What can we learn from relationships going wrong?

However much we might like drama and unpredictability in novels or films or TV shows, most of us want peace and reliability in the relationships in our lives. Yet, from time to time, something happens that rocks and shakes a relationship (whether with a family member, or a friend, or a spouse, or a boyfriend/girlfriend), and we realise it is not the stable ground that we thought. While often that relationship – with time and careful nurturing – can be restored to its previous depth and closeness, it will never be the same – we realise that its nature is inherently unstable, and that meanwhile we’re left holding a more fragile bond than we thought and carrying an unexpected pain (whether a fresh one or a re-opening of old wounds).

How should we, as Christians, respond to this? What does it teach us?

There are so many books, articles, podcasts, sermons, talks – Christian and non-Christian, concerning spouses, family, friends – on re-building damaged relationships that I won’t linger long on this part, as my point is something different. In brief… Occasionally it happens that the thread holding a relationship together is too damaged and rotten and we really do have to let go; some obvious examples would be incompatible pre-marital romantic relationships, or very corrosive friendships. Or it can happen that we thought the relationship could be saved, but the other person let go. But more often, the relationship can be salvaged, if we are prepared to put in hard work, love, wisdom, and forgiveness. Loving someone certainly does not always mean pretending their wrongdoings to you had never happened. Forgiving someone necessarily involves acknowledging that there is something to forgive. And a wise and fruitful love can involve being firm and setting up boundaries and consequences, for both people’s health and good and for the purpose of saving a relationship and allowing it to grow. As we all know, a parent is not being loving if they repeatedly allow their child to run into fires, jump into deep and fast-running rivers, or put poisonous mushrooms into their mouth.

But while we re-calibrate, re-orientate, re-focus, re-attach, what have we learnt on a higher level than the particulars of how to rebuild that relationship? Above all, at some point, as we experience again and again the unreliabilities of human relationships, we recognise a need in ourselves. We recognise that we yearn beyond measure for a relationship that is reliable, predictable, always nurturing, always there for us, and with a person who never makes mistakes and never hurts us. This is often dismissed as a rosy-tinted myth that we need to get over. But it is not. It is a natural and righteous human yearning that points us to the deepest and most important relationship of all – the only one that can always fulfil, and the one without which we are never truly fulfilled.

The ‘happily ever after’ of human relationships is a myth, and one which books and films try to feed us, and which we have to refuse to believe. With mutual hard work a relationship can be mostly happy for as long as the people live. But expecting a human ‘happily ever after’… it’s like those poor, silly frogs that lay their spawn in puddles, and sooner or later a hot day comes along and the puddle dries up and the tadpoles die. (I am often one of those poor, silly frogs. I have often hoped for complete emotional fulfilment and security from human relationships, and always, of course, end up even more hurt and disappointed than I would otherwise have been when the relationship is shaken and revealed to be less stable than I had thought. This post is a reminder to myself as much as to anyone else!)

We are built with that yearning for a relationship that is reliable, predictable, always nurturing, always there for us, and with a person who never makes mistakes and never hurts us, because it points us to the one relationship that can satisfy it: our relationship with our Creator, Sustainer, Lord, Parent, and Friend. We are made for this relationship above all else. And if we choose to enter into and keep holding onto that relationship – if we want it above all else – then nothing can ever take it from us. It alone can fulfil with complete love, joy and peace. God alone is always reliable, always predictable, always nurturing, always there for us, never makes mistakes, never hurts us.

This is the one relationship that we need. We don’t need a spouse. We don’t need children. We don’t need parents. We don’t need a best friend. Most of us are given these things by God, for our growth as much as our joy, and to those whom they are given they can and should be a great blessing and aid. But it is important to remember that we don’t need them, and even their real benefit comes only if we are firmly planted in Christ. Our security, our joy, our very life is only real and enduring when it comes from God.

This is not in any sense to disparage or undervalue human relationships. We know that there will be human relationships in heaven – then finally perfect. We know that here on earth we are called to love our neighbour as ourself, and that the Church (‘Ecclesia’) is literally a ‘congregation’/’community’. But all that is truly and enduringly good and joyful and nurturing in those relationships is mediated through our relationship with God. And whatever twists and turns and ends our human relationships go through, we can rejoice and have peace in the fact that we always have the only relationship that we need – the only relationship that can really fulfil us – if only we will open ourselves up to it and keep holding on to it.

Wherever we are, and whoever we are, and whatever may be going on in our lives, that relationship, for which – above all else – we are made, lies open to us, promising every good thing for all eternity.

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