Relationships: A Mess Worth Making
By Timothy S. Lane and Paul David Tripp
CBN.com – Your best friend is suddenly cool and distant. Your spouse can’t stop complaining about your bad habits. Your son refuses to talk to you. What are you supposed to do?
Plans A, B, and C might be to shut down, lash out, or get out. But consider Plan D: Recognize that God has the last word on those messy, conflict-ridden relationships. He can use them to make you into someone who can give and receive love—with God and others.
In their book, Relationships: A Mess Worth Making, authors Tim Lane and Paul Tripp explore the stubborn problems that plague many close relationships. They offer these eight observations to help readers understand relationships and how God uses them in our lives.
You were made for relationships.
This fact takes us back to the beginning. It asks the basic questions, “Who are we, and how important are our relationships?” In Genesis 2:18, God says that it is not good for man to be “alone.” God created us to be relational beings because he is a social God. God lives in community within the Trinity as Father, Son, and Spirit, and he made humanity in his image. Genesis 2 is not speaking primarily to Adam’s experience of being lonely as much as it is revealing his nature as the person God created him to be. Because God created a communal being – someone designed for relationships – creation is incomplete without a suitable companion. While Genesis 2 does address how male and female complement each other, the implications are broader to include all human relationships. In addition, the word “helper,” used here for Eve, speaks throughout scripture of the complementary nature of all human relationships. “Helper” is used primarily to describe a companion, not a fellow laborer.
The reason we know this is true is that the word “helper” is often used to describe God’s relationship with his people. When used this way, it does not refer to God as our coworker or employee, but God as our ultimate companion, who brings things to the relationship that we could not bring ourselves (Ps. 27:9; 33:20-22). So God is not addressing Adam’s workload but rather the fact that he is a social being who lacks a suitable companion. Just as human beings were created with a vertical need for God’s companionship, they are also created for the horizontal companionship of other people.
In some way, all relationships are difficult.
While the first fact is exciting, we still have to deal with reality. All of our relationships are less than perfect. They require work if they are going to thrive. Quickly on the euphoric heels of Genesis 2 comes Genesis 3, where the entrance of sin brings frustration and confusion into relationships. In Genesis 3, man and woman engage in accusation and slander. Genesis 4 gets even worse, with a man murdering his own brother.
While many of us have not committed murder, we still live on the continuum between murder, accusation, and blame. No wonder our relationships are so messy! Our struggle with sin is constantly revealed in them. If you want to enjoy any progress or blessing in your relationships, it will require you to admit your sin humbly and commit yourself to the work they require.
Each of us is tempted to make relationships the end rather than the means.
When we reflect on Genesis 1-3, it becomes clear that the primary relationship Adam and Eve were intended to enjoy was their relationship with God. This vertical communion with God would provide the foundation for the horizontal community they were to have with each other. Everything God made pointed Adam and Eve to the primacy of their relationship with him. All of creation was to function as an arrow pointing to God. But in our sin we tend to treat people and creation as more important. The very things God created to reveal his glory become instead the glory we desire. We settle for the satisfaction of human relationships when they were meant to point us to the perfect relational satisfaction found only with God. The irony is that when we reverse the order like this and elevate creation above Creator, we destroy the relationships God intended – and would have enabled – us to enjoy.
There are no secrets that guarantee problem-free relationships.
We all look for strategies or techniques that will free us from the pain of relationships and the hard work good relationships demand. We hope that better planning, more effective communication, clear role definitions, conflict resolution strategies, gender studies, and personality typing – to name just a few – will make the difference. There may be value in these things, but if they were all we needed, Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection would be unnecessary or, at best, redundant.
Skills and techniques appeal to us because they promise that relational problems can be fixed by tweaking our behavior without altering the bent of our hearts. But the Bible says something very different. It says that Christ is the only real hope for relationships because only he can dig deep enough to address the core motivations and desires of our hearts.
At some point you will wonder whether relationships are worth it.
At some point, each of us will become discouraged and disappointed with a relationship. The health and maturity of a relationship are not measured by an absence of problems, but by the way the inevitable problems are handled. Because human conflict is the result of the spiritual battles in our hearts, wise relationships always seek to be aware of that deeper struggle. Even in times of peace, you must be vigilant regarding the way your relationships can be hijacked by the underlying desires of your hearts, which are subtly and constantly shifting.
How do you deal with relational disappointments? Do you blame, deny, run away, avoid, threaten, and manipulate? Or do you speak the truth, exhibit patience, approach people gently, ask for and grant forgiveness, overlook minor offenses, encourage and honor others? Let’s admit that these questions touch us where we live from day to day. True Christian maturity does not get any more practical and concrete!
God keeps us in messy relationships for his redemptive purpose.
This sixth fact reminds us that the very thing we would naturally seek to avoid is what God has chosen to use to make us more like him! Have you ever wondered why God doesn’t just make your relationships better overnight? We often think that if God really cared for us, he would make our relationships easier. In reality, a difficult relationship is a mark of his love and care. We would prefer that God would just change the relationship, but he won’t be content until the relationship changes us too. This is how God created relationships to function.
What happens in the messiness of relationships is that our hearts are revealed, our weaknesses are exposed, and we start coming to the end of ourselves. Only when this happens do we reach out for the help God alone can provide.
While we would like to avoid the mess and enjoy deep and intimate community, God says that it is in the very process of working through the mess that intimacy is found.
The fact that our relationships work as well as they do is a sure sign of grace.
One of the biggest impediments we face in relationships is our spiritual blindness. We frequently do not see our sin, nor do we see the many ways in which God protects us and others from it. God constantly protects us from ourselves by restraining our sin. We are a lot like Elisha’s servant in 2 Kings 6:15-22. He was overwhelmed by the enemy army that surrounded him until God opened his eyes to see the far more formidable army of angels God had sent to protect him. Why was it that the servant could see only the enemies surrounding Israel but not “the hills full of horses and chariots of fire” from the Lord? It was the spiritual blindness of unbelief.
How do you measure your potential in relationships? Do you measure the size of the problems or the magnitude of God’s presence in your midst? Considering our sin, it is amazing that people get along at all! Each night, the evening news begins with a litany of murders, rapes, and robberies that suggest that your community is a very dangerous place. Yet it fails to cite the thousands of good things people do to make that same community livable. Our view of our relationships can be just as slanted. We tend to see sins, weaknesses, and failures rather than the good things God is accomplishing. If you look for God in your relationships, you will always find things to be thankful for.
Scripture offers a clear and attractive hope for our relationships.
Does the challenge and mess of relationships leave you discouraged? Does the biblical honesty about human community shock you? Are you feeling overwhelmed by the hard work relationships require? If so, you are ready for this last fact: The shattered relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at the cross provides the basis for our reconciliation. No other relationship ever suffered more than what Father, Son, and Holy Spirit endured when Jesus hung on the cross and cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus was willing to be the rejected Son so that our families would know reconciliation. Jesus was willing to become the forsaken friend so that we could have loving friendships. Jesus was willing to be the rejected Lord so that we could live in loving submission to one another. Jesus was willing to be the forsaken brother so that we could have godly relationships. Jesus was willing to be the crucified King so that our communities would experience peace. In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus brought reconciliation in two fundamental ways. Jesus reconciled us to God, which then becomes the foundation for the way he reconciles us to one another. When God reigns in our hearts, peace reigns in our relationships.
This work will only be complete in heaven, but there is much we can enjoy now. The New Testament offers hope that our relationships can be characterized by things like humility, gentleness, patience, edifying honesty, peace, forgiveness, compassion, and love. Isn’t it wonderful that God’s grace can make this possible even for sinners in a fallen world! This hope challenges whatever complacency and discouragement we might have about our relationships because there is always more growth, peace, and blessing that God’s grace can bring, even here on earth.
Purchase your copy of Relationships: A Mess Worth Making
Adapted from Relationships: A Mess Worth Making by Timothy S. Lane and Paul David Tripp. Used by permission of New Growth Press, Greensboro, North Carolina, http://www.newgrowthpress.com. Article provided courtesy of The B&B Media Group.