Reading in Numbers 5 this morning, I came across this interesting verse:
5 The Lord said to Moses, 6 “Say to the Israelites: ‘Any man or woman who wrongs another in any way and so is unfaithful to the Lord is guilty and must confess the sin they have committed. They must make full restitution for the wrong they have done, add a fifth of the value to it and give it all to the person they have wronged.
Do you see the connection between the horizontal and vertical relationships there? If we wrong each other, we are not just unfaithful or unkind to each other – we are unfaithful to the Lord. I suppose the clearest way of understanding this is from my perspective as a parent. If someone hurts my child (even if it is another one of my children) I am angry that this has happened. Because this is a person I created, and that I love, in some way, a wound against them is a wound against me.
And if we see the whole human race, in the wider sense, as the children of God, that he created, and that he loves, then to do wrong to one of them is to offend the Heavenly Father.
Understanding it this way actually makes sense of something that I’ve generally been confused by in a later part of the Bible, where David writes a Psalm (51) of confession after his adultery with Bathsheba. Remember the casualties in this story: he has certainly offended against Bathsheba (we don’t know if she really had an option to say “No” when the king wanted her); he has offended against her husband Uriah, who he attempts to trick and then has killed; and he has certainly offended against the baby who dies as a result of his sin. So, there is quite a list of collateral damage to whom we can imagine David apologizing and taking responsibility for his sin. But this is what he says in v4 of Psalm 51:
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
Er, excuse me? Bathsheba, Uriah, baby?
I think David in this confession understands the truth explained in Numbers 5 above, that whatever sins or crimes he has committed against others, when he is talking to God, he needs to acknowledge that, above all, he has been unfaithful to his Creator, by damaging those the Creator created and loves.
There is an inextricable link between the horizontal (our relationships with each other) and the vertical (our relationship with God). We cannot pretend to be spiritual, and yet be unloving, trampling over others’ feelings, damaging the loved children of the Creator, and expect things to be fine with us and God. Our spirituality is meant to be integrated with our relating, and to think they can be held separate is a fallacy.
In the New Testament, John makes much the same point:
We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: whoever loves God must also love his brother. (I John 4:19-21)
Our faith in God must take tangible form in loving others. It cannot be a navel-gazing, self-satisfying, self-contained spirituality. It was never designed to be that. It is a faith forged and expressed in the bloody battlefield of human relationships, in the mud of jealousy, petty rivalries, offending one another and deciding to forgive. These are the trenches of reality. This is where faith gets legs. This is where the rubber hits the road. And if you think you can genuinely love God without loving others, you are lying to yourself.