First, thanks for reading this article, despite the less-than-optimistic title.
I realize this is probably not the first article you have ever read that deals with relationships. However, you should know — without trying to sound like a Scrooge — that this article by itself really won’t help your relationship much. At least not in any lasting way. The information here (and in hundreds of other blogs, books and magazines) won’t suffice. Sorry to disappoint.
Before going any further, please know that I’m not saying that all relationship information is pointless and of no value. It’s not. I myself have benefited from information on relationships from Boundless and lots of other sources. But information and education are not our primary need.
Why not? Because simply having knowledge of what characterizes a strong dating or marriage relationship does not actually equate to having one. Put another way, relationship information does not equal relationship transformation.
A clear example of this is my own educational history. I am currently a Ph.D. student in family studies at a large public university, with a research focus on marriage and romantic relationships. In the past few years, I have read hundreds of journal articles and book chapters on relationships, heard presentations by some of the top marital researchers in the country, and become well-versed with the leading educational and counseling programs for couples.
Given this, my wife must be the luckiest person to be married to such a “relationship expert,” right? Nope. Just ask her. Despite all the exposure to marital scholarship and research, my own marriage really hasn’t changed much because of it. To be fair, maybe I’m just thickheaded and slow to catch on, but I have heard other married grad students and professors in my field express similar sentiments. (As a brief disclaimer, my marriage of almost four years is going strong, but it’s not because of the education I’ve gotten.)
Shifting the Focus
So what gives? Why is this? If we can learn about what characterizes strong, healthy marriages, why doesn’t that translate into real life? Why is it that so many of our intentions remain just that — intentions?
To answer these questions — and start to understand why education and advice is not what you and I need most — we need to step back and first consider some foundational aspects of relationships.
As revealed in the Bible, the Creator God of the universe is personal. Relational. Knowable. This personal God — in whose image all humans are created (imago dei for all the Latin lovers) — designed us for relationships, both with Him and one another (Genesis 2). Thus, relationships of all types flow out of the core of our being, what the Bible frequently describes as our “heart” (e.g., Matthew 6:21, 12:34, 15:8).
Don’t gloss over this. Because of how God made us, “doing” relationships well — particularly close romantic relationships — is not a formulaic process equivalent to learning how to play an instrument, do your taxes or change a tire. Most advice on relationships is, however, often pitched in this way, as if a few instructions are all you need: 5 Secrets to Lifelong Love, 6 Simple Tips to a Relationship That Lasts, 10 Steps to Get to the Altar.
And such advice is deceptively appealing. Why? Because we love quick, simple fixes and don’t want to face up to the fact there is a root problem inside us and our significant other. As Tim Lane and Paul Tripp note, “Skills and techniques appeal to us because they promise that relational problems can be fixed by tweaking our behavior without altering the bent of our heart.”Tim Lane & Paul Tripp. Relationships: A Mess Worth Making (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2006).
Perhaps for improving our relationships, you and I don’t need more stuff in our head, but something different in our heart. As long as we misdiagnose the problem, we will never attain a lasting solution.
Not only does Scripture highlight the centrality of the heart in relationships, but also the disorder of the heart. By default, our inherently sinful hearts cause us to be in a mode of self-preservation and self-exultation. The natural heart approaches life (relationships included) with a desire that my kingdom matters most, elevating certain things — even potentially good things — to a position of ultimate affection and allegiance. And as long as these basic patterns, motivations and desires stay intact at the level of our heart, in our relationships, we’ll be prone to be defensive, accusatory, clingy, standoffish, desperate, domineering, hateful, demanding, fearful … or some combination of these.
So while reading information can offer tips, emotionally affect us and foster in us a resolve to be a better husband or a nicer girlfriend, our heart’s basic patterns will stay intact. The pride and fear in our heart that cripple us to behave in this way will remain untouched, leading us to do what we do not want to do (Romans 7:15).
The good news of Christianity is not only that our relationship with God can be restored and we can be rescued from death and sin (Romans 5), but also that our relationships with one another can be redeemed (Romans 15:5). We not only have acceptance before a holy God by grace through Christ, but we also receive by the power of the Holy Spirit a new nature that permits us to improve our relationships in the ways we all desire. Redemption from the depravity of the human condition — and the inner transformation we all needed — is available to us.
How can this internal transformation occur? How do we fundamentally improve our relationships? By knowing God and His Gospel and then appropriating it deeper and deeper into our lives. As John Calvin noted centuries ago, “For errors can never be uprooted from human hearts until a true knowledge of God is planted therein.”John Calvin. The Institutes of Christian Religion, Vol. 1. Cited in Tim Lane & Paul Tripp. Relationships: A Mess Worth Making (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2006). Our heart disorder can be re-ordered, thereby permitting us to love God and love others. Tim Keller further underscores this point with the following telling insight:
All change comes from deepening your understanding of salvation of Christ and living out the changes that understanding creates in your heart. Faith in the gospel restructures our motivations, our self-understanding, our identity, and our view of the world. Behavior compliance to rules without heart-change will be superficial and fleeting. The gospel is therefore not just the ABCs of the Christian life, but the A to Z of the Christian life. Our problems arise largely because we don’t continually return to the gospel to work in it and live it out. Tim Keller. The Prodigal God (New York: Dutton, 2008)
If you want to improve — really improve — your relationship, start with your understanding of the Gospel. And this isn’t mere religious bantering. Your heart’s condition is too wicked and too weak for anything less than the supernatural, transformational power of the Good News of Christ to bring about any real change in your relationship. Thus, as Keller observes, we must continue to allow the Gospel to penetrate more and more deeply into different areas of our lives — including our relationships. Sin continues to be mortified when we grow in thinking, feeling and acting like Christ. If this is happening, the natural outflow into your relationship will be evident … and lasting.
As your heart grasps the reality of the Gospel, your relationship will likewise begin to embrace a new reality. And when both people in a relationship are pursuing and experiencing God? What a joy this mutual transformation can bring!
When personally applied, this new nature offered by Christianity is infinitely more costly to us and our self-centeredness, but infinitely more freeing as well. Our intentions become our actions as we strive to reflect the new King — a better King — of our life. Embracing the Gospel turns us away from our pride and fear, and turns us toward a love that spills over into all our relationships. We don’t need to be defensive or win battles, for our pride and self-worth are no longer at stake. We pursue dating relationships purposefully and not with the desperate hope of satisfying soul-deep longings, as Christ has provided that satisfaction for us. We can challenge and rebuke sinful patterns, not being paralyzed by the fear of rejection, but rather desiring the godly good for the other person. In marriage, we aim to display sacrificial, covenantal love to our bride as Jesus did for us. We show mercy, not malice, because that is how Christ acted toward us.
Is the Christian perfect in all of these areas? No, but the basic patterns of the heart have been changed.
A Heart Re-sown
The following quote by C.S. Lewis aptly depicts how education, effort and anything short of Christian Gospel heart transformation will not provide the lasting change needed.
We are all trying to let our mind and heart go their own way — centered on money or pleasure or ambition — and hoping, in spite of this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly. And that is exactly what Christ warned us you could not do. As He said, a thistle cannot produce figs. If I am a field that contains nothing but grass-seed, I cannot produce wheat. Cutting the grass may keep it short: but I shall still produce grass and no wheat. If I want to produce wheat, the change must go deeper than the surface. I must be plowed up and re-sown.C. S. Lewis. Essay on “Is Christianity Hard or Easy?”, In Beyond Personality.
We can continue to seek more and more information on relationships, but without being re-sown, any impact will be surface-level and temporary. Relationships are too deep, too personal and too central to our heart — a heart wondrously made yet horribly maligned — to think that just some basic tips and techniques will suffice. Profound change happens individually and relationally not through simply reading the words of others, but through knowing the Word of God, Jesus Christ. The fundamental orientation of our heart must be changed by the Gospel, something that skills, techniques and five-step plans don’t begin to address.
For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised…Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:14-15, 17).
Copyright 2013 Allen Barton. All rights reserved.
|↑1||Tim Lane & Paul Tripp. Relationships: A Mess Worth Making (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2006).|
|↑2||John Calvin. The Institutes of Christian Religion, Vol. 1. Cited in Tim Lane & Paul Tripp. Relationships: A Mess Worth Making (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2006).|
|↑3||The Prodigal God (New York: Dutton, 2008)|
|↑4||C. S. Lewis. Essay on “Is Christianity Hard or Easy?”, In Beyond Personality.|