I felt immediate dread when I saw the Facebook notification. A brother in Christ and trusted ministry partner questioned a political essay I’d posted, suggesting in his comment that I’d been divisive.
I worried about damaging a friendship I really valued. What could I do to make peace?
After a year like 2020, our relationships are showing wear. We’ve fractured over all kinds of issues, and public-health restrictions have limited our ability to gather, to hug, to worship shoulder-to-shoulder. It’s the perfect storm for misunderstanding and for eroding our will to keep at the hard, patient work of Christian unity.
As we head into 2021, I want to offer three paths for hope in our strained relationships.
1. Set reasonable expectations.
Strained relationships are common even in normal times, and even among Christians pursuing Spirit-filled lives. The Lord’s Prayer both acknowledges this reality and also adjusts our expectations for relationships. Jesus taught that as regularly as we’d need to seek forgiveness from God, we’d need to seek it from and grant it to others.
Jesus taught that as regularly as we’d need to seek forgiveness from God, we’d need to seek it from and grant it to others.
We are made for relationship, with God and with one another, but sin has corrupted this capacity for relationship. To be a sinner means living with the regular possibility that our relationships will suffer from our (and others’) jealousies, our (and others’) anger, our (and others’) pride, our (and others’) sloth. It’s not simply that our relationships break: it’s that we routinely do the breaking. This may not be the world we want, but it’s the world we have.
2. Remember your responsibilities.
To grant the reality of strained relationships does not mean resigning ourselves to them. As Jesus told his disciples just hours before his betrayal and arrest, he was building a new community whose prophetic witness to the world would be their mutual love (John 13:35). Sin may do real and regular damage to our relationships, but our love for Christ and each other means we continually seek repair.
Unfortunately, when a relationship suffers strain, no one person can shoulder its restoration. Our only responsibility is to pursue peace, and pursue it long (Rom. 12:18).
The great irony in Scripture, as it calls us to peace-making, is this: the first move always belongs to us.
The great irony in Scripture, as it calls us to peacemaking, is this: the first move always belongs to us. If we think our brother or sister has sinned against us, it’s our responsibility to go to that person, directly and privately, and “tell him his fault” (Matt. 18:15). On the other hand, if we think our brother or sister might have been wounded by something we’ve said or done, our initiative to make peace must be swift (Matt. 5:23–24). In other words, there is never reason for nursing injuries and avoiding hard conversations.
We must try making peace. We must do it today.
3. Pursue spiritual growth.
While it’s possible to be relationally mature and spiritually immature, it’s never possible to be spiritually mature and relationally immature. In other words, as we grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus, the ultimate Maker of peace, our relationships may suffer periodic strain, but they also have potential to flourish as we pursue the way and wisdom of the Lord.
While it’s possible to be relationally mature and spiritually immature, it’s never possible to be spiritually mature and relationally immature.
To read our Bibles, to pray, to commit to Christian community, to serve, to fast––these help us form two habits of the heart that make for relationship harmony. First, the heart habits of truth-telling: imagine the difference it would make to our relationships if we abandoned insincere speech, flattery, gross exaggeration, and deception. Truth would never be a blunt weapon to wound but a surgical instrument to heal. Hard conversations would be pursued, not to air grievances but to address and heal injuries.
Second, the heart habits of humility: imagine if we regularly doubted our own virtue, regularly considered others better than ourselves, regularly admitted complicity in strained relationships. We could stop rehearsing long-winded, self-justifying speeches and finally accept our failed responsibilities. How much more easily would those difficult but necessary conversations go?
“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity,” the psalmist observes in Psalm 133. Tragically, on this side of the New Jerusalem, it’s not always possible to achieve reconciliation. Still, unity with Christian brothers and sisters is a blessing to both eagerly want and regularly work for in the year ahead.