Monday, 22 September 2008

Relationship Building Blocks

Relationships can be tricky! When they are going well we derive a deep sense of wellbeing from them. On the other hand when they go wrong we can feel tormented, lonely and desperate. Part of the problem lies in understanding the nature of relationships and the basic building blocks that make them work. The Bible shows us that relationships are central to who we are as people. The first chapter of Genesis has an oft repeated phrase – “And God saw that it was good”, Gen 1.10, 12, 18, 21, 25, culminating in the final verdict in Gen 1.31, “...and it was very good”. But in Gen 2.18 we have the phrase, “it is not good...” The contrast is striking!

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Remember that sin did not enter creation until chapter 3. While Genesis 1 gives us the overview of creation, we are as it were on the outside looking in; Genesis 2 gives us some of the specifics. We are no longer on the outside, we are on the earth. There is a garden and rivers. It is all happening around us! It is in this context that having created Adam God says, “It is not good for man to be alone, I will make a helper suitable for him”. Here we understand the actual process of creating male and female. Being alone is not good. This is the Creator’s verdict. Even in a perfect world, with a perfect creator and unblemished fellowship, something was missing – another person to relate to.

One day Jesus was asked, “...which is the greatest commandment in the law”, Matt 22.36. His answer is telling. The simplicity of it is staggering. All the law and prophets hang on two statements, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind....., love your neighbour as yourself”. Both statements are about relationships; our relationship with God and our relationship with others. Both statements are interdependent, I cannot say I love God and hate another human being – made in His image, 1John 4.19-20. The quality of my relationship with God is reflected in the quality of my relationships with others. They are not mutually exclusive!

This being the case, we need to learn about how to develop good relationships. My intension is not to give a mechanistic view of how relationships work, like taking your car in for a 12,000 mile service. Rather it is to offer a model that you can use to reflect and evaluate which of your relationships may need some attention. We all know when a relationship isn’t working, even when all appears great. At an intuitive level we often sense something is wrong. But what we lack is a model for understanding the nature of relationships and the tools to put them right.

Just as a stable chair has four legs so relationships are made up of four building blocks. Remove one of these blocks and like a chair that loses a leg, it becomes unstable. The more legs that are removed the more instability is created. Sitting in a chair is no longer restful but a balancing act. The same is true of relationships. These four building blocks are needed in all relationships but the degree to which they are needed will vary depending on the nature of the relationship. They are:

Love – the most enduring. Love is like a rubber ball. It keeps bouncing back. People can do the most outrageous things against us and yet we can still feel deep love for them.

Trust – the most fragile. Trust is like the china vase we put on display. It needs to be handled carefully. If you drop it, it breaks into many pieces. Putting it back together is no easy task. Once trust is broken it needs to be rebuilt. The mistake that I often see is when people who have suffered broken trust try to make up for this by loving more. It won’t work. The real issue needs to be addressed.

Understanding – the longest to develop. Understanding another person is like trying to do a 10,000 piece jig saw puzzle. The problem is that we thought it only had a 1,000 pieces! We underestimate how long it can take and how challenging it can be. It requires time and effort. You can’t force the pieces into place. There is a fit and you must find it.

Honour – the most neglected. Honour is like the best silver ornament that we own but neglect to polish. We know its value and wouldn’t trade it for anything, but regularly polishing it can become tedious. Over time it becomes tarnished. Our culture today has lost its bearings when it comes to honour. Mockery and ridicule is the new currency that gains attention today.

I will return to the other building blocks at another time but today I will focus on this most neglected of these truths – honour. Honour is all about the value we place on something. Sometimes we use the word respect to convey the same thing. Rom 12.10 TNIV says, “Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves”. Our devotion to each other is expressed best in the way we honour one another. So how do we communicate value to another person and are there different types of honour?

Let’s explore four different levels of honour that the Bible speaks of. The first is intrinsic value. Gen 1.27 says we are made in the image of God. The fall has certainly tainted that image but nevertheless it remains sufficiently so that God considers it worth redeeming. This is the basic value we are to show to all human beings – including those as yet unborn. When something is said to possess an intrinsic property it means that it cannot be removed. A gold ring that is thrown into a furnace will destroy the ring – it will melt, but not the gold.

As people we all carry this basic intrinsic value and it should be honoured. Even a drunk lying in the gutter has this basic value. This sense of value is communicated by the way we speak and act towards people. This is why later in the same chapter of Romans Pauls says, “Do not be proud but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not think you are superior”, Rom 12.16 TNIV. This is what made Jesus so attractive to the outcasts. He was able to communicate a sense of respect for them, while the Pharisees where looking down their noses at most of the other Jews, never the mind the Samaritans and Romans.

Attitude will always leak through. If we do not truly value a person then we will come across as condescending. They won’t want to hear what we have to say. Nobody likes to be patronised! Equally, genuine interest in a person can’t be faked, (well maybe at a party, but not in any relationship that requires ongoing meaningful contact). Jesus has made it clear the value that He places on us. Paul could confidently declare, He loved me and gave Himself for me....” Gal 2.20. Paul had become a ‘chosen vessel’. The person who at one time despised those who followed ‘The Way’ was now proclaiming the faith he once hated and reaching out to gentiles. A Jewish Pharisee embracing non-Jews and championing their equal status in the church. He now saw them as God did. He saw their true value and it changed his attitude towards them.

The second type of Honour is rooted in what we become – our character. The Bible encourages us to follow and honour people who demonstrate Godly character, “Demetrius is well spoken of by everyone...” 3John 12 TNIV, “Welcome him (Epaphroditus) in the Lord with great joy and honour people like him...Phil 2.25-30 TNIV. These mean are held before the church as worthy of honour. Every time we say ‘thank you’ to someone who does something on our behalf, we are in fact expressing honour. It is a simple acknowledgment that what they did was valued. Perhaps this is why the scriptures remind us to always be thankful, Phil 4.6, though in the case of our Creator it is the consistency of His character that we honour and appreciate.

When we make difficult decisions that are in line with the truth we are building character. When we are honest and admit failure we are clearing the ground for character to be built. The fruit of the Spirit in Gal 5.22-23 is nothing less than a description of those who have allowed their character to be shaped by repentance and obedience. The whole process brings us closer to demonstrating the character of Christ – and this is worthy of honour.

Think of the baptism of Jesus where the Father honours Jesus, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased”, Matt 3.17. His pleasure in Jesus was expressed in words. We too need to express our joy and pleasure in those who exemplify Christ-like character. These are the ones that can become leaders because they model what we want to see reproduced.

The third type of value is the honour we give to those who achieve or accomplish things. Someone wins a gold medal at the Olympics, another passes an exam. Something is accomplished and it is good to acknowledge this. In our culture we tend to celebrate these moments. This is a good thing in my opinion. David won so many battles that the women folk in Israel wrote a song about his exploits and sang it on his returning victories, 1Sam 18.7. It honoured both him and Saul, but Saul became jealous that more success was ascribed to David. He could not share honour. Thus his security was seen to be rooted in the opinions and accolades of others. Honour is not meant to give us value, it highlights the value we already have. Just as polish does not increase the value of the silver but it does help it shine forth!

This raises an interesting issue. Most achievements are rooted in our gifting – something we have in turn received from above. Those who truly achieve great things will often pay homage to God who enabled them to do what they did. They have great ability with a healthy dose of humility. Saul lacked this. Men like Saul see honour as a cake that shouldn’t be shared out or there won’t be enough to go round. The truth is the more we honour people who are deserving of honour the more the cake grows! King Saul could have seen things differently. He could have thought something like this: “David is even excelling me in his exploits. My choice of him is being vindicated. People will see I am a wise King who knows how to make good choices”. Sadly his insecurity would not allow him to share accolades.

The final level of Honour is that which comes with the position we hold. The NT writers tell us to “Honour the King”, 1Pet 2.17; Rom 13.7; Remember the context? These kings were the wicked Caesars who persecuted and killed Christians. Yet they carried a position that was worthy of honour, Rom 13.1-5. God allowed them to hold their office. So whilst we may be critical of their character (most of them lacked any), we must be respectful of the function and office they represent. This is difficult for some people to accept but the examples of scripture are too numerous to ignore.

Consider Eli. He was a Judge and Priest in Israel. His sons however did not know the Lord. They slept with the women and took the best part of the offering that should have been sacrificed to the Lord. This is what Eli became fat on. Their behaviour did not change when they were rebuked by their father. He failed to take the next step – to remove them from office, 1Sam 3.13. Instead he tolerated their disgraceful behaviour to the degree that most of the common people knew what was going on. God sent a prophet to rebuke Eli. The issue was firmly nailed, “Why do you honour your sons more than Me....those who honour Me, I will honour, but those who despise Me, shall be lightly esteemed”, 1Sam 2.29-30.

Yet this was the man and this was the house that Samuel was entrusted to. The greatest prophet yet to appear to Israel was placed in the care of Eli. Perhaps this is why the first prophetic word that Samuel had to speak was against the house of Eli. If Samuel could be bold enough to handle this prophetic word he would not be intimidated by anything he would encounter in Israel. But even in this rebuke Samuel shows nothing but honour towards Eli and remains under his tutelage.

When Paul was arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin in Acts 23.1-5 we see this principal being outworked again. Ananias orders Paul to be struck on the cheek. Paul reacts calling him a whitewashed wall and challenging his actions. The assembly are shocked telling Paul he is speaking to the High Priest. Paul then recants and quotes the OT, “You shall not revile a ruler of your people”, Ex 22.28. Clearly he knows he must honour the office, though we see how he feels about his unjust treatment.

Paul tells us to show double honour to those who rule the church well, 1Tim 5.17. The first honour is for their position. The second honour, making it double honour, is for the fact they rule well. They have the character and competence to fulfil their role in a way that blesses the church. Given that honour is a measure of the value we place on something it is possible to also see the intended ambiguity Paul raises by using this word. Our English word, honorarium or payment for service, comes from this same word. Thus, how we give or pay someone also becomes a reflection of the honour we place on them.

My prayer for you this week is that you will take time to honour those God has put in your life, your boss, your spouse, your leaders, your colleagues; all those relationships that somehow impact the way you live. By doing so, you will begin to see people rise to new levels of achievement and commitment, simply because they feel valued.