Why We’re Relationally Dumb

Part 3 – Types of Relationships

Dallas Willard, describing the state of our modern relationships, says, “[our] most intimate relations are tangles of reciprocal harm, coldness, and resentment.” It’s hard to disagree with Willard when one looks at the society around us. And though there are many healthy relationships we can point to, if we honestly survey our own network of family and friends I think we have to concur with Willard. Relationships currently are not our strong suit. But why?

No help from culture

The answer to the question of why we are experiencing such brokenness in our relationships is complex. Volumes are written to address this very question, but it doesn’t seem to be helping us. In fact, one could argue that we are less successful in our relationships today than previous generations. It seems evident that we lack some basic understanding of how relationships work. Perhaps this knowledge was unconsciously transmitted to previous generations through traditions, customs and conventions. This would explain why today we are apparently lost at sea when it comes to building healthy relationships, since this generation is characterized by the wholesale discard of tradition and conventional morals.

Since we can’t count on culture to effectively educate us on forming intimate relationships that are warm and enduring, we’re going to need to be much clearer about the nature of relationships than our parents and grandparents were. A helpful book I have found for understanding relationships is Vincent Brummer’s The Model of Love. In this theological work Brummer describes three categories of relationships: manipulative, rights and duties, and mutual fellowship. It’s impossible to do justice to this brilliant work in a blog post, but for the sake of brevity I’ll sum these ideas up with three keywords: control, contract, and communion.

Control

A manipulative relationship is characterized by control. One party tries to control another party. The controlled one is not given the respect and dignity of being a free person. They are a means to some end. The controller attempts to use them. A variety of techniques can be employed to manipulate someone – emotional appeals, altering circumstances, and outright force. In each case the controlled is treated as less than a person.

A warm relationship means that there is good will between the partners. A manipulator is primarily concerned with their own good and simply wants to instrumentalize the other in order to achieve it. While a manipulative relationship can appear warm, it’s superficial. Once the controlled person is no longer needed they will be handily discarded. Trust is eroded because one cannot trust someone who intends to only use them. Therefore this kind of relationship fails in the three things that make for good relationshipsrespect, trust and loyalty.

Contract

A relationship of rights and duties is one in which the partners collaborate together for some shared benefit. It’s a negotiated arrangement of cooperation. It’s obvious that working together can bring about beneficial results. Human welfare is dependent upon such arrangements and we encounter them in daily life through commerce and employment. We contract with others, explicitly or implicitly, to exchange labor, money, or other things for some benefit we deem valuable. In those contracts we have some duty (to hand over money or do some work) and we have some right (to get a product or receive a paycheck).

Respect, trust and loyalty make relationships of rights and duties function well. When any of these elements are weak or missing, you end up having a violation of expectations, which ultimately damages the relationship. Our courts are jammed with cases of contract violations. People’s expectations in some shared venture have been violated and the legal system is used to insure that one’s rights are enforced. Employees feel they have been unfairly treated. Customers are disappointed with their purchase. Suppliers can’t collect on their deliveries. Relationships of rights and duties are necessary for our well-being and they require virtue. But they can’t serve our need for communion.

Communion

Mutual fellowship relationships are friendships, or what we might call, love relationships. This type of relationship is characterized by affection and doesn’t serve some mere utilitarian purpose. The partners want to be together because they enjoy one another and are interested in each other’s welfare. Mutual fellowship relationships are full of meaning and are the kind of relationships that make life worth living. If respect, trust and loyalty are needed to have a good contractual relationship, they are essential to experience mutual fellowship. Like no other type of relationship, a person’s very being is on the line when they enter a friendship or love relationship, which makes virtue an indispensable ingredient. Family, marriages, friendships and romantic relationships are all mutual fellowship relations. Communion is the objective and freedom of the individual is the defining characteristic.

As we’ve seen, respect, trust and loyalty make for good relationships. But understanding the type of relationship we’re pursuing is just as important. Confusing the objectives or behaviors associated with one kind of relationship with another is a formula for disaster. If we want a friendship we best not try to pay for it. If we are purchasing a box of cereal we shouldn’t use affection to try to get a better price. And finally, if we trick or force people to relate to us we can only expect coldness and resentment. In other words, we must try to not be relationally dumb.

In future posts I’ll explore these ideas more closely.

Why We’re Relationally Dumb

Part 2 – Respect, Trust and Loyalty

Tangles of Reciprocal Harm

In my previous post I suggested that even though we have advanced technologically we are going backwards when it comes to managing our relationships. As Dallas Willard says, our “most intimate relations are tangles of reciprocal harm, coldness, and resentment.” In a number of ways we are in a relational mess. Relationships characterized by warmth, security and endurance are increasingly rare. We lack the competence and character to sustain such relationships.

I’m not primarily arguing that everything in the past was ideal or if we could only return to the good ‘ole days everything would be fine. There is much to criticize about how relationships were conducted generations ago, and yet, in some things, they had common sense wisdom about relationships that we can’t seem to grasp today. It’s this practical insight I want to explore.

Respect, Trust and Loyalty

What makes for a good relationship? Simply, it’s three things: respect, trust and loyalty. These relational traits are what make up the practical insight we’ve lost. Again, I’m not making a past over present argument, but trying to show what kind of knowledge we apparently lack, which is so basic that, at the risk of sounding censorious, it makes us relationally dumb.

Respect, at its basic level, means recognizing and treating another person as an equal, affording them all the dignity and consideration we expect from others. It can also include honoring someone for their role or accomplishments. It’s refusing to try to control, use or manipulate them. Respect acknowledges the sovereignty of a person and their legitimate right to direct their own life and choose to whom they entrust themselves.

Relationships also depend upon trust to function well. Trust allows us to rely on another to will our good without needing coercion. It enables us to let down our guard and even share the more sensitive parts of our lives with someone. In other words, it allows us to be intimate. When we talk about warm relationships, we mean there is good will in those relationships. Both parties wish each other blessing and goodness and do what is in their power to realize the other’s happiness. Trust creates friendship and it’s friendship, in one form or another, that makes us relationally whole.

Loyalty, our third relational virtue, means that one will continue in a commitment of good will. Loyalty says I will be good to you today and tomorrow. This is what adds the endurance quality to a healthy relationship. Favoring long-term values and priorities over short-term ones is what loyalty is all about.

The Risk of Doing Good

It is important to understand that commitment to your good can include doing things that you may not immediately recognize as being good, for example, pushing you out of the way of an oncoming car. I am so committed to your good that I would even risk you initially thinking I’m harming you. If I failed to push you out of the way because I was afraid of your disapproval, that would show my commitment to your good is limited and not important enough to risk being misunderstood. Of course, this is an extreme case, and after my inaction you might not be around for it to matter, but you get my idea.

Certain assumptions our culture makes today undermine these values of respect, trust and loyalty. Additionally, certain practices that have gained cultural legitimacy actively corrode them. In future posts I’ll explain why this is so and demonstrate how they stunt our relational skills.

Why We’re Relationally Dumb

Part 1 - Driving with a blindfold

Progress

In many ways the modern world seems to have advanced in just about every way conceivable. Few die of dysentery (at least in the developed world), we carry enormous multi-media libraries in our pockets, and travelling across the globe is easy and affordable. Yet, one only has to survey their family and friends to discover that something has terribly gone wrong with our relationships. You don’t have to wax nostalgic to see that our relational competence has degraded while our technological acumen has increased.

It’s not that previous generations were free from greed, vice and selfish ambition, and we have made evils like slavery and discrimination unpalatable to most, but the sense of general decency and warmth enjoyed by previous generations is harder to find today. How many times have you heard an older person say, “We never locked our doors,” or “We looked out for each other,” or “We would never say things like that in public.”? I’m sure endless examples could be cited that supposedly contradict my point, nonetheless, I think it is hard to ignore the general consensus that we have lost something beautiful and wholesome in our relationships.

Be a Luddite?

Neither do I believe that technology is the culprit behind our relational desert wasteland. Technology is a tool and while a tool can influence how we interact with our world, we are the ultimate deciders of which tools we use and how we use them. Additionally, humans adapt well to new tools and, eventually, once the novelty wears off, we integrate them into our daily lives without much fanfare, and life proceeds as usual. The things that are important to us continue to shape our behavior and the tools end up empowering those choices.

Cognitive dissonance

What has lowered the temperature of our relational culture has more to do with our general view of people and relationships and the intentional suppression of our recognition that how we are acting violates our relationships. It’s the cognitive dissonance (and its impact) that comes from wanting the world to be a certain way and living accordingly, when we know it is not, in actuality, that way. To put it metaphorically, it’s the damage that results from driving with a blindfold. We’re dumb because we refuse to see.

Not Fantastic Four

I suggest that there are four central practices that cause our relational stupidity, which we know, deep in our heart, violate something fundamental about relationships. They are: sexual promiscuity, divorce, abortion, and career obsession. All of these four manners of living strike at the heart of some vital and intimate relationship and force us into a justification mode that distorts our understanding and leads us to live in a way that is less honest, less warm, and ultimately less satisfying.

In future posts I will elaborate on how relationships work, why sexual promiscuity, divorce, abortion and career obsession damage them and the deception we’re forced to embrace if we want to practice these behaviors.

Cruciform Love

Cruciform love takes it cue from the cross; Christ’s death was the ultimate act of selflessness that focused not only on others as individuals (“Christ died for me”) but on others as corporate bodies, as communities in need of reconciliation and harmony (“God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself”). Cruciform loves resists the temptation to make myself the focus of everything, even of my spirituality. Cruciform love refuses to exercise rights, power, privileges, spiritual gifts, and so forth, if their use will do me good but someone else, or a community of which I am a part, harm. It liberates me from myself and for the other. – Michael Gorman, Cruciformity.

Do Not Fear (the right way)

“The maxim of illusory religion runs: ‘Fear not; trust in God and He will see that none of the things you fear will happen to you’; that of real religion, on the contrary, is ‘Fear not; the things that you are afraid of are quite likely to happen to you, but they are nothing to be afraid of.’” John Macmurray

Praying for Enemies

Brothers Sell Joseph into Slavery

Brothers Sell Joseph into Slavery, Konstantin Flavitsky

“We assault others when we act against what is good for them, even with their consent.” Dallas Willard

Who is an enemy?

Using Willard’s insight we have a basic way to understand the difference between a friend and an enemy. As Christians (like most people), we don’t usually like to think of anybody as an enemy. The word “enemy” is charged with emotion and connotation that we would rather avoid. In fact, it just isn’t popular today to have enemies, because that would involve us in some type of judgment, and judgment is, oh, so Neanderthal.

But the fact is that those who act against our good could not be rightly considered anything but an enemy. Sure, those who mistakenly cause us ill can, and should, be easily forgiven. After all, it wasn’t their intention to do us harm. But those who are actively doing something that is against our good, whether that’s their ultimate aim or not, are still acting contrary to our well-being. They oppose our interests, possibly only as a by product, but nonetheless, their actions are hostile to us – the basic dictionary definition of enemy.

I’m not talking about healthy competition or people looking out for their own reasonable interests, that’s normal and not really considered hostile. I mean when someone, perhaps in pursuit of something they want, must act against our good in order to get their desire. Traditionally, that behavior would be considered reckless, cowardice, or simply, selfish. When one takes that posture, they are an enemy. Naturally, those whose aim is to work actively against our good share in this classification and those who work for our good are, at least in the general sense, our friends.

Thou shalt not have enemies?

The Bible doesn’t exhort us to not have enemies, that would be ridiculous, and only plausible in a some kind of (modern?) mindset where all judgment is wrong (except, of course, judgment toward those who judge). To not see anyone as an enemy would be to act in a way that “…denies the vileness of evil and baptizes the most horrible tragedies as the will of God (Richard Foster).” But the rub for Christians is that we are to have a completely different perspective on enemies than unbelievers. Even if we have an enemy, we are never to act against their good. We are to love our enemies.

The Christian Way

The New Testament consistently teaches us that this radical way of love is what Christ brought to the world. We are to return kindness for hate, generosity for abuse and a cup of cold water for a thirsty enemy. We may have enemies, but we should never act like they act. We should define who is an enemy, but we should never declare to them that they are an enemy, for that would mirror their aggression. Rather, we should will their best and return good for evil.

So, how do we pray for enemies? Firstly, we pray for them like we would pray for our loved ones; that they would be taken care of, find blessing and be able to experience true fulfillment. But we should also pray that they would stop being an enemy, for that is inherently bad for them. Their highest good requires that they become a force of good in other people’s lives, for that is how we are made. Evil, participated in, is never a healthy thing. If we truly want to act for their good, we must hope and pray for them to stop their hostility.

Sin has consequences

All evil produces natural consequences destructive to the evildoer. The selfish person alienates themselves from others, the greedy person impoverishes others, the violent person terrifies others and the lustful person disgusts others. Your sin will find you out. Evil not only impacts our relationships, it impacts our psyche and even our bodies. This is how God reaches a person lost in sin. He allows the natural consequences to have their way in hopes it will draw the errant one back to reality.

Prayer for our enemies should include a petition that the natural consequences of sin fully bloom in an enemy’s life so that they may discover contrition and repentance and turn back to love. In truth, we can love our enemies more than they love themselves by hoping for a turn in their life toward goodness, which is the real source of happiness. This is what Paul was saying when he exhorted the Corinthians to turn over an enemy to Satan that his flesh would be destroyed in order that his spirit would be saved (1 Cor. 5:4-5).

Conclusion

One would hope that we could live our lives without having even one enemy. Sadly, until the Kingdom comes, that is probably impossible. In the meantime, we can embody the way of love, hoping and praying that as many as possible, will find their home in the goodness of God.

Good Debt

Le Repos

Le Repos, William Adolphe Bouguereau

Even the Gentiles

I became a Christian at 15. Before that, I hung out with kids in the city who were not strangers to abusing alcohol and other substances. We had an unspoken code of ethics among us that you share and share alike. If you were unwilling to receive “gifts” from others, that meant you probably didn’t want to share your “gifts” either. In other words, if you didn’t allow your friends to scratch your back, you were saying that you wouldn’t be scratching theirs when your time of plenty came.

This type of generosity is par for the course among unbelievers (Matt. 5:46-48). Christian love is of a completely different character. It’s not an arrangement of rights and duties, but a self-giving type of love that is non-manipulative. It doesn’t do good in order to get something. It treasures the other as an end in themselves. Christian love (or as Westley, in The Princess Bride called it, “True love”) is more noble because the dedication and affection is freely given, with no strings attached.

No Payback

This is basic Christianity 101. The real insight I see here, however, is that as love is given, so it must be received. Christian love receives the kindness of others and doesn’t try to pay it back. Love should inspire love, but it should never try to be repaid. It must be received with no strings attached, too.

We might say that when others love us with true love we become indebted to them in a way that can’t, and shouldn’t, ever be paid back. If we try to, then we have no reward; no reward of real communion. Instead, we have a settled obligation, a completed business transaction. When we’re loving with Christian love we are forever putting each other in each other’s debt, and that is good. That’s what builds ties of intimacy and affection. The biblical word for this is grace.

Grace

We call this Christian love because it’s the kind of love Christ has, which we are to imitate (Eph. 5:1-2). Grace is the word we use to describe the nature of God’s love; a self-giving, self-sacrificing, status renouncing love. Grace is love that has no strings and doesn’t want to be compensated. This is the kind of love God has for us and the kind we should have for one another.

Love transforms its object

Received properly, Christian love will transform us. It’s by grace that we are saved (Eph. 2:8-9), and it’s by grace we are endeared to each other. Certainly, love will inspire us to reciprocate acts of love back, but we will do it without keeping a score. We do it because we count as precious the object of our love. Love transforms its object. God’s love transforms His people. Our love for one another transforms His church.

“This is true love — you think this happens every day?” – Westley

Friendship and Suffering

Substitution or Recapitulation?

The substitutionary model says Christ suffered so we don’t have to. The Orthodox perspective is that Christ identified with humanity so we could partake of His divinity. Christ suffered so we could know how to suffer and not be broken.

He identified with humanity in both its sympathies and antipathies. In other words, He experienced the suffering and joys that are part of being human. Through this He was able to absorb suffering and shape it toward goodness. His divinity united with humanity provides a way of redemption for us as we partake of His divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). This is the new and living way talked about in Hebrews 10:19-20. In the substitutionary model redemption is an abstraction, but with recapitulation we have to participate in it.

Surprisingly, these fine points of theology impact our relationships. The way most people carry on relationships is to link with others on sympathies and negotiate the antipathies (to keep at bay the negative realities of the human experience). But true friendship embraces both the sympathies and antipathies and identifies with the other in a total life communion.

We want our cake and eat it too

I don’t want to be lonely, but I want to remain independent of you and not be changed in any way by our communion. We embrace a lie and try to conduct relationships that are products of our imagination rather than those that reflect who we really are in all our humanity.

You can’t be whatever you want to be. We have to embrace our own createdness and the createdness of others in order to truly love. Friendships based solely on sympathies are not really friendships at all, but only convenient arrangements of mutual pleasure.

Christmas at the Goodwill Store

Our strings ensemble is very busy this time of year. We have several performances planned in hospitals, churches, a nursing home, and the rescue mission. We also have a full-fledged Christmas concert scheduled on December 21, 2012 at 7:00 pm at the community. If you can make it we would love to have you!

One of our concerts at a hospital was cancelled at the last minute this past Tuesday. We’ve been praying for weeks about all our concerts and we just didn’t feel it was right to simply head home, so one of the musicians suggested we go to the Goodwill store to see if they would like a concert.

Thanks to Jared’s nice presentation the store manager was excited to have us. It turned out to be a wonderful experience for the employees, customers and us. It was an amazing thing to see an ordinary shopping environment transformed into something sacred. The experience was reflective of how our magnificent God came to earth in the most humble of circumstances and continues to dwell among us in our common everyday life.

Here’s some video from our impromptu concert.