“I have now come to believe that building and cultivating relationships is the most significant thing I will ever do on earth…” 

This is one of the closing statements from my book Wisdom Chaser. When I wrote the statement some  years ago I wasn’t fully confident of its merit. I am today. All the important things in life seem to fit into the three primary relationships we are inescapably a part of: God, self, and others. Today I want to talk about our relationships with others—community—in particular just how our relationships with others are critical in the transformation of our human personality and the growth of the soul.

I believe we are currently embedded in a relationally disordered society. Over the last 50 years we’ve seen a consistent rise in negative relational markers: depression, suicide, isolation, divorce, and church splits to only name a few. We are an increasingly transient society where multiple changes in location, job, and church are a normal part of our lives. Of course, technology allows a way for us to connect with others as never before, but this doesn’t seem to be a valid substitute for in- person communication, as statistically we’re lonelier than ever before1. Ultimately, I think we are missing the essential skills to develop and maintain close personal relationships. It is almost the norm for adults in our society to lack significant friendships. This potentially has significant implications for our spiritual lives and religious communities.

It doesn’t help matters that many of us live as victims to unrealistic expectations of just what relationships can be. We primarily learn about social relationships through what we see, hear, and experience. At this particular junction in the existence of humanity, a great deal of our interactions with the “other” is through the medium of entertainment in its various forms: print, film, social media, music, and the onslaught of advertisements that accompany these instruments of socialization. It is certainly worth examining, at least within ourselves, the effects of the potentially dominant voice teaching us about the human experience. How we interact with others is not always fully grounded in reality. These portrayals of just how marriage, family, parenting, friends, and work ought to be, seldom represent the entire range of what actually occurs. So many are left feeling like outsiders to the perceived tenderness and goodness that others experience. It’s the student who tearfully accounted to me how uninteresting and unfulfilling her life was compared to all of her friends on Facebook. It’s the father of four who doesn’t understand why parenting and marriage remains a constant struggle. It’s the grandparents feeling ignored and a burden to the family they devoted their entire life to. The social learning of our age forges in us an unrealistic view of the world. Our unrealistic expectations only feed our isolation.

God designed humans to need each other. Some creatures can live isolated, but humans cannot. Feed and shelter a baby but withhold human touch and it will die. Leave a person in solitary confinement and they will go mad. Both the old and new testament are full of examples of God’s desire and insistence on us being in right relationships with each other. (See Hebrews 10:24-25, Psalms 133:1, Romans 12:1-5, 1Corinthians 1:10.) Jesus was very concerned with how we treat each other, reserving his harsh words for those who mistreat others (Ephesians 4:31-32, Romans 12:18-20). The central commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself” stresses the utmost importance of taking care of one another. Jesus likes humans coming together so much that he even suggests he’ll join us if only a few gather for the purpose of seeking him (Matthew 18:20).

God is largely a mystery to us, but it’s clear that he is relational. It’s not just his interest in having intimate contact and connection with the creatures he fashioned into being, but relationship is at the very heart of the Trinity. What a beautiful interchange, mutually subservient, each giving way to the other. I wonder what it would look like if we modeled our relational exchanges after the Trinity? Sounds a lot like Romans 12:10: “Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.”

Yet our brokenness as humans is no more evident than in the way in which we treat one another. “What can I get from you?” motivates so many of our exchanges. We not only accept self-centered motives, but we’ve come to expect them, at least in part, from almost everyone.

The objectification of each other is nearly a national pastime. Look at the way we talk about celebrities, or the cutting comments you’ll find below online news and videos. Or, American’s addiction to pornography, marking some 25% of all internet activity2. While people’s desire for sexual connection to others potentially represents a deep desire for intimacy, pornography is like so many of our interactions, a non-reciprocal soul-damaging relationship, a sort of intimacy without vulnerability. Emotionally safe connections can never attend to the heart’s cry to be known.

The process of dehumanizing our neighbor is a sin that takes many forms that we probably live in ignorance of. How do we view the person cutting us off in traffic, the rude waiter, or someone annoying us with their neediness—as a beloved child of God? An opportunity to practice the discipline of “neighbor love?” Or something that keeps me from getting my own way? It’s easy to miss seeing a person. Instead we see a disruption of our agendas. Something is radically wrong when we are in the habit of reducing a creature bearing the very thumbprint of God himself into an object of disruption or personal gain. Every encounter with another human is a brush with a beloved child of God whom God so tenderly breathed life into.

There are so many different ways to think about community and relationships: family and personal, coworkers, my neighbors, the cashier where I buy my groceries, the known and the unknown. Then we have Church, civic organizations, our towns and cities, national and global relations. For Christians the organized Church is often the formational ground for our lives of faith. There is also the little church, the church within the Church. It is in this juncture that we find great help in following Jesus, and life-long relationships can be developed.

One of the great works of Renovaré in the last twenty-five years has been the encouragement to be part of a spiritual formation group. These are just simple spaces where people share and encourage one another towards love and good works (Hebrews 10:24). There are so many relational issues in our society; formation groups are one small way to address the problem. Much can be said about the effect and impact such groups or intentional individual relationships can have, and probably the greatest work of the spiritual in such spaces is unseen and beyond our consciousness. Here are five benefits I’ve found from being a part of these groups.

It is only reflective of our inherent self-centeredness when we judge the merit of small groups, intentional spiritual friendships, or formal Church, on what we get out of them. At its very least being in some sort of intentional spiritual community is an opportunity for us to be of use to others. In Twelve Step groups, it is encouraged of newcomers to make coffee and help clean up. What this practice effectively does is not only create a sort of ownership and belonging with the group, but takes the focus off yourself and what you get out of being there. Of course service work is really not service if we give out of guilt or obligation. Rather, we engage our groups with a willing and joyful heart.

When I break my spiritual formation classes at the university into small groups, I give these simple instructions: “You best serve others by listening rather than talking, by not giving advice, or trying to manage the lives of others. Your main task is to listen to others.”

When our focus is on others, this naturally becomes a supportive and life-giving environment. But we needn’t be afraid to receive support as well. Our refusal to let others support us when we are in need is potentially depriving them of the blessing as they give to someone they care about. Self-sufficiency often has more to do with pride than strength. Strength is open to the vulnerability of letting others care for us. Jesus wasn’t afraid to ask for and receive help (Matthew 26:38).

Many problems in our society are directly the result of being disconnected from the relational accountability of connecting with others. Mass shootings, sexual abuse, affairs and suicide are usually not spontaneous happenings, but rather the result of a person living with longings that they have hidden from others. Our dysfunctions and destructive habits develop in the same way other habits do—over time. Being immersed in caring and honest accountability for our behavior and intentions is critical in following Jesus. I would not be the person I am today if I had not spent the last twenty years connecting with individuals or groups. I have needed others asking me if I’m following through with exercises, disciplines, or tasks. While there is much that we can do spiritually on our own, it will never have the same help or impact as when others regularly inquire into your process and progress. It’s good to remember that love sometimes asks us the hard questions, sometimes love gets in our face for the greater good. I was once in a group where a friend was wrestling with a potential emotional affair. I haphazardly asked, in rather strong language, if he was interested in having sex with the person. He has recalled on more then one occasion how life changing this simple question was. It’s tough to put ourselves in relational positions where people can honestly tinker around in our lives. But, ultimately it’s extremely helpful.

In giving and in receiving, eventually we grow and we learn. Growing in the likeness of Jesus is a lifetime journey and in so inviting others into regular practice we learn from each other. I once heard it said that every meeting has something to teach if only we take the time to receive it. That long-winded person is an opportunity for me to grow in patience. The boastful person always giving advice is an opportunity for me to grow in humility.

I would encourage every person wanting to follow Jesus to be a part of a small group, and or an intentional friendship committed to asking and answering two simple questions: 1) Where are you finding God since we last talked? 2) What spiritual activity would you like to commit to do before we meet again? Creating little pockets of intentional Christian communities is really quite simple; it need not be formal, or even in person for that matter. (I have people I regularly connect with on the phone.) There is no need to have a formal leader or particular structure. Just two or more persons gathering together, seeking to follow Jesus, that is all that’s required. But, meeting with others is essential to the work of the spirit in the growth of our souls. For those needing assistance, the Renovaré resource, A Spiritual Formation Workbook, is a wonderful tool to begin a group.

While I value relationships as essential to the Christian life, I don’t want to idealize community. Relationships are messy. Anytime people are involved, it’s messy. I sometimes wonder if our desires and hopes for what relationships with others could be is just an echo from eternity, a glimpse of what is to come.

People let us down. Wounds can cut deep. Some heal and some don’t. I don’t think our past experiences give us the right or freedom to disconnect from others, but it may require us to be cautious—slow in our trusting or giving of our heart. That may be wisdom. So as with all the disciplines, we start where we are and continue on this journey of submitting our will and our lives over to the care of God, answering the divine leading, and placing ourselves in a position to learn and grow.

  1. http://www.asanet.org/press/20060616.cfm
  2. http://gizmodo.com/5552899/finally-some-actual-stats-on-internet-porn

Starting Soon: The 2018-19 Renovaré Book Club

How do we read for transformation, not just information? Choose books that stir the soul and have an enduring quality. Then read with God and others at an unhurried pace, attentive to what the Holy Spirit wants to teach. The Renovaré Book Club is designed for transformative reading. It runs October 2018—May 2019.

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