritual ties through activity and achievement. We can get a sense of sufficiency from serving on committees and worship bands to helping with OAP breakfasts or organising church events for Christmas; but it can become a self-sufficiency rather than a God-sufficiency.
Through our transactions we may gain approval for the work we do. But while such work is often important and part of our Christian service it must never define us because it is not who we are…. it is just what we do. We are defined, rather, by what transforms us. Over 250 years ago Jonathan Edwards suggested that we need a fundamental re-orientation at the centre of our lives. In his landmark work “A Treatise on Religious Affections” he suggested firstly that our acting with gratitude for all that we have received from God is self love. Secondly God’s holiness must be our central motivation for our response to him and thirdly we become more like God primarily when we know more of him.
Paul instructs us not to conform to the culture around us and to be transformed. This flies in the face of a society which ascribes value and significance to our actions and accomplishments, with things that can be observed taking on a disproportionate value over those things of which only God and we are aware.
Transacting with others, however joyful and significant, should never define us. To focus on transactions to the detriment of seeking transformation is to sell ourselves short because we inadvertently rely on the structures and activities of our Christian lives for re-assurance and in so doing miss out on knowing God. Both transformation by the renewal of our mind and transactions as a consequence of who we are, are essential for spiritual growth. Yet there is a danger that, in a self sufficient, self focused culture, we swop priorities and emphasize what we do at the expense of who we are.
Osy Graham is part-time Vice Principal of Carrickfergus Grammar School and has a part-time Fellowship with the NEELB to support School Leadership development.