Several years ago I came across a fascinating study of childhood development that has significantly affected how I understand human life. In this study, one group of children was born in prison and raised in harsh, even unhygienic conditions, but they were raised by their mothers. The other group of children was raised without their mothers but by trained nurses in well-equipped, hygienically impeccable institutions. The result of the study was shocking. In regard to the children’s overall well-being, in terms of mental and physical health, the children raised in prison were far better off (Pieper, 175). It was not that the nurses did not care for the children raised in affluence. They provided food and warmth and safety. But they did not provide the kind of love that says, “It is so good that you exist! I am so glad that you exist!”
“Milk” refers to the basic necessities of life: food, water, shelter, clothing, and so on. “Honey” symbolizes the sweetness of life and the happiness of existing. Love means communicating to a person, “How good it is that you exist!” The children raised in the institutions never heard those words. They were provided with the “milk” but not the “honey.” The need to hear these words is not only true for children but true for all people. We need more than our basic needs met. We need people in our lives who also provide the honey. In fact, Italian educator Maria Montessori wrote in her last book, “The whole secret [in education] lies in two words: milk and honey” (Montessori).
“How Good It Is That You Exist!”
Early Christians began to build their communities around a certain kind of love. These first Christians used one of the Greek words for love, agape, to explain the kind of love that is willing to sacrifice for the good of others. According to author David Bentley Hart, it was the agape love demonstrated by Christians in the midst of the dark and violent Roman Empire that was the secret of the growth of the church. The early Christians, for example, spoke out against the practice of exposure, in which unwanted infants were left on the side of the road to die. It was common in the Roman Empire. Life was cheap. Christians not only spoke out against exposure, they responded to it by rescuing these infants and raising them in their homes.
In so doing these Christians were not merely willing the good of these infants by taking them in. That would certainly be the milk. The actions of these Christians also spoke to these children, “How good it is that you exist,” which is the honey. Yes, we all need the milk in life to survive, but it seems that we need the honey in order to thrive. Perhaps this honey is the secret ingredient needed not only in relationships but in our institutions as well. While both Christians and non-Christians are capable of communicating “I am so glad you exist” to one another, Christians have an added reason for this posture toward one another: the love between members of the Trinity.
The Trinity: The First Community of Love
The doctrine of the Trinity is a great mystery, one too large for our minds to fully grasp. Yet from what we can understand, the Trinity teaches us an important truth: the members of it love one another. Love requires persons. Love as a concept, a warm feeling, or an attractional feeling is of no value. Love happens when two persons serve one another (and will what’s good for the other) and communicate to one another, “It is so good that you exist.” People ask, “What was the Trinity doing before the world was made?” The only answer is “enjoying each other.” The Trinity did, in fact, create the world, and God said at each act of creation, “It is good.” Then God made humans and declared, “It is very good.”
Humans—the ones who were declared very good—rebelled from God, rejecting God’s plan for them in favor of their own. We refer to this as the fall. Humans have been rejecting God ever since. But God, in Christ, emptied himself of his power and became human, weak, and vulnerable, in order to be lifted up on the cross so as to draw all people back to God. Jesus was not reconciling God to the world, as if God needed to be changed. Jesus was reconciling the world to God because we are the ones who need to be reminded of God’s steadfast love. The Christian story is a divine rescue mission driven by love. So in both our being created and in our being reconciled, God is saying to all people, “It is so good that you exist!”
Christian Communities of Milk and Honey
In the catchy chorus of the opening song for the television show Cheers we hear these words:
Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
And they’re always glad you came;
You want to be where you can see,
Our troubles are all the same;
You want to be where everybody knows your name.
I think those words sum up the human longing: we want to be with people who know our name—but even more so—are also glad you came. In other words, “Are you glad that you exist.”
Studies have shown that if a person attending a church has not made at least one significant relationship within the first six months, they will leave. I often hear people say (of a church they attended for a while), “No one ever spoke to me so that I felt they were glad I was there.” For many years a man named Glen was a greeter at my church. Every Sunday, Glen would open the door and greet me as if he was so glad I had come. His eyes and his face alone spoke those words. In those days our church grew exponentially, and while I cannot prove it, I think Glen had a lot to do with it.
Too often we focus on the performance aspect of worship: “Is the preaching good?” “Is the praise team excellent?” We get lulled into thinking the people who go to church want a good show. While that may be true for some, it is not true for me. I want to go to a place that tells the Christian story through the Word, song, and sacrament. But I will not stay in a church if I do not make connections with people who offer the honey. I need to know that I am with people who believe it is so good that I exist. I don’t need spell-binding preaching and high-performance music. I need the honey found in our story and made flesh in the people around me.
Milk and Honey in Christian Education
As a college professor, I am well aware of the importance of milk and honey in education. Many of our undergraduate students cite community as the best part of their education. At first I was disappointed that they did not say things like, “The professors are brilliant” or “the course content is fantastic.” I will assume they think that as well! But I have come to believe that those things alone are merely the milk, and without the honey found in community, they will not transform us. As an educator, I try to make sure that I am communicating both the milk and the honey. I try to do this in the classroom through my interactions with students. I learn their names. I try to make them feel safe, and I invite them to tell their stories. I sit with them in the cafeteria and invite them to our home for meals and cookouts.
I also try to create opportunities for them to offer the honey to one another. At least once per semester I have them stand and, as we say in church, offer the peace to one another. Instead of saying, “Peace be with you” as they shake hands or hug, I have them say, “I am so glad that you exist.” They absolutely love this spiritual practice. When everyone has greeted one another with those words, I invite them to sit back down in their chairs. Every time I have done this, I scan the classroom. All I see are smiling faces. Everyone knows their name. Everyone is glad they came. We need more than just the milk. We also need the honey.
Pieper, Josef. Faith, Hope, Love. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986.
Montessori, Maria. On the Education of Man. Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson, 1966.
James Bryan Smith is the author of ten books, including The Good and Beautiful God. He is a professor of Christian spiritual formation at Friends University in Wichita, Kansas, and is the director of the Apprentice Institute. For information about the undergraduate and graduate programs in discipleship and formation that Dr. Smith oversees, visit apprenticeinstitute.org.