The sun rises over a beach amidst storm clouds. In this post, S. Wyatt Young answers the question, "What is a covenant?" and explains how our understanding of covenant shapes the way we relate to God and elucidates his faithfulness.

What Is a Covenant? How an Understanding of Biblical Covenant Elucidates God's Faithfulness

It’s his faithfulness that’s producing this ache in my heart, the way a sore muscle cries out as it’s stretched so that it may heal. I’m having to stare in the face lies that I’ve believed for twelve years of my life and see his faithfulness shining brightly through them all.

I wrote those words in my journal two days ago, then collapsed on the table at which I sat and began to sob. But contrary to bringing sorrow to my soul, those tears brought a smile and a laugh. In a single 24-hour period, everything I’d been learning and experiencing came together to deepen my understanding of a word that is central to the biblical story: covenant. But what is a covenant, exactly?

When it comes to understanding my relationship with God, I’ve fallen into one of two camps for almost half of my life. Either God let good (or bad) things happen to me because of my behavior (we’ll call this the “punishment view“), or, because I couldn’t possibly do anything to put God in my debt, I was supposed to follow the do’s and don’t’s of the Bible based in a knowledge that God loves me without being able to expect anything from God (we’ll call this the “unbalanced vulnerability view“). Both of these views, as I’ve recently discovered, fall short of how the Bible speaks of our relationship with God.

I didn’t grow up in the church. In fact, when I was a kid, the only understanding of church that I had was that kids who went to church couldn’t play on Sundays. (The Mormons take sabbath very seriously.) When I reached the seventh grade, my parents put me in the Catholic school system to get me into the college preparatory Catholic high school. That was my first exposure to the ambiguity of “church,” and through my experience in the Catholic schools, I came to believe in the punishment view of relating to God.

In fact, I first walked through the doors of a (Protestant) church because I thought I had a deal with God: if I got baptized (the “good” behavior), God would give me a dating relationship with the girl who I was crushing on at the time. (I was sixteen years old, and my love life was the stuff that The 40-Year-Old Virgin is made of.)

When I started college, I met a man who would become a dear friend and mentor of mine for many years. He helped introduce me to a God who loved me more than I could ever imagine, and through that experience, I came to understand the punishment view as inconsistent with the God of the Bible. But because I didn’t really understand the concept of covenant, the unbalanced vulnerability view quickly took the place of the punishment view.

This quarter, I’ve been enrolled in a class at Fuller Theological Seminary called the Practices of Christian Community. It’s taught by Dr. Erin Dufault-Hunter, my beloved friend and professor to whom I’ve already introduced you. As part of that class, we had to read a book called Living into Community: Cultivating Practices that Sustain Us, by Dr. Christine D. Pohl. In that book, Pohl discusses four practices that have always defined biblical community, and one of those practices is the practice of promise-keeping.

What Is a Covenant?

What I’ve learned through Erin’s class is that we don’t understand the concept of covenant because we have no idea what it means to practice faithfulness to God and to each other by keeping our promises. Tainted by a culture in which politicians perennially over-promise and under-deliver and advertisers hype up their product under the guise of “mere puffery,” we’ve grown weary of actually doing what we’ll say we’ll do. If politicians and companies can get away with not keeping their promises, why shouldn’t we?

The problem with this, as Pohl makes clear in her book, is that human community can be understood as the very product of promises made between people and groups of people, for human community is nothing more than the grand sum of the relationships between individuals and groups, relationships which are based on trust, trust which is earned by people doing what they say they’re going to do. Under this view, then, if we stop keeping our promises, we run the risk of total social collapse (which could explain a lot of what we’re seeing right now in the American cultural landscape).

To illustrate the concept of covenant, Pohl contrasts a covenantal understanding of relationship with a contractual understanding of relationship. (Now, for all my fellow law students out there, I understand that in the realm of contract law, we use “covenant” to talk about the promises made in the contract, but the understanding of covenant embodied in contract law falls far short of a biblical understanding of the term.)

Contracts include exit provisions. In fact, in some contracts, the termination or “end-game” provisions can compose the majority of the contract. In many contracts, an exit is fairly easy. If you fail to pay your rent on time, your landlord can evict you without any real pain or sacrifice on his part.

Not so with covenant. Fundamental to an understanding of covenant is the concept of faithfulness. Faithfulness means that you and I don’t eject from our promises at the first sign of trouble. We stick it out and we stay in the game, sometimes at great pain and cost to ourselves.

Simply put, a covenant is a promise without an exit.

I explained to you a bit in a previous post how my mother’s problems with drugs and alcohol surfaced when I was fourteen years old, and that her first stint with rehab began a ten-year decline in my parents’ marriage. Well, for several years after my parents divorced, my dad apologized to my sister and me for not doing it sooner, particularly as he came to understand just how much she had messed us up.

Eventually, I told my dad to stop apologizing. By sticking it out with my mom for as long as he did when things got rough, he taught my sister and I something invaluable about marriage. By staying in the game, even at great pain and cost to himself, my dad taught us what it means to really be faithful to the man and woman my sister and I will choose to marry. It’s an understanding of marriage as covenant that has stuck with me to this very day, and will continue into my marriage and beyond.

Simply put, a covenant is a promise without an exit. I realize that the example I just gave of my parents and their divorce is a covenant with an exit that America is making increasingly easy, but Jesus makes it clear that God only allows for divorce because of the brokenness in our world. Divorce was never supposed to be. The covenant of marriage was always meant to be a promise without an exit, and this brings me to why I found myself breaking down in sobs two weeks ago.

Great Is Thy Faithfulness

God is faithful. His faithfulness knows no bounds. It neither begins nor ends. He is always, unendingly, faithful. Throughout the Bible, God makes promises to us. He promises that he will provide for us. He promises that he has plans to prosper us, that nothing and no one can ever separate us from his love. And he promises that if we delight in him, he will give us the desires of our heart.

I shared with you a couple of days ago that the greatest desire in my heart has been the desire for the family I never had. It was that desire that first brought me to a relationship with God, and for so many years of my journey with him, I assumed that he wasn’t giving me what I so desperately wanted because I’d done something wrong. The problem with this punishment view is that it assumes that God’s faithfulness is conditional. It assumes that God keeping his promises is somehow conditioned upon our behavior. It assumes, in other words, that God is not always faithful to us, because, as my dad taught me through his marriage to my mother, the essence of faithfulness is that it’s not conditioned on the behavior of the other party.

You and I were created to live in faithful intimacy with God. Our faithfulness to him means that we engage in certain practices that cultivate that faithfulness, in much the same way that a husband putting dishes in the dishwasher or averting his gaze cultivates faithfulness to his wife. The practices are often simple, but at times can be extremely challenging.

Although I wouldn’t have always couched it in these terms, I’ve long struggled to figure out what it means to practice faithfulness to God when it comes to dating. For reasons I won’t get into here, I’ve come to accept that practicing faithfulness to God in dating means that I’m exclusively pursuing a woman, sometimes before I even know her name (think “love at first sight”). The problem I’ve traditionally had with this, though, stems from that unbalanced vulnerability view of relating to God that I fell into when I was in college.

Pursuing a woman exclusively (and praying accordingly) requires a lot of vulnerability because of its covenantal nature. Choosing to open yourself up to someone in romantic pursuit opens you up to a lot of potential pain, and beyond that, it’s not always clear when it’s best to walk away. Do you walk away when you find out she has a boyfriend? (That’s not covenantal.) Do you walk away when she tells you she’s not interested, letting her believe that you only wanted her as long as you were going to get something from her? (That’s not covenantal, either. In fact, it’s very contractual.) When you and I choose to pursue someone covenantally, it opens us up to the possibility of a whole lot of pain and hurt.

Practicing faithfulness to God in dating through covenantal pursuit requires a lot of vulnerability, not just with her, but with God, and because I knew that God didn’t owe me anything, not only did I feel intensely vulnerable, but I didn’t think that God had any skin in the game, thus creating an unbalanced vulnerability.

But reading Pohl’s chapters on promise-keeping and the nature of covenant wrecked me. Not only did I see this kind of covenantal faithfulness to me evinced through my church community, but two days ago, I came to see how God’s faithfulness shone brighter than the sun throughout my life in both his yes’s and his no’s. I came to see how God has and always has had skin in the game. He doesn’t ask us for total vulnerability, for covenantal faithfulness, without having skin in the game himself.

Very early in the biblical story, in Genesis 15, God promises to Abraham that he will give Abraham the family he promised to him even if God himself had to be torn limb-from-limb. Two thousand years later, God was faithful to his promise to Abraham, humbling himself to the point of death, even death on a cross. God keeps his promises, even when you and I are completely unfaithful to him. It’s who he is. God is faithful, and his faithfulness is not in any way conditioned on our behavior, for if it were, it would not be faithfulness.

Two days ago, I was wrecked because I realized that even though God doesn’t owe me the love story, the marriage, and the family I’ve always wanted, he promises it anyway (through promises like Psalm 37:4), and he is faithful to his word. It doesn’t mean that I’m in control, that my behavior somehow conditions God’s faithfulness. To say as much would be to assume that there was a time when God wasn’t faithful, which isn’t true (at least when we’re talking about the God of the Bible).

The hard part of this realization, the part that really wrecked me, was looking back at all the no’s I’d heard from God in high school and seeing those not as the product of punishment, but faithfulness. Because I’m created to live in faithful intimacy with God, for God to have given me what I so desperately wanted when I wasn’t being faithful to him would have been to violate his faithfulness to me. It would not have been him loving me because by allowing me to run afoul of my created purpose, he would have been doing me harm, not good.

This brings me to the scary part. Because of everything that God’s brought me through over the last twelve years of my journey with him, I’m now able to practice faithful intimacy with God. I’m practicing faithfulness to him in a way that I’ve never been able to before, and when I look at his promises and remember that he’s faithful, it scares me in the best way possible as I stare in wonder at what’s ahead.

Two days ago, both my present and past understanding of who God is were radically transformed in a matter of minutes. When I saw how God’s faithfulness has shown brightly in my life for the entirety of my life, when I saw that because of my journey with him I’m finally able to practice faithfulness in a way that I couldn’t before—when I saw all of that and held it together with the knowledge of his promises and his faithfulness, it wrecked me. I collapsed on the table at which I sat and began to sob. But my tears quickly turned to a smile and a laugh, and through the rest of that night and the morning after, I found myself singing,

Great is Thy faithfulness,
Great is 
Thy faithfulness,
Great is Thy faithfulness,
Lord, unto me.