Monday, February 26, 2007

Relationships: Can You Relate?

Have you ever wondered if the people around you deal with the things you do in your relationships? Have you ever wondered if other marriages deal with petty differences, or with the collision of differing agendas? Have you ever wondered if other parents struggle with resistant children and the impatience that greets you when it happens? Have you ever wondered if other people get in trouble with their neighbors or fall out of favor with a friend? Have you ever wondered if other people experience harmless conversations suddenly turning angry, or misunderstanding getting in the way of an otherwise productive friendship? Have you ever wondered if other people get as exhausted as you do with the mess of relationships? Have you ever wondered if other people say to themselves, "Christians; you can't live with them and you can't live without them?"

Well, you should find comfort as you read Scripture because the mess of relationships that we deal with everyday is on almost every page of the Bible. From Adam blaming Eve for his sin, to Cain murdering his brother out of jealousy. From Abram and Sarai colluding together for Abram to have sexual relations with the servant girl, to Rebekkah plotting with Jacob to deceive his father and get the blessing that his brother rightly deserved. From Saul's murderous jealousy of David, to David's murderous adultery with Bathsheba. From Delilah's seduction of Samson, to Eli's struggle with his wayward sons. From the inability of Solomon's sons to get along, to the grief of Hezekiah over his evil son Manasseh. From the competitiveness of the disciples for a place of honor in the kingdom, to tension between Mary and Martha as to how to best serve Jesus. From the rejection of Christ on the cross by his own Father, to the divisions that wracked the New Testament churches. The Bible puts before you account after account of people just like you dealing with the same things you do as you live as a sinner, with sinners, in this fallen world.

Why do we have these gritty stories in the Bible? Because God wants you to know that you are not alone in what you experience. And not only are you not alone, God wants you to know that you are not left to your own wisdom and your own strength. The One who is your wisdom and strength subjected himself to the harsh realities of relationships in a broken world so that he would be a sympathetic and understanding Helper in your time of relational need. But there is more. He was willing to face the ultimate in relational suffering, the rejection of his Father, so that you would not only have the hope of acceptance with God, but also the hope of real reconciled relationship with your neighbor. He purchased our peace with God and in so doing made peace between us possible as well.

What does all of this mean? It means you do not have to give way to discouragement, panic or hopelessness. No matter how frequent or complicated the mess is, there is hope. Not because some day you will discover the key to perfect relationships or meet the perfect person. But because Jesus did what we could not do, so that we would be able to experience what we could never experience if left to our own strength and wisdom.

So, don't passively accept the mess and don't run away when it comes. Determine to be an agent of hope, change, peace, and reconciliation. There is probably not a relationship in your life that could not be better in some way. Jesus makes that change and growth possible.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Relationships: Something Bigger

We were surprised. We simply didn't see it coming. We thought things were going well. We thought we'd built a good relationship. We thought that we'd been good neighbors. We lived in a twin house, with our landlady living in the attached home with her adult daughter. For reasons we couldn't understand, the daughter began to get mad at us. She would yell and curse at our children. She would play her stereo very loudly late at night, waking our children. She did everything she could to make our lives miserable. We didn't understand what was happening and everything we tried to do to make things better only made things worse.

Things came to a head on the Fourth of July. Months earlier she'd let us use a refrigerator that she wasn't using. Luella's parents were up for a visit and we'd gone out and bought more food than we'd normally have in the house. On a hot Friday afternoon we got a call from the landlady's daughter saying that she wanted her refrigerator back. We asked her why she needed it so suddenly and she told us that it was hers and she wanted it back in the garage by five o'clock. I couldn't believe it! What were we going to do with all the extra food that we'd bought? Why would she do this to us?

I was quietly angry all afternoon. I was tired of the tension. I was incensed at her meanness. And I rehearsed to myself over and over again what I'd like to say to her. Luella was making cinammon rolls and as I walked into the kitchen to check on her progress, she suggested that we send a plate of fresh, hot rolls over to our landlady's daughter. I thought, "Yea, right, that's exactly what I was thinking!" But Luella wasn't finished. She then suggested that I write a note telling our landlady's daughter how much we cared for her and how much we were committed to having a good relationship with her. I think it was the hardest letter I ever had to write.

In about forty-five minutes I found myself at our landlady's front door, praying for a dog (some of you will get that later). I knocked and our landlady came to the door. I gave her the cinammon rolls and she told me that after the way her daughter had treated us I must be some kind of nut doing such a thing. That afternoon we began to look for ways to do good anyway we could in the face of the evil way we were being treated.

For months we stayed committed to our love offensive, but with all of our noble efforts, nothing seemed to be changing. Then one Spring afternoon, there was a knock at our door. The moment I saw our landlady's daughter, I thought to myself, "What now?!" When I got nearer to the door and could see that she was upset, I was even more concerned about what may be coming next. She asked if she could come in and talk to us. Luella and I sat down with her at our dining room table and listened as she said these amazing words to us. "You both know that for months I've been a very angry person. It hasn't been directed just at you. I've been angry with everyone in my life. I've destroyed all of my relationships. I've alienated everyone in my life. The only two people in the world who I am sure love me are you and Luella. I'm here to ask for your forgiveness and to ask for your help. I want what's enabled you to respond to me as you have."

What is the point of the story? It surely isn't meant to highlight my character! I struggled to do what was right every day of those seemingly unending months. No, what the story points out is that in the messiness of our relationships, there's always something bigger going on. Our relationships are never just about us. They're never just about our plans, our purposes, and our happiness. They're never just about who we want to be around and what we'd like to offer or receive from those relationships. No, there's always something bigger going on because there's a God who is sovereign. He puts us right where he wants us and he never gets a wrong address! In our relationships he takes us where we don't want to go in order to produce in us and others what we couldn't achieve on our own.

In those difficult months with our landlady's daughter, God wasn't only working to rescue her, he was working to rearrange me. The tough relationship wasn't the result of God's forgetfulness. No, it was a clear sign of his love, for us and for our landlady's daughter. So as you live and relate to the people in your life, there's one thing that you need to remember. You'll never fully understand what's happening and you'll never do and say the right thing until you begin to recognize and accept that in every relationship in your life there's always something bigger going on.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Relationships: Why Can They Be So Scary?

Why are relationship struggles so disappointing? Why do the problems we have with other people affect us so powerfully? Why is relational disappointment one of the hardest disappointments for all of us to face? Let me suggest some reasons.

1. You were created to be a social being. You and I were never designed to live in isolation. We were not wired to be distant from and unaffected by the people around us. In fact, since we were created in God's likeness, desire for and participation in community is a fundamental part of our humanity. The God who made us in his likeness not only does community, he is a community! To deny this aspect of your daily life would literally be to deny your humanity. There would be something dramatically wrong with you if you removed yourself completely from other people. What this means is that the hurts of relationships cut deep. In a real way they touch the essence of who God made you to be, and because of this they are not to be taken lightly.

2. We all tend to enter our relationships with unrealistic expectations. Somehow, someway, we are able to swindle ourselves into thinking that we will be able to avoid the difficulties that attend any relationship in this broken world. In the early days of a relationship we work to convince ourselves that we are more righteous, and the other person more perfect, than we and they actually are. This causes us to be shocked when an unexpected but inevitable difficulty gets in the way of the bliss that we had convinced ourselves that we had finally found. Here is where the Bible is so helpful. It is very honest about the messiness and disappointment that everyone deals with in every relationship they have.

3. We all tend to seek to get identity from our relationships. What does this mean? It means that we tend to look for fundamental personal meaning, purpose and sense of well-being from other people. In doing this, we turn people into our own personal messiahs, seeking to get from them what no other human being is ever able to deliver. That other person is not supposed to be the thing that gets you up in the morning. They are not to be what makes life worth living for you. When they are in this place, you have given them too much power and you are asking of them something that no flawed human being can ever pull off. On the other hand, when you are getting your foundational sense of well-being from the Lord, you are then able to step into the inevitable messiness of relationships this side of heaven, and be neither anxious nor self-protective.

4. Whe tend to be disappointed in our relationships because they were more about the purposes of our little kingdoms of self than they were about the kingdom of God. Without being aware of it, our relationships are often about what we want out of our lives rather than what God wants for our lives. So we have an "I love you and have a wonderful plan for your life," approach to relationships with other people. Often we are disappointed with a relationship at the exact moment when God is producing through this relationship exactly what he wanted to produce. Our problem is that our agenda doesn't agree with God's!

So, there are reasons for our disappointments but there is grace for them as well. The God who will take us where we did not plan to go in order to produce in us what we could not achieve on our own, will also give us the grace to hang in there as he uses the messy disappointment of relationships to change and grow us and others.

Psalm 51: How to be Clean

There is simply no doubt about it, verse 10 is the epicenter of Psalm 51. It's the summary, the definition, the description of David's true need. Verse 10 proves that David gets it. It demonstrates that David understands how he's gotten himself into such a mess. It makes it clear that David knows what spiritual warfare is all about. It tells you that David has given up on the personal change agendas that focus on changes of situation, location, and relationship. It tells you that David knows that he needs something greater than corrected theology and pragmatically effective principles.

When David says, "Create in me a clean heart, O God," he's admitting the one thing we don't want to admit. He's confessing to the depth of his moral dilemma. He's looking at life God's way. He's saying, "I'm facing something that I can't free myself from. I'm dealing with something that I can't solve. I'm in the middle of something that I don't have the independent power to alleviate."

Here's the confession. Here's the plea. "God, my problem is that I've a fundamentally unclean heart. I bring this uncleanness to every situation, location, and relationship of my daily life. In some way, it influences all of my thoughts, desires, choices, words, and actions. Lord, I want to be clean because now I can see clearly the legacy of my uncleanness, but I'm not able to make my heart clean. God, I'm asking you to do what I can't do for myself. I'm asking you to create in my heart what isn't there; fundamental moral purity - a moral goodness of heart that will then shape all of my actions and reactions to life."

The word for create here is the same word that's used in Genesis 1. Why is this important? Because it tells you that David understands to whom he's talking. He's appealing to the One who's the Creator of all things to do exactly what he did as he spoke the physical universe into to being. He's asking the Redeemer to exercise the expansiveness of his creative power to create moral purity at the motivational core of his personhood, the heart. David is pleading for a miracle that's every bit as astounding as what's recorded in Genesis 1. He's asking God to create a moral universe in his heart that doesn't yet exist. And he's asking for this because he knows that unless he's the recipient of such a miracle, he'll never be what he's supposed to be or do what he's supposed to do.

David gets it. He gets that he desperately needs forgiveness, but he also understands that he needs something more. He gets that he needs to be recreated at the core of who he is as a person. His prayer for a "clean" heart is a prayer for deliverance from the moral pull and the vulnerability that's the functional danger of an unclean heart. In praying this way, David prays for all of us.

Why am I impatient? Because I have an unclean heart.

Why do I over-eat? Because I have an unclean heart.

Why do I say things that I shouldn't say? Because I have an unclean heart.

Why do I get angry at the people I say I love? Because I have an unclean heart.

Why do I desire things that God says are wrong? Because I have an unclean heart.

Why do I struggle to be content? Because I have an unclean heart.

Why am I not motivated by the glory of God? Because I have an unclean heart.

Why do I spend more than I should spend? Because I have an unclean heart.

Why do I doubt the goodness of God? Because I have an unclean heart.

Verse 10 is the "says it all" diagnosis of the moral struggle of all of us. So, isn't it wonderful that Jesus, the Messiah, was sent to earth so that we could be the recipients of the one thing that we could never provide for ourselves; a new heart? So, don't be discouraged and don't let yourself be defeated. There's help for us! There's hope for us! There's a Creator Redeemer who delights in exercising his power to create a moral cleanness in the hearts of needy people who seek it because they know that it can only be found in him.

Be humble enough to pray David's prayer, recognize your need of the same Creator cleansing, and watch what your Redeemer will do.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Relationships: Mercy in the Mess

We all dream of the perfect relationship. You know, the one that is free of disagreement, conflict, communication difficulties, power battles, anger and control. We can envision what it would be like. The problem is, none of us ever get what we were once able to imagine. When we wake up from our dreams, we all are greeted by the reality that all of our relationships live in the same location - the fallen world, and all of our relationships are with the same kind of person - an imperfect human being. (I will remind you again, you're one of those too!)

Now you just have to ask why God would choose to subject us to such difficulty and disappointment. Is there meaning in the mess? Is there mercy in the mess? Maybe right now you are facing things in one of your relationships you never imagined you would face. Maybe right now you are dealing with such deep hurt and disappointment that you simply don't know what to do. Have you wondered what in the world God is doing? Have you been tempted to doubt his goodness and question his love?

Here are some things to remember:

1. God never gets a wrong address. Acts 17 tells us that God determines the exact place where we will live and the exact length of our lives. Your life is not out of control. What you are facing is not the result of God forgetting you. No, God hasn't turned his back on the promises he made to you. I know it's hard to grasp, but what you're facing is the result of God being faithful to his promises to you.

2. God is in the middle of the mess with you. Psalm 46 tells us that "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble." If you are God's child, you have never been in a location all by yourself. If you are God's child, you have never been in a relationship all by yourself. You have never endured difficulty in isolation. Why? Because God is always with you and he is there so that you would have a place to run ("refuge") and help in your moments of greatest discouragement and weakness ("strength").

3. God is up to something good in the mess. Here's the mistake we make in the way we attempt to make sense out of lives. We think that the mess is a sure sign that God is not working in our lives, because if he were at work, we wouldn't be in such a mess. The Bible tells us something completely different. It tells us that because God loves us so, he is not satisfied with us as we are. He looks down at us and sees many areas where change and growth are needed. He couldn't love us and be willing to leave us in our immaturity and weakness. So, God takes us where we do not want to go in order to produce in us what we could not achieve on our own - character. And how does he do this? He uses the difficult experiences of life to expose and change our hearts. One of his main tools is our relationships. These messy relationships expose our hearts, bring us to the end of ourselves and cause us to reach out for the help that only Jesus can give us.

I know it is hard to face the hurt and disaapointment of a relationship gone bad. But there is hope. You are never alone. The One who is with you is up to something very good and because he is, there really is mercy to be found right smack dab in the middle of the mess!

Monday, February 05, 2007

Relationships: Gaining Ground

Be honest with yourself. You've been disappointed in some way with every relationship you've ever had. It's the universal experience of everyone this side of destiny. No, it's not that you've met the wrong people or that you lack relational skills. It's that every relationship you've had, you've had in a fallen world. You never get to hang out with perfect people. You never get to have those perfect relationships in a perfect location and with perfect circumstances surrounding you. No, all of your relationships are with flawed people in a flawed world. And don't forget, you're one of those flawed people as well! So how can you gain ground? How can your relationships become better than they are right now? Let me suggest four ways.

1. Determine to be realistic. I love how shockingly honest the Bible is. It's a book that really doesn't pull any punches. You see, what damages our relationships is not having a realistic acceptance of our own weaknesses and struggles. What damages our relationships is our delusions of perfection and strength! The first step in any kind of change is admitting that change is needed in the first place.

2. Determine to be honest. One of the things that gets in the way of healthy relationships is silence. Maybe our problem is that we simply don't love one another enough to have the hard conversations that are what good relationships are all about. If you are in a relationship with a flawed person, you will be touched by those flaws. Maybe it will come as an unkind word, an act of selfishness, or an outburst of irritation. Quick and loving honesty in those moments can keep a relationship from being distorted by bad habits and subverted by bitterness.

3. Determine to focus on yourself. No, I am not counseling you to be selfish, I am encouraging you to be humble. Good relationships are the result of both people being committed to personal change and growth. Self-examination is a key way you demonstrate love for the other person. It is very easy to be all-too-satisfied with yourself, while being irritated and impatient with the weaknesses of another. When you have two people who are committed to heart change, the relationship will change and grow as well.

4. Determine to live and give hope. There is a reason you don't have to settle for the relational status quo. There is a reason you don't have to panic. There is a reason you don't have to pack your bags and give up. The cross of Jesus Christ is the epicenter of hope of every relationship. Jesus was willing to face the ultimate in suffering, the rejection of his Father, so that we could experience reconciliation with him and with one another. No, you don't have what it takes to make you and the other person do the right thing, but he does! He is the Prince of Peace and he is able to bring lasting peace to where conflict once reigned. How does he do this? By doing the one thing we can't do for ourselves! He changes our hearts, and the result is radical change in our words and our actions. Look for ways to point the other person to this hope as well.

So be determined. Don't settle for way less than what Jesus suffered and died to give you. Be honest about your relationships and be hopeful about change. You can do both, because in Jesus Christ you really do have everything you need to live in peace with God and the people he has placed in your life.