God gives us relationships for our maturity. Paul’s exhortation in Ephesians 4:1-3 is to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” It is not that we must create community. God has already secured that in Christ and called us into the “unity of the Spirit.” We must walk in that calling by “making every effort to maintain” that unity.
I tell my two boys how blessed they are that God put them in the same family. They get to live in the same house, share their things, go on vacations together … they could be the best of friends! I am usually giving this speech because they have been fighting. They compete, argue, bother each other, and all the things siblings tend to do. It’s not the reality of their unity that is broken. They are brothers, like it or not. Rather, it is how they walk in that unity that is broken. As parents, we address their issues because we love them and want to help them learn and grow. In the same way, God has brought us into His family, but we have to walk in it. When we struggle, he lovingly corrects and disciplines us so that we might learn and grow.
The rest of Ephesians 4 and 5, which deals with a host of relational dynamics (spiritual gifts, words, lying, anger, stealing, bitterness, forgiveness, family and work relationships, etc.), shows us how our maturation process is intimately tied to relationships. God has designed us such that we can’t grow on our own.
We face several challenges on this front. First, our culture exalts independence, and we buy into the dream. On top of that, some of us have tried relationships and been burned. So our tendency, especially when things get hard, is to withdraw and isolate from community. We may be outgoing and do lots of things with people, but our relationships stay on the surface.
How do you know if you are prone to isolate? Here are some indicators:
- You pride yourself in your ability to deal with your own problems and challenges without help from others. You do not receive help graciously.
- You may be thought of as a good Christian, but privately you are cultivating a secret life.
- Very few people have access to your life. You might disclose things to people, but only what you want them to know. You do not want them to dig deeper, or to correct you. You are afraid that if people knew the real you, they would reject you.
- You avoid conflict. If people offend you or hurt your feelings, you don’t say anything. You just check out. When something feels awkward, you usually decide not to bring it up.
Isolation is a sign of immaturity. God puts people into your life, like it or not, to bring you to maturity. We tend to think that if a relationship is difficult, something is wrong. But if this is part of God’s redemptive plan, then tension and difficulty in relationships is actually a mark of God’s love.
Are there people you are avoiding right now? How are you self-protecting in your relationships? Repentance in this situation involves going to that person and confessing your pride and/or fear that has caused you to withdraw. Faith in this situation means trusting that moving toward people is God’s way of growing you up in Christ.
Relationships are both a diagnosis and a cure. For instance, in vs. 2 Paul outlines the kind of character required for deep friendships— humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance, and love. My failure in relationships exposes my immaturity in these areas. At the same time, God intends to bring me to maturity in these areas through relationships. A closer look at the list is helpful:
- Humility means you can receive whatever may come to you from others or from God without getting defensive and angry. There are situations right now that you know you are in the wrong, but you are too proud to admit it. You want to put your best foot forward and be impressive, but God opposes the proud. He will frustrate our relationships until we learn to lay down our pride and defensiveness and walk in humility with others.
- Gentleness is a mild disposition. It is the opposite of selfish ambition. It means you don’t try to manipulate and control others, but you trust in God’s goodness and control over every situation. Some people’s relationships always have tension and discord because they are abrasive, irritable, short tempered, demanding, or argumentative … not gentle. If you are this way, it is probably because you are preoccupied with self-interest, and therefore angry with all the ways people are messing up your plans. God’s aim is to gentle you so that you learn to put other’s interests above your own. You can’t learn that in isolation.
- Patience is a kind of strength in trial. It means you don’t cave or bail when the heat is turned up in your relationships. You are longsuffering with people. You don’t retaliate when people hurt you.
- Bearing with one another is an extension of all these. It has to do with holding others up, supporting them. It means you are genuinely committed to people, and willing to sacrifice for their good.
- In love denotes brotherly affection. It is worth asking the question: “Why would I have brotherly affection for people I didn’t choose?” The answer is that we are looking at Jesus. We love him, and our affection for him produces mutual affection for one another.
When I look at this list, I can see all the ways that I am not humble, not gentle, not patient, how I do not bear with people in love. I do not make every effort to preserve unity. Rather than becoming overwhelmed or committed to simply do better, my failure in relationships points me to Christ: He was humble to the point of death on a cross. He was gentle like a lamb being led to slaughter. He is patient, not willing that any should perish. He bears with those who provoke and persecute him, and gives up his very life for their good. His love abounds, and covers a multitude of sins. He makes every effort to preserve our unity. He is the head of the body, the church.
The only way I will be able to do the hard work of relationships is if I am captivated by the excruciating work that Jesus has done to make relationships possible. That kind of love stirs my heart and compels me to action.