To help you warm up to this topic, think about these three simple questions, and jot down the thoughts that come to your mind:
First, why do you think it is important to have close personal relationships with other people?
Second: In your opinion, what important qualities help a person develop close relationships with others?
And finally, what do you think is the relationship between how well you follow God and how well you get along with other people?
I’ve been involved in counseling for several years, and I’ve become increasingly aware that most people do not know how to carry on effective interpersonal relationships. Whether in our families or in church or at work or elsewhere, we need to find biblical guidelines that give us fulfilling answers to the difficulties and questions we face in relating to each other.
Before looking at these guidelines I would remind you—though it may be obvious—that the biblical principles we discover must be applied to every relationship we experience: husband and wife, parent and child, and of course brothers and sisters in Christ.
In marriage, for example, the number of Scripture passages that speak specifically about the husband and wife relationship are limited: Ephesians 5:22-23, Colossians 3:18-19, 1 Peter 3:1-9, plus a scattering of others. But in a Christian marriage there are actually two relationships: the one between husband and wife as spoken of in these verses, plus their relationship to each other as members of the body of Christ. In this second relationship, all biblical guidelines for relating to one another must be applied as well.
Think about Colossians 3:16, for example: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom.” This is certainly an area in which we have been delinquent in our marriages. For some reason, this relationship that is the most intimate is often the last one we use for learning spiritual lessons. We won’t allow the Holy Spirit to use our marriage partner to bring spiritual lessons to our attention.
In counseling sessions I’ve had people say to me, “I’m willing to learn and I want to learn but I don’t want my wife (or my husband) to be the one who tells me.” We’re too proud to allow the person who knows us best to point out things in our lives. And by allowing this attitude we are missing one of the most important sources God uses to speak to us about our needs. We must build with one another a bridge of relationship strong enough to bear the weight of truth.
The bottom line
The concept of good interpersonal relationships is basic and foundational to all New Testament teaching. I have been amazed to see how much of the Scriptures—especially from the Corinthian letters on—has to do with how we should get along with each other, or how we fail to get along. How important this must be to God, and to our witness for him! You may have memorized these remarkable words of Jesus in John 13:34-35—
A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. All men will know you are my disciples if you love one another.
Discipleship is a popular word today, and here we have Jesus’ statement about the crux of what real discipleship is—the demonstration of honest, biblical love toward one another. The bottom line of discipleship is that we must have love.
This love is not sentimentality. We are not talking about the ideas of love which our society has made popular and brainwashes us with. The world speaks of love in emotional terms, but according to the Bible the reality of love has to do with our wills. Love is an act of the will.
Love requires that I respond obediently by a choice. The Bible tells me to love my neighbor, to love my enemy, to love God, to love my wife. These are commands, and the only way to respond to a command is by a decision of the will. I obey because I know I should, whether or not I feel like it.
Love that is a witness of our discipleship means acting in obedience to what God has asked us to do.
One heart, one mouth
Another passage which indicates God’s desire for us in our relationships with one another is Romans 15:5-6.
May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Here we have a strong statement that God wants us to have unity in our relationships. Unity is the key word.
Unity is oneness of heart and mind, as suggested in Amos 3:3—”Do two walk together unless they have agreed to do so?” This agreement and unity come from dialogue and interaction. Then we can glorify God “with one heart and mouth.”
Remember that unity is not uniformity. Unity means we’re agreed on a basic principle, whereas uniformity demands that each of us apply that principle in exactly the same way.
Notice also the next verse in this passage in Romans 15: “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.” One of the keys to agreement and unity is acceptance. Acceptance is a popular word in psychological circles today, but it has always been in the Scriptures.
This verse also tells us that the model for and definition of acceptance is the way Christ accepted us. We learn how to be accepting of others by studying the life of Jesus to see how he treated people.
An illustration of this is in John 21:15-19. The apostle Peter had just denied the Lord three times—perhaps out of fear, or because other people’s opinion of him was more important to him than his faithfulness to the Lord. At any rate, he had denied Christ, and now he felt miserable about it. He had wept bitterly in repentance, and now again he was walking and talking with the Lord.
Jesus asked him three times, “Peter, do you love me?”
Peter didn’t have the confidence to answer with the same strong word for Christian love—agape—which Jesus used. Perhaps he was thinking, I just failed him. How can I say I love him with agape love? I haven’t proved it. So he answered, “Lord, I love you,” but he used phileo, the word for friendship love. He may have been thinking, I don’t trust myself with more than that.
Jesus answered, in essence, “I understand. Feed my sheep.” He knew Peter was shattered, he knew he had failed, but Jesus accepted him as before and recommissioned Peter to his ministry. That is true acceptance, and we are to accept one another in the same way.
Ending the feud
Another aspect of good relationships is reconciliation. In Ephesians 2:14-16 we read how two groups of people—in this case, Jews and Gentiles were at odds with one another. They were not able to get along. In fact, this passage tells us there was hostility between them. But it also tells us that Jesus Christ is our peace, “who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.”
The Lord’s purpose in destroying this barrier of hostility, as we go on to read,
was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.
The Living Bible paraphrase of this passage includes this phrase: “The feud ended at last at the cross.” The feuding that goes on between us will end the moment we are willing to go the cross with it. Jesus came to tear down the walls of hostility that exist between people. He came to give us guidelines for reestablishing our fellowship.
A worthy life
Another reason for studying this matter of interpersonal relationships has to do with the effective functioning of the body of Christ. The key word in Scripture on this subject is not independence, but interdependence. I cannot function without the other members of Christ’s body, and neither can you. To function effectively we must relate effectively. Since God wants the body of Christ to fulfill all his purposes for it, we must learn how to relate properly to one another.
Some years ago I was asked to come back from Latin America, where I was a missionary, to help coordinate the overseas ministry of The Navigators. I learned very quickly—in the first few days, in fact—that I do not have the gift of administration. The papers would pile up and I would never seem to make much progress in getting through them. I realized I was out of my element. Yet for five years I functioned that way until the office was phased out. Knowing better now that my gifts are in other areas, I can truly thank God for men who are administrators and who are gifted in that way.
We all must be related to others so the full functioning process can go on. Yet so often people wish they could do what someone else is doing, rather than what God has equipped them for. We wish we were like others and never get around to doing what God wants us to do. But, as someone has said, don’t let what you can’t do keep you from doing what you can.
We will relate properly to one another if we recognize, admit, and praise the gifts and capacities of others, and if we do whatever God has equipped us to do.
Yet another reason for developing good personal relationships is that they demonstrate what it means to live a life worthy of the Lord. Read Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:1-3.
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
Here Paul establishes that the first important aspect of living a worthy life is how we get along with each other: with humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance in love, and striving for unity and peace.
Cain and Abel
We must also understand from Scripture that our relationship with God is basic to good relationships with other people. The most important thing about anyone is his concept of God, because this determines how he responds to others.
The story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4 illustrates this. God must have told both of them what kind of offerings were acceptable to him. The biblical account doesn’t tell us that directly, but we know God is fair and that he would not have told Abel the requirements without telling Cain. And he would not have expected the right offering from them if he had not first of all explained it to them. So we can assume that both Cain and Abel knew what was pleasing to God.
For their first offering Abel brought portions of fat from some of the firstborn of his flock, and Cain, who worked the soil, brought some of his crops.
Humanly speaking, we would say Cain brought the best he had. So why did God reject his offering? The reason is that this was not what God had asked for.
Today as well, we are surrounded by many good ideas, some of them tinged with a certain religious flavor, but they do not represent what God has asked for, and we must give God what he asks.
When God rejected his offering, Cain was very angry.
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?”
God was saying, “You know what to do, and if you do it everything will be all right.”
Then he added this warning:
“But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.”
This warning is important even today. Time and again we say, “I know this is what God wants me to do, but I don’t want to do it.” Just as God warned Cain that sin was crouching at his door, so we also open ourselves to the enemy whenever we turn our backs on the guidelines God has given us.
Cain refused to do what God said, and the enemy came upon him like a flood. Cain’s anger turned to envy, frustration, resentment, hatred—and finally murder.
Note this well: Cain’s problem was not with Abel, but with God, yet Cain took it out on the person nearest to him. Likewise, most of our difficulties in our relationships with others are basically a matter of our relationship with God and our unwillingness to do what he says. Yet we take it out on one another.
We know what God has said but we refuse to do it. God says we are to be forbearing, but we are demanding instead. God tells us to be patient, but we are impatient because people won’t do things the way we want them done. We know this isn’t right but we refuse to obey, and the enemy takes advantage of this disobedience and destroys a relationship. And all the while our problem was not with the other person, but with God.
Our immense need
Finally, think about this statement from Paul Tournier: “It is impossible to overemphasize the immense needs that humans have to be really listened to, to be taken seriously, and to be understood.”
If you keep in mind these three goals in your relationships with people—to really listen to them, to take them seriously, and to understand them—you will learn what it is to love.
Really listening means being less concerned about what I want to tell you than I am about hearing what you say. By always thinking about what we’re going to say next, we commit the sin described in Proverbs 18:13—”He who answers before listening—that is his folly and his shame.”
In my counseling I’ve learned to spend about three-fourths of the time listening to people. Even when I do speak it is often only to help them identify and understand what they’ve been telling me. I don’t need to have a lot of clever insights and ideas. Any of us can have a tremendous ministry to people simply by being a good listener.
Let them know that what they’re saying is important. That’s part of what it means to take them seriously.
As for understanding them, I’m sure you won’t always be able to in every situation that arises. But you can communicate the desire to understand.
On more than one occasion someone has told me about some tough experience that I’ve never been through, and I would say something like this: “You know, Frank, I’ve never been through what you’ve been telling me, so in a way I’m not sure I can really understand how it must have hurt you. But I do understand how deeply you’ve been hurt, and I want to understand what you’ve been through.”