If human beings were morally perfect, I would not be writing this article. But alas the tendency to destroy our relationships lies deep within us like a cancerous tumor. So the solution is easy, right? We simply find the right scalpel and cut out the tumor so that we can always treat people with love, kindness, patience, gentleness, and forgiveness. And once their tumors are likewise removed, they also will treat us lovingly.
But where do we find such a moral blade? And what surgeon’s skillful hand can use it to remove the entire tumor so that we can finally move out amongst our fearful families and friends with a huge sigh of relief—from them and ourselves—because the threat of evil has passed. Finally, they will never again experience our anger, feel our trying to control them, or worry about the discomfort of our insecurities and theirs.
Certainly God is the surgeon, the truth of the Bible is the scalpel, and God’s Spirit working within us is the hand that removes the tumor of our evil and leaves us with only moral purity with which to treat Him and others. This is the heart of the gospel, the good news that God is rescuing us through Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection from His condemnation and our evil. The promise of this salvation is not just that God the Judge will forego sentencing us to eternal punishment, but that God the Creator will also re-create us, turning us into morally perfect beings who will always love Him and others. But our re-creation will be complete only in the next life, after the arduous experience of this life has past.
So what do we do in the meantime? Do we have any hope for our relationships now? In this life, can we ever expect to succeed at loving people and having them love us without the relationship being a sham—a good show for God, for ourselves, for other people—while deep inside we ache from the disappointment of missed expectations and the frustration of unfulfilled desires? Yes, but building successful relationships requires making the strenuous choices that come from being “caught in the middle.” As Christians, we live between the abject rebellion against God that characterized us before we became Christians and the moral perfection that awaits us in heaven. And while the “middle” place is better than our non-Christian state, being there can still discourage us when we compare it to what we know God has prepared for us in eternity.
God has changed our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 11:19; Romans 2:29). Our fundamental desire is no longer to rebel against Him but to obey Him. And the Spirit of God is acting within us, moving us progressively into gaining a greater understanding of God and into aspiring to make choices that reflect His perfect moral character. But we are still caught in the middle. We may try techniques that we hope will tame the evil we sense within, but this evil flairs up on occasion, even if only within our own psyches and emotions. If permitted to run amuck, our evil would alienate us from everyone.
In addition, we carry hurt within us, some of which has been with us for a long, long time. We continue to bear (and sometimes bury) emotions we experienced as a child whenever we were rejected, mistreated, or validly disappointed. Each hurt becomes a brick in the fortress we build to guard our hearts and minds. We want to love people. We want to have successful relationships. But we feel compelled to protect ourselves from more hurt. And we never do. Each disappointment adds to the hurt already there, and we find it darn hard to set the hurt aside and just keep loving others in spite of it. This means that even our good relationships are not as successful as we would like.
So what do we do? What can we do? If we are Christians, people whom the transcendent God of the universe has changed and continues to transform, we can and must come to grips with the truth and make every effort by means of God’s grace to make our relationships as successful as possible.
First, we must understand the truth that God is the creator of all reality and that we would experience nothing if He were not bringing about all our circumstances according to His eternal plans and purposes. Once we recognize this and our hearts and minds submit to it, we can relax (at least a little bit), knowing that our state of affairs is no surprise to God and that He ultimately will cause it to be of great and eternal value to both Him and us.
Second, we must understand that we are changed people, and therefore, while we are not yet morally perfect, neither are we compelled always to follow the evil that still plagues us. God has never guaranteed that this side of eternity we can keep from doing wrong, but the mere fact that He has changed us should lead us to commit ourselves to treating people well as often as God’s grace permits us. Our moral responsibility as Christians is to do whatever it takes, no matter how difficult, to choose to make good choices. We may even find that we can overcome certain behaviors that have beleaguered us, while other behaviors will remain problematic. But even our failures result in God’s glory, as we continue to seek God’s mercy, recognizing our failures as evil and not excusing them because we cannot presently overcome them.
Third, certain qualities must be our quest as we work out difficult relationships. We must approach people calmly. If we know that God is the sovereign creator of all reality, then we can trust that whatever we are currently experiencing in our relationships with others is exactly what He has planned and purposed for this moment. We need not panic. Nor should we be afraid or despair. Just as God has promised always to be with us, He has also promised that He will cause every circumstance we encounter in life to be eternally valuable for Him and for us (Romans 8:28-30).
We also must approach people honestly and openly. Successful relationships require clear, honest, and open communication. We must express what we feel and think, especially how the person’s actions have hurt us. That being said, we must also figure out (as best we can) how the cumulative hurt from our past relationships is contributing to the pain we feel in the midst of the present one; otherwise, we may ascribe more liability than we should to the current situation. So calm, honest communication is the only path to a successful relationship. If we panic or become angry or deceive or fail to distinguish between past and present pain, the result will be further alienation in the relationship.
Then, as communication happens, we must be willing to look at ourselves and acknowledge all we have done wrong in a relationship. We must be willing to consider that our behavior has hurt the other person more than that person’s behavior has hurt us. This is the log each of us should remove from his own eye before attempting to remove the speck from someone else’s (Matthew 7:1-5). But admitting our own failure is what makes relationships so hard because it involves our pride. And we are all proud; even if we look humble, our humility can be merely a socially acceptable mask. Nevertheless, if God has truly forgiven us through Jesus Christ for all our evil, and if we fully grasp this truth, then hiding from anything—especially from our wrong that hurts others—is a contradiction in terms. The Bible makes this very point regarding authentic Christianity. God, through the work of his Spirit, guides genuine Christians to acknowledge and admit their evil (I John 1:9). The admission is not always easy, but it does follow from being a person whose heart God has changed. People whom God has changed become willing over time to confront their wrongdoing boldly and to deal with it before God and others.
And finally, we must be patient. Patience is a foundational quality for working out a problematic relationship. No one likes pain. When we begin to hurt, our natural tendency is to do whatever we can to eliminate the hurt as quickly as possible. But if we can trust God, then we can calmly experience the pain and watch and wait for how He takes us through it. Notice I say through it. The pain may never go away because we cannot control other people’s choices. (God knows, I try to sometimes and want to other times, even when I know this controlling behavior is wrong.) Only God can control other people’s choices. So what if other people never choose to do what we want? What if they care little, if nothing, for us? What if they do not acknowledge their evil, are not open and honest, and do not want to do what is right? What if they are wrapped so tightly in their own pain that they refuse to empathize with ours? What if they could not care less about changing their behavior but simply want us to change ours? Or what if they just want to get away from us, with the result that we are rejected and hurt again. What has God called us to do? Remain calm, open, honest, forthright, and patient while we trust that He is creating our circumstances to His glory, according to His eternal plans and purposes. He will move people to make the choices He wants and not a moment before or after He chooses.
We must remember we are all in process. And God also controls how quickly the process takes place. Therefore we need not only to allow people to be in process but also to trust God for the speed with which the process takes place. People go through a process of becoming Christians by the work of the Spirit of God. People continue to be in process as God motivates them to gain more understanding of Him through the Bible and to pursue obedience to Him according to their understanding. And in the charged atmosphere of working out a difficult relationship, God determines how quickly a person will choose to remain calm, to be open, to acknowledge his wrongdoing, to care about us, and to be patient with us. Everyone—Christian and non-Christian—has a moral responsibility to be calm and open and communicative and patient in relationships, but we are talking about people. If they are Christians, caught between dismal rebellion against God and the future certainty of moral perfection, they are going to handle difficult relational circumstances at the pace our sovereign God chooses to work within them. If they are non-Christians, they have rejected God and may not value striving for successful relationships. We cannot expect Christians or non-Christians NOT to hurt us, which is all the more reason to be patient with all of them.
But what if the pain is just too great for us to pursue a relationship with someone who has hurt us, continues to hurt us, and most likely will not stop hurting us? How long, O Lord? How long must we be patient with such a person? Until it is wise and loving not to. And each person must work this out before God. We are challenged by the Bible, however, which encourages us to endure the temporal sufferings of our sin and that of others as a means of sharing in the temporal sufferings of our Lord and Savior, Jesus of Nazareth, who was rejected by sinful men and died on a cross in order that God might grant us eternal life (Romans 8:15-27). We cannot use the excuse, “But God wants us to be happy.” No, God wants us to be joyful in the light of His mercy and grace, even in the midst of longsuffering through pain.
So how long, really? Each person must be as certain as possible in his own conscience that he is being obedient to God. As Jesus implied, to love people who love us is easy, but to love people who do not love us is difficult (Matthew 5:43-48). Even non-Christians love those who love them. Christians, however, are to be different; they must love those who are hard to love—just as God causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and just as He has been merciful to us.
As we endeavor to do all that is necessary to achieve a successful relationship with another person, sometimes having a third person come along side us can be helpful. Someone more experienced by having gone through the process can wisely guide us, offer encouragement, and remind us of the hard work good relationships take. We all need reminding that truth, calmness, openness, honesty, communication, candid self-examination, repentance of evil, trust in a sovereign God, and patience towards the process are the basis for any relationship that emulates God’s love and mercy toward us and that can last while we await the moment when God brings an end to this earth—and makes this article obsolete.