The Gospel turns most everything backwards. Of course we want good relationships. Who wouldn’t. Nothing wrong with that. Christianity is a relational religion. How often have you heard that Christianity is exactly that, a relationship with Jesus and His followers? It’s not a formula, not merely a set of principles to follow, not only a doctrinal creed to affirm. It’s all about relationships.
So, as devoted Christians we learn how to develop an intimate relationship with God, with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Spiritual disciplines open us into nearness with God. Memorizing Scripture can help. Church worship has an important place. It’s all about developing the relationship with God that we desire. And with friends, learning communication skills can foster satisfying closeness. The goal, as with the Trinity, is to draw near with spouse, children, friends, even to acquaintances.
And when we connect with a fellow human, we warmly refer to the other (especially a spouse) as our soul-mate. Soul-mate: an interesting term. Theologians tell us that our soul is the center of our relational nature. As souls, we bear the image of our three-person relational God. And then we go on to assume we’re soul mates when we like each other, when we enjoy similar activities, share common political and religious convictions, even tastes in music and food. Could our understanding of what it means to be a soul-mate be more shallow?
And things go along swimmingly well. Until they don’t. Couples fail to connect. Uncomfortable, sometimes angry distance is felt. Friendships splinter into tensions. Parents can’t seem to get through to their kids of any age, and the offspring seems poutily happy to offer cold shoulders to their frustrated mom and dad.
What then? Well, counseling. More disciplined communication skills. An inside look at insecurities that stir us to demand from others what they don’t give us. Patience is recommended. If counseling is Christian based, more attention is given to your center in Christ, your identity as a much beloved child. Live your identity. It might improve how things go for you. In all of it, the goal is the same: find a way to build a satisfying relationship.
But I don’t hear Paul telling me how to have a good marriage or a close relationship with my children or meaningful relationship with friends. And here’s where, rarely noticed, Christianity turns things backwards, introducing a great reversal:
Don’t try to develop a good relationship with someone. Rather, offer a good relationship to someone.
The difference is real. The point of Christianity is to follow Jesus by imitating Him when He says: “Come to me all who are weary, alone, disconnected from yourself and others. I will give you rest” Jesus woos us; He doesn’t impose Himself on us. He offers to be with us, Immanuel: God with us!
But we miss the point. We relate in order to receive from another what we want. Big mistake! Once again, subtle but very alive self-centeredness stains our efforts to relate: quid pro quo – I’ll do this. You do that. Deal?
We really have only two choices as we relate to each other in an effort to be the Christians we long to be. Either we:
socialize the flesh
release the Spirit
Biblically, the flesh is the energy of self-interest: I want something. Give it to me. I’ll manipulate, cajole, persuade, play nice, do whatever it takes to get from you what I wrongly believe is essential to my soul health. Christianity invites us to give up the goal of enjoying a relationship and to replace it with the goal of offering to be with someone, with no demand, only desire that they respond.
The Spirit of divine love is alive in the center of my soul. He longs to offer the riches of relationship to all who are thirsty for what they were created to enjoy. He can be grieved, quenched, even lonely. But still He comes to be with us.
When couples don’t connect (or when parents and children, and friends fail to connect), it’s time to remove ourselves from the power struggle, from any effort to win what you want from another. Instead, learn the art of WITHNESS:
- Insist that the other agree with the point you’re making. E.g. “Honey, don’t you see I’ve been trying to make as much time as I can to be with you?” Better: “help me see how I can let you know I want to be with you.”
- Counter-punch. “Look, I know I failed you, but you’ve failed me, too.” Better: “I’ve failed you. Tell me what that does to you so I know how best to ask your forgiveness.”
- listen: I’m all ears
- explore: tell me more
- discover: so that’s what you’re feeling
- touch: I want to be with you where you are, with no greater good than letting you know I am for you.
Offering withness: that’s the first thing. Second things, good relationships, might follow. But don’t let second things creep into first place. Search yourself to see only your failure and your opportunity. Indulge your Spirit-awakened thirst to love like Jesus, to realize how you don’t, and to then be with others as He is with you. Honor the GREAT REVERSAL.
- Don’t re-arrange your self-centered energy in order to smooth out bumps in your relationships.
- Do release the non-demanding invitation of sensitive, strong WITHNESS into another.
If the relationship never improves, you will still be in close fellowship with Jesus. You will know Kingdom joy in the midst of profound relational disappointment. Offer yourself as another’s soulmate. Then you will know the delight of fellowship with Jesus. That’s what He does.