How Do I Know? Relationships Edition #2

[Part 2 of the blog adaptation from yesterday’s message at The District Church: “How Do I Know? Relationships Edition.” Read part 1 here.]

Holding handsHow do I know whom and how to date? Our city has one of the highest percentages of single people in the country; and our church is about two-thirds single.

Before you read this, you may want to read part 1 because how we view and practice Christian community has a tremendous impact on our dating lives. And that’s because how we view and practice Christian community has a tremendous impact on our lives, period.

It’s easy to think of romantic relationships as their own separate category: school, faith, work, friends, dating. But that sort of compartmentalization can be dangerous because faith is supposed to be interwoven through everything else. As theologian Abraham Kuyper said:

There is not one square inch of the entire creation about which Jesus Christ does not cry out, ‘This is mine! This belongs to me!’

So what does it mean for your dating relationships—or, taking a step back, the way you look at romantic relationships—to belong to Jesus? Last summer I preached a sermon on what it means to be single (July 28, 2013)—you’re welcome to go back and listen to that too, if you want. But this week, I was reading a book and a line in it jumped out at me:

Jesus was the greatest Lover who ever lived.

My first reaction was to get defensive—What do you mean? Jesus was single and celibate his whole life—and if you’ve been following the latest news, the so-called fragment that said that Jesus was married was shown to be a fake. How can you say he was the greatest Lover who ever lived?

And I realized that I’d made the mistake that’s so easy to make, the mistake that the world around us makes all the time: confusing sex with love; thinking that in order to be a lover, in order for you to know what love is (and I want to know what love is), you have to have had sex or at the very least, been in a romantic relationship.

But Jesus lived the fullest life any human being has ever lived, he lived the most loving life any human being has ever lived, and from what the Bible tells us, he was never in a romantic relationship. So maybe we need to reevaluate our understanding:

  1. of what it means to be human,
  2. of what it means to be in relationship, and
  3. of what it means to experience life to the full.

You are not incomplete without a romantic relationship.

You are not any less because you are not married.

You are not barred from life to the full until you’ve had sex.

Your worth and your value are not based on your relationship status.

Your identity is not found in how many boyfriends or girlfriends you’ve had, whether you have one now, or whether you will ever have one.

We are all incomplete, flawed, and broken human beings; and none of us will find our completion in another incomplete, flawed, and broken human being. The early church theologian Augustine wrote,

You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.

We are made for God, and God alone will truly satisfy the deepest longings of our souls. Our problem is that we often put the expectation of a need that only God can meet on the shoulders of another person—with his or her own baggage and needs and sin—and in doing so, we fall into the trap that C.S. Lewis describes, where: “Love, having become a god, becomes a demon.” When we put all of our emphasis on romantic relationships, it can become all-consuming.

Now I’m not telling you to kiss dating goodbye. We are created for relationship, but not necessarily for romantic relationship, though we may get to experience that too. Let’s look at 1 Corinthians 13, the passage where Paul talks about love, the passage that’s so often quoted at weddings:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Two quick things I want to point out. First, Paul isn’t talking here about romantic love—yes, love in the context of romantic relationships should look like this, but all love should look like this. Loving your friends, loving your parents, loving your siblings, loving your roommate, loving the folks in your small group, loving your colleagues, loving your boss, loving your neighbor … and loving your enemies. Jesus commanded that too. This is what love looks like in every situation.

We often approach marriage knowing that it’s going to be about sacrifice and commitment and putting the other person first and love in that sense; but we approach dating thinking it’s all about me and who fits best with me and who is most compatible with me.

I realized a couple years ago that, with that approach, I was basically looking for a person exactly like me but female and much better looking—she’d fit right in to everything I was already doing: love the same TV shows, the same books, have the same political stance and the same life experience. That would require the least effort and the least change. And I realized that that would also mean the least growth. So when Carolyn came along and was different in what felt like almost every way, apart from the fact that she loved Jesus as much as I did and she loved me like I loved her, I had to decide whether I wanted to stick with it and to grow, knowing it would be hard.

Here’s the second thing I want to point out about 1 Corinthians 13: it takes maturity to practice this kind of love. It takes self-control and sacrifice. It does not come easy. You can have many years under your belt and not practice this kind of love because you’re still living like a kid; you think the world revolves around you.

One of the ways God grows us is through relationship, through community: by bringing us into contact with other people. It reminds us that God is far bigger than just our experiences of him and it challenges us to keep growing, to keep being transformed to be more like Christ. So, if you want to know how you’re supposed to know whom and how to date, think about it in this way:

What will help me to become more like Jesus?

This question is applicable not only to romantic relationships, but to life and to every single “How do I know?” question you’ll ever have.

In the realm of dating, the odds are that you’ll meet someone who’s different from you, and you’ll have the opportunity to grow because you’re different. Sometimes the question you ask may be the one Carolyn and I asked: “Are we different in a way that complements each other or are we different in a way that drives us apart?” But if we try to look at it in light of the goal of becoming more like Jesus, the question may become more like:

Is this relationship helping both parties to do that or are your differences so great that you spend more time arguing than you do praying, more time defending your corner than you do serving each other, and more energy recovering from your reactions than moving together toward Christ?

Maybe what will help you become more like Jesus right now is to stop treating people as simply a means for fulfilling your needs—whether emotional or physical or sexual. Maybe you need to step back and step away from dating for a while because you’ve been bouncing from date to date, from person to person, hoping that you’ll meet “the One” as long as you keep churning through. Maybe God wants you to stop looking for the one you think you want to be with, and he wants you instead—and we’ve said this before—to be becoming the kind of person the kind of person you’re looking for is looking for.

And that person that you’ll want to become is probably patient and kind and not boastful or envious or arrogant; that person is probably a 1 Corinthians 13-type lover; that person is probably not actually worried whether he or she will end up with anyone because that person will know that it is God alone who satisfies; that person is probably very similar to what Jesus is like—that’s the person God wants you to be because that’s who you were made to be, because that is life to the full.

I’d encourage you to start letting God do some work in you now, because unless you take action to make changes—to allow God to be at work in you—what you do before you date is probably what you’ll do when you date, which is probably what you’ll do when you’re engaged and probably what you’ll do when you’re married. And that applies to everything: checking out good looking women or men whenever they walk by, turning back to old addictions when things don’t go the way you hoped, using dating relationships to fill the void in your life and distract you from the deeper issues or from the fact you don’t feel like you have any control. God has given you control over certain things in your life, including the direction you walk in, the person you model your life on, and the God you choose to trust.

There is no formula to know whom and how to date—though there are principles you can follow: treating each other with honor and respect as image-bearers of God, for instance; or treating our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit. There is no formula to know the ‘right’ friends to hang out with or how often—we are all wired differently and so are the people God has placed around us.

Formulas don’t help us to become better people; formulas don’t help us to develop character; formulas don’t help us to grow because formulas don’t force us to wait or to figure out who we are choosing to become rather than just looking for what we think we need right now. Formulas don’t help us to become more like Jesus.

Relationships and community can help us to become more like Jesus; that’s why God intended for us to be in community—and specifically in the community of faith—worshiping together and praying together and weeping together and supporting each other on the path toward God and Christlikeness—not just the path toward marriage (which is only part of the road, though we often make it the whole).

Community is not just meant to be something you pay lip service to—“Yeah, I love community”—but when you make big decisions about where to live and where to work and where to go to school and whom to pursue and whether to move away from DC, you make that decision on your own and then just “brief” everyone. It’s in community that we encourage one another and challenge one another and submit to one another and sharpen one another, like iron sharpens iron; it’s in this community—the body of Christ—that we help each other—regardless of our relationship status—become whom God intended us to be.

How Do I Know? Relationships Edition #1

[Part 1 of the blog adaptation from yesterday’s message at The District Church: “How Do I Know? Relationships Edition.” Read part 2 here.]

How do I know whom to spend time with? We all face the same conundrum: what do we do with our limited time and energy? How do we choose where and with whom to invest ourselves?

I’ve moved around a lot: I was born in Hong Kong, lived in London for eight years for school, and then the LA area for three before moving here. I’m used to starting over, to making new friends, to rebuilding community in a new place.

But DC was by far the most difficult place to transition to. Part of that was because I wasn’t entering a school community—when you’re entering a school community, you’ve got a whole host of people saying, “Make friends with me!” but when you don’t have that, you realize that people already have their friendship circles and their routines; and making friends requires more than just you putting yourself out there but also for someone else to open up their life and invite you in.

Sociologically speaking, it’s supposed to take about six months for relationships to develop to the place where you might call them good friendships, which is often what grounds a person in a place and makes that place begin to feel more welcoming. I have always hated those six months: I’ve always wanted to bypass those six months and jump straight to the part where I’m known and I’m loved and I have friendships that are deep and solid.

But that’s not how life works; that’s not how friendships are formed; that’s not how community is built. Community and relationships take time; it’s a process of growth and cultivation and intentional investment.

At this point, I think it’s important to say:

We are created for relationship.

As Christians, we believe that God is somehow Three—Father, Son, and Spirit—and yet also still one God. There is community even within the Godhead; there is relationship even among the persons of the Trinity. In fact, John Zizioulas argues that it is relationship that defines personhood, that it is because the three persons of the Trinity are in relation to one another that they even are persons—it is their relating to each other that makes them persons—and that were they not to be in relationship with one another, they would cease to be persons; they would only be individuals.

1 John 4:8 says, “God is love”—you may have heard that before. That verse used to put a strange picture in my head of God being this glowing, usually pinkish, fluffy mass of warm-fuzzies. But love is a relational word; love is communal by definition—it requires one who loves and one who is loved. Therefore, if God is love, God is relational. And if God is love and if God is relational, and if, as Genesis 1:26 tells us, God made us in his image, then that means we also are created for relationship.

Anyway, as I discovered, as time went by, that DC is full of awesome people. Unfortunately, as I also discovered, there’s no way you can get to know them all. You can try, but (1) you really wouldn’t make any deep or solid friendships, and (2) you’d burn yourself out pretty quickly. Because we’re only human, and like I said earlier, we only have a certain number of hours in a week—and a big chunk of that is taken up with work and with sleep and maybe with a significant other or a family.

So … part of what made DC a hard place to transition to was the school/work piece. The other factor is that we live in DC: cities are transient by nature, but out of all the places I’ve called home, I’ve found DC to be the most transient of all. People come for three months or six months or a year or two years, or maybe even three or four, if you’re lucky; but anybody who’s been in DC for more than six months has probably seen their fair share of friends come and go.

And that’s hard for friendships; that’s hard for building genuine and close community. Constantly saying goodbye to people you love—whether they’re leaving to go to grad school on the other side of the country, or leaving to move closer to family because they’re starting to have kids, or leaving because they don’t like the pace of the city—it’s exhausting because every time, you feel like you lose a little part of yourself, and you become a little more wary of investing in a new connection because you wonder if it’s really worth it.

These things that we feel—the push and pull of relationships beginning and relationships ending—are natural. They are, along with our limits, also part of being human. So how do we go about investing in community? How do we figure out whom to spend our time with?

Well, it’s always helpful to look to Jesus, because he’s the one we are called to follow, the one whose example we are invited to emulate. Jesus didn’t live life as a lone wolf; and yet he also knew that he couldn’t be tight with everyone: he knew his time and his energy were limited, and that he couldn’t go a mile wide and an inch deep in a relational sense, and expect to have any lasting impact on anyone’s life.

Luke 6:13 says:

And when day came, [Jesus] called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles …

There were clearly more than twelve disciples—but twelve were chosen to be the inner circle. These were the ones he pulled aside and explained parables to; these were the ones he intentionally chose to do life with at a much deeper level than, for example, the 5,000 who came to hear him, or the folks that just wanted to be healed, or the people that clamored for a miracle.

It was in these relationships that the disciples really learned who Jesus was. They got to see everything: what he did and how he behaved and how he treated people—kind of like what we get to see because we have the gospel stories, but even more than that. These were the ones to whom Jesus said, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends …” (John 15:15)

Super Bowl Party 2014One of our core values as a church is community—connecting with one another; and one of the primary mediums for this is our small groups. Our hope is that no one would leave DC because they couldn’t find a place to call their spiritual home or people to call their spiritual family. Our small groups aren’t just so you can make new acquaintances; they’re supposed to be a place where you learn how to be better disciples, how to be true friends: encouraging and challenging one another to keep growing, to keep learning, to keep becoming more like Jesus. And like all relationships, these take time and investment and intentionality.

DC has a way of filling your life so full that you don’t even have time to think about what you’re doing—you’re just reacting, you’re just trying to keep your head above water—but a filled life is not the same as a fulfilled life. When Jesus said he came that we might have life to the full (John 10:10), he didn’t mean that in the quantitative way—that our calendars would be full—but in the qualitative way—that our lives would have the characteristics of wholeness, of health, of flourishing.

So you might need to start by stopping, sitting down, taking out your schedule, and having a good long look at it; take stock of where you are right now. If you’re engaged or married, you may want to do this with your significant other as well. Ask yourself questions like:

  • Who are you doing life with? What friendships are you investing in (and not just reacting to)?
  • Who are you learning from and, in turn, helping on the journey?
  • Who’s encouraging you and keeping you accountable in your walk with Christ, in your journey of faith, in the way you live your life?
  • What are the limits that are created by work and family and other constraints, and then what are boundary lines you actually may have some control over and, if you were intentional about it, you might be able to shift?

For some, I think the challenge will be to invest in Christian community: to join a small group, to stick around after the service and have a conversation that may lead to a friendship, to let go of the cynicism or the fear or the uncertainty and take the risk of putting yourself out there. When Aaron and Amy heard how difficult my transition to DC had been back in 2009, they invited me to spend Christmas with them. I didn’t know them that well at the time, and so I had to decide whether I was willing to experience what could easily have been awkward conversations and a car journey and a holiday with a family I didn’t know too well, or whether I’d avoid that awkwardness and, by extension, avoid beginning to cultivate a friendship with them. You can probably guess what, by the grace of God, I chose; and I can honestly say that if I hadn’t chosen that path, I might not be here right now.

For some, the challenge is to get out of the Christian bubble—you come to worship services and you hang out with your small group every couple days and maybe you work at a Christian organization at least 40 hours a week. You may need to make friends with people who may not yet know Jesus. Jesus says that we are the light of the world (Matthew 5:14), but if we’re just hanging out in a room with a whole bunch of other lights, then our light is really not fulfilling its purpose, no matter how brightly you may shine. Light is supposed to shine in the darkness.

If you’re getting the impression that I’m pitting these two things against each other—hanging out with Christians and hanging out with non-Christians—that’s not what I’m trying to say. Because they’re interconnected. It takes a community to truly live out the gospel: on a practical level, you’re going to need folks who can help you keep walking with Jesus because the enemy will use everything in his power to knock you off course.

We need each other to be who God is calling us to be: the family of God on the mission of God to see more of the kingdom of God here on earth.

[Read Part 2.]

The biblical doctrine of headship

John GoldingayOld Testament professor and living legend, John Goldingay combines wit and exegesis to deliver a biblical understanding of headship:

The passage [Ephesians 5:21-33] makes it absolutely clear that a biblical doctrine of headship exists, and it makes it clear what that doctrine is. Men have the unquestionable right and responsibility to let themselves be crucified for women, and women must submit to them in the sense of letting them do that.

It is typical that Scripture should take a worldly assumption and let the cross turn it upside down. The world says, “Men have authority over women.” The Bible says, “Yes, they have the authority Christ showed on the cross.” Biblical headship is not about men deciding how to bring up the children or where the family should live. It is about letting yourself be walked on. That is the Bible’s pattern for relations between the sexes. Marriage gives you many chances to live that way; single people are called to make that their criterion for their relationships too. In our relationships, the other person comes first.

Walk On: Life, Loss, Trust, and Other Realities, 152-153

Dealing with differences in relationships

Holding handsA couple weeks ago, at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in the Bay Area, John Ortberg and clinical psychologist Rick Blackmon sat down to have a conversation about relationships — marriage in particular.

I found it immensely helpful, not just for marriage but for relationships in general. Pastoring in a church that’s over 70 percent single means that there’s a lot swirling around in the dating/relationship/engaged sphere, and learning how to be in relationship in a healthy way is an important part of … well, being human!

John began by asking, “What’s the biggest obstacle to having a great marriage?” To which, Rick replied:

The biggest obstacle to having a great marriage [and, I’d say, to having a healthy relationship, period – JF], one that continues to be life-giving and close and healthy, is dealing with differences.

 

I can attest to that with my friends, both in the context of married life as well as in the context of interacting with others in the political realm here in DC. Because it’s not a question of whether we’ll have differences — as my counselor put it, “As long as you’re dealing with someone who isn’t you, you’ll have differences.” Instead, it’s a matter of how we deal with those differences.

“In any relationship,” said John, “sin is always inevitable but grace is always available.

Sin is always inevitable because human beings are sinful, selfish, prideful, self-righteous, unaware, and oblivious, and we hurt one another, both intentionally and unintentionally, even just by assuming that we’re always right and that the other person must therefore be wrong.

But grace is always available — the grace of God, first and foremost, and then as Christians, the grace we are called to show one another. “Forgive us what we owe, just as we have already forgiven what others owe to us,” is a paraphrase of a line from the Lord’s Prayer. We have been shown grace; and so we are called to show grace and empowered to do so by the Spirit of God living within us.

Rick also suggests a helpful tool for dealing with conflict, using the acronym CRAFT. See below for my notes (or listen to the podcast here):

  • Get back to a Conversational level
    • When we get reactive, our response moves from the cortex (calm, rational) to amygdala (bird brain, 100% self-protective, fight or flight, limited capabilities), so we often see either fast, loud, outlandish responses (fight) or complete shut down (flight).
    • Prov 29:11: “A rebel shouts in anger; a wise man holds his temper in and cools it.”
    • It can take anywhere from 20-40 minutes to calm down enough to talk, so make sure you create that space.
  • Recall what happened
    • The goal of this exercise is not to unify views on what took place, but to learn how the other person experienced that, to develop a curiosity for the other’s perspective, to cultivate empathy.
    • James 1:19: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry.”
    • The first example of marital discord in the Bible was Genesis, where Adam throws Eve under the bus.
    • The sinful self always wants to blame the other; the redeemed self aims to speak the truth in love (Ephesians).
  • Apologize
    • Say “I’m sorry.” James 5:16 says, “Confess your sins to one another.”
    • “It’s not possible to be in a relationship for a long time and not to wound them and be wounded by them.” – Rick
    • There are two forms of apology:
      • “Oops” or apology for impact: “I can tell that what I did hurt you so I’m sorry for that, but I’m still not sure I did anything wrong.” The more serious the offense, the less appropriate this response is, but this kind of apology is still better than nothing.
      • More heartfelt and genuine: actually owning intent, e.g. “I did this because …”, e.g. the prodigal son.
  • Forgive
    • There are two responses to being hurt and wounded by somebody:
      • Get even (the normal, natural response, certainly a bird brain response).
      • Forgive (asking for forgiveness or extending forgiveness)
        • Look one another in the eye and say, “I forgive you.”
        • Jesus said, “Forgive one another up to seventy times seven times.”
        • Paul also said, “Forgive one another.”
    • It’s actually difficult; it takes practice.
      • Especially with Christians, it can be easier to ask for forgiveness than to extend forgiveness.
      • Understand also that it takes time.
  • Talk
    • Talk about what you wish had happened instead, what you wish you had said or what your spouse/friend had said.

Some final points:

  1. Rick emphasized that conflicts often end on the same note on which they begin; that is, if it begins with a harsh tone, it’ll probably end with a harsh tone, and if it begins with a gentle tone, it’ll probably end with a gentle tone. Be aware of how you approach differences and conflict.
  2. John reminded us that growth is always possible. The alternative is stagnation and to remain trapped in sin. (And that doesn’t sound pleasant or healthy at all, does it?!)
  3. We need wisdom in dealing with conflict, but more foundationally than that, we need Jesus and we need grace. After all, true wisdom is to properly fear and reverence God — to understand who he is, who we are, and how much we need him.

The Christian life

I love this.

there is far more to this Christian life than getting it right. There is living it right. Learning the truth of God, the gospel, the scriptures involves understanding words, concepts, history. But living it means working through a world of deception, of doubt and suffering, a world of rejections and betrayal and idolatry.

We don’t grow and mature in our Christian life by sitting in a classroom and library, listening to lectures and reading books, or going to church and singing hymns and listening to sermons. We do it by taking the stuff of our ordinary lives, our parents and children, our spouses and friends, our workplaces and fellow workers, our dreams and fantasies, our attachments, our easily accessible gratifications, our depersonalizing of intimate relations, our commodification of living truths into idolatries, taking all this and placing it on the altar of refining fire–our God is a consuming fire–and finding it all stuff redeemed for a life of holiness. A life that is not reserved for nuns and monks but accessible to every Dick and Jane in every ordinary congregation.

Eugene Peterson, The Pastor, 230

(Please, please, please read The Pastor.)