These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full. This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends. You are My friends if you do whatever I command you. - John 15:11-14 (NKJV)
When people hear the phrase “It’s not a religion; it’s a relationship,” they generally associate it with the idea of personal relationship with God. However, people can also approach their human relationships with a “religious” attitude that can suck the joy right out of those connections.
Think about it: a simple definition of religion would be ritual practice or ritual observance of belief. In other words, there is a prescribed procedure to follow with hopes of gaining a prescribed result. In like manner, we can fall into a trap of believing that our relationships with people are based on prescribed procedures that should yield certain results. But approaching our human interactions this way will most likely leave us feeling frustrated and joyless—a lot like empty religious rituals.
As I share the following experience, I am well aware that I am speaking only from my perspective; the other person involved would have a different story to tell. However, because our perception becomes our reality, the Lord deals with our reality. His response to my perception taught me a valuable Kingdom principle in relationship.
Many years ago, I attended church with a woman we’ll call Nora. Our story begins with the Lord saying to me, “I want you to become a friend to Nora.”
Nora was not unfriendly, but she also was not warm and inviting. She was insecure in her marriage, her job, and her other relationships. That insecurity became the root of discontentment in most areas of her life, as well as causing her to feel very lonely.
In the years that followed, I prayed with Nora as she began to accept that the Lord had forgiven her of past mistakes and that she could walk out of those difficult times into a new season of her spiritual journey. I consoled her when those with whom she was seeking to build relationships exploited and betrayed her. I listened to her nearly endless litany of disappointment in her teenage children that continued into disappointment with their marriages and then into disappointment with her grandchildren.
After I left the church where we met to accept a pastoral position, Nora expressed her disappointment in my former church, so I invited her to visit the new church I was pastoring. Her response? “I couldn’t go there. People go there that I don’t approve of.”
When my husband was in ICU fighting for his life, I called her to ask for prayer. Her response was a snippy “I’ll pray, but I hope you don’t expect me to visit him in the hospital.” I assured her that prayer was all I was asking for. (By the way, those prayers have been answered—my husband is still with us.)
From ICU, I complained to the Lord, “I have been a friend to her for all these years, but she isn’t much of a friend to me.”
The Lord responded, “I didn’t ask her to be your friend. I asked you to be her friend.” I realized that my offense was the result of following prescribed procedures, hoping to gain prescribed results, but the result was lacking joy.
The Lord’s gentle correction shook me in my lack of humility. I was in awe of the mighty love and compassion that God has for each of His children. I was convicted of the fact that Jesus is always a friend to me, but often I have not been a friend to Him. My heart cry, then and now, was, “Oh, Lord, forgive me for the times I have ignored Your friendship.”
Seeing Ourselves Clearly
I rarely see Nora now, but I often think of her and pray for her. I thank God for what He grew in me through that relationship.
In our relationship to God, we have all been a Nora. In our points of desperate need or selfish focus, we have all neglected our friendship with God at some time, but He never neglects His friendship with us. No matter how difficult or challenging we might be, through our relationship with Him, He is faithful to us and continues to bring growth into our lives. It is when we are loyal and when we do what He commands that we express our friendship to Him.
I came to understand another truth. If someone is a thorn in my flesh, I am most likely a thorn in that person’s flesh as well. I am not weighing in on who is right and who is wrong. The simple truth is that conflict wounds on both ends.
I recently discovered the following quotation from Mike Bickle that best sums up my thoughts: "Difficult human relationships are a chief means by which the Holy Spirit cultivates humility with a servant heart in us."
I need to recall what God cultivated in me through previous relationships, like the one with Nora, because He recently brought another challenging friendship into my life that keeps me continually praying for wisdom and patience. However, I am seeing this friend grow deeper and faster in the Lord than anyone I have ministered to before. Now, she will do almost anything for me, and she will do anything for the Lord.
The next time you are faced with a difficult relationship, remember God’s faithful friendship to you and remember His desire to cultivate His character in you, even through challenging people. Rather than approaching these relationships with prescribed procedures and expectations, you can approach with a humble heart that is able to receive His perspective for your situation. The result will be fullness of joy.