We are made for relationship. The desire for relationship is woven into us at creation, and figuring out how to live in authentic relationship with God, with others, and with all of creation is the task of our lifetimes.
Our first and deepest desire is for relationship with God. Seventeenth-century French mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) wrote, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of each [person] which cannot be satisfied by any created thing but only by God.” Thirteen centuries earlier, St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.”
Our desire for relationship with God reflects God’s desire for relationship with us. In his poem “The Creation,” James Weldon Johnson imagined it was loneliness that moved God to start creating, and after everything else was finished,
[God] looked on his world
With all its living things,
And God said: I’m lonely still.
Then God sat down—
On the side of a hill where he could think;
By a deep, wide river he sat down;
With his head in his hands,
God thought and thought,
Till he thought: I’ll make me a man!
Out of God’s hunger for relationship, God created us, and God has been yearning for us ever since. Whenever we turn away from that relationship, God yearns to bring us home, like a parent yearning for the return of a prodigal child (Luke 15:11-32). “I will bring your offspring from the east,” God said, “and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, ‘Give them up,’ and to the south, ‘Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth – everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made” (Isa. 43:5-7).
Barely six chapters into the book of beginnings, however, God saw our wickedness, regretted having made us, and decided to scour creation away with a flood (Gen. 6:5-7). But God must have had second thoughts, because when the waters drained away, God repented and gave to Noah the same instructions given to Adam in the beginning, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Gen. 9:1, cf. Gen. 1:28).
More than that, God made a covenant with Noah and his family and all of their descendants forever, and with every other living creature, never again to destroy the earth with a flood (Gen. 9:8-11). It was a covenant we would sorely test but one that God would never cancel or revoke.
Many think of a covenant like they think of a contract. If one party violates the terms of the contract, the other party is no longer bound by it. But that’s not how it is with a covenant. Each party to a covenant remains committed to fulfilling it regardless of what the other party does. That’s how it is with the covenant God has made with us. No matter how far we stray from it, no matter how much we dishonor it and violate its terms, God remains fully committed to honoring it.
According to St. Paul, that’s what God was doing in Christ, fully honoring the covenant God had made with everyone, “reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:19). That’s the definition of mercy: unmerited, unconditional, uncompromising, unending love; covenant love. And that’s the covenant Jesus called us to honor when he said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28).
That’s how God fulfills the covenant that binds God to us, and it’s how we are called to live in covenant as well. “Be merciful,” Jesus said, “just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). We are to be full of unmerited, unconditional, uncompromising, unending, and perhaps even unreturned love toward others – all of them without exception – because that’s what God does for us.
It’s a hard challenge to live in that kind relationship, to be full of mercy toward others as God is full of mercy toward us, but that is our calling: to create that kind of community of faith as a witness to God’s covenant of love. So in the words of Marty Haugen’s hymn (“All Are Welcome,” © 1994 GIA Publications):
Let us build a house where love can dwell
and all can safely live,
a place where saints and children tell
how hearts learn to forgive.
Built of hopes and dreams and visions,
rock of faith and vault of grace;
here the love of Christ shall end divisions:
All are welcome, all are welcome,
all are welcome in this place.