in: Advice, Character, Sunday Firesides

Sunday Firesides: Covenants Over Contracts

In the world of sports, when a star player leaves his team for another franchise, hometown fans often feel disappointed and indignant.    

Yet while we decry such displays of disloyalty in athletes, we tend to approach all of our own decisions — even those unrelated to business and career — with a similar free agent mentality.

The rabbi Jonathan Sacks argued that we can think of life’s commitments in two ways: as contracts or as covenants. Contracts, Sacks said, are transactional, while covenants are relational

With a contract, you agree to do X, as long as the other party does Y. If the other party doesn’t meet these expectations, or if a better offer or upgrade comes along, you jump ship. With a contract mindset, you extract the maximum value from an arrangement, and then move on.

With a covenant, you keep your commitment, even when the other party doesn’t seem to be living up to their end of the bargain, even when it isn’t convenient, even when you feel another arrangement would better meet your needs. 

It would seem that the contractual approach is by far the most rational, and it certainly makes sense to try to get the best deal when it comes to more economic exchanges.

But taking a covenantal approach to a marriage, a faith — even certain friendships, vocations, and communities — can actually offer a greater, if less obvious, value.

There are aspects of your character, dimensions of your heart, and parts of your mind, body, and spirit that can only be developed by making thick-and-thin commitments, by enduring in a relationship, by traveling the path of “irrational” fidelity. 

While always operating as a marketplace-minded mercenary can get you what you (think) you want, it ultimately leaves your soul untouched. As Sacks observed, while contracts may benefit, only covenants transform

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