Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone.”
These words are jarring. To this point in the narrative, we have heard “good” repeated again and again. Six times during the week of creation, God looked at what he had made and declared it to be “good.” Then, when all was completed, he looked back at everything he had made and declared it all “very good” (Genesis 1:31).
What could possibly be “not good” in the middle of this “very good” creation?
The answer is simple: It is not good that the man should be alone.
Since we know that God’s institution of marriage comes on the heels of this statement, we might easily dive into a sermon on the topic of marriage. If we did, however, we would miss an important principle that is more basic than marriage itself. After all, God did not say, “It is good that man be unmarried.” (Although I can personal testify that this is true for me!) Rather, he said, “It is not good that the man should be alone.” Even when marriage passes away, as it will in the eternal state, this statement will remain true.
So what does God want us to know by telling us this, and by stating it in a way that so arrests our attention? God wants us to know that he made us to be relational creatures. Embedded into our very humanness is our need for relationships. And even in the best environment—even in a relationship with God!—we are not at our best if we are by ourselves.
It’s hard to think of a message that more sharply contrasts with the American ideal of the self-made hero. Our mythic stars are typically self-made individuals who rose from humble beginnings to achieve success through their own efforts
Over the past several decades, however, people have been sounding the alarm bells, warning us that American individualism threatens to unravel the fabric of our society. It is true that individualism—valuing the “I” over the “we”—has led to a number of benefits, including initiative, independence, and personal responsibility. When taken to extremes, however, its consequences are dire.
More than twenty years ago, Robert Putnam brought this to light for many Americans in his book Bowling Alone. The title comes from Putnam’s observation that, over the past couple decades, the number of bowlers increased while the membership of bowling leagues decreased. In a similar vein, Robert Bellah, in the book Habits of the Heart, noted as early as 1996 that “much of what has been happening in [American] society has been undermining our basic sense of community at every level. We are facing trends that threaten our basic sense of solidarity with others.” Keep in mind that this was before millions of Americans had smartphones loaded with social media apps! Today, we are realizing that so-called “social” media usually fails to enrich our social lives. Instead, it creates an ever expanding buffer between us and others, leading to greater isolation and loneliness.
All these observations serve to highlight the wisdom and timelessness of God’s word that teaches us: It is not good for the man to be alone.
Let us look at this lesson—that we are relational beings—as a fact, a problem, and a solution.
1. First, it is a fact that we are relational beings.
But this is hardly a controversial claim. It been noted by the great thinkers throughout the ages, and we understand it on a practical and intuitive level. We cannot come into this world apart from relationships. To begin with, your biological conception took place within a relationship between your father and mother. As you grew, you became increasingly aware of the world around you, and this awareness was mediated primarily through relationships at school, church, and places of recreation. From there, we became aware of larger and larger collections of individuals: our city, our nation, and the entire world itself. Simply put, we are aware both of ourselves as an “I” and of the group of “I’s” we belong to. We understand that there is individual and collective.
The Uniqueness of the Bible’s Teaching on Relationships
So what does the Bible teach us that we couldn’t have known through our own intuition? This will become clear as we compare the Bible’s presentation of our relational nature with the way other cultures conceive of our relationships, particularly in their balance between the individual and the collective, the “I” and the “we.”
In traditional cultures, on the one hand, there is a great emphasis on the collective—the family, clan, or tribe. A person’s worth and identity is bound up with the group as a whole. In such cultures, the greatest injury is to be ejected from that group; the greatest crime is to bring shame on that group.
I was reminded of this recently while reading about some tribal cultures in Africa. In these traditional cultures, the death of the chief, who represented the tribe as a whole, meant that dozens of other people, usually his wives and slaves, must die as well. Their individuality did not matter as much as the tradition of the collective group. Similar customs were common in India as well, where the widow of a deceased husband would be placed on his funeral pyre and burned along with the corpse of her husband. In both cases, we see the sacrifice of the individual for the sake of the group. The group, prized as the highest good, has become the all-consuming thing. It is what confers honor or shame.
In progressive cultures, on the other hand (such as our own), the pendulum swings the opposite direction. We emphasize the individual over the collective. We can hear this emphasis in our slogans (“You do you,” “Find your truth,” and “Express yourself,” for example), and seeit in our hero stories, particularly of the lone, self-made man. In such cultures, the greatest injury is to be denied that your individuality has intrinsic merit, and the greatest crime is to shame someone’s individuality. The individual is the one who confers honor (or shame) on oneself.
The problem with both cultural tendencies is that they contain the seed for their self-destruction: the traditional culture by crushing the individual, and the progressive culture by shattering the cohesiveness of the group. Given what they see as the ultimate good—either the individual or the group—they do not know how to embrace both unity and diversity, both the individual and the group.
The same was true in ancient origin myths. The moment diversity arises—another god or another human—conflict arises too. Study the origin myths associated with Isis and Pandora, and you will see that it is typically the female in particular who is presented as the source of chaos. Her existence is a threat to be subdued and conquered.
Here we see the radical uniqueness the Bible. In teaching us that we are relational creatures, it presents other humans not as things to be used and subdued, nor as threats, but as those whose individuality complements our individuality. This is reflected in Adam’s exclamation about Eve: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!” In other words, “Here is a being who is different from me, but who complements me!” Here we see both unity and diversity, the group and the individual in harmony. The ideal human condition is not the isolated, self-made individual, nor the collective in which individual uniqueness is flattened. Rather, the ideal human condition is individuals connected both to God and to each other.
The Bible’s teaching on relationships avoids the self-destructive extremes of both the traditional and progressive cultures because it places ultimate good in God, not in the individual or the group. It sees God as the giver of unity and diversity, and in so doing upholds the value of both without destroying either.
The Reason for this Uniqueness
We can go beyond even this and ask, “Why is the Bible preserve both the individual and the collective, both diversity and unity?” The answer leads us to the very source: the nature of God himself.
Recall that when God created humans in his image, he stressed that both male and female were created in his image. In other words, while each individual human is truly God’s image-bearer, the individual alone does not reflect the multifaceted vastness of God’s nature, just as a small piece of a mirror is truly reflective, but probably too small by itself to reflect something very large. Now, God’s nature is so vast and glorious, that it requires a great collective of individuals to reflect that glory—“a great multitude,” writes the Apostle John, “that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Revelation 7:9-10). “Great is the Lord,” sings the psalmist. If so, then, he is “greatly to be praised.” God’s greatness deserves a great harmony of praise.
But there is another reason that the Bible brings perfect balance to unity and diversity: God’s very existence is unity in diversity. He is One-In-Three. One God, existing as three eternally distinct persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each are distinct “selves,” having unique roles in creation and in our redemption. Yet this “threeness” does not erase the “oneness.” We must admit, of course, that in God the relationship between Threeness and Oneness transcends the boundaries of our understanding. There is a fundamental difference between humans’ balance between the individual and the collective and what we are taught about God’s Triune nature in the pages of Scripture. But Scripture also does not hesitate to draw a comparison between the kind of unity that humans can enjoy with each other and the kind of unity that God himself enjoys, for Christ himself prayed to the Father, “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (John 17:22-23).
“It is not good for man to be alone,” because aloneness does not answer to the purpose for God’s creating humans and the entire universe—to be a theater of his heart-ravishing Triune beauty and glory!
Clearly, however, not all is well with our relationships. So we must see how our problems are relational.
2. Our problems are relational problems.
We can address this point briefly since there’s already an abundance of evidence, some of which we’ve already mentioned. It is a fact that we are relational creatures: it is also a fact that our problems tend to be relational as well. We hardly need to mine the Scriptures in support of this statement, because we find it on the very first pages. The moment Adam and Eve chose to sin, they fractured their relationship with God and their relationship with each other.
We feel these relational problems from every direction and at every stage of life. Even if you were born into the best family on earth, you were born into a flawed family. You inherited, perhaps, your mother’s stubbornness, your father’s quick temper, or your grandfather’s addictive tendencies. No wonder we speak of “original sin”! This intractable bent to self-centeredness can be traced back to the very first humans. “Sin entered the world,” the Apostle Paul writes, “through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12).
3. The solution to our problems is relational.
If our nature is relational, and our problems are relational, the solution must be relational as well. And this is exactly what we find in the Bible.
Our Savior is relational.
In Genesis 3:15, God hinted at a Savior who would not be disconnected from society but would be born into a human family, as the “seed of the woman.” This means that the Savior would be relational, and that was indeed the case with Jesus. He had a biological mother, step-father, aunts, uncles, cousins, and a community. The few details we have about his childhood show that he grew and developed relationally, increasing in wisdom, stature, and favor with God and man (Luke 2:52).
The ministry of Jesus was also relational. He began by gathering people around him, traveling with them, teaching them, dining with them, and praying with them. Even his moments of solitude for prayer, while necessary, were temporary.
Without a doubt, Jesus was the best friend anyone could ask for. If you had a burden on your mind, you could find no better listener than Jesus. If you had done wrong, felt guilty about it, and wanted to pour out your heart to someone, no one would strike a better balance between mercy and truth. Mothers of young children, who have a keen eye for good character, trusted Jesus to have their little children climb on his lap and be prayed over and blessed by him.
Even in his final hours of life, Jesus longed to be in the company of his disciples. He urged three of them—Peter, James and John—to accompany him farther into the Garden of Gethsemane to share with him his moments of agonized prayer.
And it was the relational aspect of Jesus’ suffering that he dreaded the most. Countless men and women had endured the pain of crucifixion, but this pain was nothing compared to the pain we can hear in his voice when he cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
It was not good for the Man to be alone, yet alone he was.
Our salvation is relational.
Jesus’ bore the worst possible relational suffering because he was providing a way for us to be reconciled with God—and with each other. For us, with our self-centered bent—us, with our tendency to turn others differences as a cause for fear, jealousy, and hatred—us, with our broken relationships—Jesus suffered, died, and rose again. He did so to unbend that destructive self-centeredness, to free us from the tyranny of sin.
Much of the New Testament is occupied with the relational effects of Jesus’ work, and once you begin seeing this, you cannot unsee it. It’s everywhere. The Apostle Paul expresses this idea when he writes:
in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.
“Killing the hostility”—that’s what Jesus did! Our salvation is a relational salvation.
Yes, the gospel is good news—not only for me in my relationship with God, but for us in our relationships with each other! By showing us that our greatest problem is our sin, and our greatest good is God, the gospel also teaches us that salvation is not to be found in my individuality, nor in our group as a whole, but in the grace of God who confers value both to the individual and to the group. With such a conviction, we can link arms with other believers, who, like ourselves, feel both our brokenness and the grace that God has freely provided through the work of Christ. By proving that God alone is our highest good, the gospel leaves no room for pride, and thus all the room for unity and love.
The Christian life is relational.
It naturally follows that our Christian life—that is, our practical outworking of salvation—must also be relational. “Welcome one another,” Paul writes, “as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” John warns that “if anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar.” After all, “he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (John 4:20). The application sections of our New Testament epistles often begin with appeals to Christian unity, as we find in Ephesians 4.
The relational aspect of sanctification is not only evident through the direct statements of the New Testament, which are numerous, but also from the very existence of the New Testament itself! The four gospels were written for the purpose of aiding churches, communities of Christians. Most of the epistles were also written to churches, and even the epistles addressed to individuals were mainly concerned with church or relational matters, such as the pastoral epistles and Paul’s letter to Philemon. It’s worth noting that the most common term used to refer to believers in the book of Acts is not “Christians,” “followers of Jesus,” or “believers,” but rather “brothers and sisters.”
As American Christians who daily inhale in the toxic atmosphere of radical individualism, this is a message we need to constantly bear in mind: “It is not good for the man to be alone” because, among other reasons, aloneness does not answer to the purpose for which God saved us—to enjoy a relational salvation, to glorify God with others, “that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 15:6).
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It is worth asking ourselves a couple questions as we consider how the relational aspect of our Christian life is being put into practice.
1. Do we feel our need for the physical presence of other believers? You may quickly answer “Yes,” but let me clarify. The issue is not whether or not you feel the need for friends and society in general. Many people come to church seeking for this, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. The question I’m asking is whether you feel the need for the presence of brothers and sisters in Christ because they are brothers and sisters in Christ. In other words, do you see that their words and presence may strengthen you in ways you cannot strengthen yourself? It is telling that the great Apostle Paul, when he wrote to the Christians in Rome, wanted to see them, not only so that he could impart to them some spiritual gift, but so that he could be strengthened by them. Paul did not say, “You need my encouragement, but what do I have to gain from you, who haven’t even read my great Book of Romans?” Perhaps we could say that the more we grow, the more we realize our dependence not only on Christ, but on Christ as he is communicated through our fellow Christians. It is not good for us to be alone.
2. Do we feel others’ need for our physical presence? It is one thing for us to realize that it is not good for me to be alone. Do we also believe that it is not good for others to be alone? It is naturally for us to consider the importance of Christian fellowship mostly from the perspective if “my” need. But do we see our presence as something that others need too? Paul makes this clear in 1 Corinthians 12, the chapter in which he compares the church to a body. No one member of the body can say about another member: “I don’t need you.” But neither can any member say about itself, “I’m not needed here.” Both ways of thinking fail to grasp all that God means to teach us by that simple, foundational statement: “It is not good for the man to be alone.”
We are relational creatures, and so naturally our problems are relational too. But, praise God, our salvation is a relational salvation! Through his work of redemption, Christ restores us to fellowship with God and with each other!