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/​p​r​e​s​s​/​20060616.cfm
  2. http://​giz​mo​do​.com/​5552899​/​f​i​n​a​l​l​y​-​s​o​m​e​-​a​c​t​u​a​l​-​s​t​a​t​s​-​o​n​-​i​n​t​e​r​n​e​t​-porn

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