For the earth bears fruit: first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. ~Mark 4:28, WEB.

A Growth Process

We do not progress immediately from being strangers to being intimate friends with anyone. Like the grain in Jesus’ parable, relationships grow through a series of stages, or levels—seven, in this case. As in the growth of a plant, the progress of a relationship is a continuous process. Although described in discrete stages or steps, the experience moves seamlessly from one stage to another. Unlike the growth of a plant, sometimes the growth reverses and the relationship reverts to an earlier stage, perhaps permanently, perhaps not. And, of course, relationships can stop progressing…can remain static. Still, it is useful to understand the process, and especially to recognize when a relationship is balanced. Or not.

Level 1: Surface
nodding acquaintance

Upon first meeting, we enter the “Surface” level. Surface relationships begin every day. You may have a surface relationship with the driver in the next lane, or the person in line ahead of you at the grocer’s. You need not ever have met them before, nor ever see them again. At this level, we exchange pleasantries: the time of day, the weather, etc., or simply formal or informal expressions of recognition. At this level, we reveal only the most superficial things to others. We recognize that the expression, “I wouldn’t give him the time of day!” refers to the surface level relationship. Time of day, weather, the smallest of small talk typifies the sort of information we exchange with people we’ve barely met. At the surface level we remain virtual strangers. Whatever a saving relationship with Jesus means, it has to include more than just this.

The atheist Voltaire once halted a conversation as a religious parade passed. “I thought you did not accept God,” his companion said. “I don’t,” Voltaire replied, “but we always nod when we meet.” A “nodding acquaintance” aptly describes surface level relationships. In the New Testament, demons repeatedly recognized and greeted Jesus. In  Matthew 7, those who cry, “Lord, Lord,” are lost.

A saving relationship, as we have seen in earlier posts, is one of deep trust. A nodding acquaintance requires no trust at all. And clearly, if even demons have a surface relationship with Jesus, it is far from a saving relationship. But every relationship must begin here. We cannot trust someone whose existence we do not recognize or acknowledge. People say they “trust to luck,” but that’s not trusting someone; it’s gambling on impersonal forces and the laws of probability. That would make salvation a roll of the dice. Trusting a person is something else, something more.

Level 2: Facts and Reports
knowing about

A little longer in the line at the grocer’s, or the ticket counter at the airport, and friendship may grow, we may begin exchanging the news, what’s happening in the world, even personal but not private information. Things like name, occupation, marital status, children—sort of like census data. Again, personal but not private information. This is the “knowing about” stage.

We see this illustrated when Jesus spoke at the synagogue service in his hometown of Nazareth. His neighbors knew all about Him. “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother called Mary, and his brothers James, Joses, Simon, and Judas? Aren’t all of his sisters with us?” (Matt. 13:55, 56). Clearly, they knew who he was and knew many of the public facts concerning him, but this did not constitute a trusting relationship. On the contrary, “They took offense at him.” In fact, they tried to kill him. It’s easy to know all about someone, much more difficult to know that person. Possession of facts and reports about someone doesn’t constitute a friendship; after all, we even require prisoners of war to give name, rank, and serial number.

Level 3: Opinions and Judgments
our true selves

At this level we begin to reveal our true selves—not just facts about us, but what we like and dislike, our preferences, how our mind works. Only at this level do we begin to know enough to say we actually like the other person, whether we share values and whether or not we wish to continue the relationship. Our beliefs come in at this level. We may believe—both an opinion and a judgment—that Jesus is the Son of God. But neither opinions nor judgments represent a saving relationship.

Sharing opinions and judgments represents a deeper level of relationship than merely sharing the time of day or the weather forecast, but it indicates little in the way of trust. God has expressed his opinion of us in many ways. He said, “I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the LORD, thoughts of peace, and not of evil” (Jer. 29:11). And also “Yes, I have loved you with an everlasting love” (Jer. 31:3).

God invites us to form an opinion of Him: “Taste and see,” the Psalmist tells us (Psa. 34:8), expressing an opinion and a judgment, “the LORD is good.”

The Pharisees received Jesus’ judgments, but they rejected Him. And they judged him in return. Angry people using God’s name in vain have ignorantly engaged God at the level of opinions and judgments. But that does not constitute a saving relationship. As James the apostle tells us, “Even the demons believe that—and shudder” (James 2:19). In the Bible, the man usually called “the rich young ruler” (Matt 19:16-21; Luke 18:18-23) described Jesus as “Good.” He had a positive opinion of Jesus. But when Jesus answered his question about what he must do to be perfect, he went away sorrowing. Level 3 represents progress, but for a relationship that will stand the test of time and eternity, we must move deeper.

Read other posts from this series on Adventist Identity.