“C” is for Contract
Consent. Contract. Covenant.
These three words imply radically different ways of being and moving through the world.
Most of American life operates contractually. A contract is a simple agreement: “I do this for you. You do that for me in return.” Quid pro quo.
Every time you go shopping at Jewel, you engage in an informal social contract. You get the benefit of the groceries provided and organized by Jewel, and then you pay (or swipe) in exchange. If you’re a college student, you accept the burden of tuition in exchange for higher education. If you’re employed somewhere, you offer your labor, and in return, you receive a fair wage. Life in a capitalist economy is a series of contracts.
But what happens when a contract is broken? Imagine that you go to an Elmhurst Shell station to put 20 gallons of gas in the tank. Should you fail to hold up your end of the deal and pay your eighty-ish dollars, serious consequences will follow! Likely, video footage of your face, car, and license plate number would be immediately shared with the Elmhurst police.
Imagine that a nurse puts in two weeks of honest labor at a hospital, but the employer forgets or just doesn’t feel like honoring their commitment to compensate in a timely manner. No doubt a heated conversation should follow! If compensation continues to lag, our nurse will be looking for a new job in short order.
Good, fitting contracts allow human life to work fairly, smoothly, and equitably.
But, if a contractual, quid pro quo mindset spills over into relationships—our friendships, our families, our romantic and marital connections—we are destined for disaster.
Imagine a marriage in which both partners keep track of every word said and every domestic deed accomplished. I said, “I love you first last night, so you’d better say it first in the morning, or I’ll be angry.” What a nightmare. Or imagine a situation in which one spouse does the dishes and the other mows the lawn, and every time the mower falls behind, the dish-washer goes on strike.
Every married person I know has—at least at one time or another—fallen into the pit of viewing their most important human relationship through a contractual lens. It typically leads to disaster: frustration, anger, resentment, retribution. Hardly the fruit of the Spirit.
As 1 Corinthians 13:5 says so beautifully, “Love keeps no record of wrongs.” In other words, love doesn’t keep score. Love doesn’t do quid pro quo. Love doesn’t operate on contracts.
Last week, I observed that consent is a necessary but insufficient condition for a healthy relationship among peers. This week, I add the truth that living by contract is sufficient for simple human interactions but lacks the ennobling, hopeful qualities inherent in the love to which we are intended and for which we ought to aspire.
So, we need a deeper, better word. Next week we’ll consider it: Covenant.
– Pastor Gregg