Relationships: The good, bad, and messy

Even in the best families, navigating relationships during the holidays can be difficult.   Coordinating a gathering with a bunch of individuals on different legs of the journey (hopefully) toward wholeness and healing is quite complicated.  The actual gathering of said individuals is often even more complicated. I know that many of my friends come out of the Holiday season cradling their heads in their hands and stumbling desperately into their therapists offices, ready to unload all of the “yuck” that accumulated over the course of a week and a half.

Let me not discount the extremely healthy families or communities that have delightful, loving, Christ-centered Christmas celebrations.  Together, you taste heaven in your fellowship with one another, clinging to each moment as a precious gift.  I pray that we can all learn to grow in our walks with God and in our relationships with one another to a place where we find true shalom in our fellowship and in the process of doing life together. The family that I have had the privilege of marrying into is much closer to this ideal than I ever thought possible.

On the flip side, let me assure those of you who have “broken up” with extremely dysfunctional families, that I love and support you.  I am one of you.  Sometimes, God calls us to step out of toxic systems so that He can heal us and protect us and our loved ones from abuse and misuse. We are not called to “grin and bear” abuse, manipulation, narcissism, and emotional bondage.

In the mean time, many of us are growing into the character of Christ through imperfect relationships, albeit slowly and with many bumps and bruises.

When conflict arises (and I assume it surfaces in almost every family), we learn a great deal about others, ourselves, and the nature of our relationships.  Mostly,  over the past month,  I have discovered that I have a great deal of room for growth.  I have learned that I want to look more like Jesus, and that I have a long way to go.

If we have the privilege of being in relationship and doing life with others, we also have to responsibility of walking through crises in their lives.  Let me assure you:  People are not on their best behavior when they are in crisis.  When we are in distress, we tend to act more selfish, irresponsible, and are not quite as outright love-able as we might normally appear.  When we are on the outside, observing someone in distress, we might see them as selfish, ugly, rude, and not nearly as lovely as we once thought them to be. We might, in spite of the mess, find ourselves called to walk with our loved ones through distress and pain.

This calling to love those in distress requires that we shift our perspective and see them through the eyes of Christ.  You know that call to love others?  And you might remember that chapter about love in first Corinthians?  Love never gives up, love cares more for others than self…love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always “me first,”  doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sin of others, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end (1 Corinthians 13: 4-7, The Message).   That passage might become your mantra.  I recommend writing it on your arm.

The funny thing about facing someone who is in distress and appears difficult to love is that I discover that I am also very difficult to love at times.  My heightened awareness of my own arrogance and selfishness humbles me to my knees.  My desperation for the attitude of Christ shows me how much growth needs to continue in my life.   When we face a situation with disgust and an attitude of “righteous indignation,” we become prime targets for the enemy, and we easily fall into spirits of haughtiness, self-righteousness, and bitterness.  A few times over the Christmas season,  I looked into my reflection in the mirror to see the ugliest face of them all.

This mess called life can become the process of iron sharpening iron if we allow friction to shape us into the character of Christ.  For a long time,  I believed that when relationships got rocky, it was best to head for the hills, to count your losses, and to duck your head and bail.  I’m seeing, however, that it is very difficult to grow when you continue to dodge actual growth opportunities (aka, relationship issues).  We can be mirrors for one another.  We can be authentic, and we can struggle.  We can confront when we see unhealthy patterns, and we can persevere when those we love are being difficult to love. We can remember that we are all difficult to love at times.   We can be profoundly disappointed in one another without slamming the door in each other’s face.   We can weep and pray for one another without condemning one another.  We can love and challenge each other toward growth and holiness without “throwing the first stone.”

My goal in 2018 is to allow the Spirit of God to indwell me more deeply, making my heart ripe for growth. Galatians 5:22-23 reminds me that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, and self-control (ASV). As I navigate messy relationships and loving through brokenness, these manifestations of the Spirit become by plumb line.   If we write (or tattoo) the love chapter on our right arm, maybe we should inscribe the fruit of the Spirit on our left.

Naturally, in my flesh, I lash out, I assume the worst about others, I become defensive,  and I value my sense of self above every one else.  I want to be the smartest and the most talented.  I want to be right, and I want to rub it in when I am right.  This is what I see when I look into the mirror of relationship conflict, and to put it mildly, I cringe in disgust.  Iron sharpening iron, right?

My prayer for this year is that I face the good and the bad of relationships with courage, humility, and the love of Jesus, never considering myself superior to others, and manifesting the fruit of the Spirit as I conform into the image of Christ.  We were made by a relational Trinitarian God for relationships, and we are called to grow in relationship.  I am thankful for the sometimes painful reminders of the importance of relationship friction on this sanctification journey.

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Pastor Al Gilbert

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