When it comes to relationships, it's not a matter of if things will get messy, but when. Because of the fallenness of our humanity, every one of our relationships will, at some point in time, encounter difficulty. Feelings of disappointment, anger or frustration are hard to manage and can leave us emotionally spent over time. Yet, as believers, we should desire to love well—even when it’s hard. Whether life gets messy with a friend, spouse, family member or co-worker, we are usually left trying to answer one question:
How do I handle this situation with emotional and spiritual maturity?
While it might sound cliche, I think the best place for us to find our answer is by looking at the life of Jesus. Throughout His time on earth, our Savior had to navigate complicated relationship dynamics, but unlike us, He did so perfectly. In the words of Erik Thoennes, “Jesus shows perfect humanness in His perfect fellowship with and obedience to the Father, which leads to His selfless love for others.”
We can glean endless nuggets of wisdom from Jesus’ life, but I believe His self-revelation shows us three overarching characteristics we need to possess in order to handle difficult relationships well.
Jesus is omniscient, which means He knew that Judas would betray Him before calling him to be one of the twelve disciples. Jesus chose to live in intimate community with a man He knew would play an instrumental role in His death. In His humanity, this was probably not an easy relationship dynamic for Jesus to manage. Still, Jesus loved Judas the same way He did the other eleven disciples. For three years, He extended grace and mercy to Judas because His eyes were on a greater goal: God’s plan to redeem humanity.
Weariness can arise when we try to sustain a difficult relationship. Extended periods of conflict can drain us of the emotional bandwidth we need to extend patience and grace to those around us. If we are honest, our only desire in moments of conflict is to run away, to emotionally, spiritually or physically “check out” and remove ourselves from the overwhelming discomfort.
Instead of avoiding the pain, we need to lean into it, all the while keeping our eyes fixed on God’s overall plan for the situation. We need to work to hold each other accountable, communicate well, forgive and love selflessly. The path to healing requires that we walk through the valley of pain. God has called us to be reconcilers, and in the midst of conflict it is this goal of oneness that should motivate us to persevere.
Jesus was not a people pleaser and did not feel the need to meet other people’s expectations. He had a strong ministry of “no” and communicated clear boundaries for how and with whom He would do life while here on earth. Whether it involved His family (Matt. 12:46–50) or the Pharisees (Luke 14–15; 20:8), Jesus filtered all of His decisions through the lens of the work He was sent to accomplish.
Conflict arises from misplaced expectations. But sometimes our expectations—those we have for others or those that others have for us—are unreasonable. We can easily become distracted, overwhelmed or unintentionally hurtful by trying to do or be something other than what God intended. For instance, sometimes in conflict people can project their personal experiences onto us, responding based upon what has happened to them in their past. This can cause them to expect us to take responsibility for their emotions in a way that is unhealthy, setting us up to experience emotional stress and anxiety.
Healthy boundaries allow us to have appropriate expectations for ourselves in any relationship. They enable us to love others selflessly, even when loving them means saying “no.”
Luke 5:16 tells us that “Jesus would often slip away to the wilderness and pray” (NASB). Whether it was after preaching to the multitudes or right before He was handed over and sent to die, Jesus took the time to withdraw and pray. He knew His limitations and made the time to rest and commune with His Father amidst His work of salvation.
If Jesus was able to acknowledge His need to abide with God, we must do the same. For the only way we can love and care for others well is by abiding in Christ, living with a daily dependence on God. We need to have a rhythm of life that regularly includes prayer, Scripture reading, silence and solitude. It is in these moments that we are able to commune with God and receive the spiritual wisdom and nourishment we need to engage the daily difficulties we face.
There is a mysterious beauty that comes from pressing through a season of conflict and reaching a place of reconciliation. But many times we lose sight of this beauty because we focus on the relational discomfort and pain. In these difficult moments, I hope we remember Jesus and allow His self-revelation to give us the wisdom and strength we need to love others well.