3 Reasons It Matters to Believe God is Relational

October 12th, 2017 / 4 Comments

“It doesn’t matter whether we think God is relational,” a friend recently quipped. “God is just God.” Well… I disagree!

In recent blog essay’s I’ve explored what it means to say God is relational. In this post, I want to briefly note 3 reasons why it matters to believe God is relational.

A Relational God is Affected by Our Prayers

Throughout scripture, we find examples of believers petitioning God in prayer. God sometimes even invites petitions: “Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession” (Ps. 2:8). Jesus says, “My Father will give you whatever you ask in my name” (Jn. 16:23). We find examples of petitionary prayer throughout Scripture, and most Christians today at least sometimes ask God to do something.

If God is impassible and creatures cannot make a difference to what God does, why pray petitionary prayers? Why ask God to do something or help in some way? Petitioning prayer presupposes that our requests affect God, and God may act differently. But if God is unaffected by what we do, it makes no sense to petition God.

In the name of petitionary prayer, therefore, we should affirm that God is relational.

A Relational God Suffers with Us

We should affirm that God is relational as the basis for God’s empathetic love. We all suffer, and some people suffer deeply. Oppression can be physical, emotional, social, racial, gender-based, sexual, spiritual, political, or something else.

Biblical writers describe God as empathizing with the oppressed. God cares, consoles those in pain, and has compassion. And God calls upon believers to comfort those who suffer.

The Apostle Paul describes God’s empathetic love this way: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ” (2 Cor. 1:3-5).

It’s hard to feel comforted by those who never experience anything remotely like our suffering. The unaffected can’t relate to what we’re feeling. The nonrelational God never suffers and never relates! A nonrelational does not empathize. Consequently, that God cannot comfort others from the perspective of one who has been affected negatively.

By contrast, the relational God is empathetic. The relational God of love is a fellow-sufferer who empathetically understands our suffering.[1] Oppressed creatures can feel comforted by a relational One who is “the God of all comfort.”[2]

For the sake of we who are oppressed, therefore, we should affirm that God is relational.

 A Relational God Can be Imitated

A third reason we should affirm God’s relationality pertains to following biblical commands to act like God. The Apostle Paul writes these powerful words: “Imitate God, as beloved children, and live a life of love…” (Eph. 5:1,2a).

Paul also tells his readers to “be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (Eph. 4:32). Elsewhere in Scripture people are instructed to be holy as God is holy (Pet. 1:14-16) and Jesus says we should imitate God’s compassion by being compassionate (Lk. 6:36).

It’s difficult to imagine how we can imitate an nonrelational God in these ways. Compassion, for instance, requires being affected by those in need, because it means to “suffer with.” Is it possible to express non-empathetic and non-emotional compassion? No. In fact, I have no idea what non-empathetic compassion would mean!

But we can imitate the compassion of a God who is relational. And with God’s help, we can fulfill the call to imitate God’s love that we find in Scripture.[3]

In the name of imitating a loving God, therefore, we should affirm that God is relational.

Conclusion

It matters to believe that God is relational. I’ve listed three reasons. Can you think of others?

 

notes…

[1] Alfred North Whitehead famously called God the “fellow sufferer who understands” in Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology, Corrected edition by David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne (New York: Free Press, 1978 [1929]), 351.

[2] I could list numerous books arguing that the oppressed can find comfort in a passible God. But as one example, see James Cone, God of the Oppressed (London: SPCK, 1977).

[3] See Roberto Sirvent for a lengthy argument for the cogency of imitatio dei and divine passibility (Embracing Vulnerability: Human and Divine [Eugene, Or.: Pickwick, 2014]).

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Comments

Donald Dwyer

I was reading from the revised common lectionary for this week. The scriptures in it plainly show this type of model of a passableness of God . (Exodus 3214 ) And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people. Most of us know this story very well and exodus 32 is a very vivid picture of relationary imagery. El Roi looks down from the mountain top with Moses and asks him to leave his presence so that he may destroy and start something new up .Moses implores God by every aurgument he could think of to excuse his stiff-necked flock for their blasphemy and got God to change his mind. Psalms 106:23 says , Therefore he said he would destroy them had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before him to turn away his wrath from destroying them. Moses relationships with the people compelled him to play for his people, God at that moment sound like he was ready to wipe the slate clean. God at this moment was in his feelings the text would make it seem to me. His anger and wrath had grown hot and petitionary prayer from his chosen one Moses cooled things down. Aaron had fell trap to consumerism and gave the Israelites what they wanted , he took their Gold and formed the calf and they woke up early and began to eat drink and revel. I think this chapter of exodus shows the relationship component very well. Moses clearly loves his people and goes to bat for them , God responds to the actions of the people , changes his mind a few times ,considers his people’s enemies opinion of him, Moses love for those particular people who God was fuming about. And changes his mind. While I write this it’s got me thinking about soveignty and how God’s purposes eventually will come to be, this makes me think that relationships matter in how God’s kingdom is going to look . None of this makes me think that the exact scenario is going to play out presceipted. I’d say yes God has a plan and it is possible with God and Christ who has forgiven us,we can stand in the breach and love and pray for the stiff-necked (who could probaly be ourselves at times). We can make a difference every day on how things are going to turn out. I think a relational view of God shows how his sovereignty is carried out ? How his will is brought out through creation, Maybe? Something along those lines? I’m trying to understand these old testament readings and what to glean from them on what God is saying now to me today. I’ve read or seen some theories that explain this darker portrayal of God in anger.


Brandon Duke

I need to read much more on passibility and relationally, but since they are intuitively true to me, here are some knee jerk additions in response to your conclusion requesting other consequences of relationally.

1. A relational god can appreciate moral and personal growth? (A process of sanctification?)

2. A relational god would value parenting as a model of his relationship with his creatures? (We often talk of the marriage analogy between the church and Christ, but also important to tie in the passages in the Old Testament about teaching children.)

3. A relational god can forgive in a meaningful personal way that reflects a new reality, not just restoration of the status quo? (Like a jilted lover he calls back his people, rather than a criminal judge commuting sentence.)

Maybe those are all the same, and maybe I’d need to work harder than I think to justify them scripturally, but they seem important to a father and husband trying to do better.


MARCO VELASCO SOSA

From México,
Thanks Tom for your incisive comments!
In Latin America our Mesoamerican cultures were and still are deeply relational. I believe it remains fertile ground for communicating a relational gospel.
Gracias Tom por tus incisivos comentarios!
En América Latina nuestras culturas mesoamericanas fueron y son las que aún viven profundamente relacionales.


thomasjayoord

Excellente, mi amigo!


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