Christian Relationships

By Charles Shelton

For many years most of my relationships with other people, including fellow Christians, were shallow and unproductive of any radically life-changing effects. That’s still true today to a large extent, but now I’m more aware of where some of the problems lie and what I can do about them.

One of the best modern statements I’ve heard concerning problems with human relationships is the rock music band Pink Floyd’s album “The Wall.” Each time the character in the album’s story is hurt or
abused by someone or some situation, he responds by adding another brick to the wall that he is building around his inner being so as to isolate his true self from the world around him. Protection of himself in this way from further hurts and abuses thus also cuts him off from any meaningful relationships or communication, even with those who should be closest to him. One of the song’s lines, “All in all you’re just another brick in the wall,” illustrates the character’s emotional and psychological response when someone has wronged him in some way. I believe that one reason for the album’s great success has been the fact that it is a dramatic and powerfully effective expression of such common human problems as the fear of
personal exposure and vulnerability. I think it is fairly safe to say that most of us can relate to the temptation to harden our hearts and to hide our true selves from those around us. Most of us have been
hurt, embarrassed or seriously abused in some way more than once in our lives, and it’s only natural to want, as much as possible, to keep things such as these from happening.

In the first few chapters of the Bible (Genesis 1-3) we have another great picture of the problem of relationships. In the garden of Eden, before the first man and woman’s fall from innocence, Adam
and Eve were said to be “naked, and not ashamed.” I believe that their physical nakedness is symbolic of an even more significant nakedness of personality. As Walter Trobisch stated it in his little book “Love Is A Feeling To Be Learned” (Inter-Varsity, 1971), “It means to stand in front of each other stripped and undisguised, without pretension, without hiding anything, seeing the partner as he really is and showing myself to him as I really am — and still not to be ashamed.” After all, before the fall had worked its effects into human nature, what would they have to hide? They were innocent, unable to even consider hurting one another. They were transparent, having nothing wrong with their personal characters of which to be
ashamed and tempted to hide. They could trust one another, could be absolutely open and honest with one another.

But, as we all know, after the fall things were different. The effects that the fall worked into their characters brought something to hide. They were now ashamed of what they had done, and of what they had become. They were afraid of having their shame exposed.  They could no longer trust each other completely, and human relationships were from then on tainted with ambiguities, confusions, deceptions and misunderstandings. We have also since that time always been in need of some kind of covering to hide what we really are inside, to cloak the weaknesses and perversities of character of which we are ashamed, as symbolized by the fig leaves in the Eden story, as well as the coverings that God himself in his mercy provided.

One of the major things that the cross of Christ was meant to do was to bring about a change in this state of affairs. He died in order to reconcile us to God and to one another, and to redeem, to renew and to change our characters. Not simply to restore us to what Adam was before the Fall, but to bring about a completely new creation. Many of us have been so taught and we profess it as part of our evangelical hope and faith.

But most of us have not been Christians all of our lives. We have been raised as a part of the world that exists on the other side of the cross, the world as it is in Adam after the fall. For many years this world, its values and its ways, were all that we knew.  Indeed, even if we are now or have been Christians for some time, the world can often influence our values, feelings and views in subtle ways. Being a part of this world for so long, we have learned well how to relate to others from behind a mask, so that they would not know what we are really like inside. We have learned well how to build walls to protect ourselves from being hurt and abused by others. And although we may be Christians today, as mentioned above, we’re not fully conscious of how much we are still compelled by old habits and attitudes that enable us to relate to others in ways that keep us from having to be open and honest (and therefore possibly vulnerable) with them.

Not to be misunderstood, I must add that many of these self-protective habits are often developed for good reasons, or can still be quite useful. The world in general often CAN’T be trusted.  Unredeemed life is often quite a corrupt life, and there are many in this world who WILL take advantage of or harm us if we expose our weaknesses and faults and so become vulnerable to them. This fact encourages us even as Christians not to be too transparent before those who have not established trust in our hearts regarding their
character and motives. Even fellow Christians are not immune from hurting, and being hurt by, one another.

So we remain in the habits of self-protection and isolation that we’ve learned so well from past experience. We continue to unconsciously (and at times maybe even consciously) practice these methods even in our relationships with one another in the Kingdom.  We’re not open to one another; we don’t know and understand (and possibly don’t really even want to) one another, our deepest needs, our hurts, what we can do to really help one another at the deepest personal and spiritual levels. Our concepts and experience of
Christian fellowship are shallow. We have little idea of how deeply fulfilling personal relationships based on biblical principles, radically applied, can be. And therefore our experience of fellowship within the body of Christ tends to be frustrating and disappointing, or else we simply feel that the way things are is normal. We don’t know that there is anything better, or possibly we don’t even want anything better, as we’re afraid of what that might require of us personally.

I believe that there IS something better. The state of being “naked and not ashamed” is one which, in the new covenant community established by Christ, is not simply meant to be restored to the Christian marriage relationship, but also to relationships between members of the Christian body in general. You will note that I have referred to the new covenant COMMUNITY established by Christ. It is only within a closely knit fellowship of people who are whole- heartedly committed to one another’s well-being that effective and powerful healing relationships can develop. This means quite a bit more than faithful church attendance and support of the many organized ministries of the Church. John is referring to a much deeper personal commitment when in I John 3:16 he says that, “we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” If we are supposed to be so committed to one another that we are willing to die for each other, surely our actions in LIFE should be no less committed to each other’s well-being, both spiritually and physically. Paul, in Galatians 6:2, speaks of bearing one another’s burdens, and “so fulfilling the law of Christ.” James
says that we should be able to confess our faults to each other and pray for each other, so that we might be healed (James 5:16). These scriptural imperatives can be carried out most effectively within a fellowship of people who have come to know, understand and trust one another so well that their relationships are open, honest and non-threatening.

I believe that we all have an inward desire to be transparent, to have nothing to hide, to not be afraid to let others see who and what we really are. But we are also, as discussed above, afraid of being ashamed and embarrassed.

Since love that alleviates fear is mature love (I John 4:18), our relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ must be allowed to grow and develop to a basic level of maturity. This entails steadfast loyalty to and enduring involvement with specific individuals in whatever group of Christians to which we have committed ourselves. Not in order to create cliques, but in order to open up deep channels through which God’s love and life can flow. As we become more able to trust and open up to one another in sharing on the
deepest levels, spiritual healing and personal transparency can develop. And as we are strengthened in our own selves, we become more able to open up to others around us and share more freely. Our personal fear, anxieties, and weaknesses being worked out in core relationships with a few select fellow Christians, we are then not quite so afraid to be ourselves “in the world,” and to sincerely love and care for others, whether “redeemed” or not. We can still be hurt, abused and taken advantage of, and undoubtably will be at times, but we can overcome the fear of pain and become willing to suffer it (thus following Christ’s example) if necessary in order to achieve more important goals than the absence of pain (such as the healing or
redemption of another hurting soul). Secure in our relationship with God, in our knowledge of who we are, and in the knowledge that we are loved and accepted by those who know us best, we can be more confident
and able to serve Christ’s mission more effectively in the world.

Besides being affected by a more powerful Christian service, the world in such a case is also affected by what it sees. The unredeemed also hunger for transparency, for unconditional acceptance and love,
for understanding, and as they see this happening among Christians, they begin to understand some of the benefits of the redeemed life. Jesus said, “By this shall all men know … if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35) If we will practice among ourselves the love that we preach, the world might begin to believe our words.

The world has affected our values and our habits more strongly than we might realize, and because of this there is often little difference seen between Christian and non-Christian relationships. As we correct the “short circuits “in our ongoing Christian conversion process and allow God’s power to flow in our relationships to bring about conversion to a new humanity in community, we will be more effective in bringing about the conversion of the world around us.

Charles Shelton

Computers for Christ – Chicago