The chickens are coming home to roost. Mass Society has been preaching fulfillment of the individual but has been doing everything in its power to leave individuals unfulfilled.

In striving for freedom, we have eroded and destroyed all the infrastructure that can house freedom. In the name of liberation, we have attacked and destroyed anything that looked like a constraint for centuries. Except for a few writers, and exceptional mystics and monastics, the language of contemporary Western society does not have any words and concepts for the architecture of freedom but all kinds of languages and forms of expression for liberation. The individual has been emancipated toward her own fulfillment, and everything is put in utilitarian and instrumental importance toward the individual. We sign contracts, and undertake projects, to help us lead more fulfilling lives. While these types of activities assume the liberty of the person undertaking them, they erode the infrastructure that makes human fulfillment possible.

Instead of a contract, I would like us again to consider the seemingly archaic concept of covenant. What is a covenant? And why is a return to covenant necessary now?

Law and Freedom

To recover the notion of a covenant, we need to make sense of what a contract is. First, in a contract, the liberation of each party is assumed. They are at liberty to enter a contract, and at liberty to reject it. If they do enter a contract, they are held by the terms and conditions of the contract for the duration of the contract, which is always temporary. There is a tentative balance between the legal aspects of a contract and the freedom to accept or reject it. However, conceptually, the legal aspects of the contract and the freedom of the individuals entering it are as distinct as possible. From the contractual viewpoint law and freedom are self-consistent concepts that do not overlap.

Second, and more importantly, contracts establish an instrumental relationship between the parties to the contract. Contracts assume the following attitude: I will only keep up my end of the contract if you also keep up your end. In work, if an employer doesn’t pay, the employee has the right to stop working. Contracts are necessary because they help us to manage multi-faceted and nuanced exchanges. Contracts build in types of accountabilities in case one person doesn’t fulfill the conditions of the contract. We see this clearly in the world of work, where employees are “quiet quitting”, and work-from-home or hybrid work is being demanded. We see this in the very difficult times the UK has undergone with Brexit. These examples, and many more, reveal the deep inadequacy and lack of fulfillment in the concept of “contracts”.  

However, a covenant is markedly different from a contract, but not entirely. A covenant is a kind of contract, in that there are limiting conditions to the relationship. However, a covenant relationship is so much more than a contract. Where the contract bases the relationship on each doing their own share, fulfilling a covenant does not expect this unconditionally. A covenant relationship says that “I will do my share even if, for a time, you aren’t doing your share”; and both parties in a covenant relationship make this commitment. It is a commitment of two parties for the best interests of each other. One party puts the interests of the other ahead of her own. Covenants are much more profound relationships than contracts, and the fulfillment that they can bring constitutes a structure for experienced freedom, rather than a mere assumption of liberation.

The most obvious types of covenant relationships that exist are parent-child relationships and marital relationships. The most obvious kind of covenant is intimacy. In these cases, the relationship cannot be sustained if both parties in the relationship aren’t willing to say: I will do my share even if, for a time, you aren’t doing your share.  

In Philippians 2, Paul writes, “make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

Let’s take a step back, a step within, for a moment. Behind all of this conversation about contracts and covenants, there are some essential human needs and yearnings that are affected. The largest of these needs is to be understood as unconditionally loved. A parent-child relationship cannot be sustained if the love that is there is based on certain conditions. One of the key questions we have deep in our hearts is to know that the blessings we receive from others are freely given without conditions. If it is, we know this love to be deeply fulfilling. On the other hand, love that is given based on one abiding by conditions, i.e. conditional love, may bring some temporary pleasure or satisfaction. Still, it is certainly nothing like a fulfillment of a need.

For example, I love it when my kids do the dishes sometimes, take out the garbage, or vacuum. That gives me temporary joy and satisfaction. But I don’t make being a good parent a condition on them taking out the garbage; I would fulfill my parental role anyways.

We seek to be held unconditionally. It is what fulfills us.

And this is where law and freedom are brought together in substantial harmony. Covenant relationships hold us accountable in faithfulness and fidelity to particular people, but they do so unconditionally. Covenants resolve the paradox we all struggle with.

A covenant is more loving and intimate than a legal relationship, but more accountable than a personal relationship. It is a stunning blend of law and love, vows to be loving and faithful no matter the circumstances.

Both have to say: I will be what I should be no matter if you are or not. I am committed to the relationship even if it is not meeting my needs at the moment. If both parties agree to this, it is far more fulfilling, deep and profound, than an instrumental relationship.

And, to be honest, that is what we need more of right now.

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