How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!Psalm 133:1
Relationships are one of God’s greatest gifts to us. From the beginning, God recognized that it was not good for us to be alone, so God gave us the gift of marriage, family, and community. When we are facing storms in life – and this pandemic is certainly a storm! – relationships can be a blessing like no other.
On the other hand, a storm like the one that we are in now can put tremendous strain on our relationships, so much so that these same relationships can seem more like a burden than a blessing at times. Our relationships can end up being one more thing to worry about rather than one more thing to encourage us.
So, the natural question to ask is: what can we do to make sure that our relationships are more blessing than burden? Particularly when we are facing storms in life?
I don’t claim to be an expert on relationships, but I have had the privilege, as a pastor, of providing pastoral care and counsel to many church members over the years who were struggling with a relationship. And I have learned through these experiences that there are some common qualities that all healthy relationships share. So I thought I would share them here, to help us all care for our most important relationships.
What makes for a healthy relationship? First of all, there is a necessary component that we often overlook, and that is quite simply our desire. For a relationship to be healthy, we have to want it to be healthy. It doesn’t just happen. It takes commitment and work. We have to want a healthy relationship to have one. If you have a relationship that you wish were healthier, then you have already taken the most important step toward it.
But what then? I think that healthy communication is the next step. And as I see it, healthy communication requires three things:
- This may seem obvious, but we can’t cut ourselves off from someone if we want to have a healthy relationship with them. Despite our hurt feelings, we need to find ways to stay in conversation with them. This is what love looks like. “Love never ends,” as Paul reminds us, and this means not giving up on the relationship, but staying committed to caring for it even when this is difficult.
- We need to seek “not so much to be understood, as to understand,” as the prayer of St. Francis puts it – and this means that we work at trying to understand what a person is saying, even when we disagree with them. Actively listen to them. Ask questions. Make sure we understand where they are coming from, even if we disagree strongly with them. We can share what we think and how we disagree, but only after we really understand what they are trying to express to us.
- When we do share what we think, we should “speak the truth in love,” as Paul puts it – working at sharing what we are thinking and feeling, but doing so in a loving way. Using “I” statements rather than “You” statements is a good way to do this – to take ownership of our feelings, and to share in a way that doesn’t immediately put the other person on the defensive.
Another very important aspect of healthy relationships is forgiveness. Mother Teresa once said:
Today, there is so much trouble in the world, and I think that much of it begins at home. The world is suffering because there is no peace in the family. We have so many thousands of broken homes. We must make our homes centers of compassion and forgiveness and so bring peace.
Forgiveness is not always easy, but it is critical to keeping relationships healthy, and the reason is simple: we are all sinners. We all need forgiveness, and we all are called to forgive one another. Someone once said that when we forgive, we don’t change the past, but we do change the future. Just as God has forgiven us, we are called to forgive one another, and all healthy relationships have this quality at its heart.
Finally, I believe that that prayer is a key component to a healthy relationship. It is very difficult for a relationship to remain in poor health when we are actively praying for one another! In Ecclesiastes we are reminded that “a threefold cord is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:12). The third strand of that cord is our gracious and loving God. Prayer invites God into this relationship. If you have a relationship that you would like to become healthier, there is no better place to start than by praying for that person, daily and specifically. Invite God’s loving, forgiving and healing presence into that relationship, and it can’t help but grow healthier.
So, to sum it up, as I see it there are three things that we can do to care for our relationships as we live through these challenging times: Communicate lovingly, forgive endlessly, and pray without ceasing. May God bless us all as we care for the relationships that we have been blessed with.
Prayer of St. Francis
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.