How can I build, invest in, and keep healthy relationships?

We were designed by God for relationships. When the Lord created man, He said "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him." (Gen. 2:18, ESV) Even in the context of the church, the Lord demonstrates that He has designed us for relationships. He makes it clear to us that we're invited to make investments in each others' lives, and that none of us can grow spiritually mature without investments being made in us through the spiritual gifting of other believers.

And speaking of relationships, isn't that what God desires to have with us? Through faith in Jesus Christ, we are given confident access to the throne of God (Heb. 4:16). Through faith in Christ, we're likewise called friends of God and the family of God, indicating the nature of the relationship God desires to have with us.

But relationships, particularly on the human level, can be rather complicated. We all know people who can be quite difficult to interact with. I suspect that during the course of your life, you have probably been forced to interact with some people who may have been hurtful or dishonest with you. Maybe you've also been attacked or betrayed. That certainly isn't pleasant, and while we're called to forgive those who have hurt us, I don't think anyone would blame you if you felt like there were certain people that you were better off not interacting with for your own well-being or safety.

At present, I have several friends who have admitted to me that they're at the point of life when they would strongly prefer to interact with their pets than with other people. It's hard to blame them, but I think Scripture shows us things that can help us navigate the complexities of relationships, even if we've been hurt in the past.

So, what does it look like for us to be relationally healthy Christians? How can we build, invest in, and keep healthy relationships?

I. Relational health is modeled and made possible through Jesus

When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.  And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.   I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do.   And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.”
— John 17:1-5, ESV

As Christians who trust the counsel of Scripture, we believe that there is one God who exists in three co-eternal and co-equal persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That means that God, by His very nature, has always existed in a perfect relationship - even before He created angels or humans.

Throughout the course of His earthly ministry, Jesus did things and said things that helped us understand His relationship with God the Father. His prayer in John 17 helps shed additional light on that relationship.

In this prayer, Jesus demonstrates several important things. He shows that it was His desire to glorify the Father, and that it was the Father's desire to glorify the Son. We see that the Father shares His authority over creation with the Son. We see that the Father shares the authority to grant eternal life with the Son. We also see that Jesus defines eternal life as a relationship with the only true God (v. 3). And how is that relationship established? It's established through knowing Jesus by faith.

It's quite obvious when looking through the pages of Scripture that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit live in a perfect relationship. We are now offered the privilege to experience that divine relationship through faith in Jesus Christ. So when we're talking about relational health, we need to understand that our capacity for relational health is directly tied to our relationship with our Creator, who designed us with the capacity to experience relationships that are a reflection of His very nature.

II. Relationally healthy people demonstrate the value others have to them

“Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger;”
— James 1:19, ESV

When I was in high school, I spent some time volunteering for a ministry that meant a lot to me. At one point, that ministry went through a very difficult stretch, but some of us tried to help out anyway. One afternoon, we volunteered to help move furniture and other items in preparation for a big project that was upcoming. As we were doing so, instead of thanking the volunteers, the primary ministry leader started yelling at the volunteers and demanding that no one leave until every piece of furniture was moved. I don't know what triggered this leader to do that, but I did notice that they had a hard time getting volunteers after that because the team felt devalued.

“The Carnegie Technological Institute has stated that 90% of all people who fail in their life’s vocation fail because they cannot get along with people.”
— Gettin the Church on Target, Lloyd Perry, Moody, 1977

Relationally healthy people demonstrate the value others have to them. They go out of their way to make it known. Sometimes they use words. Other times they demonstrate that value with actions or gifts, but one way or another, their value and importance gets communicated.

The Epistle of James has sometimes been nicknamed "the Proverbs of the New Testament" for good reason. It's a book that was written by James, the half-brother of Jesus as the Holy Spirit communicated great wisdom through him.

In James 1:19, James addresses the importance of healthy communication in our relationships. In that verse, he gives us three pieces of advice:

1. Be someone who makes a point to demonstrate that you're listening when others speak.

2. Be careful with the words that come out of your mouth / Think before you speak.

3. Don't rush to get angry or express anger.

If we take the counsel James gives us in this Scripture, we will more than likely succeed in communicating to others that we value them. If we reject this counsel, we will cause others to feel devalued in our eyes.

A while back, I took a long drive with a friend. He talked the entire time, including when I was attempting to share something. After a while, I stopped saying much because I didn't feel heard. On the other hand, I recently experienced something upsetting and I had a friend reach out to me late one evening when he heard. He sat on the phone with me for two hours, listening while I shared, offering good counsel, and lifting me up in prayer. In that moment, I felt valued, and grateful to God for some of the wonderful friends He has blessed me with.

III. Relationally healthy families exhibit a servant's heart

“Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.  Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them.  Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.  Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.”
— Colossians 3:18-21, ESV

A family can be an immense blessing, but living in close proximity with others can also be one of the biggest testing grounds for learning how to practice things that contribute to our relational health. Growing up, my parents didn't get along and divorced when I was very young. Later in high school, I used to wonder if the Lord had called me to follow the Apostle Paul's example and remain unmarried. Eventually, however, he convinced me that I was called to get married and attempt to glorify Him through my marriage.

Because of our sin natures, establishing a relationally healthy home can be challenging. We certainly can't do it without the Lord's help. I'm also convinced that we need to embrace the heart of Christ in order to do so. During Christ's earthly ministry, He made a point to sacrificially serve others, and a healthy household is made up of those who are likewise inspired to serve one another like Jesus.

Colossians 3 speaks of wives elevating the leadership role of their husbands by submitting to their leadership. It speaks of husbands showing their wives sincere love, and resisting the urge to be harsh or abrasive with them. In a similar way, fathers are also cautioned not to needlessly provoke or exasperate their children. All that does is encourage disrespect, rebellion, and needless discouragement. And children are encouraged to contribute to the relational health of the home by obeying their parents.

When this counsel is implemented with grace, and empowered by Christ, the end result is a relationally healthy home. When this counsel is ignored, and the general tone of a home drifts from serving one another to attempting to boss, push, ignore, or rebel against one another, Christ isn't glorified, and every relationship in the home suffers.

So what should we do if we'd like to experience the kind of relational health that’s described in this passage, particularly if our homes feel like they're filled with conflict and discord? Well, you can't control how others feel or what they do, but you can exhibit Spirit-empowered self-control and make the decision to do your part. You can't make your spouse serve you, but you can certainly serve them. You can't make your children or your parents serve you, but you can certainly serve them. Let's not make the mistake of waiting around for someone else to serve us. Let's pick up the baton and choose to serve our family, for Christ's glory, just as He sacrificially served us.

If you take the initiative to do this, I think you'll be surprised at the peace you'll begin to experience in your heart as you obey the counsel of God's Word, and I also think you'll be surprised to see who Christ inspires to join you.

Here's some advice I recently read from Hope Healthletter that I think demonstrates a servant's heart...

1. Before you say anything to anyone, ask yourself three questions: 1) is it true? 2) is it kind? 3) is it necessary?

2. Make promises sparingly and keep them faithfully.

3. Never miss an opportunity to compliment or say something encouraging.

4. Refuse to talk negatively about others and don’t listen when others do.

5. Have a forgiving view of people. Believe that most people are doing the best they can.

6. Keep an open mind; discuss, don’t argue.

7. Forget about counting to 10. Count to 1,000 before saying or doing anything that could make matters worse.

8. Let your virtues speak for themselves.

9. If someone criticizes you, see if there is any truth to what he is saying; if so, make changes.

10. Cultivate your sense of humor.

11. “Do not seek so much to be consoled, as to console; do not seek so much to be understood as to understand; do not seek so much to be loved as to love.”
— Hope Healthletter, Vol. 46, No. 1, Men’s Life Lifeline (newsletter), (Grand Rapids, Fall, 1995)

IV. Relationally healthy people make sacrificial investments in others

“After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth.  And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade.  And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks.”
— Acts 18:1-4, ESV

Growing up, one of my favorite relationships to observe was my grandparents. My grandfather owned a grocery store, and my grandmother worked with him in countless ways. They loved each other, they joked with each other, and their home was always a place we felt welcomed in. They were an example to us all of a healthy relationship.

Scripture provides examples of healthy relationships as well, and one of the most visible examples from the New Testament is the marriage of Aquila and Priscilla. Their names are mentioned several times in Scripture, and they developed a reputation as being an extremely valuable part of the team during the era of the early church.

Aquila and Priscilla loved Christ and they made His gospel known. We also know that they were tentmakers by trade who partnered with the apostle Paul. They gave him a place to stay when he needed a home. They also had a church that met in their home (Rom. 16:5). The pattern we can see from their life was that they worked together to make sacrificial investments in others. That's one of the primary things they were known for. Another good example of that was the investment they made in a man named Apollos...

Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures.  He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John.  He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately.
— Acts 18:24-26, ESV

We see from this Scripture that Priscilla and Aquila took the time to hear Apollos speak, then they carved out additional time to help train him better. They explained to him the way of God more accurately, and in so doing, they made a powerful investment in his preaching ministry. This is one of the many examples that remind us of the importance of healthy relationships and how the Lord uses them to help us grow as individuals as well.

Building relationships, investing in them, and keeping them long-term is one of the most difficult tasks we face in life. There are many things that can complicate that objective, and many moments when we might feel like we don't possess the emotional energy to give it one more try, or forgive one more lingering offense. But Scripture demonstrates that just as our Lord exists in an eternally perfect relationship as part of His nature, so too are we designed and empowered by Him to experience relational health based on the sacrificial example of Jesus.

© John Stange, 2019