Right Act, Wrong Heart?

It’s strange how easy it is to focus on how we have lost the approval of another person we care about, and yet how hard it is to embrace the joy that should accompany knowing that we have been given God’s approval, through the finished work of Christ (1 Corinthians 6:11).

By comparison, God’s “approval” – His unmerited favor, the very definition of grace that is extended to us through the blood of Christ – is the most amazing, life-changing gift we will ever receive. It is, in the end, the only relationship we have that will be of eternal importance. And yet, how often we spend long seasons of our lives seeking the approval of those close to us and then grieving or being angry because we have lost their favor.

Why is this such a struggle?

I wish I knew I had the definitive answer; I don’t. However, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and I think my thoughts have application across a broad range of relationships.

The struggles I’m currently having with relationships don’t include my marriage, but they easily could. Having worked with countless women whose marriages have fallen apart, I can tell you that one of the deepest wounds that divorce inflicts upon people is that of rejection. Here, occupying center stage in your thought life, is this still-living person who once loved you so much that he or she chose you out of every other human being on this planet to commit their entire lives to.

At least, that was the plan. And that’s what the deepest emotions of our hearts were set on.

As the relationship falls apart, however, it becomes clear that expectations have not been met somewhere; at least one person has decided to leave the marriage instead of working to stay true to the promises they made to each other. Few people are anything other than devastated by a loss such as this. Most people handle the death of a love one far better – at least the person being mourned did not voluntarily leave the relationship.

Whether your relationship struggle is with your spouse, a dear friend, a parent or sibling, or anyone else whose opinion really matters to you, a few thoughts might help you to have a healthy perspective on your struggles:

  • When we find ourselves disappointed with someone we care about, we should look closely at our own motivations. Are we disappointed that this person is grieving the heart of God with the way that he or she is failing to love…or (nearly always) are we disappointed that they haven’t lived their lives within our relationship the way we want them to? When someone cuts us off in traffic, do we mourn the other driver’s obvious (perhaps momentary?) lack of a close walk with God, the absence of an abiding faithfulness that would invariably produce the fruit of rush-hour patience (Galatians 5:22)? Or do we instead get ticked off that we have been thus offended and blurt out, “Idiot!” in front of our kids in the back seat?
  • Far more seriously, when we find ourselves grieving over the loss of acceptance by someone we care about, we should attempt to scrutinize the standards to which we are being held. Are they even biblical? Most often, they are not.
  • Most of the time, the “standards” that have brought about a rupture in relationship are more about the other person’s self-fulfilling desires for how they want the relationship to look; a parent’s dismay over their adult child’s too-infrequent visits is an expectation often set by that extended family’s history, or the parent’s need to stay overly-involved in their adult children’s lives, or some other perceived failure to hew closely to a personal preference. If Scripture is ever invoked to help “settle the matter,” it is often used in an abusive manner; we might call this “hitting someone over the head with the Bible.” In all of this, the One being overlooked most of all is Christ, and his Kingdom.
  • When a relationship begins to deteriorate and disappointment is setting in, I would simply suggest that you take a “time out” and look closely at where your focus is: Are either of you looking more closely at the others’ failures…or their heart behind the action? For example, a husband whose wife is not a good cook can really hurt the relationship by focusing on the multiple burned dinners, instead of feeling appreciation for how hard his wife is trying to serve her family by improving that one skill.

Jesus seemed far more interested in our hearts than in the size of our service (Mark 12:41-44). Rather than compete for “faithfulness prizes,” perhaps we would do better to think deeply about our motivation for doing things for others.

Whenever I consistently feel dread or anxiety when approaching an interaction with someone, I know our relationship has problems that I need to address. That awareness itself can kindle a quick-but-fervent prayer, and it can allow me to hang on in the day-to-day vagaries of life, regularly pulling back a bit to ask myself:

“Is it God’s call on my life that I am trying to be faithful to here…or is it another person’s?”

I’m definitely not saying we shouldn’t prefer each other in ways that, while they may not have eternal importance, matter to the people we care about. When you do something for someone you care about out of love for and deference to that person, you are living out God’s call to love others (Matthew 22:36-40). But our inclination to self-deceive mans that we really need to keep an eye on our motivation. When you do something for someone as a way of “staying on their good side,” or attempting to improve their opinion of you, it’s highly likely that you are not honoring God. You might rather be stuck in a relationship with some dysfunctional tendencies.

Additionally, if in loving someone with selfless motives, you find they have still found you wanting, then be comforted by this truth: In God’s economy, it’s your heart for the person that matters, not your level of performance. Clean hearts offer up acceptable service, but getting there will take a lot of practice.

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