Relationships are the stuff of life. From the very beginning we were made to engage in them. God made us relational beings and meaningful relationships are life-giving, wonderful gifts from God. Ironically, at the same time, relationships are also one of the most common and intense contexts for sin and pain and learning how to develop and maintain meaningful, godly, healthy relationships is a life-long journey for all of us.
I have had to, with great intention, learn how to develop healthy friendships and maintain balance in them. As a child and young(er) adult, friendships were my functional god; I worshiped people, I craved their approval, their affection and love, and their care. I didn’t know how to relate with friends without making it my goal to get as much love and affection from them as I possibly could. I always felt empty and ironically, as a result, I could rarely truly enjoy my friendships- the enjoyment was mixed with anxiety that I would not get enough filling, and that I would feel empty once again.
I used to think this struggle made me super weird and part of that was that my struggle developed into and included the aspect of same-sex attraction as I grew older, and I was certain that made my struggle a category of its own.
However, as I have grown and become open about my sin, I have learned I am not alone in my struggle with relationships. I have learned many struggle, just in different ways and in different contexts. I have learned the heart of my relational struggle is not unique to those with same-sex attraction. I learned that while SSA is part of my relational struggles it’s not the root or even the main cause of my relational struggles- those would be pride, selfishness, idolatry, lust, and the fear of man (not an exhaustive list). I realized that everyone experiences and commits these sins, and these sins always affect our relationships on some level.
So, relationship struggles are both common and unique. Common in that they touch everyone, and many of them can be boiled down to a handful of sins that we all struggle with. Unique in that we each have a story, a context, a past, and a personality through which sin is inserted into and plays itself out in our relationships in countless different ways.
So today I want to talk about a few guiding principles that have helped me in my journey towards having relationships and affections that are more and more holy and more and more aligned with God’s design for relationships.
There is so much that could be and has been written about this topic but I want to share with you the unlikely place that I have found great help in this area and it’s in the greetings of Paul to people he dearly loved and had great zeal and affection for.
Take a moment to read through these passages.
7 To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world. 9 For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you 10 always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. 11 For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— 12 that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. 13 I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles. 14 I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. 15 So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.
I Corinthians 1:1-9
Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes,
2 To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4 I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, 5 that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge
— 6 even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you— 7 so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, 8 who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Paul and Timothy, servantsof Christ Jesus,
To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseersand deacons:
2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
3 I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, 4 always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. 7 It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8 For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. 9 And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,
2 To the saints and faithful brothersin Christ at Colossae:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father;
3 We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, 4 since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints,
I Thessalonians 1:1-4
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace.
2 We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantlymentioning you in our prayers, 3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4 For we know, brothersloved by God, that he has chosen you,
II Timothy 1:1-7
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God according to the promise of the life that is in Christ Jesus,
2 To Timothy, my beloved child:
Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord;
3 I thank God whom I serve, as did my ancestors, with a clear conscience, as I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. 4 As I remember your tears, I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy. 5 I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well. 6 For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, 7 for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.
A few observations.
First, Paul felt and expressed unashamed, deep, genuine affection and desire for his brothers and sisters in Christ.
- I long to see you
- without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers,
- I give thanks to my God always for you
- It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart,
- For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.
- As I remember your tears, I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy.
- But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. 8 So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.
In these passage we see clearly Paul’s emotion-filled desire, longing, and eagerness for the saints and there are so many more like these that I haven’t even touched. But when I read these passage, language of strong feeling and desire often sound dangerous to me; like something I cannot allow myself to do, or feel. For me, desire has often meant obsession with filling my personal needs. I know well the feeling of strong desire that naturally, if left to their own devices would stray from a holy context; and so, when Paul so unashamedly uses this language of, desire, love and affection towards and for the saints, I need to know… “what does this holy desire look like? What’s it made of? How can I desire the fellowship of the saints in a holy, God worshipping and God honoring way without crossing lines? not just obvious, social, physical, or sexual lines, but lines in my heart that have more to do with God-worship vs idolatry than anything or anyone else?”
To answer these questions I went back to look at the substance of Paul’s desire and affection and I found two things that stood out to me. (I am sure there is more here that could be brought out of these texts, but these are the two that God gripped my heart with and so I share them here now.)
- Paul developed a genuine gratitude to God, for God’s work in the lives of those Paul was in relationship with. Paul intentionally rejoiced in God’s choosing of the saints and in their growing faith. Paul intentionally rejoiced in God’s sanctifying work in them.
- To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints
- I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed
- I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge
- I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ
- We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you,
When Paul related to and spoke to other believers, he made it his practice to express gratitude TO God for his work in their lives. For me, the principle applies simply- The foundation of our affection for others is not primarily in what we like about a person or what they can do for us, rather it is in a deep acknowledgement and gratitude for what God has done and is doing in that person’s life.
This shifted so much for me. This turns people worship into God worship. This shifts my focus from my expression of affection being mainly self-serving to a shared affection for God and for each other in Christ.
2. Paul’s expressions of affection were connected to the goal of mutual, spiritual, encouragement and strengthening in Christ.
- For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.
- for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.
- I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith.
The substance and goal of affection, and fellowship, and love, and desire for one another is the building up of the body of Christ to maturity, and Paul’s expressions of affection were always wrapped up in this goal somehow.
Neither of these observations, are earth shattering or new. But for me, as I sought to develop friendships, and as I experienced affection and desire in my friendships, these principles served as a guide and a place to plant my affections and desires. They became the soil in which these affections could be planted and grow in a godly way and towards godly ends.
Paul wanted the saints to understand his desire and affection for them, but we also see that his desire and affection has such great and weighty substance to it. It was not flimsy or cheap, selfish, prideful or shallow. He wanted to build relationships that were based on the gospel and things eternal. He wanted to build relationships that had a foundation in humble mutual encouragement of each other’s faith and in ministering together in and outside of the church.
This, I think, is the heart of what it means to have healthy relationships.
Don’t get me wrong, relationships include many things, including light-hearted joking, fun, and they often naturally happen over mutual interests and commonalities. I am not trying to over-spiritualize friendship or relationship. There can be great enjoyment of another person, their personality, their intellect, their body (in the context of marriage); none of this is wrong or less than. On the contrary it is all part of the gift from God called relationships. But what I have found, is that if we make these things the heart and foundation of our relationships, they will struggle to remain pure, holy, strong, selfless, and glorifying to God. They will struggle not to end in sin, division, idolatry, or possibly even abuse.
When hearts are knit together in a healthy holy way, they will be knit together to Christ’s, as they are filled with gratitude and mutual desire for His work in our lives, and His work in His church. Our desires in and for relationships must be shaped, informed, guided, and kept holy by intentionally keeping our hearts focus on these purposes for our relationships and affections.