A time to pursue, and a time to refrain from pursuing.

As the holidays come around each year, it’s a common phenomenon to find yourself revisiting those relationships in life that are in “less than ideal” condition. Thanksgiving and Christmas, in particular, tend to cast a long shadow on unresolved relational discord; everyone around us may be cheerfully – and relentlessly! – encouraging us to enjoy safe, warm, comfortable and loving family gatherings…while we simply wish we could.

The Relationship Principles of Jesus by Tom Holladay

One of the harder lessons for Christians to learn, I believe, is to fully and finally recognize that we are barely in control of our own hearts (Jeremiah 17:9-10; Proverbs 4:23; Luke 6:45). Even harder to accept, paradoxically, is the truth that we don’t have any ability whatsoever to harness the heart of another human being (Jeremiah 18:12; Matthew 13:15; Revelation 16:9) and steer it in a desirable, conciliatory direction.

Knowing all that, we can still spend years foolishly attempting to accomplish the work that can only be done by God’s Spirit.

These past few weeks, my wife and I have been reading The Relationship Principles of Jesus by Tom Holladay, a teaching pastor at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. In addition to his pastoral leadership and weekend teaching ministries, Holladay assists Rick Warren in teaching Purpose Driven Church conferences all over the world. In Chapter 21: Troubleshooting Communication, Holladay touches on the tendency many of us have to deny existing realities and inadvisably push to make relationships work even when they are very clearly broken beyond our ability to repair:

So what should you do when you’ve tried everything and made every effort, only to be rejected? We often do exactly the wrong thing. We are rejected, and we respond by chasing even harder after the person who has rejected us. We think our effort will bring us closer to the person, but it almost always has the opposite effect. Our pursuit makes them feel important. “Wow, someone is chasing after me,” they think – and so they reject us even more. It’s a game we can never win, yet it’s one many parents and children, husbands and wives, and bosses and workers have been playing for years.

Spot on! Without actually saying it in these terms, Holladay has put his finger squarely on our collective unbelief as Christians. As someone who is probably more guilty of “inadvisable pursuit” than most, I would both agree with what Holladay has written and simply add that the Christian who refuses to surrender another human being to the love and care of God is denying both the goodness and the sovereignty of God. With our lips we may claim to know that God loves the estranged person more than we ever will, and yet by our words and actions we betray a heart that does not quite believe that God can handle our “unique” relational challenges.

Waiting at the Fenceline

So how should we respond when a relationship goes south? Surely, as Christians we are called to make every effort to live peaceably with others (Romans 12:18), but how can we gauge when we have crossed over the line that separates God-honoring attempts to make peace from idolatry-fueled blindness? Holladay helpfully continues:

Through his example, Jesus provides the answer. When people asked Jesus to leave, he didn’t try to convince them that he should stay; he left, because he knew their hearts were hard. He knew that to pursue them further would only push them further away. Remember that when a rich young man rejected Jesus’ offer of faith, Jesus let him walk away (Mark 10:17-30). When a town rejected the message of Jesus, he and his disciples left to go to a different town. This principle is so important that Jesus taught it to his disciples before he sent them out to serve: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town” (Matthew 10:14).

Many Christians, even after being confronted with the clear examples of Jesus, will still argue that it is “unloving” to stop pursuing someone who has gone off the relational radar, and certainly this requires wisdom beyond most of us. When does our pursuit of reconciliation cross over into idolatry? When do we demonstrate that we have lost sight of God’s Kingdom and are in fact laboring for our own?

Over the years, I’ve been forced to refine a list of simple questions that are shaped both by Scripture and by other Christian believers whose faith exceeds my own. It goes something like this:

“Am I Helping to Facilitate More Stupidity?”
A Mercifully Brief Checklist

  • Are my attempts to restore relationship with __________ causing me to sin more, or to sin less?
  • Same question for __________; am I fueling more sinful behavior on his/her part, or less?
  • Am I seeking restoration for God’s glory, or my own comfort?
  • If this relationship is never restored, will I be angry with God?
  • Do I both acknowledge and really believe that God is in control of “all things?”
  • Has God already met my “lost” relationship needs elsewhere?
  • Have I begun to short-change other loved ones in favor of the broken relationship?
  • Where have I allowed my pursuit of this person to damage others?
  • Have I asked other mature Christians to “check my work” on this relationship?

Surviving the Holidays 2015Like everyone else, my thinking can get cloudy when my heart is broken or my emotions flare up in some other way. Rather than try to suppress my good, God-given emotions, I have instead tried to focus on those times in Scripture when Jesus allowed his own emotions to be put on display (Matthew 8:10; Matthew 26:38; John 11:33–35; John 12:27; John 13:21). Like so many other aspects of the Christian life, the decision to “let go” of a damaged relationship is not an either-or proposition, and the lack of “cookie cutter” solutions points to our deep need for God’s wisdom to be mediated to us through 1) His Word, 2) His Spirit and 3) where we are most likely to resist: His people, the church.

Some Helpful Resources:

Ecclesiastes 3:1-11
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace. What gain has the worker from his toil? I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.

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